Upper Tanana language

"Nabesna" redirects here. For the community, see Nabesna, Alaska.
Upper Tanana
Native to United States
Region Alaska (middle Yukon River, Koyukuk River)
Ethnicity ca. 340 Tanana (1997–2007)[1]
Native speakers
ca. 110 (1997–2007)[1]
Latin (Northern Athabaskan alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tau
Glottolog uppe1437[2]

Upper Tanana (also known as Tabesna or Nabesna) is an endangered Athabaskan language spoken in eastern Interior Alaska, mainly in the villages of Northway, Tetlin, and Tok, and adjacent areas of Canada's Yukon Territory. In 2000 there were fewer than 100 speakers, and the language was no longer being actively acquired by children.


Upper Tanana shows near mutual-intelligibility with neighboring Tanacross but differs in several phonological features. In particular, Upper Tanana has low tone as a reflex of Proto-Athabaskan constriction, where Tanacross has high tone. Upper Tanana also has an extra vowel phoneme and has developed diphthongs through loss of final consonants.

Traditionally, five main dialects have been recognized.

The main Upper Tanana speaking communities today are located in the Alaskan communities of Northway and Tetlin and in the Canadian community of Beaver Creek.


There are actually two Tanana languages, the first being Lower Tanana, or Minto, and the second being Upper Tanana, or Nabesna. The original name for the Upper Tanana language was Nee'aaneegn'.

Language Today

As of the beginning of the 21st century, roughly 100 people still speak the language. The demographic make up of the Upper Tanana speakers are above the age 60. The language is no longer taught to children of this current generation, therefore, the extinction of Upper Tanana is in the near feature. In the 1960s, Paul G. Milanowski and Alfred John worked together to establish a writing system to produce several booklets and school dictionaries to assist in bilingual programs.


Upper Tanana is the eastern part of Alaska that also shares the same location as the speakers of the Tanacross Language. This location reaches from the Wrangell Mountain range across to Joseph Creek, and west of the Tanana rivers. The Tanana Rivers divides this area through a string of smaller rivers and creeks. Upper Tanana is mainly spoken in Tetlin and Northway.


Upper Tanana is broken down into five separate dialects. The first dialect is spoken by the Tetlin band, which has up to 20 known speakers. The other four dialect are spoken by the smaller bands that are located more upriver. The first is Nabesna with two known speakers, the second dialect is Northway with 20 known speakers, the third dialect is Scottie Creek which no longer has any known speakers, and the last is Beaver Creek dialect has one known speaker, but there is a high potential for a few more.

Official Status

No countries have Upper Tanana as their official language. The state of Alaska recognized Upper Tanana, along with 19 other native Alaskan languages, as one of the official languages of the state in 2014.


The Upper Tanana writing system consists of nine vowels, 36 consonants, and five tones.


Vowel Example Meaning
ii łii dog
i sínt'eh it is
ee éeł trap
e sén' star
aa tsaath roots
a k'á' gun
o kón' fire
uu tuu water
u Tthiitú Tanana River


The Upper Tanana has a range of five separate tones.

Tone Vowel Example Meaning
low tone e nen you
high tone é nén' land
falling tone ê jêg berries
rising tone ě ts'ěd' blanket
extra-high tone ő ch'ekől n/a


Examples of words translated from English to Upper Tanana.

English Upper Tanana
Bear sh'oo
Berry Jign
Bunny Gah
Dog łii
Salmon łuuk


  1. 1 2 Upper Tanana at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Upper Tanana". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.


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