Western Apache language

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Western Apache
Ndee biyáti' / Nnee biyáti'
Native to United States
RegionPrimarily south-east Arizona
Ethnicity Western Apache
Native speakers
14,000 (65% of pop.) (2007) [1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 apw
Glottolog west2615 [2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

The Western Apache language is a Southern Athabaskan language spoken among the 14,000 Western Apaches in east central Arizona. There are approximately 6,000 speakers living on the San Carlos Reservation and 7,000 living on the Ft. Apache Reservation. [3] Goodwin (1938) claims that Western Apache can be divided into five dialect groupings:


Other researchers do not find any linguistic evidence for five groups but rather three main varieties with several subgroupings:

Western Apache is most closely related to other Southern Athabaskan languages like Navajo, Chiricahua Apache, Mescalero Apache, Lipan Apache, Plains Apache, and Jicarilla Apache.

In 2011, the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s Language Preservation Program in Peridot, Arizona, began its outreach to the "14,000 tribal members residing within the districts of Bylas, Gilson Wash, Peridot and Seven Mile Wash," [4] only 20% of whom still speak the language fluently. [5]

Place names

Many Western Apache place names that are currently in use are believed to be creations of Apache ancestors. [6] Keith Basso, a prominent Western Apache linguist, writes that the ancestors frequently traveled for food, and the need to remember specific places was "facilitated by the invention of hundreds of descriptive placenames that were intended to depict their referents in close and exact detail." [6] Basso also writes that place names provide descriptions of specific locations and also "positions for viewing these locations." [6] The place names are a fundamental aspect of Western Apache communication, allowing for what Basso describes as an appropriation of "mythic significance" for “specialized social ends" via the practice of "speaking with names." [6]

Place names can be descriptive or commemorative or a means of identifying clans. Social groups will often use place names as a way to communicate. For example, they use place names to explain what happened to them: if there is a story linked to the location, they can relate to it or use it as a warning. That use of place names is known in the culture as "shooting with stories," as they shoot one another with stories like arrows of information. [7]


Western Apache uses a classificatory verb system comparable to both the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apaches. Basso gives this example: "the stems –tii and –'a are used in the phrases nato sentii and nato sen’a both of which may be translated broadly as “hand (me) the tobacco.” The difference in meaning between the two verb forms is signaled by their stems: --tii refers to the handling of a single, elongated object (e.g., a cigarette), while –‘a refers to the handling of a single, compact object (e.g., a packet of cigarettes). In short, the referent of the noun nato (“tobacco”) is made more precise according to the stem with which it is coupled." [8]

The use of classificatory verbs is similar to that of nouns: the speaker must select an expression that corresponds to the situation in the world he wishes to refer to. The speaker must place specific objects into categories and use the appropriate verb form in accordance with the particular category. Basso gives these examples of classifications for the Western Apache verb system:

  1. Animal/Non-animal. There are two features on this dimension: "animal" and "non-animal." The former, designated by the symbol (a1) includes all vertebrates and insects. The latter, designated (a2), includes flora, liquids, minerals, and practically all items of material culture.
  2. Enclosure. There are two features on this dimension. The first (bl) refers to the condition whereby the item or object being talked about is enclosed in a container. The second (b2) refers to the condition whereby it is not enclosed, i.e., not in a container.
  3. State. There are three features on this dimension: "solid" (c1), "plastic" (c2), and "liquid" (c3). The second feature refers to moist, plastic substances such as mud, wet clay, etc., and might also have been defined as "neither solid nor liquid."
  4. Number. There are three features on this dimension: "one" (d1), "two" (d2), and "more than two" (d3).
  5. Rigidity. There are two features on this dimension: "rigid" (e1), and "non-rigid" (e2). The Apache consider an object to be rigid (nkliz) if, when held at its edge or end, it does not bend.
  6. Length. There are two features on this dimension. The first (f1), refers to the condition whereby the horizontal length of an object is at least three times greater than either its width of height. The second feature (f2) refers to the condition whereby the length of an object is less than three times its width or height.
  7. Portability. There are two features on this dimension: "portable" (g1) and "non-portable" (g2). The former refers to items light enough in weight to be easily carried by one man. The latter refers to items sufficiently heavy to require at least two men to carry them. [8]



