Southern Athabaskan languages

From Academic Kids

Southern Athabaskan (also Apachean) is a subfamily of Athabaskan languages spoken in the North American Southwest. These languages are spoken by various groups of Apache and Navajo peoples. They are spoken in primarily the southwestern part of the United States (Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, but also in Colorado & Utah), and formerly spoken in northwestern Mexico and Texas. The other Athabaskan languages are spoken in the northwest of Canada and Alaska and on the Pacific coast regions of the US.

Western Apaches call their language Nn biyti or Nd biyti. Navajos call their language Din bizaad.

The most famous speaker of a Southern Athabaskan language was Geronimo (Goyaał) who spoke Chiricahua.



Southern Athabaskan languages can be divided into 2 groups: (I) Plains and (II) Southwestern. Plains Apache is the only member of the Plains Apache group. The Southwestern group can be further divided into two subgroups (A) Western and (B) Eastern. The Western subgroup consists of Western Apache, Navajo, Mescalero, and Chiricahua. The Eastern subgroup consists of Jicarilla and Lipan.

I. Plains

  1. Plains Apache

II. Southwestern

Mescalero and Chiricahua are considered different languages even though they are mutually intelligible (Ethnologue considers them the same language). Western Apache and Navajo are closer to each other than either is to Mescalero/Chiricahua. Lipan Apache and Plains Apache are nearly extinct (in fact Lipan may already be extinct). Chiricahua is severely endangered. Mescalero, Jicarilla, and Western Apache are considered endangered as well, but fortunately children are still learning the languages. Navajo is one of the most vigorous North American languages (but use among first-graders has declined from 90% to 30% in (1998 N.Y. Times, April 9, p. A20)).

Sounds (Phonology)

Template:IPA notice

All Southern Athabaskan languages have a similar phonology. The description below will concentrate mostly on Western Apache. You can expect minor variations of this description in other related languages (e.g., cf. Navajo, Jicarilla, Chiricahua).


Southern Athabaskan languages generally have a consonant inventory similar to the set of 33 consonants below (based mostly on Western Apache):

  Bilabial Alveolar Alveolar Lateral Palatal Velar Glottal
(affricate series)
Stop unaspirated p t ʦ ʧ k  
aspirated   ʦʰ tɬʰ ʧʰ  
glottalized   t ʦ ʧ k ʔ
prenasalized (mb) (nd)          
Nasal simple m n          
glottalized (ʔm) (ʔn)          
Spirant voiceless     s ɬ ʃ x h
voiced     z l ʒ ɣ  
Glide           j    

orthography (consonants)

The practical orthography corresponds to the pronunciation of the Southern Athabaskan languages fairly well (as opposed to the writing systems of English or Vietnamese). Below is a table pairing up the phonetic notation with the orthographic symbol:

IPA spelling IPA spelling IPA spelling IPA spelling
[t] d [tʰ] t [t] t [ j ] y
[k] g [kʰ] k [k] k [h] h
[ʦ] dz [ʦʰ] ts [ʦ] ts [ʔ]
[ʧ] j [ʧʰ] ch [ʧ] ch [l] l
[tɮ] dl [tɬʰ] [tɬ] [ɬ] ł
[p] b [pʰ] p [mb] b/m [nd] d/n/nd
[s] s [ʃ] sh [m] m [n] n
[z] z [ʒ] zh [ʔm] m [ʔn] n
[x] h            
[ɣ] gh            

Some spelling conventions:

  1. Fricatives and are both written as h. (see also #2 below)
  2. The fricative is usually written as h, but after o it is written as hw (may be pronounced as ).
  3. The fricative is written gh the majority of the time, but before i and e it is written as y (& may be pronounced as ), and before o it is written as w (& may be pronounced as ).
  4. All words that begin with a vowel are pronounced with a glottal stop . This glottal stop is never written at the beginning of a word.
  5. Some words are pronounced either as d or n or nd, depending on the dialect of the speaker. This is represented in the consonant table above as . The same is true with b and m in a few words.
  6. In many words n can occur in a syllable by itself in which case it is a syllabic . This is not indicated in the spelling.


