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date: 22 March 2018

Penutian Languages

Summary and Keywords

The Penutian language family, Penutian phylum, or better still, Penutian hypothesis is one of the largest genealogical linguistic groupings to have been proposed for western North America. It involves 16 families or isolates. Only a few of these families are demonstrably relatable to one another according to current knowledge and diachronic techniques. Sometimes Penutian is split by observers into groups of languages assumed to be interrelated, and this is done without assumptions that the groups themselves are interrelated.

This article focuses on the Canadian and US languages in “Sapir’s Penutian,” the most commonly accepted version; the most southerly family within Penutian is thus held as Yokutsan of California’s Sierra Nevada. It discusses the subclassification of the so-called Penutian languages into families and smaller units; aspects of their phonology, morphosyntax, and contact histories; and issues in their revitalization and the potential reconstruction of Proto-Penutian.

Keywords: language family, genetic relationship, phonology, morphosyntax, contact histories, North American languages

1. Introduction

The validity of Penutian as a single if widely ramified language family comprising 16 families or isolates and covering much of California, Oregon, and part of Washington and British Columbia is a highly contested issue. It can hardly be emphasized too strongly that few linguists nowadays regard all the languages discussed in this article as being non-trivially and ultimately related on historical grounds. That is, few linguists nowadays would posit the existence of a “Proto-Penutian” language whose descendants are more closely related to one another than they are to any other languages. Thus at every point the use of the term “Penutian” should be regarded as extremely tentative, with the underlying denotation of “languages which have been assumed by some to descend from a Proto-Penutian language.”

For one of the clearest of many dissonant voices about relations across languages which are alleged to be Penutian, see Shipley (1980). This work carries especial weight because Shipley himself documented several languages which are associated with the Penutian hypothesis and attempted to prove the shared origin and Penutian status of several languages (see Pitkin & Shipley, 1958, for example).

Some claims about Penutian interrelationships are based on typological criteria (such as the recognition that Penutian languages make extensive use of ablaut or of a C1V1C2V1 stem-type, or on their common possession of nominal case systems) rather than on evidence from sets of lexical and structural morphemes that would point to a common origin. This was the case with the proposal in Sapir (1929), which uses such bundles of typological criteria to sets up six superstocks for North America and neighboring parts of Mexico, of which Penutian is one. (Some other scholars have attempted to gather bodies of lexical and morphemic data which might substantiate at least part of the Penutian hypothesis.) However, typological criteria are insufficient to prove genealogical relationships. Not all languages embraced by the Penutian hypothesis show the CVCV stem-type abundantly. In any case, original shapes of morphs in a language could be modified by subsequent sound changes (such as vowel loss).

The future of the so-called Penutian languages is dire. Chinookan, Kalapuyan, Molala, Cayuse, Alsean, Coosan, Siuslawan, Klamath, Takelma, and Costanoan are certainly extinct, though attempts at revival are being made in some cases; Maiduan, Yokutsan, Wintuan, and Miwokan have a handful of speakers of one or two each of their constituent languages. Tsimshianic and (less so) Sahaptian are the two families in the Penutian grouping which have the greatest number of speakers (with 20–50 in Nez Perce, under 150 for Sahaptin, and up to 1,500 for Tsimshian varieties), and all the languages in these two families still had speakers in 2000, though Southern Tsimshian is no longer spoken.

Although there are plenty of texts and descriptive material (written and digital) in Chinookan languages, there are also gaps in coverage or in published material. No adequate dictionary of a Chinookan language is publicly available, and the same is true for Kalapuyan languages, Molala, Konkow, Nomlaki, Patwin, and Yokutsan languages. The first published dictionary of a Costanoan language (Warner, Butler, & Geary, 2016) only appeared in January 2016, about 80 years after the death of the last native speaker of a Costanoan language. Much material on Penutian languages gathered by investigators such as J. P. Harrington remains in manuscript or on tape or in other audio form.

Putative Penutian languages have often been subgrouped on areal rather than linguistic criteria. The concept of Penutian dates from the 1910s, and was put forward in Dixon and Kroeber (1913) and Dixon and Kroeber (1919), grouping five sets of languages of California. This “California Penutian” contained Maiduan, Wintuan, Yokuts, Miwokan, and Costanoan. The name is a combination of two words for ‘two,’ Maiduan pe:n and Utian ‘uƫxi:. Forms like the first are found in Wintuan, Maiduan, and Yokuts, the second in Miwokan and Costanoan (hence the label “Utian” for a grouping or ‘hesion’ combining these two sets of languages).

Plotting the course of Penutian prehistory—if there was such a thing—is problematic. This is because of the difficulty of positing a plausible homeland for Proto-Penutian, which if it existed would have been spoken an undetermined number of millennia ago (possibly 10,000 years BPE). Golla (2011) makes it apparent that the usual assumption is that speakers of Pre-Utian and Pre-Yokuts came into the Central Valley of California from the north, while speakers of Pre- or Proto-Maiduan probably entered California from the southern Plateau, and it is assumed on linguistic evidence that speakers of Proto-Wintuan entered California via the Oregon coast. The Tsimshianic languages, on the other hand, are part of the Northwest Coast Sprachbund, which includes languages in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon (Beck, 2000); more especially Tsimshianic languages share features with non-Penutian languages such as the Wakashan family. They may represent a northward migration—if, that is, Penutian is valid. Given the number of Penutian languages which were spoken in Oregon, the fertile parts of this area are the likeliest Proto-Penutian homeland.

