Dena'ina language

Dena’ina Qenaga or Dena'inaq'
Native to United States
Region Alaska (Cook Inlet region, Lake Clark, Lake Iliamna)
Ethnicity 900 Dena'ina people (2007)[1]
Native speakers
75 (2007)[1]
Latin (Dena'ina alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tfn
Glottolog tana1289[2]

Dena’ina /dˈnnə/, also Tanaina, is the Athabaskan language of the region surrounding Cook Inlet. It is geographically unique in Alaska as the only Alaska Athabaskan language to include territory which borders salt water. Four dialects are usually distinguished:

  1. Upper Inlet, spoken in Eklutna, Knik, Susitna, Tyonek
  2. Outer Inlet, spoken in Kenai, Kustatan, Seldovia
  3. Iliamna, spoken in Pedro Bay, Old Iliamna, Lake Iliamna area
  4. Inland, spoken in Nondalton, Lime Village

Of the total Dena'ina population of about 900 people, only 75–95 members still speak Dena’ina. James Kari has done extensive work on the language since 1972, including his edition with Alan Boraas of the collected writings of Peter Kalifornsky in 1991. Joan M. Tenenbaum also conducted extensive field research on the language in the 1970s.


The word Dena'ina is composed of the dena, meaning 'person' and the human plural suffix ina. While the apostrophe which joins the two parts of this word ordinarily indicates a glottal stop, most speakers pronounce this with a diphthong, so that the second syllable of the word rhymes with English 'nine' (as in the older spelling Tanaina).

Gladys Evanoff pronouncing Dena'ina

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Dena'ina is one of seven Alaska Athabaskan languages which does not distinguish phonemic tone.


The consonants of Dena’ina in practical orthography, with IPA equivalents indicated in square brackets.

Labial Dental Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
plain lateral sibilant
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Plosive and
plain (b [b]) d [t] dl [t͡ɬ] dz [t͡s] j [t͡ʃ] g [k] gg [q] ' [ʔ]
aspirated t [tʰ] tl [t͡ɬʰ] ts [t͡sʰ] ch [t͡ʃʰ] k [kʰ] q [qʰ]
ejective t' [tʼ] tl' [t͡ɬʼ] ts' [t͡sʼ] ch' [t͡ʃʼ] k' [kʼ] q' [qʼ]
Fricative voiceless (f [f]) ɬ [ɬ] s [s] sh [ʃ] x [x] h [χ] ĥ [h]
voiced v [v] l [ɬ] z [z] zh [ʒ] ŷ [ɣ] gh [ʁ]
Approximant (r [ɹ]) [j]

[ɹ] is only found in English loanwords.


The 4 vowels of Dena’ina. Note that close vowels are more open in the environment of a uvular consonant.

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e [ə]
Open a

Generally, the vowels i, a, and u, are considered 'long' vowels and are fully pronounced in words, however the e is considered a reduced vowel similar to the English schwa.

Syllable structure

In the Inland dialect, syllables at the end of a semantic unit are often longer, lower in pitch, and have longer rhymes. The onset of a syllable has consonant clusters of up to three, such as CCCVC, though these are rare and more commonly, a syllable onset is one or two consonants.


Dena'ina is a polysynthetic language where a single word can mean the entirety of an English sentence.

English sentence "I will see you again."
Dena'ina word: nuntnghel'ił
Dena'ina word parts: nu-n-t-n-gh-sh-l-'ił
Word part meanings: again-you-FUTURE-see-FUTURE-I-CLASSIFIER-see/FUTURE

Verbs are the most elaborate part of speech in the Dena'ina language, which vary in verb paradigms which vary by subject, object, or aspect. The following example is of -lan the verb "to be" in the imperfective aspect and in the Nondalton dialect.