Southern Athabaskan languages have four vowels of contrasting tongue dimensions (as written in the "practical" orthography):

  Front   Central   Back  

These vowels may also be short or long and oral (non-nasal) or nasal. Nasal vowels are indicated by an ogonek (or nasal hook) diacritic ˛ (borrowed from Polish orthography) in Western Apache, Navajo, Chiricahua, and Mescalero, while in Jicarilla the nasal vowels are indicated by underlining the vowel. This results in sixteen different vowels:

  High-Front Mid-Front Mid-Back Low-Central
Oral short
Nasal short

IPA equivalents for oral vowels:

' = [], ' = [], ' = [], ' = [], ' = [], ' = [], ' = [], ' = [].

orthography (vowels)

In Western Apache, there is a practice where orthographic vowels o and oo are written as u in certain contexts. These contexts do not include nasalized vowels, so nasal u never occurs in the orthography. This practice continues into the present (perhaps somewhat inconsistently).

However, in Harry Hoijer and other American linguists' work all o-vowels are written as o. Similarly, Navajo does not use orthographic u, consistently writing this vowel as o.

In Chiricahua and Mescalero, this vowel is written as u in all contexts (including nasalized ų).

Other practices may be used in other Apachean languages.


Southern Athabaskan languages are tonal languages. Hoijer and other linguists analyze Southern Athabaskan languages as having 4 tones (using Americanist transcription system):

  • high (marked with acute accent ´, Example: )
  • low (marked with grave accent `, Example: )
  • rising (marked with hček ˇ, Example: )
  • falling (marked with circumflex ˆ, Example: ǎ)

Rising and falling tones are less common in the language (often occurring over morpheme boundaries) and often occur on long vowels. Vowels can carry tone as well as syllabic n (Example: ń).

The practical orthography has tried to simplify the Americanist transcription system by representing only high tone with an acute accent while leaving low tone unmarked:

  • high tone:
  • low tone: a

So now niziz is written instead of the previous nzz.

Additionally, rising tone on long vowels is indicated by an unmarked first vowel and an acute accent on the second, and vice versa for falling tone:

  • rising: a (instead of Americanist: ·)
  • falling: a (instead of Americanist: ǎ·)

Nasal vowels carry tone as well, resulting in a two diacritics on vowels with high tone: ą́ (presenting problems for computerization). Recently, de Reuse (forthcoming) has found that Western Apache also has a mid tone, which he indicates with a macron diacritic ¯, as in ō, ǭ. In Chiricahua, a falling tone can occur on a syllabic n: .

Here are some vowel contrasts involving nasalization, tone, and length from Chiricahua Apache:

chąą  'feces'
chaa  'beaver'
shiban  'my buckskin'
shibn  'my bread'
bikai  'his hip'
bkai  'his stepmother'
hahaał  'you two are going to chew it'
hahał  'you two are chewing it'

Comparative phonology

The differences and similarities among the Southern Athabaskan languages can be observed in the following Swadesh stem list:

