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Dena’ina Grammar

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Dena’ina nouns do not require articles such as English ‘a’ or ‘the’. Dena’ina nouns are also not obligatorily marked for singular or plural. Thus, a word such as vejex can refer to a single ‘caribou’ or to several ‘caribou’. However, plurality can be indicated in other ways. For example, the verb ghetjax refers to a single animal running, whereas the verb gheł’esh refers to several animals or a herd moving.

vejex ghetjax (one) caribou is running
vejex gheł'esh (a herd of) caribou are moving

Nouns may occur with a possessive prefix which refers to the owner or possessor of the noun. Consider the following:

łik'a 'dog'
shlik'a 'my dog'
nlik'a 'your dog'
velik'a (Nondalton)
belik'a (Kenai)
'his or her or its dog'
nalik'a 'our dog'
(n)hlik'a 'you all's dog'
'their dog'

In some cases the initial consonant of noun changes from voiceless to voiced, as in the change from ł to l in the example above (see the section on sounds).

Some nouns are obligatorily possessed. That is, they must occur with a possessive prefix. These include most terms refering to relatives and to body parts. For example, the word for ‘my liver’ is shzet’ (or shyet’ in the Upper Inlet dialect), but the root form -zet’ is not a word by itself (which is why we write it with a hyphen in front). In order to refer to a liver which does not belong to someone in particular, we can use the indefinite possessor prefix k’-. Thus, k’zet’ ‘liver’ literally translates as ‘someone’s liver’.

Many Dena’ina nouns are derived from verbs and “descriptive” in nature. These nouns may have literal translations such as ‘the one who ….’ or ‘the thing that ….’.


Most of the complexities of Dena’ina grammar are contained with in the verb. In particular, in Dena’ina reference to the subject and object is incorporated directly into the verb. No separate word is required to refer to the subject or object. For example, consider the following words:

gheshyuł 'I am walking'
ghinyuł 'you are walking'
gheyuł 'he or she is walking'

There is no separate word to refer to ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘she’ or ‘he’. Rather, the pronoun refering to the subject (the doer of action) is incorporated into the verb word. The ‘I’ is referred to by esh-. The ‘you’ is referred to by in-. And ‘he’ or ‘she’ is referred to by e- (Dena’ina makes no distinction between the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’). The remainder of the words consists of a stem -yuł meaning ‘walk’ and a prefix gh- referring to an action in progress (the ‘-ing’ part of the meaning).

A similar situation occurs with object pronouns. Thus, in the following examples the object pronouns sh-, n-, and yi- are used to refer to ‘me’, ‘you’ and ‘him/her’, respectively. (The pronoun yi- is used only if the subject is ‘s/he’.)

shghi'an 'he saw me'
nghi'an 'he saw you'
yeghi'an 'he saw him'

Word Order

Word order plays a much less important role in Dena’ina than it does in English. In part this is because Dena’ina words often contain incorporated pronouns, so that a single word can often stand for an entire English sentence. However, when separate words are used in addition to a verb, the verb generally follows the other noun words.

kił chu ghi'an
boy beaver saw
subject object verb
'the boy saw a beaver'

Compiled by Gary Holton, 11 Oct 2005.