Subject Meaning Nondalton
1st person singular I am eshlan
2nd person singular You are inlan
3rd person singular He/She/It is nlan
1st person plural We are ch'ilan
2nd person plural You all are ehlan
3rd person plural They are qilan
Areal Area is qilan

Grammatical categories

Dena'ina indicates classification with obligatory verb prefixes, meaning the root verb appears at the end of the word. The verb will always specify a classification and often person, gender, or object prefixes that indicate aspects of the noun or object for transitive verbs, and aspects of the speaker for intransitive verbs. Person can also be indicated by suffixes on the noun; the singular person suffix on a noun is generally "-en",whereas the plural suffix is generally "-na" or "-ina". Plurals for non-persons that are animate are indicated by the noun suffixes "-qa", "-ha", and "-yi". Inanimate plurals are unable to be indicated by a noun suffix, and instead attach to the verb.

For examples of person indication on the verb, see the chart under the morphology section above concerning the verb root "-lan". Dena'ina specifies between 1st person singular/plural, 2nd person singular/plural, 3rd person singular/plural, and areal.

Verbs fall into many categories that are broadly lumped into "active" and "neuter", where an active verb indicates movement, a state of being incomplete, something being made, or in the production of sound, and a neuter verb indicates a general state of being that is complete. Categories of classification that are affixated to a verb also can refer to certain characteristics of the object of that verb. Depending on the gender affix that follows the classificatory affix, the nature of the object can change, as indicated by the following chart:

Classificatory verbs Gender prefixes
Ø- d- n- dn- q-
1 Single compact object; ‘u ball, trap, hat, sun, beaver lodge egg, song, word berry, bread, roe, coiled rope, head rock, ring, mirror, box, whetstone house, plot of land, situation, weather
2 Elongated object; tun needle, sled, boat, bow, gun pole, plate, cane, quill, pencil stick dentalium necklace mirror x
3 Enclosed object; łtun knife, full sack, rolled sleeping bag pillow, mattress, lake sack of berries, flour or fish eggs box of rocks q+d ravine, valley
4 Fabric-like object; kits blanket, net, paper, open sleeping bag, empty sack, skin without hair skin with

hair, fur, caribou mat

5 Object in open vessel; qu sugar, water in container eggs or wood chips in bucket berries or roe in container rocks or coal in bucket x
6 Animate object; ta person, dog, doll, crucifix x x x x
7 Food; kit piece of meat, dry fish beaver’s food pile roe x x
8 Mushy object; tlaq’ mud, rotted food, wet cloth, butter wet tea leaves fish eggs (not in container) x pile of refuse, area of soft ground
9 Plural objects; lu traps, boots, dogs eggs, plates, cups, words, tobacco, songs, waves sg. uncoiled rope, pl. coiled ropes, beads, berries, roe, snare rocks, whetstones, boxes houses, objects over area, freight
10 Multiple objects; chuq’ sand, glacier ice chips of wood berries rocks earth, clouds

However, there are other categories of classification or instrumentation that indicate how an action was done or aspects about the outcome of the action. Many instrumental affixes have become causative over time. Causality is expressed by changing a classifier in the verb to "ł". Instrumental affixes that indicate the manner or motion of an action include the following: "-aq’a", which refers to clubbing an object or leaving a depression in the snow; "-dni", which refers to causing an object to leave, disappear, or die; "-du", which refers to affecting an object with the mouth; "-eł,-eła, and -ł", which all indicate that the object being referred to was used in an instrumental sense; "-iqu (uqu)", which refers to a pointing motion; "-k’", which refers to a wiping motion; and "-lu", which refers to the use of a hand.

Space relations


Dena'ina shows space relations through the addition of morphemes that are either independent or bound, known as postpositions.

Postpositions can also be incorporated into a verb as a prefix.


Space relations can also be marked by demonstratives pronouns, which indicate proximal/distal distinction.

For example:


Adverbs of location and direction can also convey space relations.


The directional system in Dena'ina is based upon river flows, and are used with directional prefixes, roots, and suffixes.

For example, yunit means "at a place far upstream", and is composed of the prefix "yu", root "ni", and suffix "t".

Time and tense

Temporal adverbs

Temporal adverbs convey information about when an action or intent of the verb occurred.