There are 29 consonants in Western Apache:

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral
Nasal mn
Stop voiceless ptkʔ
voiced (ⁿd/d)
Affricate voiceless ts
aspirated tsʰtɬʰtʃʰ
ejective tsʼtɬʼtʃʼ
Fricative voiceless sɬʃh
voiced zʒɣ
Approximant ljw


There are 16 vowels in Western Apache:

  Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close oral ɪ    
nasal ɪ̃ĩː    
Open-mid oral ɛɛː  o
nasal ɛ̃ɛ̃ː  õõː
Open oral   a  
nasal   ããː  

An acute accent /á/ represents a high toned accent. Low toned accents are not marked.

Phonetic Semantic signs are divided into two sub-parts: a logographs [9] (donate only one word) and phraseographs (donate one or more words).

Unaffricated stops

Western Apache utilizes unaffricated stops. Willem de Reuse explains, "Unaffricated stop consonants are produced in three locations: bilabial, alveolar, velar. At the alveolar and velar places of articulation, there are three possibilities: aspirated, ejective, and unaspirated. (The voiceless unaspirated alveolars are characteristically realized as taps in intervocalic environments other than stem-initial position) The bilabial stops are more restricted. Ejective bilabial stops do not occur, and aspirated bilabial stops are rarely attested, surfacing primarily, if not exclusively, in borrowed words. The closure for three alveolar stops is voiceless, as indicated by the absence of any energy in the spectrograms during the closure phase." [10]

Writing system

Partial image of one of the pictographs on the cover of Basso's Western Apache language and culture. SilasJohn@KeithBasso.png
Partial image of one of the pictographs on the cover of Basso’s Western Apache language and culture.

The only writing system native to Western Apache is a system of symbols created in 1904 by Silas John Edwards to record 62 prayers that he believed came to him from heaven. [11] A Silas John prayer-text is a set of graphic symbols written on buckskin or paper. The symbols are arranged in horizontal lines which are read from left to right in descending order. Symbols are separated by a space, and each symbol corresponds to a single line of prayer, which may consist of a word, a phrase, or one or more sentences. [11] An interesting feature of this writing system is that it includes symbols for nonverbal actions as well as verbal speech. [11]

Symbols can either be "compound" or "non-compound". Compound symbols consist of two symbols being combined in order to form a new symbol. Non-compound symbols are symbols that are not combination of two separate symbols. [11] The "names" of non-compound symbols are the same as the line of text that the symbols elicit. Because of this, the linguistic referent of a non-compound symbol is always the same as the meaning of the element that forms it and can be learned in a single operation. [11]

Alphabet and pronunciation

Western Apache uses a modified version of the Latin alphabet:

Letters ʼ – ŁʼABChChʼDDlDzEGGhHIJKLŁ
IPA equivalentʔaptʃʰtʃʔttsɛkɣxɪlɬ
IPA pronunciationoʔɪʔánatʃʔapɛ́ʃtʃʰɪʒtʃʔaxtṍʔtlṍʔtsɪɬɛʔɪlzaːkaːkɛ́ɪɣálxaʃpɪtɪ́ɪzɛːdʒaːsɪ́láxákʰɛːkʔaːɪloxɬók

Letters M – ZhMNOPSShTTłʼTsTsʼUWYZZh
IPA equivalentmnosʃtɬʰtɬʔtsʰtsʔuwjzʒ
Writtenmbánadą́ʼoyeełpiishisilaadashashtúsitʼohtłád / ikʼahtłʼohtséétsʼaałiwooyoozaszhaali
IPA pronunciationmpánatã́ojɛːɬpʰɪːʃɪsɪlaːtaʃaʃtʰúsɪtʰʔoxtɬʰát / ɪkʰʔaxtɬʔoxtsʰɛ́ːtsʼaːɬtʰúɪwoːjoːzasʒaːlɪ

