Southern Athabaskan languages

Southern Athabaskan languages

Infobox Language family
name=Southern Athabascan
altname=Southern Athabaskan, Southern Athapaskan, Apachean
region=Southwestern United States
child1=Plains Apache
child2=Western Apachean
child3=Eastern Apachean

Pre-contact distribution of Southern Athabaskan languages


Southern Athabaskan (also Apachean) is a subfamily of Athabaskan languages spoken primarily in the North American Southwest (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.

Western Apaches call their language "Nnee biyáti’" or "Ndee biyáti’". Navajos call their language "Diné bizaad".

There are several well known historical people whose first language was Southern Athabaskan. Geronimo (Goyaałé) who spoke Chiricahua was a famous raid and war leader. Manuelito who spoke Navajo is famous for his pre and post Long walk of the Navajos leadership.

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: 1 Plains Apache (a.k.a. Kiowa-Apache)II. Southwestern: A. Western:: i. Chiricahua-Mescalero::: 2. Chiricahua:::: a. Chiricahua proper:::: b. Warm Springs::: 3. Mescalero:: 4. Navajo:: 5. Western Apache (a.k.a. Coyotero Apache)::: a. Dilzhe’e (a.k.a. Tonto, Northern Tonto, Southern Tonto)::: b. White Mountain::: c. San Carlos: B. Eastern:: 6. Jicarilla:: 7. 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 (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):

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:

He later revised his proposal in 1971 when he found that Plains Apache did not participate in the "IPA|*k̯/*c" merger to consider Plains Apache as a language equi-distant from the other languages, now called Southwestern Apachean. Thus, some stems that originally started with "*k̯" in Proto-Athabascan start with "ch" in Plains Apache while the other languages start with "ts".


Morris Opler (1975) has suggested that Hoijer's original formulation that Jicarilla and Lipan in an Eastern branch was more in agreement with the cultural similarities between these two and the differences from the other Western Apachean groups. Other linguists, particularly Michael Krauss (1973), have noted that a classification based only on the initial consonants of noun and verb stems is arbitrary and when other sound correspondences are considered the relationships between the languages appear to be more complex. Additionally, it has been pointed out by Martin Huld (1983) that since Plains Apache does not merge Proto-Athabascan "IPA|*k̯/*c", Plains Apache cannot be considered an Apachean language as defined by Hoijer.

Other differences and similarities among the Southern Athabaskan languages can be observed in the following modified and abbreviated Swadesh list:


See Southern Athabascan grammar.

External links

* [ How Different can Languages be?: The grammatical mosaic of Navajo]
* [ Simplified Apache Pronunciation]
* [ Chiricahua and Mescalero Texts]
* [ Grammatical Sketch of Chiricahua/Mescalero]
* [ Other Apache Ethnographical Sources]
* [ Apache texts]
* [ Goddard's Jicarilla Texts (translation only)]
* [ Issues in Language Textbook Development: The Case of Western Apache]
* [ White Mountain Apache Language: Issues in Language Shift, Textbook Development, and Native Speaker-University Collaboration]
* [ Apachean Languages on Ethnologue site]
* [ Phonetic Structures of Western Apache (318 kb PDF: technical work on acoustic phonetics)]
* [ sample of Apache bible translation]
* Wikipedia in Navajo


*"For the bibliography, see the subarticle Southern Athabaskan languages/Bibliography."

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