Tlingit language

From Academic Kids

The Tlingit ("Lingít") language is the language of the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and Western Canada. It is considered to be a branch of the Na-Dené language family. Tlingit is very endangered, with about 500 native speakers still living, essentially all of whom are bilingual or near-bilingual in English. Extensive effort is being put into revitalization programs in Southeast Alaska to revive and preserve the Tlingit language and its culture.

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Tlingit and neighboring peoples

1 External links
2 References


The history of Tlingit is poorly understood, mostly because there is no written record until first contact with Europeans around the 1790s, and even then it remains sparse and irregular until the early 20th century. The language appears to have spread northward from the KetchikanSaxman area towards the Chilkat region, since certain conservative features are reduced gradually from south to north. The shared features between the Eyak language found around the Copper River delta and Tongass Tlingit near the Portland Canal are all the more striking for the distances that separate them, both geographic and linguistic.


Tlingit is currently classified as a distinct and separate branch of the Na-Dené family of North American languages, with its closest relative being Eyak. It was once believed to be a linguistic isolate until studies in the 20th century showed connection to Eyak and hence to Athabaskan languages. Connections to Haida have been occasionally proposed, but are mostly discounted at present, with Haida being considered a linguistic isolate. A connection was found by Jeff Leer in the 1980s between the nearly-extinct Tongass Tlingit dialect and Tsimshian, involving characteristic fading vowels and glottal stops in the place of tones in both Tsimshian and Tongass Tlingit.

Geographic distribution

The Tlingit language is distributed from near the mouth of the Copper River down the open coast of the Gulf of Alaska and throughout almost all of the islands of the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska. It is characterized by four or five distinct but mostly mutually intelligible dialects, for which see below. Almost all of the area where the Tlingit language is endemic is contained within the modern borders of Alaska except for an area known as Inland Tlingit which extends up the Taku River and into northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory around the Atlin (Áa Tlein) and Teslin (Deisleen) lake districts. Except for these areas, Tlingit is not found in Canada, although Tlingit legend tells that the Tlingit once inhabited the Nass River or Skeena River valleys during their migration from the interior.


Tlingit is divided into roughly four major dialects, all of which are essentially mutually intelligible, at least with some patience between listener and speaker. The northernmost dialect arguably does not exist, but is nevertheless called the Yakutat (Yakwdaat) dialect after its principal town. The Northern dialect is spoken in an area south from Lituya Bay (Litu.aa) to Frederick Sound. The Southern dialect is spoken from Frederick Sound south to the Alaska-Canada border, excepting Annette Island which is the reservation of the Tsimshian people, and the southern end of Prince of Wales Island which is the land of the Kaigani Haida. The fourth major dialect is the Inland Tlingit dialect spoken in Canada around Atlin Lake and Teslin Lake. Also a dialect now on the verge of extinction was once spoken in the Saxman area near Ketchikan, called Tongass (Taanta Kwáan) Tlingit, and is believed to be the relic of an intermediate language between Tlingit and Tsimshian; its living status is not known at the time of writing, although in the late 1990s two native speakers were reported.


Tlingit, like many North American aboriginal languages, has a rich and complex phonological system. It is famous for having an almost complete series of ejective consonants accompanying its stop, fricative, and affricate consonants. The only missing ejective consonant in the Tlingit series is IPA , which might be written sh' in the popular orthography. Some speakers seem to be able to produce this phoneme, but have difficulty distinguishing it from ch' .

Consonants in the popular orthography are given in the following table, with IPA equivalents in brackets.

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral plain labial plain labial
Stop unaspirated     d         g     gw     g     gw    
aspirated     t         k     kw     k     kw    
ejective     t'         k'     k'w     k'     k'w     .  
Affricate unaspirated     dz     dl     j            
aspirated     ts     tl     ch            
ejective     ts'     tl'     ch'            
Fricative voiceless     s     l     sh     x     xw     x     xw     h  
voiced       l       y          
ejective     s'     l'       x'     x'w     x'     x'w    
Nasal     m     n              
Semivowel     w         y          

The consonant m is a variant of w found in the Interior Tlingit dialect. The consonant l is a variant of n now mostly obsolete, but still occasionally heard among the oldest speakers. The consonant y is heard in some conservative Yakutat Tlingit speakers, and is a distinct consonant from y with which it has merged among all other speaker of Tlingit. It shows up as a g occasionally in placenames derived from Tlingit during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as in some transcriptions by earlier anthropologists.