IPA equivalentãáã́ãːɛ́ɛ̃ɛ̃́ɛ̃ːɪ́ɪ̃ɪ̃́ɪ̃ːóõõːú


The geographic locations of events are crucial components to any Western Apache story or narrative. [6] All Western Apache narratives are spatially anchored to points upon the land, with precise depictions of specific locations, which is characteristic of many Native American languages. [9] [6] Basso called the practice of focusing on places in the language "speaking with names." [6]

According to Basso, the Western Apache practice of "speaking with names" expresses functional range and versatility. Basso claims that "a description of a place may be understood to accomplish all of the following actions:

  1. produce a mental image of a particular geographical location;
  2. evoke prior texts, such as historical tales and sagas;
  3. affirm the value and validity of traditional moral precepts (i.e., ancestral wisdom);
  4. display tactful and courteous attention to aspects of both positive and negative face;
  5. convey sentiments of charitable concern and personal support;
  6. offer practical advice for dealing with disturbing personal circumstances (i.e., apply ancestral wisdom);
  7. transform distressing thoughts caused by excessive worry into more agreeable ones marked by optimism and hopefulness;
  8. heal wounded spirits." [6]

Basso also claims the practice of "speaking with names" can occur only between those with shared "knowledge of the same traditional narratives." [6] He notes that though many elders in Western Apache communities, such as Cibecue, share this knowledge, younger generations of Western Apache "are ignorant of both placenames and traditional narratives in increasing numbers," which makes engaging in the practice of "speaking with names" incredibly difficult. [6]


Revitalization efforts

Western Apache is an endangered language, and there are efforts to increase the number of speakers. [12] One method of teaching Western Apache is the Total Physical Response (TPR) Method, [12] which focuses, especially in early instruction, on commands. [12] That method is best for teaching the straightforward aspects of grammar, such as yes-and-no questions, and can be enhanced with further grammatical exercises. [12]

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  1. as reported by Willem de Reuse in Golla, Victor. 2007. North America. In Encyclopedia of the world's endangered languages, ed. Christopher Moseley (pp. 1–95). Routledge: London.
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Western Apache". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. "Did you know Western Apache is threatened?". Endangered Languages. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  4. Rambler, Sandra (2011-11-09). "Arizona Silver Belt Tribe focuses on preservation of Apache language". Arizona Silver Belt. Retrieved 2012-12-02.
  5. 'Testimony of Mary Kim Titla:Reclaiming our Image and Identity for the next Seven Generations,' Senate Committee on Indian Affairs,' November 29, 2012.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Basso, Keith H. (1 January 1988). ""Speaking with Names": Language and Landscape among the Western Apache". Cultural Anthropology. 3 (2): 99–130. doi:10.1525/can.1988.3.2.02a00010. JSTOR   656347.
  7. Basso, Keith H. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 46–48.
  8. 1 2 Basso, Keith H. (1 January 1968). "The Western Apache Classificatory Verb System: A Formal Analysis". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 24 (3): 252–266. doi:10.1086/soutjanth.24.3.3629347. JSTOR   3629347.
  9. 1 2 Basso, KH; Anderson, N (1973). "A Western apache writing system: the symbols of silas john". Science. 180 (4090): 1013–22. doi:10.1126/science.180.4090.1013. PMID   17806568.
  10. "Phonetic Structures of Western Apache: Articles+". eds.b.ebscohost.com. Retrieved 2017-05-01.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Basso, Keith H.; Anderson, Ned (1973-01-01). "A Western Apache Writing System: The Symbols of Silas John". Science. 180 (4090): 1013–1022. doi:10.1126/science.180.4090.1013. JSTOR   1736310. PMID   17806568.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 J., de Reuse, Willem. "Issues in Language Textbook Development: The Case of Western Apache".Cite journal requires |journal= (help)


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