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The Wakashan languages


This page offers a more detailed introduction to the Wakashan languages than the brief summary on the homepage. Since this includes some rather technical information, some Unicode fonts are used that may not display correctly in some browsers. If you encounter any problems, see fonts.


Why study Wakashan?

The Wakashan languages are an invaluable source of knowledge for linguists. Not only do these languages represent an important cultural heritage, they also give linguists insight into the fundamental properties of human language.

One of the central goals of modern linguistics is to gain an understanding of the variation that is attested across the world's languages. Knowledge of the variation and similarity between languages such as English and Nuu-chah-nulth lets linguists k now which properties of language are subject to change from language to language, and which characteristics are shared by all languages. This helps linguists develop a theory of language "universals".

The Wakashan language family

The Wakashan language family comprises seven related languages, spoken along the coast of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, and on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The northern and southern groups are quite different from each other, but are clearly related.

Northern Wakashan (Kwakiutlan) languages:

Haisla-Henaksiala (Kitimat, Kitimaat)
Heiltsuk (Bella Bella, Heiltsuq)
Oowekyala (Oowekeeno)
Kwakwala (Kwakw’ala, Kwakiutl)

Southern Wakashan (Nootkan) languages:

Nuuchahnulth (Nuu-chah-nulth, Nootka)
Ditidaht (Nitinat, Nitinaht)
Wakashan Language Family graphic

Currently, all the Wakashan languages are spoken mainly by older members of each of the communities. Since younger generations are not learning the languages, these languages are in imminent danger of being lost.

Language names

although English practice is to use the same names for both people and language the Westcoast languages distinguish these morphologically the above names refer only to people . languages are named not by nouns, but by verbs either by specific formations based on local ethnonyms as in D diidiitidq, M qʷiˑqʷiˑdiččaq ‘speak Ditidaht, Makah’ whereas the more numerous Nuu-chah-nulth Tribes of today use more general BN quuquuʔaca ‘speak Indian’, t̓aat̓aaqsapa ‘speak correctly’ Huu-ay-aht ʔuuʔuukʷa ‘speaking one’s own language’ (?) (Barkley:70, 76) .

Languages and dialects


General features of Wakashan languages

Wakashan languages share many of the areal features of the Northwest, while possessing many distinctive features that make them a unique linguistic group.


Wakashan languages have large obstruent inventories. The southern languages distinguish plain and glottalized stops, and the northern languages plain, glottalized, and aspirated stops. Place contrasts in the obstruents include bilabial, alveolar, lateral, palatal, velar, labio-velar, uvular, and labio-uvular. All languages have /h/ and the glottal stop, and the southern languages Nuuchahnulth and Ditidaht have developed pharyngeals from the uvulars. 

The sonorants are fewer in number, being restricted to /m, n, l, y, w/ and their glottalized counterparts. Nuuchahnulth lacks /l/, and Makah lacks glottalized sonorants. 

Ditidaht and Makah are part of an interesting language area that also includes the neighboring but unrelated languages Lushootseed, Twana, and Quileute. These languages have no nasal vowels or consonants, a characteristic exhibited by less than one percent of the world's languages (according to the UCLA Phonological Segment Inventory Database).


The Wakashan languages show extensive suffixation. Reduplication and infixation are also found, but prefixes are rare or unattested. 

Suffixes in these languages can affect the surface shape of the stems they attach to. Some of these effects include glottalization of the final root consonant, reduplication on the root, and vowel-lengthening within the root. 

There are many lexical suffixes, numbering in the hundreds, and corresponding semantically to full roots in other languages. Many of these suffixes carry verbal or nominal meaning.

Locations and shapes are distinguished via a rich set of lexical suffixes. 

In the northern languages, there is a set of nominal morphology that are enclitics attached to the constituent preceding the nominal.


Wakashan languages are generally predicate-initial.

Most roots can function either as predicates or arguments, making distinctions between lexical categories seem quite small.

last updated January 2010