Chumashan languages

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Ethnicity: Chumash
southern coastal California
Extinct since the 1960s
Linguistic classification: One of the world's primary language families
  • Northern Chumash Obispeño
  • Central Chumash (Purisimeño, Ineseño, Barbareño and Ventureño)
  • Island Chumash
Glottolog: chum1262[1]
Pre-contact distribution of Chumashan languages

Chumashan (English name from čʰumaš /t͡ʃʰumaʃ/, meaning "Santa Cruz Islander") is a family of languages that were spoken on the southern California coast by Native American Chumash people, from the Coastal plains and valleys of San Luis Obispo to Malibu, neighboring inland and Transverse Ranges valleys and canyons east to bordering the San Joaquin Valley, to three adjacent Channel Islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz.[2]

The Chumashan languages may be, along with Yukian and perhaps languages of southern Baja such as Waikuri, one of the oldest language families established in California, before the arrival of speakers of Penutian, Uto-Aztecan, and perhaps even Hokan languages. Chumashan, Yukian, and southern Baja languages are spoken in areas with long-established populations of a distinct physical type. The population in the core Chumashan area has been stable for the past 10,000 years. However, the attested range of Chumashan is recent (within a couple thousand years). There is internal evidence that Obispeño replaced a Hokan language and that Island Chumash mixed with a language very different from Chumashan; the islands were not in contact with the mainland until the introduction of plank canoes in the first millennium AD.[3]

All of the Chumashan languages are now extinct, although they are well documented in the unpublished fieldnotes of linguist John Peabody Harrington. Especially well documented are Barbareño, Ineseño, and Ventureño. The last native speaker of a Chumashan language was Barbareño speaker Mary Yee, who died in 1965.

Family division[edit]


Six Chumashan languages are attested, all now extinct. However, most of them are in the process of revitalization, with language programs and classes. Contemporary Chumash people now prefer to refer to their languages by native names rather than the older names based on the local missions.

I. Northern Chumash

1. Obispeño (also known as Northern Chumash) (†)
Also known as Tilhini by students of the language, after the name of the major village near which the mission was founded.

II. Southern Chumash

a. Island Chumash (mixed with non-Chumash)
2. Island Chumash (also known as Ysleño, Isleño, Cruzeño) (†)
b. Central Chumash
3. Purisimeño (†)
4. Ineseño (also spelled Inezeño) (†)
Now called Samala or Sʰamala by the Santa Ynez Band. This word has an S with a puff of air after it, not a "sh" sound. It is the name for the language and the people.
5. Barbareño (†)
Now called Shmuwich or Šmuwič by students of the language and community members. This is the name for the language and the people; it means "coastal."
6. Ventureño (†)
Now called Mitsqanaqa'n by students of the language and community members, after the name of a major village near which the mission was founded.

Obispeño was the most divergent Chumashan language. The Central Chumash languages include Purisimeño, Ineseño, Barbareño and Ventureño. There was a dialect continuum across this area, but the form of the language spoken in the vicinity of each mission was distinct enough to qualify as a different language.

There is very little documentation of Purisimeño. Ineseño, Barbareño and Ventureño each had several dialects, although documentation usually focused on just one. Island Chumash had different dialects on Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island, but all speakers were relocated to the mainland in the early 19th century. John Peabody Harrington conducted fieldwork on all the above Chumashan languages, but obtained the least data on Island Chumash, Purisimeño, and Obispeño. There is no linguistic data on Cuyama, though ethnographic data suggests that it was likely Chumash (Interior Chumash).

There are six or seven Chumashan languages, depending in part on how one interprets the status of the poorly attested Interior Chumash (Cuyama) as a distinct language.


The languages are named after the local Franciscan Spanish missions in California where Chumashan speakers were relocated and aggregated between the 1770s and 1830s:

Genetic relations[edit]

Roland Dixon and Alfred L. Kroeber suggested that the Chumashan languages might be related to the neighboring Salinan in a Iskoman grouping.[4] Edward Sapir accepted this speculation and included Iskoman in his classification of Hokan.[5] More recently it has been noted that Salinan and Chumashan shared only one word, which the Chumashan languages probably borrowed from Salinan (the word meant 'white clam shell' and was used as currency).[6] As a result, the inclusion of Chumashan into Hokan is now disfavored by most specialists, and the consensus is that Chumashan has no identified linguistic relatives.[7]


The Chumashan languages are well known for their consonant harmony (regressive sibilant harmony). Mithun presents a scholarly synopsis of Chumashan linguistic structures.[8]


The Central Chumash languages all have a symmetrical six-vowel system. The distinctive high central vowel is written various ways, including /ɨ/ "barred I," /ə/ "schwa" and /ï/ "I umlaut." Contemporary students/users of the languages favor /ɨ/ or /ə/.

Vowels of Central Chumash
Front Central Back
High i ɨ/ə u
Low e a o

Striking features of this system include

  • Low-vowel harmony within morphemes: Within a single morpheme, adjacent low vowels match: they are both or all front /e/, central /a/ or back /o/. Pan-Central examples:
expeč "to sing" — I/B/V
ʼosos "heel" — I/B/V
ʼasas "chin" — I/B/V
  • Low-vowel harmony as a process: Many prefixes include a low vowel which shows up as /a/ when the vowel of the following syllable is high. When the vowel of the following syllable is low, the vowel of the prefix assimilates to (or "harmonizes" with) the front-central-back quality of the following vowel. The verb prefix kal- "of cutting" illustrates this process in the following Barbareño examples, where the /l/ may drop out:
kamasix "to cut into three pieces" — kal- + masix "three"
keseqen "to cut out" — kal- + seqen "to remove"
qoloq " to make or bore a hole, cut a hole in — kal- + loq "to be perforated"
katun "to cut into two pieces" — kal- + =tun "of two, being two"


The Central Chumash languages have a complex inventory of consonants. All of the consonants except /h/ can be glottalized; all of the consonants except /h/, /x/ and the liquids can be aspirated.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Chumashan". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Grant 1978
  3. ^ Golla, