Tsimshianic languages

The Tsimshianic languages are a family of languages spoken in northwestern British Columbia and in Southeast Alaska on Annette Island and Ketchikan. All Tsimshianic languages are endangered, some with only around 400 speakers. Only around 2,170 people of the ethnic Tsimshian /ˈsɪmʃiən/ population in Canada still speak a Tsimshian language;[2] about 50 of the 1,300 Tsimshian people living in Alaska still speak Coast Tsimshian.[3][4] Tsimshianic languages are considered by most linguists to be an independent language family, with four main languages: Coast Tsimshian, Southern Tsimshian, Nisg̱a’a, and Gitksan.[5]

The Tsimshianic languages were included by Edward Sapir in his Penutian hypothesis, which is currently not widely accepted, at least in its full form. The Penutian connections of Tsimshianic have been reevaluated by Marie-Lucie Tarpent, who finds the idea probable,[6] though others hold that the Tsimshianic family is not closely related to any North American language.[7][8]

British Columbia, Alaska
Linguistic classificationPenutian ?
  • Tsimshianic
  • Maritime Tsimshian
  • Nass–Gitksan
Tsimshianic langs
Pre-contact distribution of Tsimshianic languages

Family division

Tsimshianic consists of 4 lects:

  1. Tsimshian (also known as Maritime Tsimshianic, Lower Tsimshian, Northern Tsimshian)
  2. Nass–Gitksan (also known as Interior Tsimshianic, Inland Tsimshianic)
    • Nisga’a (also known as Nisqa’a, Nisg̱a’a, Nishga, Nisgha, Niska, Nass, Nishka)
    • Gitksan (also known as Gitxsan, Gitksanimx̣)

Coast Tsimshian is spoken along the lower Skeena River in Northwestern British Columbia, on some neighbouring islands, and to the north at New Metlakatla, Alaska. Southern Tsimshian was spoken on an island quite far south of the Skeena River in the village of Klemtu, however it became extinct in 2013. Nisga’a is spoken along the Nass River. Gitksan is spoken along the Upper Skeena River around Hazelton and other areas.

Nisga’a and Gitksan are very closely related and are usually considered dialects of the same language by linguists. However, speakers from both groups consider themselves ethnically separate from each other and from the Tsimshian and thus consider Nisga’a and Gitksan to be separate languages. Coast and Southern Tsimshian are also often regarded as dialects of the same language.

As of 2013, Tsimshian courses are available at the University of Alaska Southeast.[9]


Consonantal inventory of Proto-Tsimshian:[10]

Labial Dental Palatal Velar Labio-
Uvular Labio-
simple *p *t *ts *k *kʷ *q *qʷ *ʔ, *ʔʷ
glottalized *pʼ *tʼ *tsʼ *kʼ *kʷʼ *qʼ *qʷʼ
Fricative *s, *ɬ *x *χʷ *h, *hʷ
Approximant simple *l *j *w
glottalized *lˀ *jˀ *wˀ
Nasal simple *m *n
glottalized *mˀ *nˀ

See also


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tsimshian". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Statistics Canada 2006
  3. ^ Alaska Native Language Center. (2001-12-07). "Tsimshian." Archived 2007-05-01 at the Wayback Machine University of Alaska Fairbanks. Retrieved on 2007-04-11.
  4. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.). (2005). "Tsimshian." Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed. (online version). Dallas, TX: SIL International Retrieved on 2007-04-11.
  5. ^ Alaska Native Heritage Center. (2000). "Eyak, Haida, Tlingit & Tsimshian." Retrieved on 2007-04-11.
  6. ^ Tarpent, Marie-Lucie (1997). "Tsimshianic and Penutian: Problems, Methods, Results, and Implications". International Journal of American Linguistics. 63 (1): 65–112. doi:10.1086/466314. JSTOR 1265865.
  7. ^ Bicevskis, Katie; Davis, Henry; Matthewson, Lisa (2017). "Quantification in Gitksan". In Paperno, Denis; Keenan, Edward L. Handbook of Quantifiers in Natural Language. II. Springer. p. 282. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-44330-0_6. Though Tsimshianic is unmistakably part of the central northwest coastal Sprachbund (Beck 2002), no convincing evidence has been forthcoming for a genetic relationship between it and any other language family, in spite of persistent attempts to lump the family into the hypothetical Penutian stock, whose other members are found far to the south in Oregon and California (see for example Sapir 1921 and Tarpent 1997).
  8. ^ Brown, Jason (2010). Gitksan Phonotactics. Munich: Lincom Europa. p. 5. ISBN 978 3 89586 589 3. While the Tsimshianic language family is considered by some to be an isolate, others have considered it to be a member of a much larger stock. In particular, Sapir (1921) classified Tsimshianic as a part of the Penutian stock. More recently, DeLancey et al. (1988) and Tarpent (1996, 1997) have re-argued this point, suggesting that Tsimshianic is indeed a Penutian language. These authors point to morphological, phonemic, and lexical correspondences to make this claim. However, the major problems that have been expressed in the literature about the Penutian stock, as well as the problems with Tsimshianic as a part of that stock (see the discussion in Rigsby 1986, as well as Campbell 1997 for a general overview) cast doubt on this relationship. I take the conservative position that the Tsimshianic family is an isolate, and not related to the Penutian stock, or any other hypothesized stocks, though nothing in this work hinges on that position.
  9. ^ Lisa Phu (Director) (2013-10-22). "UAS and Yukon College partnership advances Native language efforts". KTOO, Juneau, Alaska. 3:44 minutes in. Retrieved 2013-10-24. Missing or empty |series= (help)
  10. ^ Tarpent, 1997, p. 70


