Chinookan languages

The Chinookan languages were a small family of languages spoken in Oregon and Washington along the Columbia River by Chinook peoples. All are now extinct, although Upper Chinook had 270 self-identified speakers in 2009-2013.[2]

Columbia River Valley
Extinctsince 2012, with the death of Gladys Thompson
Linguistic classificationPenutian ?
  • Chinook
Pre-contact distribution of Chinookan languages

Family division

Chinookan consisted of three languages with multiple varieties. There is some dispute over classification, and there are two ISO 639-3 codes assigned: chh (Chinook, Lower Chinook) and wac (Wasco-Wishram, Upper Chinook). For example, Ethnologue 15e classifies Kiksht as Lower Chinook, while others consider it instead Upper Chinook (discussion), and others a separate language.

  • Lower Chinook (also known as Chinook-proper or Coastal Chinook) †
  • Kathlamet (also known as Katlamat, Cathlamet) †
  • Upper Chinook (also known as Kiksht, Columbia Chinook) †


Consonants in the Chinookan languages
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral nor. lab. nor. lab.
Stop plain p t k q ʔ
ejective kʼʷ qʼʷ
voiced b d ɡ ɡʷ
Affricate plain ts
ejective tsʼ tɬʼ tʃʼ
Fricative plain s ɬ ʃ x χ χʷ h
voiced ɣ ɣʷ
Nasal m n
Approximant w l j

The vowels in the Chinookan languages are /a i ɛ ə u/ as followed. Stress is marked as /á/.


As in many North American languages, verbs constitute complete clauses in themselves. Nominal may accompany the verbs, but they have adjunct status, functioning as appositives to the pronominal affixes. Word order functions purely pragmatically; constituents appear in decreasing order of newsworthiness. Clauses are combined by juxtaposition or particles, rather than subordinating inflection.

Verbs contain an initial tense or aspect prefix, ergative pronominal prefix, obligatory assaultive prefixed, dative prefix, reflexive/reciprocal/middle, adverbial, directional, and verb stem. The number of tense/aspect prefix distinctions varies among the languages. Kiksht shows six way tense distinctions: mythic past, remote past, recent past, immediate past, present, and future.

The pronominal prefixes are obligatory, whether free nominals occur in the clause-or not. Three can be seen in the Kathlamet verb. The ergative refers to agent of a transitive verb, the absolutive to patient of a transitive or single argument of an intransitive, the dative to indirect object. Reflexive prefixes can serve as reciprocals and as medio-passives. When the reflexive follows can ergative-absolutive pronoun sequence, it indicates that one indirectly affected is the same as the ergative. When it follows an absolutive –dative pronoun sequence, it indicates that one indirectly affected is associated with the absolutive, perhaps as the whole in a part-whole relationship, or the owner.

Verbs stems may be simplex or compound, the second member indicating direction, including motion out of, from open to cover especially from water to shore or inland, from cover to open, especially toward water, into, down or up.

Suffixes include repetitive, causatives, an involuntary passive, completive, stative, purposive, future, usitative, successful completive and so on.

Nouns contain an initial prefix, pronominal prefix, positive prefix, inner normalizer, root, a qualifying suffix, plural, and final suffix. Initial prefix serve primarily as nominalizers. Masculine prefixes appear with nouns designating male persons, feminine with those denoting female persons. The neuter may indicate indefiniteness. All are used for nouns referring to objects as well. Masculine prefixes appear with the large animals; feminine for small ones. Masculine prefixes also appear with nouns expressing qualities.


The gender/number prefixes is followed by possessive pronominal prefixes of the verb. These distinguish first, inclusive, second, third, fourth (indefinite) person, dual and plural possessors. The possessive prefixes are followed by noun stem, perhaps including another nominalizer. Nominal suffixes indicate emphasis or contrast, specificity, succession in time, definiteness, plurality, and time, location, or similarity.

