Dena’ina language

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

Dena’ina , 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 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
unaspirated (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 [l] 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
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