  Navajo Chiricahua Western Apache
(San Carlos)
Jicarilla Lipan
I sh sh sh sh sh
thou ni ⁿd ⁿdi ni ⁿd
we nih nh nohw nah nah
many łą́ łą́ łą́ą́ ł łą́
one ła ła ła- ła ła-
two naaki naaki naaki naaki naaki
big -tso -tso -tso -tso -tso
long -neez -neez -neez -ⁿdees -ⁿdiis
small -yzh -zą́ą́y -zhaazh -zhh -zhą́ą́y
woman asdzn isdzń isdznhń isdzn isdzn
man din nⁿd nn diⁿd diⁿd
fish ł ł łg łgee łǫ́
dog łchą́ą́ kjaa ł̨̨chaayn ł̨chaa niił̨
louse yaa yaa yaa yaa yaa
tree tsin tsin chil nooshch chish
leaf -tąą -tąą -tąą -tąą -tąą
meat -tsį -tsįį -tsį -tsį -tsįį
blood dił dił dił dił dił
bone tsin tsį tsin -tsin -tsįh
grease -kah kah kah xh x
egg -ghęęzhii -gheezhe -ghęęzh -gheezhi -ghaish
horn -dee -dee -dee -dee -dii
tail -tsee -tsee -tsee -tsee -dzistsii
feather -ta -ta -ta -ta -ta
hair -ghaa -ghaa -ghaa -ghaa -ghaa
head -tsii -tsii -tsii -tsii -tsii
ear -zhaa -zhaa -jaa -jaa -jaa
eye -n -ⁿda -n -ⁿd -ⁿda
nose --ch̨̨h --ch̨ -ch̨h -ch̨sh --ch̨sh
mouth -z -z -z -z -z
tooth -ghoo -ghoo -ghoo -ghoo -ghoo
tongue -tsoo -zaade -zaad -zaadi -zaadi
claw -s-gaan -s-gan -gan -s-gan -s-gąą
foot -kee -kee -kee -kee -kii
knee -god -go -god -go -goh
hand --la -laa -la -la -laa
belly -bid -bi -bid -bi -bih
neck -kos -kos -kos -kos -kos
breast -be -be -be -be -bi
heart -j -j -j -j -j
drink -dlą́ -dlą́ -dlą́ -dlą́ -dlą́
eat -yą́ -yą́ -yą́ą́ -yą́ -yą́
bite -ghsh -ghsh -ghsh -ghą́sh -dląsh
see -̨̨
hear -ts̨̨h -tsa -tsag -tsą́ -tsah
sleep -ghosh -ghosh -ghosh -ghosh -ghosh
die -tsaah -tsaa -tsaa -tsei -tsaa
kill -gh -gh -gh -ghh -gh
swim -kǫ́ǫ́h -kǫǫ -kǫǫ -kǫ́h -kǫǫ
fly -th -t -th -th -th
lie -t̨ -t̨ -t̨ -k̨ -k̨
sit -d -d -d -d -d
stand -z̨ -z̨ -z̨ -z̨ -z̨
say -n -ⁿd -n -nh -nh
sun jhonaa j̨gonaa yaa j̨gonaa j̨̨naa
moon oolj tłnaa tłgonaa tłgonaa tłnaa
star sǫǫs tsiiłsǫǫs sǫǫs sǫǫs
water t t t k k
rain -tą́ -tą́ -tą́ą́ -ką́h -ką
stone ts ts ts -ts ts
sand s s s s s
earth ni nii ni nii nii
cloud kos kos ykos ńł-tsą́ kos
smoke łid łi łid łi łih
fire kǫǫ kǫǫ
ash łeeshchiih gooshchii ił-chii goshchsh goshtsiish
burn -ką́ą́h -kąą -ką́ą́ -ką́ -ką́
path a-tiin ń-tin i-tin ńkin inkįį
red -ch -ch -ch -ch -chsh
green -tłizh -tłizh -tłizh -tłish -tłish
yellow -tso -tso -tsog -tso -tso
white -gia -ga -gai -gai -gah
black -zhin -zhį dił-xił -zhį -zhįh
hot -do -do -dog -do -doh
cold -kaz -kaz -kaz -kas -kas
full -bin -bį -bį -bįh -bįh
name --zhi --zhii -˛́˛́-zhi -zhi --zhii
three t t tgi k k
four d̨̨ d̨̨ d̨̨ d̨̨ d̨̨
day j̨̨
fog h d naoshigiji naashigish
wind ńł-chi nł-chi įįł-chi ńł-chi ńł-chih
flow -l̨ -l̨ -l̨̨ -l̨ -l̨
wash -gis -gis -gis -d , -dee -d , -daa
worm chosh chosh chosh chosh chosh
leg -jd -jde -jd -jd -jd
arm -gaan -gan -gan -gan -gąą
lip -daa -da -z-baan -daa -daa
guts -ch -ch -chi -ch -ch
saliva sh -zh -zhg -zhgi -zh-tłishdi
grass tłoh tłoh tłoh tłoh -tłoh
mother -m -m -m -m --nnd
father -zh -taa -taa -ka -aash
ice tin tįh ̨-loh kįh
snow yas zas zas zas zas
rotten -dzid -dzi -jid -dzi -dzih
smell -chin -chį -chą́ą́ -chą́ -chą́
fear -dzid -dzi -dzid -dzi -dzih
rope tłł tłł tłł tłł tłł


Typological overview

Typologically, Southern Athabaskan languages are partly agglutinating, partly fusional, polysynthetic head-marking languages. The canonical word order is SOV, as can be seen in Navajo example below:

Ms tsdii yinł'̨ 'The cat is looking at the bird.'