The gender/number prefixes is followed by possessive pronominal prefixes of the verb. These distinguish first, inclusive, second, third, fourth (indefinite) person, dual and plural possessors. The possessive prefixes are followed by noun stem, perhaps including another nominalizer. Nominal suffixes indicate emphasis or contrast, specificity, succession in time, definiteness, plurality, and time, location, or similarity.

1. The possessive prefix for the third person singular feminine ("her") is –ga- when the noun itself is feminine, neuter, dual, or plural, it is preceded by the gender-number prefixes:

but is-tca- when the noun itself is masculine, is preceded by the gender-number prefix:

Lower Chinook Wishram
sing.fem ʋ̄ (w)ɑ-
neut. L- ii-
du. c-,s- (ic-,is-)

2. The possessive prefix for the first person singular "my" is –gE (Wishram-g-,-k-;- x̩ -before k-stops) when the noun is feminine, neuter, dual or plural, but –tcE-,-tci-(Wishram-tc-) when the noun is masculine.

3. Aside from certain secondary irregularities in the third person dual and third person plural which don't concern us, the pronominal subject of the transitive verb differs from the pronominal subject of the intransitive verb only in the case of the third person singular masculine and third persoonsingular feminine, the difference between the two sets of forms being for the most part indicated by position and, in part, by the use of a "postpronominal" particle-g-which indicates that the preceding pronominal element is used as the subject of a transitive verb.

The phonetic parallelism would then be perfect in the three cases. If we compare the theoretical forms *ag-"she"and *itc-"he"with the remaining subjective forms of the transitive verb, we obtain at once a perfectly regular and intelligible set of forms. Including the "post-pronominal"-g-, the system is as follows:

1st pers. sing. n-
exclusive dual nt-g-
exclusive plural nc-g-
inclusive dual lx-g-
inclusive plural lx-g-
2nd pers. sing. m-
dual. mt-g-
plural. mc-g-
3d pers.sing. *i-tc-
sing.fem. *a-g-
sing.neut l-g-
dual. c-g-
plural l-g-

Compare these pronominal prefixes with the corresponding intransitive subjects and transitive objects:

1st pers. sing. n-
exclusive dual nt'-
exclusive plural nc-
exclusive dual lx-
exclusive plural lx-
2nd pers. sing. m-
dual. mt-
plural. mc-
3d pers.sing. i-
sing.fem. a-
sing.neut l-
dual. c-
plural l-

The original Chinook Jargon was a simplified language, originally used as a second language by speakers of other Native American languages in the area. It has sentence-initial negation which is atypical of regional languages and doesn't have typical complex morphology. It has SVO structure: Chinookan and Salishan are VSO, e.g., Haias olo tso naika [much hungry water I] "I'm very thirsty". However, local Athabaskan languages are SOV, so this is probably a result of contact – a cross-language compromise. Only later did Chinook Jargon acquire significant English and French lexical items.


There were Lower and Upper Chinookan groups, only a single variety of the latter now survives: Wasco-Wishram (Wasco and Wishram were originally two separate, similar varieties). In 1990, there were 69 speakers (7 monolinguals) of Wasco-Wishram; in 2001, 5 speakers of Wasco remained; the last fully fluent speaker, Gladys Thompson, died in 2012.

Chinook-speaking groups were once powerful in trade, before and during early European contact (Lewis & Clark), hence developed the Chinook Jargon – a pre-European contact language, with lexicon from at least Chinook, Chehalis, and Nootka or Nuu-chah-nulth.

Chinook people were quickly diminished by European diseases: Numbered around 800 persons in 1800; they mixed with Chehalis (in fact, the very word Chinook is a Chehalis word for those who lived on the south of the river). Most of the language family became extinct as separate groups by 1900, except a few hundreds who mixed with other groups. Around 120 people in 1945, though some 609 were reported in the 1970s, having by then mixed extensively with other groups. Language is now extinct.

