SHI to sponsor lecture on the Dene languages

SHI to sponsor lecture on the Dene languages

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: January 25th, 2021

Free event to be offered virtually

Jan. 25, 2021

(About the Lecturer) (Flyer)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) will sponsor a free lecture this Thursday on the Na-Dene (Athabaskan) language family, the most widespread of any language group in America, ranging from the lower Yukon River to Hudson Bay, down along the Pacific Coast and into the American Southwest as far south as Mexico.

The lecture, Overview of the Dene languages and the Place of Tlingit in Na-Dene, will be given by Dr. Jeff Leer, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and currently serving as SHI’s linguist.

Na-Dene has a time depth of perhaps 4,000-5,000 years, and there is no evidence that this language phylum evolved anywhere but in North America, Leer wrote.

In his talk, Leer will begin with a survey of the Athabaskan languages, which contain the bulk of diversity within the Na-Dene languages (with a time depth of perhaps 2,000-3,000 years). Then he will discuss the Eyak language, which in our historical record exhibits only minimal variation and hence virtually no time depth. He will explore the possibility that a distinct language related to Eyak or a dialect of Eyak was spoken in Dry Bay, according to Yakutat Elders’ personal communication with Elaine Abraham and Devlin Anderstrom. He will then suggest that the homeland for Athabaskan-Eyak, a subfamily within Na-Dene, was centered on the Yukon Territory: the lakes that feed the Yukon River and the headlands of rivers draining into Southeast Alaska.

“Finally, I’ll consider the Tlingit language, with a time depth of perhaps 500-1,000 years. After a quick survey of Tlingit dialects, I’ll turn to the question of the original homeland(s) of today’s Tlingit clans and point out a few linguistic clues as to how they could have moved downriver and spread out along the coast,” Leer wrote.

The talk, which is scheduled at noon on Thursday, Jan. 28, is part of a lecture series this month that explores the origins and earliest presence of Indigenous populations and cultures in Southeast Alaska from traditional knowledge and various scientific perspectives.

All lectures will be livestreamed at 12 pm Alaska time on SHI’s YouTube channel, and available for viewing on YouTube any time after the livestream (no account required).

This program is provided under the Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools (PITAAS) program and funded by the Alaska Native Education Program. The series is also offered as a one-credit course through the University of Alaska Southeast. Contact for more information.  

About the Lecturer

Jeffry A. Leer is a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (1973-2011). He began his self-motivated study of Tlingit during the summer before his last year of high school. After returning to Alaska he began teaching Tlingit as well as the orthographies of the Eskimo, Aleut and Athabaskan languages of Alaska at Alaska Methodist University. He then taught similar courses on Tlingit and Aleut grammar as well as orthographies of various languages for Mount Edgecumbe boarding school, and the next year likewise at Sheldon Jackson College. Subsequently he accepted an offer to work with Dr. Michael Krauss and the rest of the team at the Alaska Native Language Center, where he centered his work on the Tlingit, Haida and Sugpiaq Alutiiq languages as well as comparative Athabaskan and comparative Na-Dene studies. He was instrumental in designing the modern orthographies for the Tlingit, Haida, Yup’ik, Sugpiaq Alutiiq, Ahtna and Tanacross languages. Meanwhile, he cultivated his interest in Na-Dene, reconstructing the historical processes that shaped verb stem variation in Athabaskan and in Tlingit. He completed his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago in 1991 with a dissertation entitled The Schetic Categories of the Tlingit Verb. Concurrently he began work on the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit Lexical Database, and in connection with this, the Comparative Athabaskan Lexical Database, a virtually exhaustive compendium of lexical data collected from some 15 representative Athabaskan languages. At present Leer is working for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, focusing on several projects involving documentation of the Tlingit language and development of classroom material. His favorite aspect of this work is the privilege of working with recordings of supremely gifted Tlingit storytellers, most of whom are no longer among us. These recordings contain a wealth of lexical information and syntactic constructions that have largely fallen out of use.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director, 907.586.9116,


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