Alphabet & Sounds

The following material can be referred to throughout this course.


Gwich'in Alphabet
Download this Gwich’in Alphabet sheet (PDF)

Using the Alphabet on Your Computer

In order to type in special Gwich’in characters (like Å‚, aÌ€, ęįį, etc.)  you will need to install the Gwich’in keyboard layout.  Go to Language Geek – Athabascan Keyboard Layouts  and find the ‘Windows Download‘ under ‘Alaska Athebascan’ and follow their instructions on how to install it. If you use a Mac, go a little further down the page and click on  the NWT Athabascan ‘Mac Download‘ and follow the instructions for Mac installation.  Each section has a pdf available for the keyboard layout that you can also print out for reference.

Sounds Overview

Gwich’in Listening Exercise #1 by Hishinlai’ Peter:

sounds and alphabet

Click on the image above to view more visual examples of sounds and alphabet.

Special Characters

In Gwich’in there are some unique symbols and sounds that English speakers may not be familiar with.

The “Bar L’  or “Indian L” which is represented by this symbol: Ł.  The Ł sound is made by putting the tip of one’s tongue to the roof of the mouth and pushing the air out of both sides of the mouth to make an air rushing sound like in the video below.

“Glottal Stop’ which is represented by an apostrophe like in the word “Gwich’in’.  The glottal stop is another sound that will be unfamiliar to English speakers, but is very prevalent in Gwich’in, so much so it is even in the word Gwich’in!  The glottal stop is basically a pause initiated in the back of the throat, basically cutting the syllable off by stopping the air. It almost sounds like Gwich/in.  There is a very brief pause there.

To get a better understanding of how the bar L,  glottal stop, and other consonants sound, listen to the videos and try to repeat the sounds made.


Some Athabascan languages are tonal languages, which mean that the way a person’s voice rises or falls when saying certain speech sounds influences the meaning of the word being spoken. Tone is indicated by marks that appear above vowels. There are four types of tone that appear to varying degrees in Athabascan languages. They are indicated as follows:

Tone in Athabascan Languages

High Tone Low Tone Falling Tone Rising Tone
á à â ǎ
Voice rises when saying sound Voice falls when saying sound Voice rises then falls when saying sound Voice falls then rises when saying sound

The use of tone differs across Athabascan languages. For example, Tanacross has high tone, rising and falling, whereas in Ahtna there is no use of tone.


Another important feature in some Athabascan languages, such as Gwich’in, is the use of the nasal. A nasal is a hook-like mark that is placed under a vowel or vowels that indicates the sound is to be produced through the nose and mouth, not just the mouth.

Nasal Nasal
ą ęįį
Sound is made through the    nose and mouth Sound is made through the    nose and mouth

For example, nasals can be seen in the words “ihłįi’ meaning “I am‘, and “(place) gwihch’įį’, meaning “I live (at a place)‘.

 Listen to a lesson on nasalization here.