Chinook Jargon also flourished from 1790s–1830s, then experienced a flood of English and French new vocabulary. It was used by up to 100,000 speakers of 100 mother tongues in the 19th century. Then declined, was recorded by linguists in the 1930s, and died out by the early 1900s. The Chinook people were finally recognized by the US Govt. in Jan. 2001, but in the 90-day grace period the Quinault Tribe filed an appeal stating that the Chinook Nation made mistakes when applying for federal recognition.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Chinookan". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ "Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English". US Census Bureau. Retrieved 2017-11-17.

A Chinookan Phonetic Law E. Sapir International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1926), pp. 105–110 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Article Stable URL:

Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.

Hymes, Dell. "A Pattern of Verbal Irony in Chinookan." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 1987.65 (1987): 97-110. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

"We Should Lose Much by Their Absence": The Centrality of Chinookans and Kalapuyans to Life in Frontier Oregon Mathias D. Bergmann Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), pp. 34–59 Published by: Oregon Historical Society Article Stable URL:


  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.

Further reading

External links

Chinook Jargon

Chinook Jargon (also known as Chinuk Wawa, or Chinook Wawa) is a nearly extinct American indigenous language originating as a pidgin trade language in the Pacific Northwest, and spreading during the 19th century from the lower Columbia River, first to other areas in modern Oregon and Washington, then British Columbia and as far as Alaska, sometimes taking on characteristics of a creole language. It is partly descended from the Chinook language, upon which much of its vocabulary is based.Many words from Chinook Jargon remain in common use in the Western United States and British Columbia. The total number of Jargon words in published lexicons numbered only in the hundreds, and so it was easy to learn. It has its own grammatical system, but a very simple one that, like its word list, was easy to learn. Though existent in Chinook Jargon, the consonant /r/ is rare, and English and French loan words, such as rice and merci, have changed in their adoption to the Jargon, to lice and mahsie, respectively.

Chinookan peoples

Chinookan peoples include several groups of indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest in the United States who speak the Chinookan languages. In the early 19th century, the Chinookan-speaking peoples resided along the Lower and Middle Columbia River (Wimahl) (″Big River″) from the river's gorge (near the present town of The Dalles, Oregon) downstream to the river's mouth, and along adjacent portions of the coasts, from Tillamook Bay of present-day Oregon in the south, north to Willapa Bay in southwest Washington. In 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered the Chinook tribe on the lower Columbia. The name ″Chinook″ came from a Chehalis word Tsinúk for the inhabitants of and a particular village site on Baker Bay.

Since the late 20th century, the unrecognized Chinook Indian Nation of Washington made up of 2700 members of westernmost Lower Chinook peoples (the Clatsop and Kathlamet of what is now Oregon and the Lower Chinook (Chinook proper), Wahkiakum and Willapa Chinook of Washington State), has worked to obtain federal recognition. It gained this in 2001 from the Department of Interior under President Bill Clinton. After President George W. Bush was elected, his political appointees reviewed the case and, in a highly unusual action, revoked the recognition. The tribe has sought Congressional support for recognition by the legislature. However, it has already been determined by the US government that the Chinook Indian Nation does not meet the seven criteria established by law to be recognized as a tribe. The unrecognized Tchinouk Indians of Oregon trace their Chinook ancestry to two Chinook women who married French Canadians traders from the Hudson's Bay Company prior to 1830. The specific Chinook band these women were from or if they were Lower or Upper Chinook could not be determined. These individuals, settled in the French Prairie region of northwestern Oregon, becoming part of the community of French-Canadians and Métis (Mix-Bloods). There is no evidence that they are a distinct Indian community within French Prairie. The Chinook Indian Nation denied that the Tchinouk had any common history with them or any organizational affiliation. On January 16, 1986, the Bureau of Indian Affairs determined that the Tchinouk Indians of Oregon do not meet the requirements necessary to be a federally recognized tribe. The unrecognized Clatsop-Nehalem Confederate Tribes has approximately 130 members today and claim to have Clatsop and Salish-speaking Tillamook (Nehalem) ancestry, which is contested by the Chinook Indian Nation (which claim 760 tribal people of Clatsop ancestry).