Typologically, the alleged Penutian languages are very diverse in all respects, though some general similarities can be discerned (yet none of these is without exception). They tend not to use tone or pitch accent, and they tend to have a small range of distinct vowel qualities (3–8), which are often expanded through the application of phonemic vowel length (or sometimes through nasalization), and they usually employ between 12 and 25 consonantal phonemes, which in most languages include at least a few ejective plosives plus /h ʔ/, and in many languages also uvular stops. Penutian languages in California tend to have both retroflex and dental stops and to employ retroflex and non-retroflex sibilants; this is an areal trait shared with non-Penutian Native California languages. Ablaut and reduplication play an important part in the morphophonology of many Penutian languages, which as a group also tend to prefer to use suffixes over prefixes, to have case-systems of the kind familiar to students of Indo-European languages, and to privilege aspectual over strictly temporal marking in verbs. Many of them also exhibit ergative syntax.

This article discusses the classification of the putative Penutian languages and some details of Penutian language groups, following this with information on phonetics and phonology, morphosyntax, contact phenomena, and instances of revitalization of some Penutian languages, and ending with details of further reading.

2. Subclassification of the Penutian Groups

Various schemes of classification of Penutian language groups have been proposed, some on geographic grounds (“Oregon Penutian” and “California Penutian”), others drawing on purely linguistic evidence. Goddard (1996) lists Cayuse separately from Penutian but recognizes both Utian and Plateau Penutian (Klamath, Sahaptian, Molala) as accepted groupings; he lists Penutian languages together as groups 8–18. This article takes the “splitter” rather than the “lumper” approach to the classification of Penutian languages. It adopts the schema below, which differs little from the classification presented in Golla (2007), though the numbering of the branches is new.

Table 1. Penutian Languages

Penutian Languages

Some commonly invoked groupings or hesions are:

  • California Penutian: groups 12–16 (the core of the languages investigated in early Penutian studies).

  • Utian: 14–15

  • Yokutian/Yok-Utian: 14–16.

  • Oregon Penutian: 3–11.

  • Waiilatpuan: 4, 5.

  • Takelman: 6, 7.

  • Plateau Penutian: 3, 5, 8, usually also 4 (some people also include 12).

  • Coast Oregon Penutian: 9–11.

  • Yakonan: 9, 10.

Utian and the smaller model of Plateau Penutian are generally accepted. Yok-Utian, Takelman, and Coast Oregon Penutian are likely but not universally accepted.

3. Potentially Penutian Linguistic Groups

3.1 Tsimshianic

This is a family of four languages which are spoken in northern British Columbia on the Pacific coast (Coast and Southern Tsimshian, known as Maritime Tsimshian) and along the Nass and Skeena Rivers, and secondarily (in the case of Coast Tsimshian) at New Metlakatla, Alaska, a 19th-century Coast Tsimshian colony from Metlakatla, British Columbia. Interior or Inland Tsimshian (Nass-Gitksan/Gitxsan and Nisga’a/Nisqa’a) is the best-covered variety, with descriptive materials, some work on syntax, and textual material. Material is also available on Coast Tsimshian and to a much lesser extent on Southern Tsimshian. A small amount of material was composed in Nisga’a for the purposes of promoting literacy.

Like the languages of Washington and Oregon that have been assigned to the Penutian stock, Tsimshian is part of the Northwest Coast Sprachbund, which includes Tlingit, Haida, Salishan, and Wakashan languages. Separated as Tsimshian is from all other Penutian languages by several hundred miles, it has undergone a completely different set of influences from the others (though it does, like the Oregonian languages, contain some acculturational loans from Chinuk Wawa). Coast Tsimshian has one of the largest phonemic inventories of any Penutian language, with eight vowel qualities, in addition to phonemic vowel length for every vowel, and 35 consonants.

3.2 Chinookan

Chinookan languages comprise Lower or Coastal Chinook (Clatsop, Willapa, and Shoalwater varieties) in the far west, then to the east there was Upper or Columbia Chinook, Multnomah and Kathlamet and further east Clackamas, and furthest east Wasco-Wishram. Most of these were spoken along both sides of the Columbia River in northern Oregon and southwestern Washington, while after enforced population movements into reservations in the 1850s Wasco-Wishram was used on the Warm Springs Reservation in eastern Oregon and Washington together with Sahaptin and the Uto-Aztecan language Northern Paiute. Kiksht (Wasco-Wishram plus Clackamas) was the last surviving Chinookan language, whose last speakers died in the early 2000s. Coastal Chinook died out in the 1930s with the death of George Clipp.

The bulk of the published material on Chinookan is in the form of texts: we have these for Shoalwater and Clatsop Chinook, Kathlamet, Clackamas, and Wasco-Wishram. No dictionaries of any Chinookan language which are of linguistically reliable quality are available, although plenty of lexicon has been collected. Coastal Chinook was the primary source of the lexicon of Chinuk Wawa or Chinook Jargon, a pidgin language which also contained elements of Nuuchahnulth (Nootka), Tsamosan Salish, Canadian French, and English, with trace elements of Northern Kalapuyan, Sahaptin, Haida, Cree, and Ojibwa, and which has been extensively documented since the 1840s.

Chinookan is typologically rather different from other language families assigned to Penutian; Edward Sapir stated that in his view “Chinook seems to have developed a secondary ‘polysynthetic’ form on the basis of a broken down form of Penutian” (Sapir, 1929). Sapir’s lecture notes on the same topic indicate that Chinookan’s membership within Penutian was indicated by some structural and lexical evidence (Sapir, ed. Golla, 1990, p. 85).

3.3 Sahaptian

Sahaptian comprises Northern and Southern Sahaptin on the one hand and the Upper and Lower varieties of Nez Perce on the other. These languages are spoken in southeastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and (in the case of Nez Perce) also in western Idaho. Many of the last speakers of Wasco-Wishram also knew Sahaptin, and that language exerted a great deal of influence on Wasco-Wishram. Northern Sahaptin varieties, which are centered on Toppenish, Washington, include Yakima/Yakama, Klikitat, and Taitnapam. Umatilla is the major southern Sahaptin variety.

