Okanagan language

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Native to Canada, United States
Region Southern Interior of British Columbia, Central-northern State of Washington
Ethnicity Okanagan people, Colville tribe, Lakes
Native speakers
800  (2007–2011)[1]
Northern Okanagan
Lakes (Sinixt)
San-poil (Nespelem)
Southern Okanagan
Language codes
ISO 639-3 oka

Okanagan, or Colville-Okanagan, is a Salish language which arose among the indigenous peoples of the southern Interior Plateau region based primarily in the Okanagan River Basin and the Columbia River Basin in pre-colonial times in Canada and the United States. Following British, American, and Canadian colonization during the 1800s and the subsequent repression of all Salishan languages, the use of Colville-Okanagan declined drastically.

Colville-Okanagan is highly endangered and is rarely learned as either a first or second language. There are about 150 deeply fluent speakers of Colville-Okanagan Salish, the majority of whom live in British Columbia.[citation needed] The language is currently moribund and has no deeply fluent speakers younger than 50 years of age. Colville-Okanagan is the second most spoken Salish language after Shuswap.

History and description[edit]

Historically, Colville-Okanagan originated from a language which was spoken in the Columbia River Basin and is now termed Proto Southern Interior Salish. As a result of the initial expansion of Colville-Okanagan prior to European contact, the language developed three separate dialects: Colville, Okanagan, and Lakes. There is a low degree of dialectic divergence in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Variation is primarily confined to pronunciation.

The vast majority of Colville-Okanagan words are from Proto-Salish or Proto-Interior Salish. A number of Colville-Okanagan words are shared with or borrowed from the neighboring Salish, Sahaptian, and Kutenai languages. More recent word borrowings are from English and French. Colville-Okanagan was an exclusively oral form of communication until the late 19th century when priests and linguists began transcribing the language for word lists, dictionaries, grammars, and translations. Colville-Okanagan is currently written in Latin script using the American Phonetic Alphabet.

In Colville-Okanagan the language itself is known as nsəlxcin or nsyilxcn. Speakers of nsəlxcin occupied the northern portion of the Columbia Basin from the Methow River in the west, to Kootenay Lake in the east, and north along the Columbia River and the Arrow Lakes. In Colville-Okanagan all nsyilxcn speaking bands are grouped under the ethnic label syilx. Colville-Okanagan is the heritage language of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, the Upper Similkameen Indian Band, the Westbank First Nation, the Osoyoos Indian Band, the Penticton Indian Band, the Okanagan Indian Band, the Upper Nicola Indian Band, and the Colville, Sanpoil, Okanogan, Lakes, Nespelem and Methow bands of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.



Okanagan is reported to contain the rare uvular flap.[2]

Phonology of Lakes dialect[3]

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Labialized velar Uvular Labialized uvular Glottal
Stops p t t͜ʃ k q ʔ
ejective t͜ʃʼ kʷʼ qʷʼ
Nasals m n
Trill r
Fricatives s x, ɣ h, h̥[clarification needed]
Rising Contour[clarification needed] [clarification needed] x̌ʷ[clarification needed]
lateral ɬ
Approximants l j w


The vowels found in Lakes are: [i], [a], [u], [ə], and [o]. The [ə] is the single unstressed variant of the full vowels in Okanagan while the [o] vowel is found only in borrowed words. Stress will fall only on full vowels in Okanagan.


The morphology of Okanagan is fairly complex. It is a head-marking language that relies mostly on grammatical information being placed directly on the predicate by means of affixes and clitics. The combination of derivational and inflectional suffixes and prefixes that are added onto the stem words make for a compact language.[4]

Person Markers[edit]

Person markers within Okanagan can only be used if the predicate of the sentence is intransitive. For example [Kən c'k-am] (I count) is perfectly viable in Okanagan, but *[Kən c'k-ən-t] *(I count it)is not because the verb 'count' is transitive. Person markers never occur without an accompanying intransitive verb. [5]

Person Markers Singular Plural
1st kən kwu
2nd kw p
3rd null (...-əlx)


Simple possesives within Okanagan are predominently a result of prefixation and circumfex ona verb. However, Okanagan uses simple possesives as aspect forms on the verb in very complex ways. This practice is predominantly seen in Southern interior Salish languages.[6]

The stem: kilx, is the equivalent of 'hand.'

Possesive Use Morphological process Translation
1st SG in-kilx prefixation my hand
2nd SG an-kilx prefixation your hand
3rd SG iʔ kilx-s circumfex his/her hand
1st PL iʔ kilx-tət circumfex Our hand
2nd PL iʔ kilx-əmp circumfex Your PL hand
3rd PL iʔ kilx-səlx circumfex Their hand


In the case of verbs, Okanagan morphology handles transitivity in various ways. The first is a set of rules for verbs that only have a single direct object, transitive verbs.