  • Boas, Franz. (1902). Tsimshian Texts. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology. Bulletin 27.
  • Boas, Franz. (1911). "Tsimshian." Handbook of American Indian Languages Bulletin No. 40, part I, pp. 287–422.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk).
  • Tarpent, Marie-Lucie. (1997). "Tsimshianic and Penutian: Problems, Methods, Results, and Implications." International Journal of American Linguistics 63.52-244.

External links

Alaska Natives

Alaska Natives are indigenous peoples of Alaska, United States and include: Iñupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures. They are often defined by their language groups. Many Alaska Natives are enrolled in federally recognized Alaska Native tribal entities, who in turn belong to 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, who administer land and financial claims.

Ancestors of Alaska Natives migrated into the area thousands of years ago, in at least two different waves. Some are descendants of a third wave of migration in which people settled across the northern part of North America. They never migrated to southern areas. For this reason, genetic studies show they are not closely related to Native Americans in South America.

Throughout the Arctic and the circumpolar north, the ancestors of Alaska Natives established varying indigenous, complex cultures that have succeeded each other over time. They developed sophisticated ways to deal with the challenging climate and environment, and cultures rooted in the place. Historic groups have been defined by their languages, which belong to several major language families. Today, Alaska Natives comprise over 15% of the population of Alaska.

Classifier (linguistics)

A classifier (abbreviated clf or cl), sometimes called a measure word or counter word, is a word or affix that is used to accompany nouns and can be considered to "classify" a noun depending on the type of its referent. Classifiers play an important role in the grammar of certain languages, especially East Asian languages, including Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. In European languages classifiers are absent or marginal; an example of a word that may be considered to have the function of a classifier in English is head in phrases like "five head of cattle".

In languages that have classifiers, they are often used when the noun is being counted, that is, when it appears with a numeral. In such languages, a phrase such as "three people" is often required to be expressed as "three X (of) people", where X is a classifier appropriate to the noun for "people". Classifiers sometimes have other functions too; in Chinese they are commonly used when a noun is preceded by a demonstrative (word meaning "this" or "that"). Chinese classifiers are also commonly called measure words, although some writers make a distinction between the two terms.

Classifier handshapes appear in some sign languages; these may have a somewhat different grammatical function.

Certain parallels can be drawn between classifier systems and noun classes, although there are significant differences. Languages with classifiers may have up to several hundred different classifiers, whereas those with noun classes (or in particular, genders) tend to have a smaller number of classes, not always much dependent on the nouns' meaning, and with a variety of grammatical consequences.

Coast Tsimshian dialect

For the Tsimshian peoples see Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Nisga'aTsimshian, known by its speakers as Sm'álgyax, is a dialect of the Tsimshian language spoken in northwestern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. Sm'algyax means literally "real or true language."

The linguist Tonya Stebbins estimated the number of speakers of Tsimshian in 2001 as around 400 and in 2003 as 200 or fewer (see references below). Whichever figure is more accurate, she added in 2003 that most speakers are over 70 in age and very few are under 50. About 50 of an ethnic population of 1,300 Tsimshian in Alaska speak the language.