Northern Sahaptin varieties such as Walla Walla, Wana, Warm Springs Sahaptin, and also Nez Perce, are especially well-covered in the literature, much of which has been produced by native speakers such as Dr. Virginia Beavert, and some of which was produced by Catholic missionaries for the purpose of engendering literacy among native speakers, while Protestant missionaries provided a small amount of material in Nez Perce. There was rather less published material available on Southern Sahaptin varieties such as Umatilla until the production of a grammatical account with a comparative orientation by Rigsby and Rude (1996); significant indeed is the dictionary by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and Rude (2014).

Sahaptin proper, in northern and southern varieties, is spoken by a dwindling number of elders (fewer than 150 in all) on the Warm Springs and Umatilla reservations in eastern Washington and Oregon. Nez Perce is known to between 20 and 50 people in Lapwai, Idaho.

3.4 Klamath-Modoc

Recently extinct, this language with two dialects (one, Klamath, spoken by a regionally powerful tribe long settled by Klamath Lake and in Chiloquin, Oregon, and the other, Modoc, by a group in the neighboring part of northern California, and formerly also in Ottawa County, northeastern Oklahoma) has been very extensively treated in the literature. Gatschet (1890) is the result of work conducted in Oregon, California, and Oklahoma, where Modoc-speakers went after their defeat by US government soldiers in the Modoc Wars of 1872–1873. The last speaker of this language, a Modoc, died in 2003, and the last speaker of Klamath died in 1999.

As the role of ablaut is important in the structure of Klamath-Modoc, its phonology has contributed considerably to work on syllabic theory and CV phonology.

3.5 Coast Oregon Penutian (Alsean Plus Siuslawan Plus Coosan)

Coast Oregon Penutian is an assumed historical grouping which comprises Alsea (and Yaquina), Siuslaw and its extremely close relative Lower Umpqua, and the Coosan languages (they were not dialects) Hanis and Miluk, both of which had subdialects. Alsea was spoken in coastal Oregon, near Freeport and Waldport; the Yaquina dialect (the first to be attested but the form which went extinct first) was spoken around Yaquina Bay and Heceta Head. There are decreasing amounts of material on Alsea-Yaquina, Hanis, Miluk, and Siuslaw-Lower Umpqua. Early classifications, such as that in Boas (1911), sometimes linked Alsean and Siuslawan in a “Yakonan” subgroup.

All or most of Alsea-Yaquina, Siuslaw–Lower Umpqua, and Hanis and Miluk Coos, all spoken along the coast of central Oregon, may form a valid genetic grouping, though it is clear that they have also influenced one another strongly. But we must remember that the presence of large tranches of loans between any pair of languages does not rule out the probability of a concomitant ultimate genealogical relationship between these languages (as is the case with English and French, which are related to one another as descendants of daughter-languages of Proto-Indo-European despite the presence of thousands of loanwords passing between them in both directions).

3.6 Alsean

Alsea and its sister-dialect Yaquina, which is very scantily attested, comprise Alsean. They were the most northerly of the Coast Oregon Penutian languages; their speakers were dispatched to the polyglot Siletz Reservation in northwest Oregon in the 1850s. The last speaker of Alsea, John Albert, died in 1951; it is assumed that Yaquina died out some time in the late 19th century. Much of the extensive Alsea linguistic material remains in manuscript.

3.7 Siuslaw–Lower Umpqua

These dialects or languages were spoken by two separate tribes in the center of coastal Oregon, around Florence (Siuslaw) and around and beyond Reedsport, a little further south (Lower Umpqua). The last speaker of Siuslaw, Mae Barrett Elliott, died in 1960, while the last speaker of Lower Umpqua (Kuitsh), William Dick, died in 1957. Linguistically, Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua are extremely similar and are best regarded as dialects of one language, separated by a few sound changes and some lexical differences, rather than as separate languages.

3.8 Coosan

This family, spoken in southern coastal Oregon around North Bend and Coos Bay, comprises two closely related but distinctly different languages, the northern and more numerous Hanis and the more southerly Miluk. Each of them shows a small degree of internal dialectal differentiation. Speakers of Lower Coquille Miluk may have been in the process of shifting to Southern Oregon Athabaskan in the 19th century and speakers of South Slough Miluk to Hanis; their descendants now speak English. Most of the available data on these languages have found their way into print. The last person to speak Miluk fluently, Annie Miner Peterson (a native speaker of Hanis who learned Miluk in her childhood at Yachats in northern Oregon and who provided copious Miluk textual material), died in 1939, and the last rememberer, Laura Hotchkiss Metcalf, died in 1961. The last speaker of Hanis, Martha Harney Johnson, died in 1972.

3.9 Molala (Molalla, Molale)

Spoken in two discontinuous pockets in central Oregon and surrounded by speakers of Kalapuyan and Sahaptian languages, Molala died out with the death of its last speaker, Fred Yelkes, in 1958. There are believed to have been several dialects, but only the Northern variety is documented; the language of the Southern Molalas, who lived close to the Klamaths, was not documented. Speakers of Northern (and probably some of Southern) Molala were moved to Grand Ronde, Oregon, in the 1950s, and some found their way to Siletz Reservation nearby. Most of the extensive materials on this language, largely collected by Albert Gatschet, Leo Frachtenberg, and Melville Jacobs, remain unpublished. Molala phonology is notable insofar as it has three short vowels /i a u/ but apparently four long vowels /i: e: [æ:] a: u:/ (Pharris, 2006, p. 74).

Molala, Klamath, and the Sahaptian languages have been grouped together as Plateau Penutian, and the validity of this hesion is very strong. Maiduan and Cayuse may also belong to this hesion.

3.10 Cayuse

Spoken in part of southeastern Washington and northern Oregon, this is the least well-attested Penutian language family or isolate. Almost all available information is lexical rather than sentential or phrasal; it is given in the glossary in Baird (2004), a work which also includes some of the earliest material on Northern Sahaptin’s Walla Walla variety and Nez Perce, and in the materials in Rigsby (1969). This body of data amounts to about a thousand different words. The Cayuses mostly shifted to Lower Nez Perce in the course of the early 19th century, although some speakers or at least rememberers of Cayuse were still living in the 1930s. Many other Cayuse people intermarried with the Umatillas.

