Directional Reference, Discourse, and Landscape in Ahtna

Front Cover
University of California, Santa Barbara, 2011 - Ahtena language - 249 pages
This dissertation examines one corner of the grammar of the Ahtna Athabaskan language of Alaska: the use and semantics of the lexical class of directionals. In particular, this dissertation looks at how Ahtna speakers use directionals in spontaneous discourse and elicitation against the backdrop of the physiography of Ahtna territory. The semantics of the directional system is traditionally riverine, meaning that the orientation of the local river local determines which directional term speakers choose. Talk about direction and location of referents in the natural landscape is common among Ahtna speakers: Ahtna people are traditionally seminomadic, and verbally displaying one's knowledge of overland travel through Ahtna territory has a special place in culture and society. Among the linguistic resources available for describing concepts like path and location are the directionals, the use of which is a direct reflection of a speaker's familiarity with the geography of the region he or she is describing. Awareness of the local ecology is thus not only central to Ahtna cultural practices, but also potentially influences the development of the grammar over time. This dissertation is concerned with the relationship between language change over time and the use of the directionals in discourse and elicitation. The first section examines the recent changes in the semantics and usage of the directionals because of language contact. Using data from my fieldwork, I show that the nearly constant contact of Ahtna with the dominant English language is causing a shift in the semantics of the directionals, such that they now refer less to the orientation of the local river, and more to the cardinal directions found in English. The second section looks at language change from a purely language-internal point of view. Using data from a previous generation of Ahtna speakers, it discusses how the complex morphology of directionals is lexicalizing over time, leading to a loss of semantic clarity that speakers are compensating for via other resources in the discourse structure. Central to the discussion is the topography of the landscape itself. To that end, geographic information systems technology plays a large role in the data presented here.

Bibliographic information