Comparative Wakashan Dictionary

Michael Fortescue, Department of Linguistics, University of Copenhagen


This on-going project is aimed at producing in the near future a comprehensive comparative dictionary of the Wakashan family, with reconstructions of both stems and suffixes/clitics at the Proto-Wakashan (PW), Proto-Nootkan (PN), and Proto-Kwakiutlan (PK) stages. The data has gradually been gathered from all available published sources plus the extensive manuscript material left by Sapir and Swadesh and Haas in the library of the American Philosophical Society. The dictionary is parallel to those of Fortescue, Jacobson and Kaplan (1994, Alaska Native Language Center) for the Eskimo-Aleut family and Fortescue (2005, Mouton de Gruyter) for the Chukotko-Kamchatkan family. All forms are presented in a ‘reader-friendly’ format, with separate lines for each of the languages concerned, and are written in a common phonemic orthography, and with all sources indicated.


At present my files contain 435 PW stems and 117 suffixes/clitics; 599 PK stems and 159 suffixes/clitics; and 455 PN stems and 194 suffixes/clitics. A good deal still remains to be done (including the elicitation in the field of additional Ditidaht forms), but given the deep historical divide between the two branches of the family and the strict criteria for setting up cognate sets, these figures are not likely to escalate radically. To set up a PK or PN proto-set there must be regular cognates attested in at least two of the relevant contemporary languages, namely Kwakwala, Oowekyala, Heiltsuk and Haisla on the one hand and Nuuchahnulth, Ditidaht and Makah on the other. To count as Proto-Wakashan, a set must have cognates in at least one Kwakiutlan (Northern Wakashan) and one Nootkan (Southern Wakashan) language. The default dialects for Kwakwala and Nuuchahnulth are, respectively Kwakiutl (Kwaguł) and Tseshaht, in which Boas and Sapir did their seminal work, but forms attested in other dialects are added where relevant.


The field of comparative Wakashan is fortunate in that work of high quality was produced on these languages in the early years of the last century by some of the worlds most prestigious descriptive linguistics, namely Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Morris Swadesh and Mary Haas. This produced a solid basis on which others have built, providing broader lexical coverage (the comparative North Wakashan comparative root list by Neville Lincoln and John Rath represents a particularly conspicuous landmark). As a result of these efforts the situation has been reached today where a comparative dictionary of the present sort, covering all the languages of the family, can be undertaken. The reconstructed Proto-Wakashan sound system I employ reflects by and large that found in Sapir’s work, but differs on certain points from his as regards the original vowels and diphthongs.


The archaeological record on the central west coast of Vancouver Island, the Wakashan homeland, has been continuous since at least 2800 BC, with finds indicative of marine mammal hunting (including whaling with toggling harpoons) that go back to the earliest period. It is reasonable to suppose that the language spoken by the people who left these traces was Proto-Wakashan. The question of the deeper genetic relations of the family has aroused much controversy, with the Sapir/Swadesh “Mosan” hypothesis, relating Wakashan, Salishan and Chemakuan, in the forefront. Other suggestions for distant relations include Eskimo-Aleut (Swadesh) and Nivkh/Gilyak (Austerlitz). The present dictionary is neutral on such matters, confining itself to reconstructing Proto-Wakashan. This is an essential step in the broader undertaking of sorting out the role of the various families that have contributed to the complex mix of the Northwest Coast linguistic area.