The stem: c'k-ən-t is the equivalent of the transitive verb 'count.'

Use Translation
1st SG c'k-ən-t-ín I count it
2nd SG c'k-ən-t-íxw You count it
3rd SG c'k-ən-t-ís S/he counts it
1st PL c'k-ən-t-ím We count it
2nd PL c'k-ən-t-íp You (PL) count it
3rd PL c'k-ən-t-ísəlx They count it


There are two sets of verb affixes each containing two members that dictate the composition of a verb. The first set is composed of the affixes –nt-, and -ɬt-. The second set is composed of –st- and x(i)t- where ‘i’ is a stressed vowel.

The major difference between two sets is how they incorporate affixes to remain grammatically correct. In the case of the –nt-, -ɬt- group, all particles and suffixes joining onto the stem and suffix of the verb will be identical for both. The –nt- affix connects to the stem of a transitive verb via suffixation. The suffix –nt- can only make reference to two persons: an actor and a primary goal.

q'y'-ənt-in (I write something)

The -ɬt- affix is the ditransitive counterpart of –nt- and works in much the same. The difference between the two is that it refers to three persons: an actor, and two other actors or goals. Furthermore -ɬt- is further differentiated from its ditransitive cousin -x(i)t- because it does not require a clitic to be a part of the verb.

In contrast to this group, -st- and –x(i)t- operate by unique rules. The –st- affix, much like its counterpart must be added to a verb stem by means of suffixation, it is also transitive, and refers to an actor and a primary goal, but it implies a reference to a third person, or a secondary goal without explicitly stating it.

q'y'-əst-in. (I write it [for myself])

The -x(i)t- ditransitive affix shares all of the features of -ɬt- with the sole exception that it requires a clitic to be attached to front of the verb stem. The reason for the clitic in Okanagan is to add emphasis or focus on the second object, whereas -ɬt- makes no distinction. [7]


In 2012, the CBC featured a report on a family which is teaching its children Nsyilxcen in the home.[8]

Four non-profit organizations which support Colville-Okanagan language acquisition and revitalization are the Paul Creek Language Association in Keremeos, British Columbia, the En'owkin Centre in Penticton, British Columbia, the Waterfalls Immersion School in Omak, Washington, as well as the Salish School of Spokane in Spokane, Washington.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Okanagan at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ "Uvular-Pharyngeal Resonants in Interior Salish." M. Dale Kinkade. International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Jul., 1967), pp. 228–234
  3. ^ Baptiste, Maxine Rose. Okanagan wh-questions. Diss. University of British Columbia, 2001.
  4. ^ Baptiste, Maxine Rose. Okanagan wh-questions. Diss. University of British Columbia, 2001.
  5. ^ Baptiste, Maxine Rose. Okanagan wh-questions. Diss. University of British Columbia, 2001.
  6. ^ Baptiste, Maxine Rose. Okanagan wh-questions. Diss. University of British Columbia, 2001.
  7. ^ The Colville-Okanagan Transitive SystemAnthony MattinaInternational Journal of American Linguistics , Vol. 48, No. 4 (Oct., 1982) , pp. 421-435
  8. ^ "First Voices: bringing aboriginal language to the dinner table. The Bent family, who live near Penticton, are teaching their young children both English and Nsyilxcen". Daybreak South - CBC Player. 2012-06-20. Retrieved 2012-08-05. 


Language Learning Texts[edit]

  • Peterson, Wiley, and Parkin. (2004). Nsəlxcin 1: A Beginning Course in Colville-Okanagan Salish. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Peterson and Parkin. (2005). Captíkʷł 1: Nsəlxcin Stories for Beginners. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Peterson and Parkin. (2007). Nsəlxcin 2: An Intermediate Course in Okanagan Salish. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Peterson and Parkin. (2007). Captíkʷł 2: More Nsəlxcin Stories for Beginners. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Peterson and Parkin. (In Press). Nsəlxcin 3. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Peterson and Parkin. (In Press). Captíkʷł 3. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Manuel, Herbert, and Anthony Mattina. (1983). Okanagan Pronunciation Primer. University of Montana Linguistics Laboratory.