Former colonies and territories in Canada

A number of states and polities formerly claimed colonies and territories in Canada prior to the evolution of the current provinces and territories under the federal system. North America prior to colonization was occupied by a variety of indigenous groups consisting of band societies typical of the sparsely populated North, to loose confederacies made up of numerous hunting bands from a variety of ethnic groups (Plains region), to more structured confederacies of sedentary farming villages (Great Lakes region), to stratified hereditary structures centred on a fishing economy (Plateau and Pacific Coast regions). The colonization of Canada by Europeans began in the 10th century, when Norsemen explored and, ultimately unsuccessfully, attempted to settle areas of the northeastern fringes of North America. Early permanent European settlements in what is now Canada included the late 16th and 17th century French colonies of Acadia and Canada (New France), the English colonies of Newfoundland (island) and Rupert's Land, the Scottish colonies of Nova Scotia and Port Royal.France lost nearly all of its colonies in North America in 1763 after the Seven Years' War to the British Empire. Britain's imperial government over a century later then ceded the land to Canadian control in 1867 after confederation. Since then, Canada's external borders have changed several times, and had grown from four initial provinces to ten provinces and three territories by 1999.

Gitxsan language

The Gitxsan language , or Gitxsanimaax (also rendered Gitksan, Giatikshan, Gityskyan, Giklsan), is an endangered Tsimshianic language of northwestern British Columbia, closely related to the neighboring Nisga’a language. The two groups are, however, politically separate and prefer to refer to Gitxsan and Nisga'a as distinct languages. According to the 2016 census there were 1,020 native speakers.Gitxsan means "People of the Skeena River" ("Ksan" being the name of the Skeena in Gitxsan).

Index of articles related to Indigenous Canadians

The following is an alphabetical list of topics related to Indigenous peoples in Canada, comprising the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

Indigenous peoples in Canada

Indigenous peoples in Canada, also known as Aboriginal Canadians (French: Canadiens Autochtones), are the indigenous peoples within the boundaries of Canada. They comprise the First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Although "Indian" is a term still commonly used in legal documents, the descriptors "Indian" and "Eskimo" have somewhat fallen into disuse in Canada and some consider them to be pejorative. Similarly, "Aboriginal" as a collective noun is a specific term of art used in some legal documents, including the Constitution Act, 1982, though in some circles that word is also falling into disfavour.Old Crow Flats and Bluefish Caves are some of the earliest known sites of human habitation in Canada. The Paleo-Indian Clovis, Plano and Pre-Dorset cultures pre-date current indigenous peoples of the Americas. Projectile point tools, spears, pottery, bangles, chisels and scrapers mark archaeological sites, thus distinguishing cultural periods, traditions and lithic reduction styles.

The characteristics of Canadian Aboriginal culture included permanent settlements, agriculture, civic and ceremonial architecture, complex societal hierarchies and trading networks. The Métis culture of mixed blood originated in the mid-17th century when First Nation and Inuit people married Europeans. The Inuit had more limited interaction with European settlers during that early period. Various laws, treaties, and legislation have been enacted between European immigrants and First Nations across Canada. Aboriginal Right to Self-Government provides opportunity to manage historical, cultural, political, health care and economic control aspects within first people's communities.

As of the 2016 census, Aboriginal peoples in Canada totalled 1,673,785 people, or 4.9% of the national population, with 977,230 First Nations people, 587,545 Métis and 65,025 Inuit. 7.7% of the population under the age of 14 are of Aboriginal descent. There are over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands with distinctive cultures, languages, art, and music. National Indigenous Peoples Day recognizes the cultures and contributions of Aboriginal peoples to the history of Canada. First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples of all backgrounds have become prominent figures and have served as role models in the Aboriginal community and help to shape the Canadian cultural identity.

John Asher Dunn

John Asher Dunn (June 19, 1939 – July 4, 2017) was an American linguist who created the first academic dictionary and grammar of the Tsimshian language, an American Indian language of northwestern British Columbia and southeast Alaska.

In 1968, Dunn and his wife Luceen began fieldwork on the Tsimshian language in Kitkatla, British Columbia and Prince Rupert, B.C., under the supervision of the linguist Bruce J. Rigsby. He did follow-up fieldwork in Prince Rupert in 1971, in Metlakatla, Alaska, in 1972, and in Hartley Bay, B.C., in 1974, 1975, 1976, and 1978. This work involved designing the first modern, practical orthography for the language.

He published his dictionary and grammar of the Tsimshian language (now known as Sm'algyax) in 1978 and 1979 respectively. They were reissued in a single volume in 1995 by the Sealaska Heritage Foundation.

In the early 1990s he participated with Susan Marsden, Marie-Lucie Tarpent, Vonnie Hutchingson, and several Tsimshian language instructors in devising an updated Sm'algyax orthography in conjunction with producing the Teachings of Our Grandfathers book series for School District no. 52 of Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

He was a retired professor of linguistics at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.