The word Clackamas may refer to:

Clackamas people, a Native American people in what is now Oregon

The now extinct language spoken by the tribe, one of the Chinookan languages

Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir (; January 26, 1884 – February 4, 1939) was an American anthropologist-linguist, who is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the early development of the discipline of linguistics.Sapir was born in German Pomerania; his family emigrated to United States of America when he was a child. He studied Germanic linguistics at Columbia, where he came under the influence of Franz Boas who inspired him to work on Native American languages. While finishing his Ph.D. he went to California to work with Alfred Kroeber documenting the indigenous languages there. He was employed by the Geological Survey of Canada for fifteen years, where he came into his own as one of the most significant linguists in North America, the other being Leonard Bloomfield. He was offered a professorship at the University of Chicago, and stayed for several years continuing to work for the professionalization of the discipline of linguistics. By the end of his life he was professor of anthropology at Yale, where he never really fit in. Among his many students were the linguists Mary Haas and Morris Swadesh, and anthropologists such as Fred Eggan and Hortense Powdermaker.

With his linguistic background, Sapir became the one student of Boas to develop most completely the relationship between linguistics and anthropology. Sapir studied the ways in which language and culture influence each other, and he was interested in the relation between linguistic differences, and differences in cultural world views. This part of his thinking was developed by his student Benjamin Lee Whorf into the principle of linguistic relativity or the "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis. In anthropology Sapir is known as an early proponent of the importance of psychology to anthropology, maintaining that studying the nature of relationships between different individual personalities is important for the ways in which culture and society develop.Among his major contributions to linguistics is his classification of Indigenous languages of the Americas, upon which he elaborated for most of his professional life. He played an important role in developing the modern concept of the phoneme, greatly advancing the understanding of phonology.

Before Sapir it was generally considered impossible to apply the methods of historical linguistics to languages of indigenous peoples because they were believed to be more primitive than the Indo-European languages. Sapir was the first to prove that the methods of comparative linguistics were equally valid when applied to indigenous languages. In the 1929 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica he published what was then the most authoritative classification of Native American languages, and the first based on evidence from modern comparative linguistics. He was the first to produce evidence for the classification of the Algic, Uto-Aztecan, and Na-Dene languages. He proposed some language families that are not considered to have been adequately demonstrated, but which continue to generate investigation such as Hokan and Penutian.

He specialized in the study of Athabascan languages, Chinookan languages, and Uto-Aztecan languages, producing important grammatical descriptions of Takelma, Wishram, Southern Paiute. Later in his career he also worked with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Chinese, as well as Germanic languages, and he also was invested in the development of an International Auxiliary Language.


Ethnopoetics is a method of recording text versions of oral poetry or narrative performances (i.e. verbal lore) that uses poetic lines, verses, and stanzas (instead of prose paragraphs) to capture the formal, poetic performance elements which would otherwise be lost in the written texts. The goal of any ethnopoetic text is to show how the techniques of unique oral performers enhance the aesthetic value of their performances within their specific cultural contexts. Major contributors to ethnopoetic theory include Jerome Rothenberg, Dennis Tedlock, and Dell Hymes. Ethnopoetics is considered a subfield of ethnology, anthropology, folkloristics, stylistics, linguistics, and literature and translation studies.

Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Plateau

Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Plateau, also referred to by the phrase Indigenous peoples of the Plateau, and historically called the Plateau Indians (though comprising many groups) are indigenous peoples of the Interior of British Columbia, Canada, and the non-coastal regions of the United States Pacific Northwest states.

Their territories are located in the inland portions of the basins of the Columbia and Fraser Rivers. These tribes mainly live in parts of the Central and Southern Interior of British Columbia, northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and northeastern California. The eastern flank of the Cascade Range lies within the territory of the Plateau peoples.

Kathlamet language

Kathlamet was a Chinookan language that was spoken around the border of Washington and Oregon by the Kathlamet people. The most extensive records of the language were made by Franz Boas, and a grammar was documented in the dissertation of Dell Hymes. It became extinct in the 1930s and there is little text left of it.

