29 June 2008

Athabaskan, Athapascan, and everything in between

One of the more annoying things about working in the Na-Dene language family is that nobody can agree on how to spell the name pronounced in English as /æθəˈbæskən/. There are four ways which can be described with this convenient regular expression: Atha[bp]as[ck]an. I was wondering what the popularity of the various spellings was, and of course it came to me to simply ask Google.

The results (29 July 2008):

  • about 210,000 for athapascan

  • about 206,000 for athabaskan

  • about 150,000 for athabascan

  • about 77,700 for athapaskan

So it would seem that, at least on teh World Wide Interweb Supertubeway, the most popular spelling of the name is “Athapascan”. This is at odds with my personal choice, which is the second most popular “Athabaskan”, and what I tend to see according to my fallible perception as the most common spelling in linguistics articles.

Notice something interesting about the results: no one spelling is clearly obscure. Certainly “Athapaskan” is less common, but it’s not strongly marginalized in the way that “Klinkit” might be for describing the Tlingit people and language.

The main problem with this variety of spellings is that it impedes searching through databases for information about Athabaskan stuff. If I want to hunt for “Athabaskan verb” in the Library of Congress catalog I have to construct this messy query:

Athabaskan OR Athabascan OR Athapaskan OR Athapascan AND verb

You can imagine that the irritation increases when you’re looking for something complicated like “classificatory verbs OR noun classification OR classifier”. And since search engines don’t usually let you specify levels of nesting, all you can do is hope that it knows what you mean. Your only other option is to repeat the search four different times with all the same keywords except for Atha[bp]as[ck]an.

The original spelling, due to Albert Gallatin, was “Athabascan”. Per Wikipedia,

The word Athabaskan is an anglicized version of the Woods Cree name for Lake Athabasca (aðapaskāw, “[where] there are plants one after another”) in Canada.

In classic Wikipedia fashion, the article goes on to quote Gallatin and references a document which doesn’t appear in its bibliography. It’s probably from Synopsis of the Indian tribes within the United States, Cambridge: University Press, 1836. The title page is online as part of a map collection.

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Blogger H. Barca said...

It is frustrating. I know the Alaska Native Language Center has set "Athabascan" as its spelling due to a decision by the Tanana Chiefs conference. See http://www.uaf.edu/anlc/athabascan.html (there's also a link to Michael Krauss' article about the origin of the name as well as the spelling issue)

02 July, 2008 11:29  

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