Nuu-chah-nulth language

Nuu-chah-nulth language
Nuučaan̓uł, T'aat'aaqsapa
Pronunciation [nuːt͡ʃaːnˀuɬ]
Spoken in Canada
Region West coast of Vancouver Island, from Barkley Sound to Quatsino Sound, British Columbia
Ethnicity Nuu-chah-nulth people
Native speakers 150–200  (no date)
Language family
  • Southern Wakashan
    • Nuu-chah-nulth
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nuk

Nuu-chah-nulth (also called Nootka, and T'aat'aaqsapa) is a Wakashan language spoken in the Pacific Northwest of North America, on the west coast of Vancouver Island from Barkley Sound to Quatsino Sound in British Columbia, by the Nuu-chah-nulth people. Nuu-chah-nulth is a Southern Wakashan language related to Nitinaht and Makah.

Kim (2003) estimates the number of Nuu-chah-nulth speakers at approximately 150–200, while the 2001 Canadian census puts the figure at about 505. Linguists find the language fascinating because of its morphological and phonological complexity.

It is the first language of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast to have documentary written materials describing it. In the 1780s Captains Vancouver, Quadra, and other European explorers and traders frequented Nootka Sound and the other Nuu-chah-nulth communities, making reports of their voyages. From 1803–1805 John R. Jewitt, an English blacksmith, was held captive by chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound. He made an effort to learn the language, and in 1815 published a memoir with a brief glossary of its terms.




The 35 consonants of Nuu-chah-nulth:

Bilabial Alveolar1 Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn-
central lateral plain labial plain labial
Nasal plain m n
glottalized2 ˀm ˀn
Stop plain p t k q ʔ
ejective kʷʼ
Affricate plain t͡s t͡ɬ t͡ʃ
ejective t͡sʼ t͡ɬʼ t͡ʃʼ
Fricative s ɬ ʃ x χ χʷ ħ h
Approximant plain j w ʕ3
glottalized2 ˀj ˀw
  1. Of the alveolar consonants, nasal and laterals are apico-alveolar while the rest are denti-alveolar.
  2. Glottalized resonants (nasals and approximants) are realized as resonants with pre-glottalization. They are arguably conceptually[vague] the same as ejective consonants.
  3. /ʕ/ is an approximant, not a fricative (The IPA does not have a unique symbol for this sound). This phoneme is more often epiglottal and functions phonologically as a pharyngeal stop.

The pharyngeal consonants developed from mergers of uvular sounds; /ħ/ derives from a merger of /χ/ and /χʷ/ (which are now comparatively rare) while /ʕ/ came about from a merger of /qʼ/ and /qʷʼ/ (which are now absent from the language).[2]


Vowels of Nuu-chah-nulth. From Carlson, et al. (2001)

Nuu-chah-nulth vowels are influenced by surrounding consonants with certain "back" consonants conditioning lower, more back vowel allophones

Front Central Back
long short long short long short
Close i u
Mid1 (ɛː) (ə) (ɔː)
Open a
  1. The Mid vowels [ɛː] and [ɔː] appear in vocative forms and in ceremonial expressions. [ə] is a possible realization of /a/ after a glottalized sonorant.[3]

In the environment of glottalized resonants as well as ejective and pharyngeal consonants, vowels can be "laryngealized" which often means creaky voice.[3]

In general, syllable weight determines stress placement; short vowels followed by non-glottalized consonants and long vowels are heavy. In sequences where there are no heavy syllables or only heavy syllables, the first syllable is stressed.[3]

Nuu-chah-nulth has phonemic short and long vowels. Traditionally, a third class of vowels, known as "variable length" vowels, is recognized. These are vowels that are long when they are found within the first two syllables of a word, and short elsewhere.


The Nuu-chah-nulth language contributed many words to the vocabulary of the Chinook Jargon and it is believed that oceanic commerce and exchanges between the Nuu-chah-nulth and other Southern Wakashan speakers with the Chinookan-speaking peoples of the lower Columbia River led to the foundations of the trade jargon that became known as Chinook in later years. Nootkan words in Chinook Jargon include hiyu - "many", from Nuu-chah-nulth for "ten", siah - "far", from the Nuu-chah-nulth for "sky".

A dictionary of the language, with some 7,500 entries, was created after 15 years of research. It is based on both work with current speakers and notes from linguist Edward Sapir, taken almost a century ago. The dictionary, however, is a subject of controversy, with a number of Nuu-chah-nulth elders questioning the accuracy of the terminology, and the author's right to represent their language.


Nuu-chah-nulth has 12 different dialects:

  • Ahousaht  [ʕaːħuːsʔatħ]
  • Ehattesaht (aka Ehattisaht)  [ʔiːħatisʔatħ]
  • Hesquiat  [ħiʃkʷiːʔatħ]
  • Kyuquot  [qaːjʼuːkʼatħ]
  • Mowachaht  [muwat͡ʃʼatħ]
  • Nuchatlaht  [nut͡ʃaːɬʔatħ]
  • Ohiaht  [huːʔiːʔatħ]
  • Clayoquot (aka Tla.o.qui.aht)  [taʔuːkʷiʔatħ]
  • Toquaht  [tʼukʼʷaːʔatħ]
  • Tseshaht (aka Sheshaht)  [t͡ʃʼiʃaːʔatħ]
  • Uchuklesaht (aka Uchucklesaht)  [ħuːt͡ʃuqtisʔatħ]
  • Ucluelet  [juːɬuʔiɬʔatħ]

Translations of tribal names

  • Nuu-Chah-Nulth - "all along the mountains and sea." Nuu-chah-nulth were formerly "Nootka" (but they prefer not to be called that, rather Nuu-chah-nulth which better explains how all the tribes are connected to the land and the sea). Some of the names following (Ditidaht, Makah) are not part of the Nuu-chah-nulth political organization, however; all are "Aht" (people). The term Nuu-chah-nulth-aht is also used, meaning "people all along the mountains and the sea."
  • Ahousaht - People living with their backs to the land and mountains.
  • Ucluelet - People with a safe landing place for canoes.
  • Ehattesaht - People of a tribe with many clans
  • Checkleset – People from the place where you gain strength
  • Hesquiaht - People who tear with their teeth
  • Kyuquot - Different people
  • Mowachaht - People of the deer
  • Muchalaht – People who live on the Muchalee river
  • Nuchatlaht - People of a sheltered bay
  • Huu-ay-aht - People who recovered
  • Tseshaht - People from an island that reeks of whale remains
  • Tla-o-qui-aht - People of other tribes
  • Toquaht - People from a situated area
  • Uchucklesaht - People of the inside harbour
  • Ditidaht - People from a place in the forest
  • Hupacasath - People living on the edge (of the banks)
  • Quidiishdaht (Makah) - People living on the outside

Translations of place names

Nuuchahnulth had a name for each place within their traditional territory. These are just a few still used to this day:

  • hisaawista (esowista) – Captured by clubbing the people who lived there to death.
  • Yuquot (friendly Cove) = - Where they get the north winds.
  • nootk-sitl (Nootka) – Go around.
  • maaqtusiis – A place across the island.
  • kakawis – Fronted by a rock that looks like a container.
  • kitsuksis – Log across mouth of creek
  • opitsaht – Island that the moon lands on.
  • pacheena – Foamy.
  • tsu-ma-uss (somass) – Washing.
  • tsahaheh – To go up.
  • hitac`u (itatsoo) – Ucluelet reserve.
  • t’iipis – polly’s point.
  • Tsaxana – A place close to the river.
  • Cheewat – Pulling tide.

Source: Ha-shilth-sa newspaper, 2003. All translations were compiled with consulation from Nuuchahnulth elders. Ha-shilth-sa (meaning 'interesting news') is the official newspaper for the Nuu-chah-nulth nation.

See also



  • Carlson, Barry F.; Esling, John H.; Fraser, Katie (2001), "Nuuchahnulth", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 31 (2): 275–279 
  • Kim, Eun-Sook. (2003). Theoretical issues in Nuu-chah-nulth phonology and morphology. (Doctoral dissertation, The University of British Columbia, Department of Linguistics).
  • Nakayama, Toshihide (2001). Nuuchahnulth (Nootka) morphosyntax. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-09841-2
  • Sapir, Edward. (1938). Glottalized continuants in Navaho, Nootka, and Kwakiutl (with a note on Indo-European). Language, 14, 248–274.
  • Sapir, Edward; & Swadesh, Morris. (1939). Nootka texts: Tales and ethnological narratives with grammatical notes and lexical materials. Philadelphia: Linguistic Society of America.
  • Sapir, Edward; & Swadesh, Morris. (1955). Native accounts of Nootka ethnography. Publication of the Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics (No. 1); International journal of American linguistics (Vol. 21, No. 4, Pt. 2). Bloomington: Indiana University, Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics. (Reprinted 1978 in New York: AMS Press, ISBN).
  • Shank, Scott; & Wilson, Ian. (2000). Acoustic evidence for ʕ as a glottalized pharyngeal glide in Nuu-chah-nulth. In S. Gessner & S. Oh (Eds.), Proceedings of the 35th International Conference on Salish and Neighboring Languages (pp. 185–197). UBC working papers is linguistics (Vol. 3).

External links

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