Tanacross Learners' Dictionary

About the Project

Tanacross Learners' DictionaryThe Tanacross Learner's Dictionary is intended as a reference for anyone wanting to learn the spoken Tanacross language. The subject matter and the level of complexity are varied enough to make the dictionary a useful resource for a wide range of users, from people who know nothing of the language to people already know some words and phrases or have heard the language being spoken by their parents or grandparents. The dictionary consists of about 2000 English entry words with nearly 4500 Tanacross words and example sentences and clickable links to about 3800 separate audio recordings of the Tanacross words and sentences.

The Tanacross Learner's Dictionary is a community-based project. The vocabulary in the dictionary is considered to be acceptable by most speakers. Nonetheless, some words are pronounced differently by various speakers and there is often more than one way to say something. Some of these differences are included in the dictionary, but vocabulary in the dictionary should not be considered to be the only correct way to say something. The vocabulary in the dictionary has been approved by Elders working closely with the project. Elders wanted to emphasize vocabulary of many traditional activities. Therefore, there is extensive vocabulary given for activities such as fishing, camping and skin preparation, and many example sentences also refer to traditional activities.

Background and Sources

This dictionary has a long history. Through the efforts of people such as nancy McRoy, Ron Scollon, Alice Brean, and James Kari a number of wordlists and dictionary manuscripts were complied at the Alaska Native Language Center between 1973 and 1991. Dictionary work began again in 1997 as part of field work by Gary Holton, but this effort was focused on a scientific, stem-based dictionary. After Irene Arnold began teaching Tanacross language classes through the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2000, it was recognized that students needed a more accessible vocabulary reference, preferably one accompanied by audio recordings. One of those students, Rick Thoman, perservered to make the present Learners' dictionary come into reality.

After an exhaustive survey of existing Alaska Athabascan "Junior" dictionaries, Thoman compiled a preliminary English wordlist, which was entered into a Shoebox database. Thoman then devoted several years to compiling Tanacross translations, recording Tanacross forms, and researching dictionary presentation formats. This work resulted in Thoman's 2004 University of Alaska Fairbanks M.A. thesis.

Many sources have been consulted for this dictionary, but the vocabulary remains grounded in and inspired by the language classes taught by Irene Arnold. This classroom vocabulary has been supplemented by archival data and consultations with other Tanacross speakers. More than a dozen language workshops have been held in the Tanacross area since 1998, including three focused on the Tanacross Learner's Dictionary. Individual speakers have worked long hours with the editors on this and related projects. As with any dictionary project, it is difficult to know when to stop compiling and revising. There are many more Tanacross words and phrases to be recorded. The vocubulary found in this preliminary version of the Tanacross Learners' Dictionary is by no means exhaustive, but it is hoped that it will be useful to language learners.

 NSF bannerNSF Funding for this project was provided in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF-OPP 0136113). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the compilers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Banner artwork by Gary John. Used with permission.


Although the Tanacross language has been spoken for many generations, systems for writing the language have only recently emerged. The writing system, or orthography, used here follows that developed in the 1990's by the Yukon Native Language Centre and the Alaska Native Language Center, as exemplified in Irene Solomon-Arnold's Tanacross Language Lessons (1994) and Tanacross Phrases and Conversations (2003).

The writing system makes use of many of the symbols in the English alphabet, supplemented by a one special character (the "barred-l" ł) and several diacritic marks, including a nasal "hook" below vowels and four kinds of tone marks above vowels, for example, high tone é, rising tone ě, falling tone ê, and extra-high tone é́. It is perfectly possible (and permissible) to write Tanacross without tone marks, as speakers will generally be able to supply the correct tone (see Holton 2003). However, tone marks have been included in this dictionary in order to assist language learners in learning the correct tone pronunciation.

Many Tanacross sounds are represented by more than one alphabetic letter or symbol. However, both individual letters, such as s, and letter combinations ("blends" or "letter groups"), such as sh, are referred to here as letters.

The Tanacross writing system is much more faithful to the spoken word than in the English writing system. That is, most Tanacross letters or letter combinations have a consistent pronunciation. However, the sound associated with a given Tanacross letter may not necessarily be the same as the sound associated with that letter in English. For example, Tanacross has the sound in English 'say', not the sound in English 'see'.

Many of the words and example sentences in the Tanacross Learners' Dictionary are accompanied by audio files which demonstrate their pronunciation. For additional information about the Tanacross writing system and pronunciation of Tanacross sounds please consult the Sounds of Tanacross.

The characters displayed in this online version of the dictionary make use of a unicode font. Your browswer must support unicode character encodings in order to correctly view the special Tanacross characters.


Many different practical orthographies have been used to write Tanacross in pedagogical and linguistic publications. Leer (1982) recognizes three distinct phases of Tanacross orthography. The first stage is exemplified by Nancy McRoy’s work in the early 1970’s (cf. McRoy 1973). The second stage is exemplified in the work of Ron Scollon later in the same decade (Scollon 1979; Paul 1980). The third stage is exemplified by Leer’s work with Alice Brean in the early 1980’s. The system employed in Kari’s work can be said to represent a fourth stage chronologically, though it is in many ways a hybrid of the second and third stages (Kari 1991b, 1991a). Kari’s system incorporates the vowel system and tri-graph dental affricates (tth and ddh) of the third stage but does not distinguish semi-voiced fricatives with underscore. A fifth stage of Tanacross orthography is exemplified by publications of the Yukon Native Language Centre (Solomon 1994, 1996; Isaac 1997) and the Alaska Native Language Center (Arnold 2003). This orthography incorporates the stage three changes and adds five types of vowel tone marking. This system is employed in most current Tanacross work, including that presented in The Sounds of Tanacross .

Pronunciation Guide

By far the best way to learn the pronuciation of Tanacross words is to hear them spoken, either as pronounced by a Native speaker in person or via the recordings on this site. The following description will give some idea of the sounds associated with the symbols used in the Tanacross writing system.

Sounds which are written and pronounced as in English

A number of letters and letter combinations used in the Tanacross alphabet have roughly the same pronounciation as they do in English.

Consonant Example Meaning Similar English sound
ch chox big choke
t tuu water too
s saa sun son
h hên creek hen
m menh lake men
n nah'ôg outside now
sh sheen summer she
th thiit embers thin
y yaadiimeey northern lights yell
k kón' fire key
l laalêel butterfly look
j jeyh mittens jay
w wudzih caribou woo


Some symbols represent sounds which occur in English but are not found at the beginning of a word. In Tanacross these sounds can occur at the beginning of a word.

Consonant Example Meaning Similar English sound
ts tsá' beaver cats
dz dzeen day adze
dl dlêg squirrel padlock
nd ndiîig creek candy

Sounds which occur in English but are spelled differently in Tanacross

At least one Tanacross sound does occur in English but is spelled differently.

Consonant Example Meaning Similar English sound
dh nadh'aay bucket this

Sounds which do not occur in English

Still other Tanacross sounds do not occur at all in English and hence must be written with a special letter or combination of letters.

Consonant Example Meaning
ł łii dog
tl tlęę friend
tth tthee rock
ddh ddheł mountain
x xos thorns
gh gha for
nh menh lake
yh aayh snowshoe


One very noticeable set of sounds which do not occur in English are the glottalized or ejective consonants. These sounds are a feature of all Athabascan languages (and many other Native American languages). When the apostrophe follows certain consonants, it indicates a glottalization, a “catch-in-the-breath” sound formed by using the closed vocal chords to compress the air in the vocal tract. Glottalized sounds are sometimes found at the end of English words (for example, some speakers’ pronunciations of “back”).

