Athabascan (ăthəbăs´kən), Athapascan, or Athapaskan (both: –păs´–), group of related Native American languages forming a branch of the Nadene linguistic family or stock. In the preconquest period, Athabascan was a large and extensive group of tongues. Its speakers lived in what are now Canada, Alaska, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Mexico. Today the surviving Athabascan languages include Chipewyan, Kutchin, Carrier, and Sarsi (all in Canada); Chasta-Costa (in Oregon); Hoopa or Hupa (in California); Navajo (in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah); and Apache (in Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico). These and other Athabascan languages are the mother tongues of about 175,000 indigenous people of North America. The speech communities of most Athabascan languages today are small, with the exception of Navajo, which has roughly 150,000 speakers, most of whom can also speak English. The Navajo are one of the largest Native American groups in the United States. A feature of the Navajo language, perhaps the best-known tongue in the Athabascan group, is its tonal quality. There are high tones, low tones, rising tones, and falling tones. Another important Athabascan tongue, Apache, is spoken in its various dialects by about 12,000 persons. According to some authorities, the Athabascan languages face extinction relatively soon. See Native American languages.
See H. Hoijer et al., Studies in the Athapaskan Languages (1963).