Wiyot language

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Region California, U.S.
Extinct 1962
  • Wiyot
Language codes
ISO 639-3 wiy

Wiyot (also Wishosk) is an extinct Algic language,[1] formerly spoken by the Wiyot people of Humboldt Bay, California. The language's last native speaker, Della Prince, died in 1962. Some Wiyots are attempting a revival of the language.[2][3]

Usage and language family[edit]

Concerning the etymology of Wiyot (AKA Wishosk), Lyle Campbell writes, "Wiyot is from wíyat, the native name for the Eel River delta, which also referred to one of the three principal groups of Wiyots (Elsasser 1978:162)."[4]

He also notes:

"The connection of Wiyot and Yurok in northern California (which together were formerly called 'Ritwan, after Dixon and Kroeber's [1913] grouping of the two as one of their more remote Californian stocks) with Algonquian was first proposed by Sapir (1913) and was quite controversial at that time (see Michelson 1914, 1915; Sapir 1915a, 1915b; see also Chapter 2), but the relationship has subsequently been demonstrated to the satisfaction of all (see Haas 1958; Teeter 1964a; Goddard 1975, 1979, 1990). Before 1850 the Yurok lived on the lower Klamath River. The Wiyot (earlier called Wishosk) lived in the Humboldt Bay area, in the redwood belt; the last fully fluent speaker died in 1962 (Teeter 1964b). Many scholars have commented that although Wiyot and Yurok are neighbors in northern California, they seem not to have a closer relationship with each other than either has with Algonquian."[1]



The consonants of Wiyot are given in this chart, with a Practical Orthography in boldface and the IPA equivalents in brackets.

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar
or palatal
Velar Glottal
Central Lateral Plain Labialized
Stop Voiceless p [p] t [t] k [k] kw [kʷ] [ʔ]
Aspirated ph [pʰ] th [tʰ] kh [kʰ] khw [kʰʷ]
Affricate Voiceless c [ts] č [tʃ]
Aspirated ch [tsʰ] čh [tʃʰ]
Fricative Voiceless s [s] ł [ɬ] š [ʃ] h [h]
Voiced b [β] g [ɣ]
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Rhotic r [ɹ]
Flap d [ɾ]
Approximant l [l] y [j] w [w]


Front Central Back
High i u
Low e a o


Wiyot syllables always begin with consonants or consonant clusters, which are followed by a vowel. This vowel may be long or short. If the vowel is short, the syllable must end in the same consonant that begins the next syllable. Therefore, all non-final syllables are heavy, acquiring either a CVV or CVC structure. Word final syllables may or may not be heavy.

These syllable-final consonants are lengthened in speech, but do not appear as doubled letters in transcription. For example, in the word palógih, meaning 'flounder', the 'l' is lengthened. Thus, the first syllable ends with 'l', and the second begins with 'l', and both syllables are considered heavy.

Teeter describes the "weight" of Wiyot syllables as one of the languages most salient features for speakers of English. He adds that voiced sounds tend to be exceptionally long in spoken Wiyot, a feature that adds to the perceived phonological heaviness of the language.

Pitch Accent[edit]

In speech, Wiyot words are grouped into accent phrases, which are separated by commas when written. Within these phrases, regular patterns of syllable stress and vowel length emerge. Stress, pitch and vowel length increase gradually from the beginning of the accent phrase until the culminative syllable in the accent phrase is reached, after which pitch precipitously drops, except when it is the final syllable of the accent phrase. In such a situation, the accent phrase would end on a high pitch.

The vowel of the culminative syllable bears either an acute or grave accent, the latter indicating a high pitch, and the former a high pitch which rapidly falls. The grave accent appears only when the culminative syllable is the final syllable of a breath group, which are groups of accent phrases.

The ends of breath groups are marked by periods, and are notably lower in relative pitch. Accent phrases towards the end of a breath group follow the same pattern of gradual lengthening and pitch increase, though the relative pitch is lower with respect to the preceding accent phrases. Breath groups end with a general weakening of articulatory force, which is followed by a noticeable interval of silence.

