Numic languages

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Western United States
Linguistic classification: Uto-Aztecan
  • Western Numic
  • Central Numic
  • Southern Numic
Glottolog: numi1242[1]

Numic is a branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. It includes seven languages spoken by Native American peoples traditionally living in the Great Basin, Colorado River basin, and southern Great Plains. The word Numic comes from the cognate word in all Numic languages for "person." For example, in the three Central Numic languages and the two Western Numic languages it is /nɨmɨ/. In Kawaiisu it is /nɨwɨ/ and in Colorado River /nɨwɨ/, /nɨŋwɨ/ and /nuu/.


These languages are classified in three groups:

Apart from Comanche, each of these groups contains one language spoken in a small area in the southern Sierra Nevada and valleys to the east (Mono, Timbisha, and Kawaiisu), and one language spoken in a much larger area extending to the north and east (Northern Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute-Southern Paiute). Some linguists have taken this pattern as an indication that Numic speaking peoples expanded quite recently from a small core, perhaps near the Owens Valley, into their current range. This view is supported by lexicostatistical studies.[21] Fowler's reconstruction of Proto-Numic ethnobiology also points to the region of the southern Sierra Nevada as the homeland of Proto-Numic approximately two millennia ago.[22] Recent mitochondrial DNA studies have supported this linguistic hypothesis.[23] The anthropologist Peter N. Jones thinks this evidence to be of a circumstantial nature,[24] but this is a distinctly minority opinion among specialists in Numic.[25]

The Comanche split off from the Shoshone soon after they acquired horses around 1705. The Comanche language and the Shoshone language are quite similar although certain low-level consonant changes in Comanche have inhibited mutual intelligibility.[26]

Major sound changes[edit]

The sound system of Numic is set forth in the following tables.[27]


Proto-Numic had an inventory of five vowels.

front back
High *i *u
Non-High *a *o


Proto-Numic had the following consonant inventory:

Bilabial Coronal Palatal Velar Labialized
Stop *p *t *k *kʷ
Affricate *ts
Fricative *s *h
Nasal *m *n (*ŋʷ)
Semivowel *j *w

In addition to the above simple consonants, Proto-Numic also had nasal-stop/affricate clusters and all consonants except *s, *h, *j, and *w could be geminated. Between vowels short consonants were lenited.

Major Central Numic Consonant Changes[edit]

The major difference between Proto-Central Numic and Proto-Numic was the phonemic split of Proto-Numic geminate consonants into geminate consonants and preaspirated consonants. The conditioning factors involve stress shifts and are complex. The preaspirated consonants surfaced as voiceless fricatives, often preceded by a voiceless vowel.

Shoshoni and Comanche have both lost the velar nasals, merging them with *n or turning them into velar nasal-stop clusters. In Comanche, nasal-stop clusters have become simple stops, but p and t from these clusters do not lenite intervocalically. This change postdates the earliest record of Comanche from 1786, but precedes the 20th century. Geminated stops in Comanche have also become phonetically preaspirated.

Major Southern Numic Consonant Changes[edit]

Proto-Southern Numic preserved the Proto-Numic consonant system fairly intact, but the individual languages have undergone several changes.

Modern Kawaiisu has reanalyzed the nasal-stop clusters as voiced stops, although older recordings preserve some of the clusters. Geminated stops and affricates are voiceless and non-geminated stops and affricates are voiced fricatives. The velar nasals have fallen together with the alveolar nasals.

The dialects of Colorado River east of Chemehuevi have lost *h. The dialects east of Kaibab have collapsed the nasal-stop clusters with the geminated stops and affricate.

Major Western Numic Consonant Changes[edit]

Proto-Western Numic changed the nasal-stop clusters of Proto-Numic into voiced geminate stops. In Mono and all dialects of Northern Paiute except Southern Nevada, these voiced geminate stops have become voiceless.

Sample Numic Cognate Sets[edit]

The following table shows some sample Numic cognate sets that illustrate the above changes. Forms in the daughter languages are written in a broad phonetic transcription rather than a phonemic transcription that sometimes masks the differences between the forms. Italicized vowels and sonorants are voiceless.