Subject = ms 'the cat'
Object = tsdii 'the bird'
Verb = yinł'̨ 'it is looking at it'

Southern Athabaskan words are modified primarily by prefixes, which is unusual for SOV languages (suffixes are expected).

The Southern Athabaskan languages are "verb-heavy" — they have a great ponderance of verbs but relatively few nouns. In addition to verbs and nouns, these languages has other elements such as pronouns, clitics of various functions, demonstratives, numerals, postpositions, adverbs, and conjunctions, among others. Harry Hoijer grouped all of the above into a word class which he called particle. This categorization provides three grammatical categories (i.e. parts of speech):

  1. verbs
  2. nouns
  3. particles

There is nothing that corresponds to what are called adjectives in English. Adjectival notions are provided by verbs.


The key element in Southern Athabaskan languages is the verb, and it is notoriously complex. Some noun meanings are provided by verbs, as in Navajo

  • Hoozdo 'Phoenix, Arizona' (lit. 'the place is hot') and
  • ch''tiin 'doorway' (lit. 'something has a path horizontally out').

Many complex nouns are derived from nominalized verbs as well, as in Navajo

  • n'oolkił 'clock' (lit. 'one that is moved slowly in a circle') and
  • chid naa'na' bee'eldǫǫhtsoh bik' dah naaznilg 'army tank' (lit. 'a car that they sit up on top of that crawls around with a big thing with which an explosion is made').

Verbs are composed of a stem to which inflectional and/or derivational prefixes are added. Every verb must have at least one prefix. The prefixes are affixed to the verb in a specified order.

The Southern Athabaskan verb can be sectioned into different morphological components. The verb stem is composed of an abstract root and an often fused suffix. The stem together with a classifier prefix (and sometimes other thematic prefixes) make up the verb theme. The theme is then combined with derivational prefixes which in turn make up the verb base. Finally, inflectional prefixes (which Young & Morgan call "paradigmatic prefixes") are affixed to the base—producing a complete verb. This is represented schematically in the table below:

    stem   =   root + suffix
    theme   =   stem + classifier (+ thematic prefix(es))
    base   =   theme + derivational prefix(es)
    verb   =   base + inflectional prefix(es)

Verb Template

The prefixes that occur on a the verb are added in specified order according to prefix type. This type of morphology is called a position class template (or slot-and-filler template). Below is a table of a recent proposal of the Navajo verb template (Young & Morgan 1987). Edward Sapir and Harry Hoijer were the first to propose an analysis of this type. A given verb will not have a prefix for every position, in fact most Navajo verbs are not as complex as the template would seem to suggest.

The Navajo verb has 3 main parts:

disjunct prefixes conjunct prefixes STEM

These parts can be subdivided into 11 positions with some of the positions having even further subdivisions:

0 1a 1b 1c 1d 1e 2 3
object null postposition derivational-thematic reflexive reversionary semeliterative iterative distributive plural
Conjunct STEM
4 5 6a 6b 6c 7 8 9 10
direct object deictic subject thematic-derivational-aspect thematic-derivational-aspect transitional-semelfactive modal-aspectual subject "classifier" stem

Although prefixes are generally found in a specific position, some prefixes change order by the process of metathesis. For example, in Navajo prefix 'a- (3i object pronoun) usually occurs before di-, as in

adisbąąs 'I'm starting to drive some kind of wheeled vehicle along' [ < 'a- + di- + sh- + ł + -bąąs].

However, when 'a- occurs with the prefixes di- and ni-, the 'a- metathesizes with di-, leading to an order of di- + 'a- + ni-, as in

di'nisbąąs 'I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck' [ < di-'a-ni-sh-ł-bąąs < 'a- + di- + ni- + sh- + ł + -bąąs]

instead of the expected adinisbąąs ('a-di-ni-sh-ł-bąąs) (note also that 'a- is reduced to '-). Metathesis is conditioned by phonological environment (Young & Morgan 1987:39).

