Tlingit language

The Tlingit language is spoken by the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and Western Canada. It is a branch of the Na-Dene language family. Extensive effort is being put into revitalization programs in Southeast Alaska to revive and preserve the Tlingit language and culture.

Missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church were the first to develop a written version of Tlingit, using the Cyrillic script to record and translate it, when the Russian Empire had contact with Alaska and the coast of North America down to Sonoma County, California. After the Alaska Purchase, English-speaking missionaries from the United States developed a written version of the language using the Latin alphabet.

The history of Tlingit is poorly known, mostly because there is no written record until the first contact with Europeans around the 1790s. Documentation was sparse and irregular until the early 20th century. The language appears to have spread northward from the Ketchikan–Saxman 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 Na-Dene, an indigenous language family of North America. Edward Sapir (1915) argued for its inclusion in the Na-Dené family, a claim which was subsequently debated by Franz Boas (1917), P.E. Goddard (1920), and many other prominent linguists of the time.

Studies in the late 20th century by (Heinz-)Jürgen Pinnow (1962, 1968, 1970, int. al.) and Michael E. Krauss (1964, 1965, 1969, int. al.) showed a strong connection to Eyak and hence to the Athabaskan languages. This relationship is now widely accepted.

Sapir initially proposed a connection between Tlingit and Haida, but the debate over Na-Dene gradually excluded Haida from the discussion. Haida is now considered an isolate with some borrowing through long proximity with Tlingit. In 2004, the Haida linguist John Enrico presented new arguments and reopened the debate. Victor Golla writes in his 2011 California Native Languages, “John Enrico, the contemporary linguist with the deepest knowledge of Haida, continues to believe that a real, if distant, genetic relationship connects Haida to Na-Dene[.]”


Tlingit Shaman, ca. 1900. Portrait of man wearing fur cape and carved amulet necklace, holding raven rattle

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.

The exception is an area known as “Inland Tlingit” that extends up the Taku River and into northern British Columbia and the Yukon around Atlin Lake (Áa Tleen “Big Lake”) and Teslin Lake (Desleen < Tas Tleen “Big Thread”) lake districts, as well as a concentration around Bennett Lake at the end of the Chilkoot Trail (Jilkhoot). Otherwise, Tlingit is not found in Canada. Tlingit legend tells that groups of Tlingit once inhabited the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena river valleys during their migrations from the interior. There is a small group of speakers (some 85) in Washington as well.
Use and revitalization efforts

Golla (2007) reported a decreasing population of 500 speakers in Alaska. The First Peoples’ Cultural Council (2014) reported 2 speakers in Canada out of an ethnic population of 400.

As of 2013, Tlingit courses are available at the University of Alaska Southeast. In April 2014, Alaska HB 216 recognized Tlingit as an official language of Alaska, lending support to language revitalization.

Source From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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