Young speakers and second language learners of Tlingit are increasingly making a voiced/unvoiced distinction between consonants rather than the traditional unaspirated/aspirated distinction. For speakers which make the voiced/unvoiced distinction the distribution is symmetrical with the unaspirated/aspirated distinction among other speakers.

Tlingit has a fairly small vowel inventory. All vowels are paired by a combination of length and tension, and are usually explained as "long" and "short". The orthography indicates the long vowels by two-letter symbols, and the short vowels by single letter symbols.

open low front unrounded vowel<aa>
open-mid back unrounded vowel<a>
tense close front unrounded vowel<ee>
lax close front unrounded vowel<i>
tense close back rounded vowel<oo>
lax close back unrounded vowel<u>
close-mid front unrounded vowel<ei>
open-mid front unrounded vowel<e>

Tlingit is a tonal language, and has two tones, neutral (usually called low) and high. In common writing only the high tone is marked, with an acute accent over the first graph in a vowel. Thus in the word lingít "person, people", the first syllable is low tone, the second high.

Writing system

Tlingit was until the late 1960s written exclusively in phonetic transcription in the works of linguists and anthropologists. A number of amateur anthropologists doing extensive work on the Tlingit had no training in linguistics whatsoever and left numerous samples in vague and inconsistent transcriptions, the most famous being George T. Emmons. However, such noted anthropologists as Franz Boas, John R. Swanton, and Frederica de Laguna have transcribed Tlingit in various related systems which feature accuracy and consistency, though sacrificing readability.

Two problems ensue from the multiplicity of transcription systems used for Tlingit. One is that there are many of them, thus requiring any reader to learn each individual system depending on what sources are used. The second problem is that most transcriptions made before Franz Boas's study of Tlingit have numerous mistakes in them, particularly because of misinterpretations of the short vowels and ejective consonants. Thus it is important to check any given transcription against similar words in other systems, or ideally against a modern work postdating Naish and Story's work in the 1960s.

Popular orthography

In the late 1960s linguists Constance Naish and Gillian Story developed a popular orthography which has since been used to publish verb and noun dictionaries, instruction materials, and a small amount of native literature. The orthography has the peculiar characteristic that it requires use of underlines to differentiate uvular from velar consonants, an effective mechanism when used with typewriters and typeset materials, but one which hampers its use in electronic text. Similar problems with electronic encoding have been encountered with other northwest Pacific coast languages which use a related orthography. Of all the characters the underscore is the most difficult to encode; even though a combining underscore is available in Unicode it is not supported by popular text renderers except for a few precomposed characters encoded elsewhere in Unicode.

Currently, speakers represent the underscore by an "h" following the character in emails and plain text. Since very little communication is currently transmitted electronically in Tlingit the problem has not been extensively addressed, but as language revitalization efforts begin to bear fruit, the increasingly digitally-minded children who learn the language will want to use it in such plain text environments as email and text messaging. This dual system will probably continue for the indefinite future.

The lack of an input method for Tlingit for any popular operating system constrains its use electronically. Also, since the underscore is typically represented by the textual underlining feature of word processors and HTML, vital orthographic information is easily lost or corrupted with electronic Tlingit texts. Proper encoding of Tlingit requires the use of the combining underscore accent in Unicode along with fonts which provide adequate placement or precomposed characters and a useable input method.


The grammar of Tlingit is to the non-native speaker, especially one from an Indo-European background, fiendishly complex. It is characterizable as a SOV language, although some have argued that it is possibly OSV. Nouns are marked for case in a manner similar to Japanese, but not number or gender. Verbs agree with the object noun phrase, and decompose into a complex set of category affixes (prefix, infix, and suffix) adjoined to the verb stem.