Narratives, Songbooks, Dictionaries, and Word Lists[edit]

  • Doak, Ivy G. (1983). The 1908 Okanagan Word Lists of James Teit. Missoula, Montana: Dept. of Anthropology, University of Montana, 1983.
  • Mattina, Anthony and Madeline DeSautel. (2002). Dora Noyes DeSautel łaʔ kłcaptikʷł: Okanagan Salish Narratives. University of Montana Occasional Papers in Linguistics 15.
  • Seymour, Peter, Madeline DeSautel, and Anthony Mattina. (1985). The Golden Woman: The Colville Narrative of Peter J. Seymour. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Seymour, Peter, Madeline DeSautel, and Anthony Mattina. (1974). The Narrative of Peter J. Seymour Blue Jay and His Brother-In-Law Wolf.
  • Mattina, Anthony. Colville-Okanagan Dictionary. Missoula, Mont: Dept. of Anthropology, University of Montana, 1987.
  • Pierre, Larry and Martin Louie. (1973). Classified Word List for the Okanagan Language. MS, Penticton, B.C.
  • Purl, Douglas. (1974). The Narrative of Peter J. Seymour: Blue Jay and Wolf. ICSL 9, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Somday, James B. (1980). Colville Indian Language Dictionary. Ed.D. dissertation, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. DAI 41A:1048.
  • Peterson and Parkin n̓səl̓xcin iʔ‿sn̓kʷnim: Songs for Beginners in Okanagan Salish. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Peterson and Parkin n̓səl̓xcin iʔ‿sn̓kʷnim 2: More Songs for Beginners in Okanagan Salish. The Paul Creek Language Association.
  • Peterson and Parkin. n̓səl̓xcin iʔ‿sn̓kʷnim 3: Even More Songs for Beginners in Colville-Okanagan. The Paul Creek Language Association.

Linguistic Descriptions and Reviews[edit]