For example:


Mode indicates when the action happens. Normal mode is also referred to as tense, and is given by mode/aspect prefix positions in the verbs. The tense modes are the imperfect (present), perfect (past) and the future represented by 4 types of imperfectives—Ø, z, n, gh—and 4 types of perfectives—gh, z, n, Ø. There are also 4 modal variations: neuter, inceptive, optative-intentional, and negative.


Modal variations


Aspect conveys information about how the action happened, and works in conjunction with tense. The most common aspects are conclusive, momentaneous, neuter, onomatopoetic, and semelfactive. The morpheme attached to the root verb can also change depending on aspect.

Aspect Mode
Imperfect Perfect Future Optative
continuative ya ya ya Ya
durative nax Yał nax nax
momentaneous ya yał
neuter Ya' Ya'
repetitive nash nak nash nish


Modality is most commonly and easily seen in evidentials which usually appear at the end of a sentence.

Predicates, arguments, and case

Predicate refers to the main verb and auxiliary verbs, while arguments usually refer to those words outside of the predicate.

Word order in the basic Dena'ina sentence is subject-object-verb (SOV). Because of this, there is a low danger of referential ambiguity. It is rare to have both the subject and the objects as nouns; instead, one or both usually occur as pronouns. Some sentences differ from the SOV structure. In subject-verb (SV), the object is embedded in the verb as a pronoun, or the sentence doesn't require an object. In object-verb (OV), the subject is a pronoun contained in the verb, and the object is a noun.

An example sentence structure: object pronoun (argument) + outer subject pronoun (argument) + (other prefixes) + inner subject pronoun (argument) + ...verb stem (predicate). This example shows multiple arguments attaching to a single predicate.

A full clause can be expressed in the verb. In the verb, the verb stem is last, and even when embedded in the verb, the object and subject necessarily come first. In Dena'ina, all verbs require a nominative (subject) and an accusative (object), which indicates a nominative-accusative case. This means the marked morphemes, or those that change to convey more specific meanings, are those that indicate the object. Distinction occurs between the nominative and accusative, and each would have its own core argument.


Obliques indicate instrumentals, locatives, and other arguments outside of core arguments. Both core and oblique arguments attach to the verb via prefixes which must occur in a certain order. In Dena'ina, obliques are prefixes to the verb which occur between the object prefix and the inner subject pronoun prefix and/or the outer subject pronoun.


Inherent possession

Dena'ina has inherently possessed nouns and non-verbs. Inherently possessed words consist of a prefix and a stem which are abound morphemes. For example, "shunkda" means "my mother", where "sh-" is the possessive pronoun meaning "my", and "-unkda" is the possessed root meaning "mother".

The pronouns used with inherently possessed bound morphemes:

Non-inherent possession

Non-inherent possession occurs with proper nouns as the possessor, shown by -a or -'a attached as a suffix to the possessed noun. Possessive pronouns are attached as a prefix to the possessed noun and the -'a is added at the end of the word.

Complement clauses

Complement clauses are clauses that act as the direct object of the verb, introduced by a complementizer (e.g.: in English, "that" or "which"). Complement clauses exist as subordinate clauses and bare clauses, as with other languages in the Athabaskan language family. Some complement clauses are marked by enclitics, and are always embedded as part of the sentence.

Relative suffixes are attached to nouns or verbs, and are one of the few suffixes on verbs. Common relative suffixes include:


The population of Dena'ina is 900. As of 2007, there are 75-90 speakers, and in 1970 there were only 10 speakers of the Kenai dialect.

Linguist Michael E. Krauss provides three levels of endangerment: safe; endangered, where the language is being learned by children but requires community effort to maintain it; and moribund, where the language is not being learned by children. According to this classification, the Dena'ina is a moribund language.

Revitalization efforts

There are various efforts to revitalize the language.

Contributing factors to the endangerment include the policy of early territorial schools to not let native students speak their own language, especially in regards to the Kenai dialect. This policy was often enforced via corporal punishment; the trauma caused elders, all within one generation, to avoid speaking the language.


  1. 1 2 Tanaina at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Tanaina". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Neyman, Jenny. (2014). "In a word: Revival — Language class speaks to effort to revitalize Dena’ina".


External links

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