Cayuse’s position in Penutian is not easy to establish, because we have practically no structural data on the language, no sentences, and no texts, and only a small amount of paradigmatic material.

3.11 Kalapuyan

This is a small, closely related language family with Northern, Central, and Southern branches, spoken into the mid-20th century. Its original home was in the Willamette Valley in central Oregon. The last speaker, who knew Yonkalla (Southern Kalapuya) to a limited extent, died in 1964. Northern Kalapuya’s last speakers were Louis Kenoyer, who died in the 1930s and who spoke Tualatin (Kenoyer, Zenk, & Schrock, 2017), and Louisa Selky, who spoke Yamhill and died in 1918. Available published material is mostly textual (although we only have lexical information for Southern Kalapuya), and the Santiam and Mary’s River varieties of Central Kalapuya are especially well documented. Santiam’s last speaker, John B. “Mose” Hudson, died in 1954, and William Hartless, the last speaker of Mary’s River Kalapuya, died around 1920. Speakers of all these languages were deported to Grand Ronde reservation in 1856.

3.12 Takelma

Takelma was spoken in a small area in southeastern Oregon along the Rogue River and a few miles into neighboring parts of California. Upper Takelma is much better attested than the Lower Takelma, Upland Takelma, and Latgawa dialects. Most Takelma data—elicited within a period of only seven weeks—can be found in works by Edward Sapir, and lexical and other materials collected by other investigators such as James Owen Dorsey and John Peabody Harrington have not been synthesized into a greater work. The language probably died out around 1945 (Frances Johnson, Sapir’s sole consultant, died in 1934).

Speakers of Takelma, like those of Kalapuya, were overwhelmingly transported to Siletz and Grand Ronde reservations in Polk Co., Oregon, in 1856. This fate also befell most speakers of Clackamas Chinook and Molala, and the dominance there of Chinuk Wawa and latterly English must have expedited the replacement and loss of these languages. Takelma and Kalapuyan have been linked together by some linguists in a hesion called Takelman or Willamette Penutian, though this is not universally accepted.

3.13 Maiduan

Maiduan (sometimes Maidun) languages were spoken in the northeast of California, from Susanville in the north to the Columnes River. Their territory came close to but did not quite enter Oregon and Nevada. In this light, it is unsurprising that some work suggests that Maiduan is part of Plateau Penutian. The California state capital Sacramento is situated in the far southwestern part of the Nisenan territory, right up against Plains Miwok territory.

Four varieties are recognized: Maidu (or more correctly Northeastern Maidu, sometimes known as Mountain Maidu), Nisenan (which was divided into several dialects), Konkow, and, to the southwest, the so-called Chico language or Chico Maidu or Valley Maidu (which was linguistically closer to Konkow than to Maidu proper). There may have been a few speakers of Konkow in 2017, but none remain of the others; the Chico language was the first to become extinct and is the least well attested. There were still speakers of Nisenan and Maidu at least in the 1970s. Maidu, like Takelma and Coast Tsimshian, is one of the few languages in the Penutian hypothesis to have lexical tone.

3.14 Wintuan

Wintuan (alternatively spelled “Wintun”) languages were spoken in northwestern California, inland along the Trinity River. It is assumed, on the basis of a few dozen resemblant (superficially similar but not necessarily cognate) forms between Alsea and Wintun (especially with Wintu itself) that the speakers of Proto-Wintuan left southwestern Oregon about 2,000 years ago. Wintu and the less widely documented Nomlaki seem to have been little more than dialects of the same language, though the groups who spoke them regarded and regard themselves as separate tribes. A small number of Wintu-speakers were exiled to Huérfano Park, Colorado, in the 1870s, where Gatschet (1876) did some fieldwork with them, though this speech community is no longer extant.

Meanwhile Patwin, to the south, had Hill and River dialects, and each of these had subdialects. Hill Patwin was the language of the regionally important Kuksu cult, and as a result it influenced the lexicon and phonology of neighboring languages (especially Lake Miwok). There is fragmentary 19th-century attestation of a language variously known as Suisun or South(ern) Patwin, mostly from Dr. Platón Vallejo, physician and the son of the governor of California, whose bodyguard was a Suisun and in whose language his charge became fluent. Patwin may still have had remaining speakers as of 2016, as may Nomlaki, though the last speaker of Wintu, Flora Jones, died in 2003. Wintu proper has undergone slight lexical influence from Chinuk Wawa, English, and also Spanish. Patwin for its part underwent lexical influence from Spanish.

3.15 Yokutsan

Yokuts languages were spoken in the Central Valley of California around Fresno, Visalia, and Bakersfield and as far north as the area round Stockton. Some forty tribelets are known; their lects fall into half a dozen groupings. Yokuts may be seen as a language with extensively diversified dialects. There are still a few speakers of some Yokuts lects such as Choynimni, Wikchamni/Wukchumne, Yowlumni (formerly known as Yawelmani), and Chukchansi (the latter lect has been influenced by Southern Sierra Miwok). Three branches, Poso Creek Yokuts/Palewyami, Gashowu, and Buena Vista Yokuts, seem to be extinct. As with other languages spoken in the Bay Area or further south in California, the first and largest source of European loans is Spanish.

Much material on Yokuts is still unpublished, and there is still no published dictionary of any variety of the language. It appears that the Yokuts entry into the Central Valley, apparently starting from somewhere near the Sierra Nevada, predates the entry of speakers of Utian into the surrounding area.