Kathlamet was spoken in northwestern Oregon along the south bank of the lower Columbia River. It has been classified as a dialect of Upper Chinook, or as Lower Chinook, but was mutually intelligible with neither.

Lower Chinook

Lower Chinook is a dialect of the Chinook spoken at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Moclips, Washington

Moclips is an unincorporated community and census-designated place (CDP) in Grays Harbor County, Washington, United States. The population was 207 at the 2010 census. It is located near the mouth of the Moclips River.

According to Edmond S. Meany, the word moclips comes from a Quinault word meaning a place where girls were sent as they were approaching puberty. However, according to William Bright, the name comes from the Quinault word meaning simply "large stream".

Penutian languages

Penutian is a proposed grouping of language families that includes many Native American languages of western North America, predominantly spoken at one time in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California. The existence of a Penutian stock or phylum has been the subject of debate among specialists. Even the unity of some of its component families has been disputed. Some of the problems in the comparative study of languages within the phylum are the result of their early extinction and limited documentation.Some of the more recently proposed subgroupings of Penutian have been convincingly demonstrated. The Miwokan and the Costanoan languages have been grouped into an Utian language family by Catherine Callaghan. Callaghan has more recently provided evidence supporting a grouping of Utian and Yokutsan into a Yok-Utian family. There also seems to be convincing evidence for the Plateau Penutian grouping (originally named Shahapwailutan by J. N. B. Hewitt and John Wesley Powell in 1894) which would consist of Klamath–Modoc, Molala, and the Sahaptian languages (Nez Percé and Sahaptin).


A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. It is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically, consonants). Syllables are often considered the phonological "building blocks" of words. They can influence the rhythm of a language, its prosody, its poetic metre and its stress patterns. Speech can usually be divided up into a whole number of syllables: for example, the word ignite is composed of two syllables: ig and nite.

Syllabic writing began several hundred years before the first letters. The earliest recorded syllables are on tablets written around 2800 BC in the Sumerian city of Ur. This shift from pictograms to syllables has been called "the most important advance in the history of writing".A word that consists of a single syllable (like English dog) is called a monosyllable (and is said to be monosyllabic). Similar terms include disyllable (and disyllabic; also bisyllable and bisyllabic) for a word of two syllables; trisyllable (and trisyllabic) for a word of three syllables; and polysyllable (and polysyllabic), which may refer either to a word of more than three syllables or to any word of more than one syllable.

Tillamook people

The Nehalem or Tillamook are a Native American tribe from coastal Oregon of the Salish linguistic group. The name "Tillamook" is a Chinook language term meaning "people of Nekelim (or Nehalem)."Estimated to have 2200 people at the beginning of the 18th century, the Tillamook lost population in the 19th century to infectious disease and effects of encroachment by European Americans. In 1849 they were estimated to have 200 members. In 1856 they were forced to the Siletz Reservation with other small remnant tribes. In 1898 the Tillamook and the Clatsop, another Coast Salish people, were the first tribes to sue the United States government for compensation for land it had taken from them. They were paid a settlement in 1907. Their descendants are now considered part of the Siletz, as generations of people have intermarried.

Upper Chinook language

Upper Chinook, also known as Kiksht, Columbia Chinook, and Wasco-Wishram after its last surviving dialect, is a recently extinct language of the US Pacific Northwest. It had 69 speakers in 1990, of whom 7 were monolingual: five Wasco and two Wishram. In 2001, there were five remaining speakers of Wasco.The last fully fluent speaker of Kiksht, Gladys Thompson, died in July 2012. She had been honored for her work by the Oregon Legislature in 2007.

Two new speakers were teaching Kiksht at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in 2006. The Northwest Indian Language Institute of the University of Oregon formed a partnership to teach Kiksht and Numu in the Warm Springs schools.

Audio and video files of Kiksht are available at the Endangered Languages Archive.The last fluent speaker of the Wasco-Wishram dialect was Madeline Brunoe McInturff, and she died on 11 July 2006 at the age of 91.

Coast Oregon
and Asia
New Guinea
and the Pacific
See also

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