He was also the lone proponent of the theory that the Tsimshianic languages (Sm'algyax and the Gitksan and Nisga'a languages) are a branch of the Indo-European stock.

Kermode bear

The Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), also known as the spirit bear (particularly in British Columbia), is a rare subspecies of the American black bear living in the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia, Canada. It is the official provincial mammal of British Columbia. While most Kermode bears are black, there are between 100 and 500 fully white individuals. The white variant is most common on three islands in British Columbia (Gribbell, Princess Royal, and Roderick), where 10–20% of bears are white. Kermode bears hold a prominent place in the oral traditions of the indigenous peoples of the area. They have also been featured in a National Geographic documentary.

Languages of Canada

A multitude of languages are used in Canada. According to the 2011 census, English and French are the mother tongues of 56.9% and 21.3% of Canadians respectively. In total 85.6% of Canadians have working knowledge of English while 30.1% have a working knowledge of French. Under the Official Languages Act of 1969, both English and French have official federal status throughout Canada, in respect of all government services, including the courts, and all federal legislation is enacted bilingually. New Brunswick is the only Canadian province that has both English and French as its official languages to the same extent, with constitutional entrenchment. Quebec's official language is French, although, in that province, the Constitution requires that all legislation be enacted in both French and English, and court proceedings may be conducted in either language. Similar constitutional protections are in place in Manitoba.

Canada's Official Languages Commissioner (the federal government official charged with monitoring the two languages) has stated, "[I]n the same way that race is at the core of what it means to be American and at the core of an American experience and class is at the core of British experience, I think that language is at the core of Canadian experience."To assist in more accurately monitoring the two official languages, Canada's census collects a number of demolinguistic descriptors not enumerated in the censuses of most other countries, including home language, mother tongue, first official language and language of work.

Canada's linguistic diversity extends beyond the two official languages. "In Canada, 4.7 million people (14.2% of the population) reported speaking a language other than English or French most often at home and 1.9 million people (5.8%) reported speaking such a language on a regular basis as a second language (in addition to their main home language, English or French). In all, 20.0% of Canada's population reported speaking a language other than English or French at home. For roughly 6.4 million people, the other language was an immigrant language, spoken most often or on a regular basis at home, alone or together with English or French whereas for more than 213,000 people, the other language was an Aboriginal language. Finally, the number of people reporting sign languages as the languages spoken at home was nearly 25,000 people (15,000 most often and 9,800 on a regular basis)."Canada is also home to many indigenous languages. Taken together, these are spoken by less than one percent of the population. About 0.6% Canadians (or 200,725 people) report an Indigenous language as their mother tongue.

List of linguists

A linguist in the academic sense is a person who studies natural language (an academic discipline known as linguistics). Ambiguously, the word is sometimes also used to refer to a polyglot (one who knows several languages), or a grammarian (a scholar of grammar), but these two uses of the word are distinct (and one does not have to be a polyglot in order to be an academic linguist). The following is a list of notable linguists in the academic sense.

Marie-Lucie Tarpent

Marie-Lucie Tarpent (born November 9, 1941) is a French-born Canadian linguist, formerly an associate professor of linguistics and French at Mount Saint Vincent University [MSVU], Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is known for her descriptive work on the Nisga'a language, a member of the Tsimshianic language family, and for her proof of the affiliation of the Tsimshianic languages to the Penutian language group.

Nisga'a language

Nisga’a (also Nass, Nisgha, Nisg̱a’a, Nishka, Niska, Nishga, Nisqa’a) is a Tsimshianic language of the Nisga'a people of northwestern British Columbia. Nisga'a people, however, dislike the term Tshimshianic as they feel that it gives precedence to Coast Tsimshian. Nisga’a is very closely related to Gitxsan. Indeed, many linguists regard Nisga’a and Gitksan as dialects of a single Nass–Gitksan language. The two are generally treated as distinct languages out of deference to the political separation of the two groups.

Southern Tsimshian dialect

Southern Tsimshian, Sgüüx̣s or Ski:xs, is the southern dialect of the Tsimshian language, spoken by the Gitga'ata and Kitasoo Tsimshians in Klemtu, B.C.. It became extinct with the death of the last remaining speaker, Violet Neasloss.

Sgüüx̣s has been described as a highly conservative dialect of Coast Tsimshian. The name Sgüüx̣s means "the language beside."

Several articles on the language were written by Tsimshian specialist John Asher Dunn.

Coast Oregon
and Asia
New Guinea
and the Pacific
See also

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