3.16 Utian (Miwok-Costanoan)

Utian comprises Miwokan and Costanoan (Ohlonean) and is the only node in the Penutian phylum which links language families which are demonstrably diachronically related. Latham (1856) hinted early on at its existence. Proto-Utian was spoken perhaps 4,000 years ago somewhere in the area where Costanoan and Miwokan are now used, east of the Bay Area of central California. There is a recent monograph-length treatment of the assumed proto-language Proto-Utian, namely Callaghan (2014), which includes parallel forms from Yokuts wherever possible. It also gives the fullest account of the influence of other Native Californian languages on Lake Miwok. This work builds on several papers on different aspects of the topic which have been published since the late 1950s.

Most of the published material on both Miwokan and Costanoan languages is lexical, which means that a good deal of inherited vocabulary has been reconstructed. Less has been done until recently on the morphosyntax of the proto-language, because for many languages almost the only material available is lexical, and available texts are often translations of Catholic liturgical material.

Utian languages differ from the Penutian type in a few respects. Their verbal morphology is generally fairly simple in finite tenses, although imperative verb forms are quite elaborate. (On the whole, though, verbal morphology is also simpler in Maiduan, Wintuan, and Yolutsan languages.)

Phonologically, these languages are characterized by retroflexion as the norm with sibilants, and with a phonemic contrast between retroflex and non-retroflex stops. They do not have separate sets of stops marked by laryngeal features such as glottalization, although both glottal stops and /h/ are frequent, and a distinct set of voiced stops has been brought about usually by borrowing from Spanish and latterly English. Sierra Miwok languages have seven distinct vowel qualities; these are reduced to six in Lake Miwok. Costanoan and Coast Miwok languages have five distinct vowel qualities.

3.17 Miwokan

Miwokan languages were spoken in Central California, both on the coast (the Marin and Bodega varieties of Coast Miwok, and also Bay Miwok or Saclan east of San Francisco Bay) and internally, in the counties immediately south of San Francisco Bay. A few speakers of Northern Sierra Miwok (and maybe also a few of Central and Southern Sierra Miwok, and possibly some of Lake Miwok) remain. Published data on Miwokan languages is especially rich in respect of lexicon; there are fewer texts and grammatical outlines in print. The genealogical unity of Miwokan is not in dispute, and a primary division between Western and Eastern Miwok is evident.

3.17.1 Eastern Miwok

This valid genealogical group comprises the extinct Saclan (Bay Miwok) language of San Francisco Bay; Plains Miwok, of the land bordering Sacramento and of the city of Ione, which is also no longer spoken; and the three Sierra Miwok languages, Northern, Central, and Southern Sierra Miwok, all of which had subdialects and all of which had very few if any remaining first-language speakers in 2016.

3.17.2 Western Miwok

This group divides into Lake and Coast varieties, and the latter group splits into Marin and Bodega varieties. There do not appear to be any remaining speakers of any of these languages. Marin Miwok was probably the first recorded Penutian language (but see Lyon, 2016), but sources on it are scanty and the last speakers died in the mid-20th century. The last speaker of Bodega Miwok was still alive and working with linguists in the early 1970s. Lake Miwok, spoken away from the coast at Clear Lake near Middletown, is known for the depth to which it has been influenced by other languages surrounding it, predominantly Cache Creek Patwin, Eastern and Southeastern Pomo, and Western Wappo, in addition to absorbing lexical items from Spanish and English.

3.18 Costanoan

Costanoan (Ohlonean) is a group of languages, divisible on historical linguistic grounds into Northern and the better-attested Southern Costanoan groups, which were spoken along the coast of central California and a little way inland (for instance in the East Bay area). The position of the sparsely attested Karkin language in this classification is uncertain, as it shows both Northern and Southern traits, but here it is classified as Northern Costanoan. Costanoan exhibits a time-depth of about 1,500–2,000 years. No native speakers of Costanoan languages remain (the last few died in the 1930s), so that the work on these languages is again philological, and much material for some of these languages remains unpublished.

3.18.1 Northern Costanoan

The dialectal situation regarding the divisions of Northern Costanoan, and indeed the diversification of Costanoan as a whole, are still not perfectly settled. It appears, though, that Ramaytush, Chochenyo, and Tamyen are dialects of the same language, referred to as San Francisco Bay Costanoan, while Chalon is related but separate. The one short vocabulary of Karkin has features of both Northern and Southern Costanoan.

3.18.2 Southern Costanoan

If the above views of Northern Costanoan are accepted, then there are two Southern Costanoan languages, namely Mutsun of San Juan Bautista Mission and Rumsen/Rumsien, centered on Carmel Mission. The last speakers of both of these died in the early 20th century. Rumsen shows some striking phonological changes when compared with data from Mutsun and other languages; these can be attributed to a pre-Esselen substratum. Rumsen data have made less of an appearance in print, though Harrington collected plenty of data on Rumsen from Isabelle Meadows, its last speaker, who died in 1939.

3.19 Further Proposed Connections

The sections in this article mostly relate to the northern parts of what has been called “Sapir’s Penutian,” that is, languages of the Pacific Coast and Plateau within Canada and the United States. Several scholars have, however, looked further, usually to the south for potential connections between Penutian and other languages of Latin America. Freeland (1930) is a pioneering study in this regard. In what for him was methodologically an ill-executed paper, Newman (1964) looked east rather than south and examined possible connections between Penutian and Zuni of New Mexico. Whorf (1935) and Swadesh (1956) came up with rather different but equally extensive (and equally tentative) interpretations of the extent of Penutian relationships. Swadesh’s assumptions included the idea that (among many other language groups) Totonacan, Mayan, Quechuan, Mapudungun, and Aymaran were all Penutian.

4. Structural Features of Penutian Languages

Sapir (1929) wrote a brief summary of the prevailing tendencies to be found among Penutian languages, and although none of these applies to all Penutian languages, taken as a whole these features typify the structure of Penutian languages well.

