Nez Perce language

Nez Perce language
Nez Perce
Spoken in United States
Region Idaho
Ethnicity Nez Perce people
Native speakers 200  (date missing)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nez

Nez Perce (also spelled Nez Percé; pronounced /ˌnɛzˈpɜrs/) is a Sahaptian language related to the several dialects of Sahaptin (note the spellings, -ian vs. -in). The Sahaptian sub-family is one of the branches of the Plateau Penutian family (which in turn may be related to a larger Penutian grouping). It is spoken by the Nez Perce tribe of the northwestern United States.

Nez Perce is a highly endangered language. While sources differ on the exact number of fluent speakers, it is almost definitely under 100. The Nez Perce tribe is endeavoring to reintroduce the language into native usage through a revitalization program, though at present the future of the Nez Perce language is far from assured.

The grammar of Nez Perce has been described in a grammar (Aoki 1970) and a dictionary (Aoki 1994) with two dissertations (Rude 1985; Crook 1999).



Pre-contact distribution of Plateau Penutian languages

The phonology of Nez Perce includes vowel harmony (which was mentioned in Noam Chomsky & Morris Halle's The Sound Pattern of English), as well as a complex stress system described by Crook (1999).


Consonant phonemes of Nez Perce[1]
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
(lateral) central lateral plain lab. plain lab.
Nasal plain m n
Plosive voiceless p t c k q ʔ
glottalic tɬʼ kʷʼ qʷʼ
Fricative (voiceless) ɬ s ʃ x χ h
Approximant plain w l j


Nez Perce chiefs

As in many other Native American languages, a Nez Perce verb can have the meaning of an entire sentence in English. (This manner of providing a great deal of information in one word is called polysynthesis.) Verbal morphemes provide information about the person and number of the subject and object, as well as tense and aspect (e.g., whether or not an action has been completed).

word: ʔaw̓líwaaʔinpqawtaca
morphemes: ʔew - ʔilíw - wee - ʔinipí - qaw - tée - ce
gloss: 1/2-3OBJ - fire - fly - grab - straight.through - go.away - IMPERF.PRES.SG
translation: 'I go to scoop him up in the fire'   (Cash Cash 2004:24)
word: hitw̓alapáyna
morphemes: hi - tiw̓ele - pááy - e
gloss: 3SUBJ - in.rain - come - PAST
translation: 'He arrived in the rain'   (Aoki 1979)


In Nez Perce, the subject of a sentence, and the object when there is one, can each be marked for grammatical case, a morpheme that shows the function of the word (compare to English he vs. him vs. his). Nez Perce employs a three-way case-marking strategy: a transitive subject, a transitive object, and an intransitive subject are each marked differently. Nez Perce is thus an example of the very rare type of tripartite languages (see morphosyntactic alignment).

Because of this case marking, the word order can be quite free. A specific word order tells the hearer what is new information (focus) versus old information (topic), but it does not mark the subject and the object (in English, word order is fixed — subject–verb–object).


  1. ^ Consonant Systems of Nez Perce on

External links


  • Aoki, Haruo. (1970). Nez Perce grammar. University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 62). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-09259-7. (Reprinted 1973, California Library Reprint series).
  • Aoki, Haruo. (1979). Nez Perce texts. University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 90). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-09593-6.
  • Aoki, Haruo. (1994). Nez Perce dictionary. University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 112). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-09763-7.
  • Aoki, Haruo; & Walker, Deward E., Jr. (1989). Nez Perce oral narratives. University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 104). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-09593-6.
  • Aoki, Haruo; & Whitman, Carmen. (1989). Titwáatit: (Nez Perce Stories). Anchorage: National Bilingual Materials Development Center, University of Alaska. ISBN 0-520-09593-6. (Material originally published in Aoki 1979).
  • Cash Cash, Phillip. (2004). Nez Perce verb morphology. (Unpublished manuscript, University of Arizona, Tucson). (Online:
  • Crook, Harold D. (1999). The phonology and morphology of Nez Perce stress. (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles).
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Rude, Noel E. (1985). Studies in Nez Perce grammar and discourse. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon).
  • Watters, Mari. (1990). Nez Perce tapes and texts. [5 audio cassettes & 1 booklet]. Moscow, Idaho: Mari Watters Productions, Upward Bound, College of Education, University of Idaho.

Vowel harmony

  • Aoki, Haruo (1966). "Nez Perce vowel harmony and proto-Sahaptian vowels". Language 42 (4): 759–767. doi:10.2307/411831. JSTOR 411831. 
  • Aoki, Haruo (1968). "Toward a typology of vowel harmony". International Journal of American Linguistics 34 (2): 142–145. doi:10.1086/465006. 
  • Chomsky, Noam; & Halle, Morris. (1968). Sound pattern of English (pp. 377–378). Studies in language. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Hall, Beatrice L.; & Hall, R. M. R. (1980). Nez Perce vowel harmony: An Africanist explanation and some theoretical consequences. In R. M. Vago (Ed.), Issues in vowel harmony (pp. 201–236). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Jacobsen, William (1968). "On the prehistory of Nez Perce vowel harmony". Language 44 (4): 819–829. doi:10.2307/411901. JSTOR 411901. 
  • Kim, Chin. (1978). 'Diagonal' vowel harmony?: Some implications for historical phonology. In J. Fisiak (Ed.), Recent developments in historical phonology (pp. 221–236). The Hague: Mouton.
  • Lightner, Theodore (1965). "On the description of vowel and consonant harmony". Word 21: 244–250. 
  • Rigsby, Bruce (1965). "Continuity and change in Sahaptian vowel systems". International Journal of American Linguistics 31 (4): 306–311. doi:10.1086/464860. 
  • Rigsby, Bruce; & Silverstein, Michael (1969). "Nez Perce vowels and proto-Sahaptian vowel harmony". Language 45 (1): 45–59. doi:10.2307/411752. JSTOR 411752. 
  • Zimmer, Karl. (1967). "A note on vowel harmony". International Journal of American Linguistics 33 (2): 166–171. doi:10.1086/464954. 
  • Zwicky, Arnold (1967). "More on Nez Perce: On alternative analyses". International Journal of American Linguistics 37 (2): 122–126. doi:10.1086/465146. 

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