The verb

The verb in Tlingit is both the most important and the most complex part of speech in the language. The verb in Tlingit often fulfills roles which in other languages might be supported by noun compounds, adjectives, or complex phrases.

The noun

The noun in Tlingit has a fairly simple role, and is marked in sentences for case, but not number or gender.

Number can be represented to differentiate singular from plural, as in the case of the term du yádi "his/her child" which becomes du yátx'i "his/her children" in the plural. Another example is the pair káa "man" and káax'w "men". Although there is some consistency in marking of different plurals, it is perhaps more appropriate to consider each plural as a specific term that indicates plural quantity of a subject, rather than a grammatically productive application of plural marking, since plurals are rare. There is a also syntactic (not morphological) distributive hás which is used only with kinship terms to indicate a group of kin, as in ax sáni hás "my paternal uncles". Since kinship terms are a closed class this syntactic function is not productive.

Bound adverbs


Tlingit has a complex interaction between morphology and phonemics in that many morphological affixes undergo phonemic change depending on their context. Contraction, assimilation, metathesis, and epenthesis are all common effects of morphological processes.

External links


  • Boas, Franz. (1917). Grammatical notes on the language of the Tlingit Indians. University of Pennsylvania Museum anthropological publications.
  • Dauenhauer, Nora M.; & Dauenhauer, Richard (Eds.). (1987). Haa shuká [Our ancestors]. Seattle: University of Washington & Sealaska Heritage Foundation.
  • Dauenhauer, Nora M.; & Dauenhauer, Richard (Eds.). (1990). Haa Tuwunáagu Yís [For healing our spirit]. Seattle: University of Washington & Sealaska Heritage Foundation.
  • Dauenhauer, Nora M.; & Dauenhauer, Richard (Eds.). (1994). Haa Kusteey/i, our culture: Tlingit life stories. Classics of Tlingit oral literature (No. 3). Seattle: University of Washington & Sealaska Heritage Foundation.
  • Dauenhauer, Nora M.; & Dauenhauer, Richard (Eds.). (1995). A Tlingit ceremonial speech by Willie Marks. In M. Dürr, E. Renner, & W. Oleschinski (Eds.), Language and culture in Native North America (pp. 239-244). München: LINCOM.
  • Dauenhauer, Nora Marks; & Dauenhauer, Richard. (2000). Beginning Tlingit, 4th ed. Sealaska Heritage Foundation Press: Juneau, Alaska. ISBN 0-9679311-1-8. (First edition 1994).
  • Dauenhauer, Nora Marks; & Dauenhauer, Richard. (2002). Lingít X'éinax Sá! Say it in Tlingit: A Tlingit phrase book. Sealaska Heritage Institute: Juneau, Alaska. ISBN 0-9679311-1-8.
  • Dauenhauer, Richard. (1974). Text and context of Tlingit oral tradition. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison).
  • Dryer, Mattew. (1985). Tlingit: An object-initial language? Canadian Journal of Linguistics, 30, 1-13.
  • Dürr, Michael; Renner, Egon; & Oleschinski, Wolfgang (Eds.). (1995). Language and culture in Native North America: Studies in honor of Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow. LINCOM studies in Native American linguistics (No. 2). München: LINCOM. ISBN 3-89586-004-2.
  • Leer, Jeffery A. (1990). Tlingit: A portmanteau language family? In P. Baldi (Ed.), Linguistics change and reconstruction methodology (pp. 73-98). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Leer, Jeffery A. (1991). The Schetic Categories of the Tlingit verb. University of Chicago Department of Linguistics: Chicago, Illinois. PhD dissertation.
  • Naish, Constance M. (1966). A syntactic study of Tlingit. (Unpublished M.A. thesis University of North Dakota).
  • Naish, Constance M.; & Story, Gillian L. (1973). Tlingit verb dictionary. Summer Institute of Linguistics: College, Alaska.
  • Naish, Constance M.; & Story, Gillian L. (1996). The English-Tlingit dictionary: Nouns (3rd ed.; H. Davis & J. Leer, Eds.). Sheldon Jackson College: Sitka, Alaska. (Revision of the Naish-Story dictionary of 1963.)de:Tlingit (Sprache)

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