4.1 Phonetics and Phonology

Penutian languages generally have at least two stop series, one marked by a laryngeal feature, such as aspiration or glottalization, and one plain. Both series may be voiceless. Some languages also have voiced stop series. Utian languages, which generally have only a voiceless plain series, are an exception to this dualism; their voiced stop series results from absorbing borrowings from Spanish. Penutian languages in California tend to have a phonemic contrast between dental or alveolar /t/ and retroflex /ţ/, and often contrast the corresponding sibilants /s/ and /ş/ as well. Several Penutian groups contrast velar and uvular stops (and often velar vs. uvular fricatives), while Tsimshian contrasts labiovelar and labio-uvular stops, which are frequent in Native languages of the Pacific Northwest Coast. All Penutian languages also have nasals, semivowels, some fricatives (at least /s/), and laryngeals such as /h/ and /Ɂ/. All have /l/, but not all have original /r/. Some other consonants had an areal distribution; in central Oregon, like Molala and Kalapuya, Cayuse had the sound <f>, for instance:


Penutian Languages


Penutian Languages


Penutian Languages

This is otherwise found only in loans in other Penutian languages.

Vowel systems vary, as do the role and phonemic status of vowel length, but at least three vowel qualities approximating to /i a u~o/ are found in all languages, and many languages have /i e a o u/, while Tule-Kaweah Yokuts as well as some Miwok and Maiduan languages also have central vowels such as /ə ï/.

All Penutian languages possess at least CV and CVC syllabic canons or templates, and many languages (particularly among Penutian languages spoken north of California, such as the Coosan languages) also possess syllable-initial consonant clusters or branching onsets:


Penutian Languages

and/or syllable-final consonant clusters or branching codas:


Penutian Languages

Some (but not all) languages permit vowel-initial syllabic onsets as well.

Sapir (1921) noted the frequency in Penutian languages of stems in C1+ V1 + C2 + V1 (+C3), for example:


Penutian Languages


Penutian Languages


Penutian Languages

(All the examples are from Sapir, 1921; some spellings have been slightly revised.)

Ablaut in its various manifestations plays a large role in Penutian morphophonology and pervades all aspects of the structure. It may involve change in vowel quality or in quantity. Both of these can be seen, for instance, in the case of Alsea verb roots (Buckley, 1989), which often have both long and short forms:


Penutian Languages

Ablaut plays some role in derivational morphology in Siuslaw (Hymes, 1966, p. 338).


Penutian Languages

Here is a complex example from Central Sierra Miwok which indicates the structural uses of different ablauting patterns (Callaghan, 1986, p. 106):


Penutian Languages

The first stem is basic, the second allomorph forms past tenses, the third forms habitual tenses, and the fourth creates noun stems.

Reduplication in its various forms, involving complete or partial reduplication of one or more syllables, is very widespread in Penutian, and has various productive morphological uses. A couple of examples must suffice:

Derivational morphological use with nouns:


Penutian Languages

Verb pluralisation:


Penutian Languages

Overt or implied pluractionality in the verb stem:


Penutian Languages

Consonant symbolism, to express augmentation or especially diminutive status, is found in several Penutian languages, such as Takelma, Chinookan, and Coos (Nichols, 1971). An example from Wishram Chinook (Nichols, 1971, p. 853) is:

(29 a.b)

Penutian Languages

A small number of Penutian languages, such as Takelma, use phonemic tone in the form of rising or falling tones on short or long syllables, though minimal pairs are hard to find (Sapir, 1921, pp. 15–22).

4.2 Morphology and Syntax

Penutian languages are generally dependent-marking rather than head-marking, though some, such as Eastern Miwokan languages and Chinookan, are head-marking. Nominal morphology in Penutian languages encodes case, number (though, as in many other Native American languages, plural marking is most widely expressed overtly on kin terms and body parts), and occasionally grammatical gender.

Chinookan is unusual in North America in having a noun-gender system in which all nouns participate, marked by prefixation on noun stems. Even loanwords (here from French via Chinuk Wawa) participate, though they may not preserve French gender (data from Fowler & French, 1982):


Penutian Languages

Nominal case systems in Penutian are mostly suffixal in nature and usually reflect a nominative-accusative case system. Maiduan is alone in Penutian in marking subjects with an affix, namely -m, but leaving objects unmarked (Shipley, 1964). These Yowlumni Yokuts declensions illustrate a typical Penutian case system:

(32a) Declension of Yowlumni ‘money’ (Hockett, 1973, p. 74).

Penutian Languages

(32b) Declension of Yowlumni ‘house’ (Hockett, 1973, p. 74).

Penutian Languages

The form for ‘house’ especially indicates some of the ablaut properties of Yokuts.

The distinction between alienable and inalienable possession, the latter often being found with kinship terms and some body parts and few other nouns, is apparently found in all purportedly Penutian languages (Nichols, 1988).

Verbs are the most complex part of almost any language’s structure. In the alleged Penutian languages, aspect tends to be the dominant temporal feature rather than tense itself, though many languages (such as the Miwokan languages) recognize and encode both (see example 23), as do Sahaptian languages. Overt affixal person-marking of actants (agent and patient) is general in these languages, though less so in California, and both prefixal and suffixal systems are attested for this, though suffixes prevail. Takelma and Wishram examples provided by leading Penutianists Edward Sapir and Morris Swadesh, translations of “he will give it (sc. a stone) to you” (Sapir & Swadesh, 1946, p. 106), will illustrate this and demonstrate the similarities and dissimilarities in terms of categories expressed and modes of expression:


Penutian Languages

The Wishram word reflects the fondness for polysynthesis which distinguishes Chinookan languages from other Penutian languages, while futurity in Takelma is marked both by choice of verb stem and affixation. A representative maximal verbal piece, from Patwin, is given below.

Table 2. Maximal Structure of the Verb in Patwin (Lawyer, 2015, p. 220)

reduplication, compounding


root-bound suffix

medial suffixes

prefinal suffix

final suffix

Personal pronouns carry a large amount of inflection; even though sex-gender and grammatical gender are rarely marked, duality is often marked and opposed to singular and plural (as is an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the 1pl.)

Table 3. Molala Nominative Personal Pronouns (Pharris, 2006, p. 230)




First person




Second person




Third person




Numerals are often built up on terms indexical of finger-counting form in some Penutian languages (Golla, 2011, pp. 290–292 presents a wide selection of these). They are also widely borrowed from one group to another. (35) gives the first ten cardinal numerals in Hill and River Patwin.


Penutian Languages

(35) Hill and River Patwin numerals (Lawyer, 2015, p. 172, based on material in Whistler, 1979).

With regard to syntax, many Penutian languages are ergative-absolutive in form. This is indicated in the pair of sentences below from Gitksan/Gitxsan, where different statuses of what in English are uniformly subject forms are marked differently on verbs. (Examples are from Rigsby, 1989, p. 249, with slight modifications in orthography.)


Penutian Languages

Coast Tsimshian (Sm’algyax) uses ergativity too (Mulder, 1994, p. 32):


Penutian Languages

Sometimes overt subjects are not present:


Penutian Languages

The great variety of syntactic structures within Penutian can be seen by examining the various manifestations of the parameters of the Greenbergian constituent order correlations (Greenberg, 1963) in Table 4.

It may be worthwhile noticing which features Sapir says are not characteristics of Penutian; these include noun incorporation (widespread in North America) and also compounding within the verb. Polysynthesis, as seen in examples from Wishram in this article, is atypical of Penutian languages; it may result from processes of grammaticalization operating within Chinookan, especially Kiksht.

Table 4. Greenberg Typological Profiles (After the Precepts in Greenberg, 1963) for Selected Penutian Languages

VSO Pr NG NA Coastal Chinook, Wishram, Gitksan

SOV Po GN AN: Maidu*

SVO PR/po GN NA: Takelma

VOS and OVS Po GN AN: Siuslaw#, Coos#

FWO–PO GN AN Nez Perce*, Sahaptin*

FWO; no adpositions, GN AN: Yowlumni*, Wikchamni Yokuts*

SVO/sov, no adpositions, GN/NG, AN/NA Southern Sierra Miwok#

Klamath: FWO; PO GN AN: Klamath*

FWO; no adpositions; GN AN: Wintu*

SVO GN AN; no adpositions, Mutsun?

PO FWO/svo AN GN/ng Molala*

VSO Pr GN AN Alsea*

FWO Pr AN GN Santiam Kalapuya?

(FWO indicates free word order, and information is given about the nature of adpositions, Genitive-Noun and Adjective-Noun order; orders presented in small letters are less frequent but still important); * suggests that according to Nichols (1992) the language is dependent-marking, # that it mixes head and dependent marking features; unmarked languages are head-marking; ? expresses uncertainty about the state of marking.

5. Contact With Other Languages

In many cases, as previously mentioned, Penutian languages have influenced one another considerably. We may note for instance the influence of Alsea on Wintun (Golla, 1997), extensive degrees of influence between Penutian languages with respect to cardinal numeral systems (for examples between some Miwokan and Costanoan languages), and the borrowing of an ergative marker x- between Coosan (its source language), Siuslawan, and Alsean (Mithun, 2006). But they also show evidence of influence from non-Penutian languages.

Prominent among these are the pidgin language Chinuk Wawa (or Chinook Jargon, influencing languages from Tsimshian as far south as Wintu proper), which was itself largely lexified from Lower Chinook, a Penutian language (words of Nuuchahnulth or French origin which occur in Penutian languages also generally entered them via Chinuk Wawa). Influence also comes from Spanish (found in Californian Penutian languages at latest from the establishment in Catholic missions from 1769 onwards), and English influence, starting in the 19th century, is found everywhere.

Contact-induced linguistic change is not confined to lexicon: the prefix /mə-/, originating in Alsea, has been found on certain kinship terms in Siuslawan, where it is construed as part of the stem. The complex tense-aspect system of Wasco-Wishram has been largely remodeled on those of neighboring Sahaptian languages, and differs from the simpler system found in Lower Chinook, though the morphs used are Chinookan in origin (Silverstein, 1974); this is an instance of transfer of pattern. In contrast, the very forms of the postpositional affixes of Wasco-Wishram are borrowed from Sahaptin (Boas, 1911, pp. 650–654, with material provided by Edward Sapir), and this is an example of transfer of fabric (Grant, 2002).

Some Miwokan languages exerted a certain amount of lexical influence on some neighboring Costanoan languages, and these forms need to be distinguished from shared inheritances which go back to Proto-Utian (Callaghan, 2014). It has been suggested that Alsea borrowed its personal pronouns from Salishan (Kinkade, 2005).

There has not only been transfer of fabric but also of pattern. For instance, Plateau Penutian languages have many bipartite verbs in which the verb stem can be split into a prefix and a verb stem (the following are from Klamath; DeLancey, 1999, p. 66):


Penutian Languages

This pattern is exclusive to Plateau Penutian but is widespread in Washo and also in Northern Hokan languages (such as Shasta, Atsugewi, and Pomoan), some of which were neighbors of Klamath.

6. Penutian as a Historical Entity: Reconstructing Proto-Penutian

The unity of Penutian is unproven, and the diversity among its languages is very great. Much work has been carried out comparing sets of what are purportedly Penutian languages (often in pairs), less on attempts to substantiate the Penutian hypothesis in its wider reaches. The paper by Pitkin and Shipley (1958) approaches this question from a “California Penutian” perspective, with due acknowledgment of possibly related forms in non-Californian languages. But California Penutian does not seem to cohere as a single genealogical entity. Marie-Lucie Tarpent has been in the forefront of reconstructing Proto-Penutian on a wider scale (for instance, Tarpent, 1996, 1997), drawing upon her extensive work on, and knowledge of, Tsimshianic and gleaning new etyma from all available data. But there is as yet no generally agreed table of sound correspondences among the Penutian languages and no available Proto-Penutian etymological lexicon, which if valid might extend to several hundred items.

