Jemez language

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Native to United States
Region New Mexico
Ethnicity Jemez Pueblo
Native speakers
1,790  (2007)[1]
  • Kiowa–Towa?
    • Jemez
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tow
Towa language distribution in the State of New Mexico

Jemez (also Towa) is a Tanoan language spoken by the Jemez Pueblo people in New Mexico. It has no written form, as tribal rules do not allow it.[2]


Its speakers are mainly farmers and craftsmen. The language is only spoken in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, but as 90% of the tribal Jemez members do speak it, it is not considered to be extremely endangered. It was also spoken at Pecos Pueblo until the 19th century, when the remaining members of that community moved to Jemez.



Consonants that are in parenthesis occur only in limited occasion determined by phonological rules[citation needed]. [f] and [r] occur only in loan words.

Labial Labiodental Alveolar Alveopalatal Palatal Velar Glottal
regular palatalized labialized
Nasal non-glottalized /m/ /n/
glottalized (/ʔm/) (/ʔn/)
Stop voiced /b/ /d/ (/d͡ʒ/) /ɡ/ /ɡʲ/
voiceless /p/ /t/ /tʲ/ /kʷ/ /ʔ/
aspirated (/tʰ/) (/t͡ʃʰ/) /kʰ/ /kʰʲ/
ejective /pʼ/ /tʼ/ (/t͡ʃʼ/) /kʼ/ /kʲʼ/
Fricative voiced /v/ /z/ /ɦ/
voiceless /ɸ/ /f/ /s/ /ʃ/ /h/
Lateral voiced /l/
voiceless /ɬ/
glottalized (/ʔl/)
Flap /r/
Glide non-glottalized /j/ /w/
glottalized (/ʔj/) (/ʔw/)


The following chart shows the six distinctive vowel positions in Jemez:

front back
high /i/ /ɨ/
mid /e/ /o/
low /æ/ /ɑ/

All six can occur as short and long vowels, and all but /e/ can occur as short nasal and long nasal vowels. This gives a total of twenty-two distinctive vowel sounds. Note that vowel length is only contrastive in the first syllable of a word[3]:26 and other syllables' vowels are measurably shorter[3]:29


Jemez has four tones: High, Falling, Mid, and Low. Word-initial syllables only have high or falling tone; other syllables have mid or low tones (though some syllables that follow a high tone also have high tone). This, typically tri-syllablic words have tone patterns such as HHL, HML, HLM, HLL, and FLM.[3]:26

Some loan words do break these rules however, such as the Spanish loans for coffee, horse, and orange. These words have a high tone and contrastive vowel length in the second syllable, while the first syllable carries low tone.[3]:26

Jemez high tones are similar to those of Mandarin Chinese, except there's a characteristic slight rise at the end. Voiced consonants tend to lower the onset of pitch in high tones. If there are several high tones in a row, the pitch also tends to rise throughout.[3]:27, 31 Falling tones fall from the level of high to mid pitch.[3]:27

For compound nouns or verbs with noun incorporation, the second element loses its word-initial prominence: high tone becomes mid or low tone and vowel length distinction is lost.[3]:32

Syllable structure[edit]

Jemez allows for the following syllable structures: V, VV, CV, CVV, CVC, CVVC. Of these, CV and CVV are the most common.[4]



Jemez nouns use an elaborate number-based classification system and take on an inflectional suffix. The demonstrative then used is dependent on the number and class of nouns.

Noun stems are in most cases made up of either a single root, a root and a suffix, or more then one root. In general a noun stem will contain from one to three syllables, out of these disyllabic are most common.[3]:26 The majority of noun roots can occur freely, though there are some noun roots that are bound.

There are three main methods by which nouns are derived from verbs: tone change, suffixation, and compounding. While the first two are fairly straightforward, the latter appears in different forms, such as noun+verb or noun+noun. The compounds consisting of noun and verb can be either noun+verb or verb+noun. A more complex compounding pattern occurs in some words such as outdoor oven, [[bread+bake]+enclosure] or [[noun+verb]+noun].

The languages of the Tanoan family have three numbers – singular, dual, and plural – and exhibit an unusual system of marking number, called "inverse number" (or number toggling). In this scheme, every countable noun has what might be called its "inherent" or "expected" numbers, and is unmarked for these. When a noun appears in an "inverse" (atypical) number, it is inflected to mark this. Therefore, Jemez nouns take the ending -sh to denote an inverse number, there are four noun classes which inflect for number as follows:

class description singular dual plural
I animate nouns - -sh -sh
II some inanimate nouns -sh -sh -
III other inanimate nouns - -sh -
IV mass (non-countable) nouns (n/a) (n/a) (n/a)

As can be seen, class-I nouns are inherently singular, class-II nouns are inherently plural, class-III nouns are inherently singular or plural. Class-IV nouns cannot be counted and are never marked with -sh.* [5][4] [note 1]


In 2006, the leadership of Pueblo of Jemez noticed a language shift and established a 10-person team of speakers, elders, and educators to study language use and develop strategies for language revival. Through interviews, the tribe determined the fluency rate was 80% among tribal members. The Jemez Language Program developed an early childhood immersion program and Jemez language curriculum for kindergarten through 8th grade. They also hosted Jemez Education Retreats.[6]


  1. ^ Specific examples of this morpheme are not posted here to honor tribal wishes. More information about this morpheme is discussed Deutscher (2005) and Mithun (1999).


  1. ^ Jemez at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ "History of the Jemez Pueblo" Pueblo of Jemez. Accessed 7 April 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Bell, Alan. (1993). Jemez tones and stress. Colorado Research in Linguistics, 12, 26-34. (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado at Boulder).
  4. ^ a b Yumitani, Yukihiro. A phonology and morphology of Jemez Towa. Diss. University of Kansas, 1998. Ann Arbor: 1998.
  5. ^ Sprott, Robert (1992), Jemez syntax (doctoral dissertation), US: University of Chicago.
  6. ^ "Jemez Towa Language Program." Pueblo of Jemez. Accessed 25 March 2014.


  • Bell, Alan & R. Heins. (1993). Phonetics of Jemez vowels. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 1993.
  • Deutscher, Guy (2005). The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 43.
  • Hale, Kenneth (1955–1956). "Notes on Jemez Grammar". Manuscript.
  • Martin, Constance C. (1964). "Jemez Phonology". M.A. thesis, University of New Mexico.
  • Mithun, M. (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge University Press. p. 81, 443.

External links[edit]