  • Arrowsmith, Gary L. (1968). Colville Phonemics. M.A. thesis, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Baptiste, M. (2002). Wh-Questions in Okanagan Salish. M.A. thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Barthmaier, Paul. (2004). Intonation Units in Okanagan. Pp. 30–42 of Gerdts and Matthewson (eds.) 2004.
  • Barthmaier, Paul. (2002). Transitivity and Lexical Suffixes in Okanagan. Papers for ICSNL 37 (Gillon, C., N. Sawai, and R. Wojdak, eds.). UBCWPL 9:1–17.
  • Charlie, William M., Clara Jack, and Anthony Mattina. (1988). William Charlie’s “Two-Headed Person”: Preliminary Notes on Colville-Okanagan Oratory. ICSNL 23(s.p.), Eugene, Oregon.
  • Dilts, Philip. (2006). An Analysis of the Okanagan “Middle” Marker -M. Papers for ICSNL 41 (Kiyota, M., J. Thompson, and N. Yamane-Tanaka, eds.). UBCWPL 11:77–98.
  • Doak, Ivy G. (1981). A Note on Plural Suppletion in Colville Okanagan. Pp. 143–147 of (Anthony) Mattina and Montler (eds.) 1981.
  • Doak, Ivy G. (2004). [Review of Dora Noyes DeSautel ła’ kłcaptíkwł ([Anthony] Mattina and DeSautel [eds.] 2002.] AL 46:220–222.
  • Doak, Ivy and Anthony Mattina. (1997). Okanagan -lx, Coeur d’Alene -lš, and Cognate Forms. IJAL 63:334–361.
  • Fleisher, Mark S. (1979). A Note on Schuhmacher’s Inference of wahú’ in Colville Salish. IJAL 45:279–280.
  • Galloway, Brent D. (1991). [Review of Colville-Okanagan Dictionary ([Anthony] Mattina 1987).] IJAL 57:402–405.
  • Harrington, John P. (1942). Lummi and Nespelem Fieldnotes. Microfilm reel No. 015, remaining data as per Harrington 1910.
  • Hébert, Yvonne M. (1978). Sandhi in a Salishan Language: Okanagan. ICSL 13:26–56, Victoria, B.C.
  • Hébert, Yvonne M. (1979). A Note on Aspect in (Nicola Lake) Okanagan. ICSL 14:173–209, Bellingham, Washington.
  • Hébert, Yvonne M. (1982a). Transitivity in (Nicola Lake) Okanagan. Ph.D. dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. DAI 43A:3896.
  • Hébert, Yvonne M. (1982b). Aspect and Transitivity in (Nicola Lake) Okanagan. Syntax and Semantics 15:195–215.
  • Hébert, Yvonne M. (1983). Noun and Verb in a Salishan Language. KWPL 8:31–81.
  • Hill-Tout, Charles. (1911). Report on the Ethnology of the Okanák.ēn of British Columbia, an Interior Division of the Salish Stock. JAIGBI 41:130–161. London.
  • Kennedy, Dorothy I. D. and Randall T. [Randy] Bouchard. (1998). ‘Northern Okanagan, Lakes, and Colville.’ Pp. 238–252 of Walker, Jr. (vol. ed.) 1998.
  • Kinkade, M. Dale. (1967). On the Identification of the Methows (Salish). IJAL 33:193–197.
  • Kinkade, M. Dale. (1987). [Review of The Golden Woman: The Colville Narrative of Peter J. Seymour (Mattina 1985).] Western Folklore 46:213–214.
  • Kroeber, Karl, and Eric P. Hamp. (1989). [Review of The Golden Woman: The Colville Narrative of Peter J. Seymour (Mattina, ed.).] IJAL 55:94–97.
  • Krueger, John R. (1967). Miscellanea Selica V: English-Salish Index and Finder List. AL 9(2):12–25.
  • Mattina, Anthony and Clara Jack. (1982). Okanagan Communication and Language. ICSNL 17:269–294, Portland, Oregon.
  • Mattina, Anthony and Clara Jack. (1986). Okanagan-Colville Kinship Terms. ICSNL 21:339–346, Seattle, Washington. [Published as Mattina and Jack 1992.]
  • Mattina, Anthony and Nancy J. Mattina (1995). Okanagan ks- and -kł. ICSNL 30, Victoria, B.C.
  • Mattina, Anthony and Sarah Peterson. (1997). Diminutives in Colville-Okanagan. ICSNL 32:317–324, Port Angeles, Washington.
  • Mattina, Anthony and Allan Taylor. (1984). The Salish Vocabularies of David Thompson. IJAL 50:48–83.
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1993). Some Lexical Properties of Colville-Okanagan Ditransitives. ICSNL 28:265–284, Seattle, Washington.
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1994a). Roots, Bases, and Stems in Colville-Okanagan. ICSNL 29, Pablo, Montana.
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1994b). Argument Structure of Nouns, Nominalizations, and Denominals in Okanagan Salish. Paper presented at the 2nd Annual University of Victoria Salish Morphosyntax Workshop, Victoria, B.C.
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1994c). Notes on Word Order in Colville-Okanagan Salish. NWLC 10:93–102. Burnaby, B.C.: Simon Fraser University.
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1996a). Aspect and Category in Okanagan Word Formation. Ottawa: National Library of Canada = Bibliothèque nationale du Canada, 1997. ISBN 0-612-17011-X
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1996b). Anticausatives in Okanagan. Paper presented at the 4th Annual University of Victoria Salish Morphosyntax Conference, Victoria, B.C.
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1999a). Future in Colville-Okanagan Salish. ICSNL 34:215–230, Kamloops, B.C. [Note also (Nancy) Mattina 1999c.]
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (1999b). Toward a History of the Inflectional Future in Colville-Okanagan Salish. University of California Santa Barbara Occasional Papers in Linguistics 17:27–42. Santa Barbara: University of California Santa Barbara.
  • Mattina, Nancy J. (2004). smiyáw sucnmínctәxw: Coyote Proposes. Pp. 289–299 of Gerdts and Matthewson (eds.) 2004.
  • O’Brien, Michael. (1967). A Phonology of Methow. ICSL 2, Seattle, Washington.
  • Pattison, Lois C. (1978). Douglas Lake Okanagan: Phonology and Morphology. M.A. thesis, University of British Columbia.
  • Petersen, Janet E. (1980). Colville Lexical Suffixes and Comparative Notes. MS.
  • Ray, Verne F. (1932). The Sanpoil and Nespelem: Salish Peoples of Northwestern Washington. UWPA 5. Seattle.
  • Schuhmacher, W. W. (1977). The Colville Name for Hawaii. IJAL 43:65–66.
  • Spier, Leslie. (1938). The Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagan of Washington. General Series in Anthropology, no. 6. Menasha, Wisconsin: George Banta Publishing.
  • Turner, Nancy J., Randy Bouchard, and Dorothy D. Kennedy. (1980). Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of British Columbia and Washington. Occasional Paper Series 21. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum.
  • Vogt, Hans. (1940). Salishan Studies. Comparative Notes on Kalispel, Spokane, Colville and Coeur d’Alene. Oslo: Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, II, Hist.-filos. Klasse, No. 2, Jacob Dybwad.
  • Watkins, Donald. (1972). A Description of the Phonemes and Position Classes in the Morphology of Head of the Lake Okanagan. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Alberta, Edmonton.
  • Watkins, Donald. (1974). A Boas original. IJAL 40:29–43.
  • Young, Philip. (1971). A Phonology of Okanogan. M.A. thesis, University of Kansas.

External links[edit]