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Dena’ina Sounds

The Dena’ina consonants can be organized into a chart according to place of articulation and manner of articulation. The place of articulation indicates where in the mouth the obstruction occurs. Roughly speaking, consonants on the left side of the chart are produced toward the front of the mouth, while those on the right side are produced toward the back of the mouth. Manner of articulation refers to how open or closed the mouth is when the consonant is produced. For stops and affricates the mouth closes completely to obstruct the airflow. For fricatives the mouth closes only partway, results in friction, a noisy sound. For sonorants the mouth is almost entirely open, or in the case of m and n, the mouth is closed but air escapes through the nasal cavity.

In English we are accustomed to thinking of each letter of the alphabet as a separate entity. However, we are aware that certain combinations of letters can represent particular sounds. Thus ch is two letters but corresponds to a single sound, as in the beginning of the word ‘chance’. The Dena’ina alphabet makes use of this principle extensively, and we even refer to such combinations as “letters” even though they might be composed of more than one letter of the English alphabet.

Several of the consonants used in the Dena’ina alphabet represent sounds which do not occur in English. The apostrophe indicates a glottal stop or “catch in the throat”. This is the sound which occurs in the middle of the English exclamation ‘uh-oh’. Following certain symbols the apostrophe indicates glottalized sounds. These sounds are characterized by a popping sound. The consonants t’ tl’ ts’ ch’ k’ q’ are all glottalized consonants. The sound ł is called a “barred-l” or voiceless-l. It is produced with the tongue in the same position as for an English l except that rather than voicing the vocal folds, air is allowed to escape around the sides of the tongue.

Table 1: Dena'ina Consonant Chart
unaspirated (b)ddldzjggg'
aspirated ttltschkq 
glottalized t'tl'ts'ch'k'q' 
fricatives voicedv lzzhŷgh 
voiceless (f)łsshxhĥ
nasals & glides mn (r)y   

The palatal and palatal-alveolar sounds are not distinguished in the Upper Inlet dialect.

The combination hh is used instead of ĥ in older materials.

The Dena’ina alphabet includes just four vowels, as shown below. Not all vowels are created equal. The three vowels i u a are full vowels, while the vowel e is a reduced vowel, sometimes called “schwa”, and is pronounced similar to English ‘uh’. The reduced vowel tends to come and go, and writers vary as to whether they write this vowel in certain words. Don’t be too alarmed by this. The full vowels are much more crucial to the meaning and pronunciation of a word.

Table 2: Dena'ina Vowel Chart
long i a u
short e

The pronunciation of Dena’ina vowels can vary quite a bit depending on context. The basic pronunciation can be compared to English as follows:

i kił 'boy' as in English 'see' or 'sit'
u ush 'snowshoe' as in English 'boot' or 'book'
a tał 'mat' as in English 'father' or 'gut'
e ven 'lake' as in English 'men'

For a more complete list of words demonstrating each vowel sound see the Dena’ina Key Words.

The most important way in which this pronunciation is altered is vowel lowering. When the vowels i or u occur next to a back velar consonant they are lowered, that is, they are pronounced with the mouth more open and the tongue more lowered. The effect of this lowering is that i sounds more like the vowel in English ‘say’, and u sounds more like the vowel in English ‘go’. The classic example of vowel lowering is the distinction between the words ‘dog’ and ‘fish’. These two words sound as if they have a different vowel, but this difference is actually caused by the influence of the following consonant: front velar in the case of ‘dog’, and back velar in the case of ‘fish’.

  • łik’a ‘dog’
  • łiq’a ‘fish’

For an example of vowel lowering with u consider the sounds in jangu ‘today’ and gguya ‘small’. The former u sounds more like the English ‘blue’ while the latter u sounds more like English ‘boy’. Vowel lowering is extremely helpful in learning to write Dena’ina. When you hear a lowered vowel you know there must be a back velar consonant present. Thus, vowel lowering serves to distinguish between front and back velar consonants, a distinction which is sometimes difficult to hear.