Consonant Example Meaning
tl' tl'uuł rope
tth' tth'éex sinew
t' t'aath cottonwood
k' k'á' gun
ts' ts'eyh canoe
ch' ch'ox quills

The apostrophe and the hyphen

The apostrophe ( ' ) has a special meaning in the Tanacross alphabet. By itself it indicates a glottal stop, the sound which occurs in the middle of the English exclamation uh-oh. Sometimes it is necessary to indicate that a glottal stop is not part of the previous letter. In this case, a hyphen (-) is used to separate the previous letter and the glottal stop. An example is nek-'ęh ‘I see’. It would be wrong to write this as nek'ęh because this word does not contain a glottalized-k (k').

The underscore

The underscore (  _  ) is used in combination with certain letters and letter combinations to indicate that a sound begins voiceless and becomes voiced as it is pronounced. Thus, the sound sh sounds very much like shy and the sound s sounds very much like sz.

Consonant Example Meaning
ł wułǐig' his dog
s wusêeg' his saliva
th thét liver
sh shíi in
x xdelxos they are playing


Tanacross has five vowel symbols: i, e, a, o, u. All but o can occur either long or short. The long vowels are written double. The exact pronunciation of long versus short vowels may vary depending on context.

Vowel Example Meaning Similar English sound
ii łii dog see
i sínt'eh it is in
ee éeł trap eight
e sén' star men
-ké' foot eight
aa tsaath roots pot
a k'á' gun pot
o kón' fire cone
uu tuu water sue
u Tthiitú' Tanana River sue


Vowels may be nasalized, that is, pronounced with air coming out through the nose as well as the mouth. This is indicated with the nasal hook underneath the vowel. Note that the vowel o does not occur nasalized.

Vowel Example Meaning
į k'įį birch
ę gęyh dry
ą ch'et'ą̌ą' leaves
ų gųų worm


Vowels may also be marked for tone using one of four diacritic marks above the vowel. Low tone is unmarked.

It should be noted that learning materials use tone marking to aid in learning to pronounce Tanacross words correctly. Fluent speakers will have no trouble producing the correct tone without the aid of any tone marking. It is thus perfectly possible and acceptable to write Tanacross without the tone marks.

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 ch'ekől there's nothing


Arnold, Irene, Gary Holton & Rick Thoman. 2003. Tanacross Phrases and Conversations. Faribanks: Alaska Native Language Center.

Holton, Gary. 2004. Writing Tanacross without special fonts. Ms., Alaska Native Language Center Archives. Fairbanks. [https://www.uaf.edu/anlc/tanacross/writing.html]

Holton, Gary. 2003. More issues in Tanacross orthography. Ms., Alaska Native Language Center Archives. Fairbanks.

Holton, Gary. 2003. On the representation of tone in Athabascan practical orthographies. Proceedings of the 2003 Athabaskan Languages Conference. (ANLC Working Paper 4.) Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.

Holton, Gary and Rick Thoman. 2006. The Sounds of Tanacross. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.

Isaac, Jerry. 1997. Tanacross Listening Exercises. Whitehorse: Yukon Native Language Center.

Kari, James. 1991a. "Tanacross Writing System and Key Words (Draft)". Ms., Alaska Native Language Center Archives. Fairbanks.

Kari, James. 1991b. "Tanacross Stem List". Ms, Alaska Native Language Center Archives. Fairbanks.

Leer, Jeff. 1982. "Issues in Tanacross Orthography". Ms. Alaska Native Language Center Archives.

McRoy, Nancy. 1973. "Beginning Tanacross Dictionary". Ms, Alaska Native Language Center Archives. Fairbanks.

Paul, Gaither. 1980. Stories for My Grandchildren. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.

Scollon, Ronald. 1979. "Tanacross lexical file". Ms, Alaska Native Language Center Archives. Fairbanks.

Solomon, Irene. 1994. Tanacross Athabaskan Language Lessons. Whitehorse: Yukon Native Language Center.

Solomon, Irene. 1996. Tanacross Listening Exercises. Whitehorse: Yukon Native Language Center.