Despite the intricacies of pitch involved in Wiyot, the total pitch range of the spoken language is only a fraction of that of English, for example.


kowa baktéthohlabił, búl, kiš dókwahl, ku lulawá, kud kuhwil. łekoku lulawìl.

'She began to throw aside the boards of the house, thinking in vain, 'I'll take that man back.' She never took him back.'

This fragment of Wiyot narration consists of two breath groups: the first contains five accent phrases, the second contains just one. The first accent phrase of the first breath group, kowa baktéthohlabił, carries the stress on the fourth syllable. The vowel of this 'culminative syllable', an 'e', carries an acute accent and is pronounced at a higher pitch than any other in the phrase. It is also lengthened relative to the other vowels in the phrase. After this culminative syllable, pitch and length decrease rapidly through the end of the accent phrase.

The second breath group contains just one accent phrase, łekoku lulawìl. Here, the culminative syllable comes at the end of the accent phrase, indicating that pitch and length increase through the phrase until the final vowel, which starts on a high pitch that rapidly falls. This articulation is indicated with a grave accent over the 'i'. These accents only appears when the culminative syllable is the last syllable of a breath group, as in this example.


Wiyot is a highly synthetic, agglutinative language. Words or, more specifically, accent phrases, are formed by joining stems and affixes. Wiyot employs both prefixation and suffixation, meaning that affixes appear both before and after stems.


Stems are all non-affixal morphemes, and can appear individually or as compounds. For example, thig-, meaning 'out', can appear as the only stem of a given word, or be joined to another stem, such as -atol, 'go'. Their compound, thigatol-, 'go out', is also a stem.

Stems are either initial or medial. Initial stems may appear, as their name implies, as the first or only stems in a given word. Most stems belong to this class. thig-, for example, is the initial stem in the above-mentioned compound thigatol-. All initial stems start with a consonant.

Medial stems may not appear as the initial or sole stem in a word, and therefore must be combined with an initial. Medials, such as -atol, always begin with a vowel. Medial stems may also occur as the second member of a compound with a special initial l-. This compound has essentially the same meaning as the medial itself. For example, the medial -athohl, meaning 'throw' or 'jump', can appear with an initial 'l-' as lathohl-, meaning 'throw'.


Wiyot affixes are classified as either derivational, inflectional or syntactic.

Derivational affixes are attached to stems and serve to classify them. Together, stems and derivational affixes form 'themes', which can be further modified by inflectional and syntactic affixes. The stem rakh-, meaning 'laugh', may take the derivational affix -ohw and become rakhohw-, or 'laugh at'. Thus, -ohw serves to create a transitive verb theme with rakh- as the stem. There are many derivational affixes, some of which occur only when affixed to specific stems.

Inflectional affixes encode the subject and object of the theme. Certain classes of Wiyot verbs can also take benefactive and instrumental affixes. The benefactive characterizes the verb as being done to a third person object for the benefit of a second object. Instrumental affixes convey that action is performed using a device of some kind. Instrumental and benefactive affixes directly encode for the subject of the verb and thus do not appear with inflectional affixes for subject. Therefore, the most inflectional affixes a verb can possibly take is three. Inflectional affixes can be either terminal or nonterminal in nature. Terminal affixes, when added to verb or noun themes, can complete words, while nonterminal affixes require additional affixation. Verbs can take up to three inflectional affixes. The noun form rakhóhwalił, meaning 'he/she laughs at me', contains two inflectional affixes that modify the verb form rakhohw- shown above: -al is the nonterminal suffix that encodes a first person object, and -ił is the terminal suffix for a third person subject.

