A case study in Ahtna Athabascan geographic knowledge
Ahtna is an Athabascan language of south-central Alaska centered mainly on the Copper River. Drainage-based files of over 2,200 Ahtna place names have been maintained for over thirty years, making Ahtna one of the best researched geographies for an Alaska Native language (Kari 2008, 2010). There are transparent principles that govern the content, structure, and distribution of Ahtna place names. The Ahtna geographic system is framed in a riverine absolute landmark orientation system (Levinson 2003) with nine directional roots that occur in over sixty derived forms. There is a distinct generative geographic capacity to this system, whereby a specific “sign” combines with an array of generic terms and directionals to facilitate memorization of the geography. The ways in which place names intersect with the directionals are complex and invite further study. Furthermore, the Ahtna system is representative of the Northern Athabascan languages.