Mono Northern Paiute Timbisha Shoshoni Comanche Kawaiisu Colorado River
'hunt, trap'
hoa hoa hɨwa hɨa hɨa hɨa oa (SP)
jaɣa jaɣa jaɣa jaɣai jake jaɣi jaɣa
kaiβa kaiβa keeβi kaiβa
kuttsu kuttsu
nakka nakka
naɡɡa (So Nev)
naŋɡa naŋɡi naki naɣaβiβi naŋkaβɨ (Ch)
nakka- (Ut)
oɸimbɨ oɸi
'mesquite bean'
oβi(m)bɨ oppimpɨ (Ch)
pakkʷi pakkʷi
paɡɡʷi (So Nev)
paŋŋʷi paiŋɡʷi pekʷi
'pet, dog'
pukku pukku
puɡɡu (So Nev)
puɣu puŋku (Ch)
pukku (Ut)
'pine nut'
tɨβa tɨβa tɨβa tɨβa tɨβattsi tɨβa
wokkoβɨ wokkoppi
oɡɡoppi (So Nev)
woŋɡoβi woŋɡoβin wokoβi woɣo-
(only in compounds)


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    Jean O. Charney. 1993. A Grammar of Comanche. Studies in the Anthropology of North American Indians. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
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    Jon P. Dayley. 1989. Tümpisa (Panamint) Shoshone Dictionary. University of California Publications in Linguistics Volume 116. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
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    Wick R. Miller. 1996. "Sketch of Shoshone, a Uto-Aztecan Language," Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 17, Languages. Ed. Ives Goddard. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. Pages 693–720.
    Dirk Allen Elzinga. 1999. "The Consonants of Gosiute", University of Arizona Ph.D. dissertation.
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    Malinda Tidzump. 1970. Shoshone Thesaurus. Grand Forks, North Dakota.
  10. ^ Maurice L. Zigmond, Curtis G. Booth, & Pamela Munro. 1991. Kawaiisu, A Grammar and Dictionary with Texts. Ed. Pamela Munro. University of California Publications in Linguistics Volume 119. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
  11. ^ Margaret L. Press. 1979. Chemehuevi, A Grammar and Lexicon. University of California Publications in Linguistics Volume 92. Berkeley, California. University of California Press.
    Laird, Carobeth. 1976. The Chemehuevis. Malki Museum Press, Banning, California.
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    Edward Sapir. 1931. Southern Paiute Dictionary. Reprinted in 1992 in: The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, X, Southern Paiute and Ute Linguistics and Ethnography. Ed. William Bright. Berlin: Mouton deGruyter.
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  13. ^ Talmy Givón. 2011. Ute Reference Grammar. Culture and Language Use Volume 3. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
    Jean O. Charney. 1996. A Dictionary of the Southern Ute Language. Ignacio, Colorado: Ute Press.
  14. ^ Sidney M. Lamb. 1957. "Mono Grammar," University of California, Berkeley Ph.D. dissertation.
    Rosalie Bethel, Paul V. Kroskrity, Christopher Loether, & Gregory A. Reinhardt. 1993. A Dictionary of Western Mono. 2nd edition.
  15. ^ Evan J. Norris. 1986. "A Grammar Sketch and Comparative Study of Eastern Mono," University of California, San Diego Ph.D. dissertation.
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  17. ^ Anonymous. 1987. Yerington Paiute Grammar. Anchorage, Alaska: Bilingual Education Services.
    Arie Poldevaart. 1987. Paiute-English English-Paiute Dictionary. Yerington, Nevada: Yerington Paiute Tribe.
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  19. ^ Timothy John Thornes. 2003. "A Northern Paiute Grammar with Texts," University of Oregon Ph.D. dissertation.
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    Sven Liljeblad. 1950. "Bannack I: Phonemes," International Journal of American Linguistics 16:126–131
  21. ^ James A. Goss. 1968. "Culture-Historical Inference from Utaztekan Linguistic Evidence," Utaztekan Prehistory. Ed. Earl H. Swanson, Jr. Occasional Papers of the Idaho State University Museum, Number 22. Pages 1–42.
  22. ^ Catherine Louise Sweeney Fowler. 1972. "Comparative Numic Ethnobiology". University of Pittsburgh PhD dissertation.
  23. ^ Frederika A. Kaestle and David Glenn Smith. 2001. "Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Evidence for Prehistoric Population Movement," American Journal of Physical Anthropology 115:1–12.
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    John E. McLaughlin. 2000. “Language Boundaries and Phonological Borrowing in the Central Numic Languages,” Uto-Aztecan: Temporal and Geographical Perspectives. Ed. Gene Casad and Thomas Willett. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. Pp. 293–304.
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    Michael Nichols. 1973. "Northern Paiute historical grammar," University of California, Berkeley PhD dissertation
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