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Dena’ina Dialects

Dena’ina is a well-defined language which can be readily distinguished from neighboring Athabascan languages in Alaska. Speakers from different regions of Dena’ina territory are able to understand each other without too much difficulty. Nevertheless, as with any language, there is significant regional dialect variation among Dena’ina speakers.

Four major Dena’ina dialects are generally recognized:

  • Upper Inlet (Eklutna, Knik, Susitna, Tyonek)
  • Outer Inlet (Kenai, Kustatan, Seldovia)
  • Iliamna (Pedro Bay, Old Iliamna, Lake Iliamna area)
  • Inland (Nondalton, Lime Village)

Dena'ina Dialects

The most noticeable dialect differences in Dena’ina are lexical differences, that is, people one dialect region have some different vocabulary from people in another region. For example, the word for ‘caribou’ is vejex in the Inland and Outer Inlet dialects and ghenuy in the Upper Inlet dialect. The chart below shows a few lexical differences. More can be found in the Dena’ina Topical Dictionary by James Kari.

Vocabulary differences between dialects
Upper Inlet Outer Inlet Inland Iliamna  
dnigi dnigi k'uhda'i k'uhda'i moose
ggeh nqeba hvaya, nehvaya hvaya, nehvaya 'rabbit (snowshoe hare)'
t'ghes eseni eseni eseni 'cottonwood'
gabin belda, gamin velida velida 'stove'
k'enich'en yunit yunit vetl'ughu 'stern of a boat'

Despite these vocabulary differences, it is hard to delineate dialects based solely on which words people use. Instead, we can look at differences in pronunciations to get a better understanding of the differences between the four Dena’ina dialect regions. The pronunciation features distinguishing the dialects from each other are complex and overlapping. Rather than being able to identify distinguishing features for each of the four dialects, we can identify patterns which are shared by different subsets of the dialects. We can then recognize each dialect by the collection of features which it exhibits. Below you will find several kinds of pronunciation differences, and you can listen to audio clips to some of them so that you can compare them yourself.

Alveolar and palatal sounds

First, the most significant dialect difference between the Upper Inlet dialect and the other three dialects is the way speakers pronounce alveolar sounds (ts, ts’, dz, s) and palatal sounds (ch, ch’, j, sh). The Upper Inlet dialect does not distinguish between these two types of sounds. This means that words which begin with a palatal or alveolar sound in one of the other dialects may be pronounced by an Upper Inlet speaker somewhere “in between.” The precise pronunciation varies from speaker to speaker and from word to word.

Alveolar and palatal merger
other dialects Upper Inlet
ts and ch ts
ts' and ch' ts'
dz and j j
s and sh s

It is relatively easy to translate this difference from one of the other dialects into Upper Inlet since both the ch and ts sounds can be pronounced alike in Upper Inlet. However, it is somewhat more difficult to translate from Upper Inlet into one of the other dialects. The Upper Inlet sound, which is pronounced midway between ts and ch (sometimes written ) may correspond to either ts or ch in the other dialects.

While Upper Inlet words such as ‘head’ and ‘cry’ have similar ts sounds, in most written materials these sounds are written distinctly asts and ch, to reflect the pronunciation of other dialects. Thus, an Upper Inlet speaker would pronounce written ts and chboth as a sound intermediate between ts and ch (that is, ).

The same process is true for sh and s, which are both pronounced the same in Upper Inlet. The fact that palatal and alveolar sounds are identical gives rise to some homonyms (words which sound alike but mean different things). For example, the words for ‘summer’ and ‘stand’ are pronounced the same in Upper Inlet, but they sound different from one another in other dialects.

It is important to bear in mind that even though ‘summer’ and ‘stand’ may be pronounced alike in the Upper Inlet dialect, the spelling is usually standardized to shan and san, as in the other dialects.

Comparison of alveolar and palatal sounds in Upper Inlet and other dialects
Upper Inlet other dialects  
tśighu tsighu 'head hair'
tśegh chegh 'cry'
'blanket, robe'

Z, zh, and ŷ

The second way in which Upper Inlet differs from the other dialects is that the fricatives z, zh and ŷ are all pronounced as a plain y (not a fricative). Here again, it is fairly straightforward to translate this different from the other dialects into Upper Inlet, but much more difficult to do the reverse, since Upper Inlet y could correspond to z, zh, ŷ, or y.

Comparison of z, zh, ŷ and y in Upper Inlet and other dialects
Upper Inlet other dialects  
chayu nyey
chayi nzhezh 'you are sipping tea'

B, v and m

A feature which is shared by the Inland and Iliamna dialects is the use of v where the other dialects use b, and vice-versa.

Comparison of b and v in Upper Inlet/Outer Inlet and Inland/Iliamna.
Upper Inlet/
Outer Inlet
'dry fish'
bejex (or ghenuy in U.I.)
vejex 'caribou'
tahbił tahvił
ven q'uvugh
vashla 'ulu, round knife'

Possessive suffix -a and -‘a

A feature which is shared by the Outer Inlet and Iliamna dialects is the use of –’a rather than –a for the possessive suffix.

possessive examples


If we look at the distribution of these features across the dialects we find that each dialect has a unique combination of features. While Upper Inlet can be identified by a single feature, the other dialects can be identified only by a combination of features.

Features distinguishing Dena'ina dialects
 Upper Inlet Outer Inlet Iliamna Inland
j ch ch' sh zh dź tś tś ś y j ch ch' sh zh j ch ch' sh zh j ch ch' sh zh
z, zh, ŷ > y y z, zh, ŷ z, zh, ŷ z, zh, ŷ
b > v b b v v
-a > -'a -a -'a -'a -a

The table below lists diagnostic words representing the features above. Knowing the pronunciation of these three words is sufficient to identify the dialect.

Words distinguishing Dena'ina dialects
 Upper Inlet Outer Inlet Iliamna Inland
'cry' tsegh or chegh chegh chegh chegh
'lake' ben ben ven ven
'my land' sh'ełnena sh'ełnen'a sh'ełnen'a sh'ełnena

It is important to keep in mind that while the Upper Inlet dialect pronounces words such as 'cry' with more of a ts sound, these words are generally written with a ch as in the other dialects. Likewise for dz and ts' and s.

There are many other dialect differences which have not been noted here so far. For example, in Outer Inlet and Iliamna the imperfective and customary verb suffix is sh rather than x, as in other dialects. Thus qeshnash ‘I am talking’ rather than qeshnax. There are also some differences in the order of prefixes in the verb. For example, all dialects say ghetnu ‘he or she is working,’ but the future forms differ between Outer Inlet and the other dialects. For ‘he or she will work’ Outer Inlet says ghetutnu while the other dialects say tghutnu. Also, compare ‘he will look at it:’ Outer Inlet says yentuł’ił while the others say yetnuł’ił.

Moreover, it is important to point out that individual speakers don’t always fit neatly into dialect categories. Speakers may have a collection of traits which span a two or more of the dialects. This is especially true in areas at the boundaries of the dialects, such as Tyonek.

Understanding dialect divisions and their significance is essential to language revitalization efforts. With practice, materials produced in one dialect can be used for teaching other dialects. Students should not limit themselves to a single dialect but should feel free to combine words and phrases from a variety of dialects, just as speakers of English are able to use words from different English dialects.

This summary is adapted from James Kari’s 1975 article A classification of the Tanaina dialects (Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 17: 49-55). The original article is available in the Dena’ina Qenaga Digital Archive. This page was compiled by Gary Holton and Andrea Berez, February 2006.