Classificatory Verbs

Southern Athabaskan languages have verb stems that classify a particular object by its shape or other physical characteristics in addition to describing the movement or state of the object. These are known in Athabaskan linguistics as classificatory verb stems. These are usually identified by an acronym label. There are 11 primary classificatory "handling" verbs stems in Navajo which are listed below (given in the perfective mode). Other Southern Athabaskan languages have a slightly different set of stems.

Classifier+Stem  Label  Explanation Examples
-'ą́ SRO Solid Roundish Object bottle, ball, boot, box, etc.
-y̨ LPB Load, Pack, Burden backpack, bundle, sack, saddle, etc.
-ł-jool NCM Non-Compact Matter bunch of hair or grass, cloud, fog, etc.
-l SFO Slender Flexible Object rope, mittens, socks, pile of fried onions, etc.
-tą́ SSO Slender Stiff Object arrow, bracelet, skillet, saw, etc.
-ł-tsooz FFO Flat Flexible Object blanket, coat, sack of groceries, etc.
-tł' MM Mushy Matter ice cream, mud, slumped-over drunken person, etc.
-nil PLO1 Plural Objects 1 eggs, balls, animals, coins, etc.
-jaa' PLO2 Plural Objects 2 marbles, seeds, sugar, bugs, etc.
-ką́ OC Open Container glass of milk, spoonful of food, handful of flour, etc.
-ł-t̨ ANO Animate Object microbe, person, corpse, doll, etc.

To compare with English, Navajo has no single verb that corresponds to the English word give. In order to say the equivalent of Give me some hay! the Navajo verb nłjool (NCM) must be used, while for Give me a cigarette! the verb ntįįh (SSO) must be used. The English verb give is expressed by 11 different verbs in Navajo, depending on the characteristics of the given object.

In addition to defining the physical properties of the object, primary classificatory verb stems also can distinguish between the manner of movement of the object. The stems can then be grouped into three different categories:

  1. handling
  2. propelling
  3. free flight

Handling includes actions such as carrying, lowering, and taking. Propelling includes tossing, dropping, and throwing. Free flight includes falling, and flying through space.

Using an example for the SRO category Navajo has

  1. -'ą́  to handle (a round object),
  2. -ne'  to throw (a round object), and
  3. -l-ts'id  (a round object) moves independently.

In addition, Southern Athabaskan languages also have other somewhat similar verb stems that Young & Morgan (1987) call secondary classificatory verbs.

(Note the term classifier is used in Athabaskan linguistics to refer to a prefix that indicates transitivity or acts as a thematic prefix, and as such is somewhat of a misnomer. These transitivity classifiers are not involved in the classificatory verb stems' classification of nouns and are not related in any way to the noun classifiers found in Chinese or Thai).

yi-/bi- Alternation (Animacy)

Like most Athabaskan languages, Southern Athabaskan languages show various levels of animacy in its grammar, with certain nouns taking specific verb forms according to their rank in this animacy hierarchy. For instance, Navajo nouns can be ranked by animacy on a continuum from most animate (a human) to least animate (an abstraction) (Young & Morgan 1987: 65-66):

humans/lightning → infants/big animals → med-size animals → small animals → insects → natural forces → inanimate objectes → abstraction

Generally, the most animate noun in a sentence must occur first while the noun with lesser animacy occurs second. If both nouns are equal in animacy, then either noun can occur in the first position. So, both example sentences (1) and (2) are correct. The yi- prefix on the verb indicates that the 1st noun is the subject and bi- indicates that the 2nd noun is the subject.

    (1)   Ashkii at'd yinł'̨.
  boy girl yi-look
  'The boy is looking at the girl.'
    (2)   At'd ashkii binł'̨.
  girl boy bi-look
  'The girl is being looked at by the boy.'

But example sentence (3) sounds wrong to most Navajo speakers because the less animate noun occurs before the more animate noun:

    (3)   * Tsdii at'd yishtąsh.
    bird girl yi-pecked
    'The bird pecked the girl.'

In order express this idea, the more animate noun must occur first, as in sentence (4):

    (4)   At'd tsdii bishtąsh.
  girl bird bi-pecked
  'The girl was pecked by the bird.'



For the bibliography, see the subarticle Southern Athabaskan languages/Bibliography.zh:阿帕切语


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