IPY: Documenting Alaskan and Neighboring Languages

J. Ritter: Alaska-Yukon Border Athabaskan Tones

The aim of John Ritter's project was to study the progressive tone assimilation (PTA)  of those Athabaskan languages spoken on both sides of the US-Canada border, specifically Gwich'in, Han, Upper Tanana, and also Tanacross.  His research commenced  March 2008.

The research included recording speakers in their communities on a one-on-one or group session, "where there is a sharing of language and culture" (Ritter 2012).

Tanacross speaker, Mrs Ellen Demit, now regarded as the best (according to Ritter, "perhaps the only"), speaker of the Healy Lake dialect, participated in his work. The work she did for him included the narration of place names from the Healy Lake region, several short narratives and prayers.

Upper Tanana language speakers from Northway, Alaska and Beavercreek, Yukon  also participated in the tonal research.  Ms Martha Sam of Northway provided a an example of tonal phenomena when speaking contrasting verbs.  Ritter describes this as an example of "low marked" or low toned when "non-relativized but appear with neutralized 'mid/sustained' tone when relativized."  He stated that this process of progressive tone lowering, "mirrors what is heard in the Han Athabascan and progressive tone raising in Tanacross."

During 2010, Ritter worked again with speakers of the Upper Tanana language.  This included Tetlin elder Charlie David.  PTA was confirmed of the Tanacross and Han-like assimilation pattern in "inceptive perfective verb forms as well as word boundaries." During this time period he also studied old field notes by Nobu Minoura and James Kari.  This information, contained some contrasting remarks on the existence of PTA in Upper Tanana speakers, the late Bessie John and Avis Sam.

Ritter started on colored maps that would show the geographical distribution of specific isoglosses describing the tonal patterns from the language data he had collected.

In early 2011, Ritter elaborated on his research by including not only basic marking of high and low tone, but the presence of special prosodic marking (extra high to high rising) of negative stems and suffixes (and some individual lexical items), to tone spread (progressive assimilation of marked tone to underlying unmarked syllables).

He  examined these tone questions  with speakers of the Upper Tanana language,  Mrs Cora David and her husband, Roy of Tetlin. Careful analysis of the data suggested the tonal pattern of the area with other observations of tone and predictable tone changes as described by Minoura and Kari in 1990s.

The extra year of research (2012-2013) was crucial in finishing the description of the tonal systems of Alaska-Yukon languages.  Ritter spent the time  mainly in completing the field research necessary for a thoroughly documented account, including thorough documentation on tape for all the claims.  Ritter extended the coverage westward  covering all of tonal Alaskan, with fieldwork on Lower Koyukon tones as well as Lower Tanana, until now documented only by Krauss himself.

In early  2012, Ritter produced a set of eleven maps that documented the extent of various tone features in the Athabaskan languages. Ritter remarked that from the very beginnning of this project he had  support from colleagues at the Yukon Native Language Center. Linguists Doug Hitch and Andre' Bourcier helped with hammering out the comparative linguistics required for the project and Doug Hitch "compiled" the maps. 

Click on the map below to view Ritter's mapping of the tone research. 

Back to Top