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Southern Athabaskan languages

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Title: Southern Athabaskan languages  
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Subject: Navajo language, Indigenous languages of Arizona, Western Apache language, Jicarilla language, Tanacross language
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Southern Athabaskan languages

Southern Athabascan
Southwestern United States
Linguistic classification: Dené–Yeniseian?
ISO 639-2 / 5: apa
Glottolog: apac1239[1]
Historical distribution of Southern Athabaskan languages

Southern Athabaskan (also Apachean) is a subfamily of Athabaskan languages spoken primarily in the Southwestern United States (including Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Sonora) with two outliers in Oklahoma and Texas. These languages are spoken by various groups of Apache and Navajo peoples.

Self-designations for Western Apache and Navajo are Nnee biyáti’ or Ndee biyáti’ and Diné bizaad or Naabeehó bizaad, respectively.

There are several well known historical people whose first language was Southern Athabaskan. Geronimo (Goyaałé) who spoke Chiricahua was a famous raider and war leader. Manuelito who spoke Navajo is famous for his leadership during and after the Long Walk of the Navajo.

Family division

The seven Southern Athabaskan languages can be divided into 2 groups according to the classification of Harry Hoijer: (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 (AKA Kiowa–Apache)

II. Southwestern

A. Western
1. Chiricahua-Mescalero
a. Chiricahua
i. Chiricahua proper
ii. Warm Springs
b. Mescalero
2. Navajo (Navahu˙)
3. Western Apache (AKA Coyotero Apache)
a. Tonto (Northern Tonto, Southern Tonto)
b. White Mountain
c. San Carlos
d. Cibecue (ˀa˙paču)
B. Eastern
1. Jicarilla (Apaches De La Xicarilla)
2. Lipan

Hoijer's classification is based primarily on the differences of the pronunciation of the initial consonant of noun and verb stems. His earlier 1938 classification had only two branches with Plains Apache grouped together with the other Eastern languages (i.e. with Jicarilla and Lipan).

Mescalero and Chiricahua are considered different languages even though they are mutually intelligible (Ethnologue considers them the same language). Western Apache (especially the Dilzhe'e variety) 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 although the number of child speakers continues to decline. Navajo is one of the most vigorous North American languages, but use among first-graders has declined from 90% to 30% in recent years (1998 N.Y. Times, April 9, p. A20).


All Southern Athabaskan languages have somewhat similar phonologies. 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):

  Labial Alveolar Alveolar Lateral Palatal Velar Glottal
(affricate series)
Stop unaspirated p t ts k (kʷ)  
aspirated   tsʰ tɬʰ tʃʰ kʰ (kʷʰ)  
glottalized   tsʼ tɬʼ tʃʼ ʔ
(ⁿb) (ⁿd/d/n)          
Nasal simple m n          
glottalized (ˀm) (ˀn)          
Fricative voiceless     s ɬ ʃ x h
voiced (v)   z l ʒ ɣ (ɣʷ)  
Approximant         j (w)  
  • Only Navajo and Western Apache have glottalized nasals.

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 [tʼ] t’ [ j ] y
[k] g [kʰ] k [kʼ] k’ [h] h
[ts] dz [tsʰ] ts [tsʼ] ts’ [ʔ]
[tʃ] j [tʃʰ] ch [tʃʼ] ch’ [l] l
[tɮ] dl [tɬʰ] [tɬʼ] tł’ [ɬ] ł
[p] b [pʰ] p [ⁿb] b/m [ⁿd] d/n/nd
[s] s [ʃ] sh [m] m [n] n
[z] z [ʒ] zh [ˀm] ’m [ˀn] ’n
[x] h            
[ɣ] gh            

Some spelling conventions:

  1. Fricatives [h] and [x] are both written as h. (see also #2 below)
  2. The fricative [x] is usually written as h, but after o it may be written as hw, especially in Western Apache (may be pronounced [xʷ]).
  3. The fricative [ɣ] is written gh the majority of the time, but before i and e it is written as y (& may be pronounced [ʝ]), and before o it is written as w (& may be pronounced [ɣʷ]).
  4. All words that begin with a vowel are pronounced with a glottal stop [ʔ]. 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 [ⁿd]. 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 [n̩]. This is not indicated in the spelling.


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

  Front   Central   Back  
  High   i    
  Mid   e   o
  Low     a  

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 ˛ in Western Apache, Navajo, Mescalero, and Chiricahua 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 i e o a
long ii ee oo aa
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