Syntactic affixes, many of which are prefixes, also known as preverbs, are affixed to verb themes and often convey aspectual information. For example, in the phrase łekowa khúhnad, meaning 'finally it starts to get dark', the verb theme khuhn-, 'to get dark', is modified by two syntactic suffixes, łe- and kowa-. 'łe- means 'finally', and kowa- marks the inchoative aspect, translated here as 'it starts'. khuhn- is also inflected for the third person subject by the inflectional terminal suffix -ad. Verbs form can take up to four preverbs, which appear in a fixed order according to their syntactic class. There are nine classes in total, with the lower numbers appearing earlier in the verb form.

Some examples of preverbs include:

Class I: ła, the cessative aspect. ła kítapaluy 'They just got through eating'

Class II: bu, the perfect tense. bu tikwátolił 'He had come down.'

Class VI: ki, the emphatic negative. ki bołùy 'They never eat.'

The position numbers fix the relative positions of these preverbs when they appear in combination. Thus, to create a perfect cessative construction using the inflected verb themetikwátolił, ła would have to precede bu to form łabu tikwátolił, 'He had just come down'.

Preverbs, in addition to aspect, often convey tense and mood.


Verbs are the core of Wiyot grammar, and verbal phrases are the most important part of Wiyot sentences. Verb phrases themselves frequently encode subject, object and instrumental information, but the actual entities being signified are rarely named. Noun and pronoun phrases serve to provide this information.

Verb complexes- inflected verb themes combined with syntactic affixes- form sentences along with nominal phrases. The transitivity of the verb complex determines the classes of noun forms that may occur in the sentence; nominal phrases serve to specify subject and object information, so intransitive verbs, which lack inflection for object, would not appear in combination with a nominal phrase for the object.


  1. ^ a b Campbell (1997:152)
  2. ^ "Wiyot". Native-Languages.org. Retrieved 2009-09-26. 
  3. ^ "Language". Wiyot Tribe. Retrieved 2013-09-30. 
  4. ^ Campbell (1997:401)


  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Dixon, Roland; & Kroeber, Alfred L. (1913). New linguistic families in California. American Anthropologist, 5, 1-26.
  • Elsasser, Albert B. (1978). Wiyot. In R. F. Heizer (Ed.), California (pp. 153-163). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 8) (W. C. Sturtevant (Ed.)). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1975). Algonquian, Wiyot, and Yurok: Proving a distant genetic relationship. In M. D. Kinkade, K. L. Hale, & O. Werner (Eds.), Linguistics and anthropology in honor of C. F. Voegelin (pp. 249-262). Lisse: Peter de Ridder Press.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1979). Comparative Algonquian. In L. Campbell & M. Mithun (Eds.), The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment (pp. 70-132). Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1990). Algonquian linguistic change and reconstruction. In P. Baldi (Ed.), Linguistic change and reconstruction methodology (pp. 99-114). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Golla, Victor. (2011). California Indian Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26667-4.
  • Haas, Mary R. (1958). Algonkian-Ritwan: The end of a controversy. International Journal of American Linguistics, 24, 159-173.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L.. "Wiyot. Languages North of San Francisco". University of California Publications in Am. Arch. and Etho. 9. Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  • Michelson, Truman. 1914. Two alleged Algonquian languages of California. American Anthropologist, 16, 361-367.
  • Michelson, Truman. 1915. Rejoinder (to Edward Sapir). American Anthropologist, 17, 4-8.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Sapir, Edward. 1913. Wiyot and Yurok, Algonkin languages of California. American Anthropologist, 15, 617-646.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1915)a. Algonkin languages of California: A reply. American Anthropologist, 17, 188-194.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1915)b. Epilogue. American Anthropologist, 17, 198.
  • Teeter, Karl V. (1964)a. Algonquian languages and genetic relationship. In Proceedings of the ninth international congress of linguists (pp. 1026-1033). The Hague: Mouton.
  • Teeter, Karl V. (1964)b. The Wiyot language. University of California publications in linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

External links[edit]

  • "Wiyot". California Language Archive. Retrieved 2012-08-02. 
  • Wiyot Book. University of California Publications. Retrieved 2012-08-26.