Classifier (Athapaskan linguistics)

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In Athabaskan linguistics, the term classifier is traditionally used for a class of verbal prefixes that modifiy the transitivity or valence of the verb in some way.


Slave (Rice 1989:455)

  • tse dé-Ø-k'ǫ́ ‘the wood is burning’
  • tse dé-h-k'ǫ́ ‘she burned the wood’

The prefix h- is a transitivizing classifier.

Tlingit has perhaps the most complex form of the classifier, with three variables encoded in a portmanteau morpheme. (Examples from Naish & Story p. 373.)

  • at wusiteen (at-wu-Ø-si-teen |INDN.OBJ-PERF-3SUBJ-CL[+I, s, −D]-see|) “he saw it”
  • sh wudziteen (sh-wu-Ø-dzi-teen |RFLX.OBJ-PERF-3SUBJ-CL[+I, s, +D]-see|) “he saw himself”


The term “classifier” is sometimes derided by those working in Athabaskan lanuages, e.g. by Kibrik (1993):

“This a clear misnomer since so-called classifiers do not classify either verb lexical entries or verb arguments — as it was originally supposed — in any reasonable sense. ... The unhappy nature of the term “classifier” is recognized by many Athabaskanists (see Krauss 1969, Cook 1984:162, Young and Morgan 1987:117, Thompson 1989:9, Rice 1989:439). However, the listed authors still use the term preferring to preserve the continuous tradition. I propose to abandon this harmful term that keeps misleading both newcomers to the field of Athabaskan linguistics and non-Athabaskan linguists.”

Kibrik’s commentary however neglects the fact that in Tlingit, a relative of the Athabaskan family, the classifier is still used to some extent as part of the verbal classification system. For example, the following verbs differ only in their use of the classifier to indicate the class of the object (Naish & Story 1973:376).

  • dáanaa x̱waatáw (dáanaa wu-x̱a-ya-táw |money PERF-1SG.SUBJ-CL-steal|) “I stole money”
  • atshiḵóok x̱wasitáw (atshiḵóok wu-x̱a-si-táw |radio PERF-1SG.SUBJ-CL-steal|) “I stole a radio”


  • transitivity indicator — proposed by Kibrik (1993:48)
  • extensor — used by Naish and Story, e.g. Story (1966), Naish (1966), Naish & Story (1973)


The term dates back “to the early work by Boas on Tlingit and by Sapir on Athabaskan” (Kibrik 1993:48). Recent historical work by Jeff Leer has reconstructed the classifier for the entire Na-Dené family (Leer 2008:22).


  • Cook, Eung-Do. 1984. A Sarcee grammar. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Kibrik, Andrej A. 1993. “Transitivity increase in Athabaskan languages.” In: Comrie, Bernard & Polinsky, Maria (eds.) 1993. Causatives and transitivity. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 47-67.
  • Krauss, Michael. 1969. "On the classsifiers in Athapaskan, Eyak and Tlingit verb." Supplement to International Journal of American Linguistics 35.2:49-83.
  • Naish, Constance. 1966. A syntactic study of Tlingit. Master’s thesis, School of Oriental and African Languages, University of London.
  • Naish, Constance & Story, Gillian. 1973. Tlingit verb dictionary. Fairbanks, Alaska: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Leer, Jeff. 2008. “Recent advances in AET comparison”. Unpublished draft. Available online at [1].
  • Rice, Keren. 1989. A grammar of Slave. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Story, Gillian. 1966. A morphological study of Tlingit. Master’s thesis, School of Oriental and African Languages, University of London.
  • Thompson, Chad. 1989. “Pronouns and voice in Koyukon Athabaskan: A text-based study.” International Journal of American Linguistics 55.1: 1-24.
  • Young, Robert W. & Morgan, William. 1987. The Navajo language: A grammar and colloquial dictionary. 2nd edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.