There is not the plethora of extensive lexica or handbooks of reconstructed proto-languages for the putative Penutian languages which Indo-Europeanists have at their disposal. But without such work it is not going to be possible to validate the Penutian hypothesis. It may be said that comparing Penutian languages (and also comparing the evidence from the few reconstructed proto-languages) in an attempt to reconstruct Proto-Penutian is like comparing modern languages such as English, Demotic Greek, Italian, Scottish Gaelic, Western Armenian, Urdu, and Bulgarian in order to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European. Matters are not helped by the fact that forms such as kinship terms and numerals, so important to Indo-Europeanists, are among those items which can be shown to be most easily spread among Penutian languages belonging to various groups through diffusion rather than inheritance.

7. Language Endangerment and Revitalization

The majority of Penutian languages are highly endangered or (in many cases, mentioned in section 2) extinct, but efforts have been made in many cases to revitalize both endangered languages and those which are no longer spoken as first languages. Programs such as the Master-Apprentice program developed at the University of California at Berkeley from the 1980s onwards and the Breath of Life Conferences which have been held there have had strong and positive effects on revitalizing Penutian languages.

Much of this work has been based on philological methods involving the interrogation of what materials remain on languages which are no longer spoken, and providing this material in ways in which it can be used for teaching (Warner, Luna, & Butler, 2007 is an account of one such enterprise). Native linguists and younger speakers of their languages, such as Patricia Whereat Phillips (revitalizing Hanis and Miluk Coos and Siuslaw–Lower Umpqua), Quirina Geary (revitalizing Mutsun), and Phillip Cash (revitalizing Nez Perce and Sahaptin), are in the forefront of this work.

The following is an instance of work towards Mutsun revitalization through the creation of a neologism:


Penutian Languages

Further Reading

These move from the general to the particular. There is an extensive literature dealing with Native North American languages as a whole; some titles are listed here. Boas (1911) and Boas (1922) are collections of grammatical sketches of Native languages viewed from the inside of the languages in question, including Nass-Gitksan, Chinook, Maidu, Takelma, Lower Umpqua, and Hanis Coos. Golla (2011) and Bright (1964) focus on Californian languages, but their remits are much broader than the titles would suggest; Golla’s book includes invaluable information on Klamath-Modoc and Takelma in addition to the Penutian languages of California and the history of disputes about Penutian subclassification. Golla (2007) provides an invaluable account and catalogue of endangered and extinct Penutian and other Native North American languages, and illustrates the depredations which the Penutian stock has experienced since World War II. Mithun (1999) is the best single-volume guide to the structure and scholarship on Native North American languages and includes informative pages on every Penutian linguistic family. Silverstein (1979) is a general introduction to Penutian features and classification.

Scouler (1841) presents short wordlists of several Penutian languages (and others), while Hale (1846) and Powers (1877) contain the first attestations of a number of Penutian and other languages of the Far West. Sapir (1929) is an early attempt to characterize the Penutian languages, and its typological sketch is still useful. Lawyer (2015), Banks (2007), and Pharris (2006) are fine departure points for the examination of Patwin, Kalapuya, and Molala respectively.

Grant (2013) lists many of the major works (descriptive, comparative, and in some cases theoretical) about Penutian languages; it contains about 150 works. Since its publication, some important works have appeared: Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and Rude (2014), a dictionary of Umatilla Sahaptin; the dissertation by Lewis Lawyer (Lawyer, 2015) describing the structure of Patwin; Warner, Butler, and Geary (2016), a dictionary of Mutsun Costanoan (with neologisms carefully marked); and Callaghan (2014), the culmination of six decades of work, which describes the structure of Proto-Utian structure and lexicon and which provides parallels with Yokuts where these are available.

Hymes (1957) presents some morphological evidence for Penutian, Pitkin and Shipley (1958) provides many basic etymologies, and Hymes (1964) also reconstructs some of what would be the Proto-Penutian vocabulary. The lexical resources outlined in Swadesh (1954) cover members of all the Penutian groups which were then spoken (so that Cayuse, Takelma, Alsea, and Costanoan languages were not surveyed), but this is material which has yet to be thoroughly exploited. Grant (2002) examines Coast Oregon Penutian and also explores the extent to which degrees of relationship between branches of the hypothesized Penutian can be compared with the degrees of relationship attested in similar material for some branches of Indo-European which are known to be genealogically related.

Drake (2010) presents crumbs of Marin Miwok data which are the first ever to be recorded for a Penutian language, and which were gathered by the chaplain of Sir Francis Drake during Drake’s voyage round the world, while Latham (1856) includes the first ever attempt at subgrouping within Penutian, that of Miwokan and Costanoan.

Many works on Penutian languages were published in the University of California Publications in Linguistics series from the 1950s onwards. Many other resources are also available from the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages at the University of California at Berkeley, online at

Audio materials demonstrating sounds and words are available, for instance, for Klamath-Modoc:

This link includes data from learners of Siletz Dee-ni Oregon Athabaskan (never claimed as a Penutian language!) in addition to dialogue from learners of Ichishkin (Northern Sahaptin):

This link presents language-learning material from Yakima Sahaptin:

This last link presents a 5,000-item online dictionary of Coast Tsimshian, with English translations, which is regularly updated (last in April 2013).

Lax Kw’alaams Band 2013–. Sm’algyax Living Legacy Talking Dictionary:



first person

SBJ subject


second person

OBJ object


third person

ERG ergative



ABS absolutive



TRN transitive



CNN connective

Transcriptions are those provided in the original sources, unless otherwise noted.


The author wishes to thank Catherine Callaghan, David Costa, Scott DeLancey, Victor Golla, Lewis Lawyer, Nicholas Pharris, Bruce Rigsby, Marie-Lucie Tarpent, and Don Whereat for their assistance.


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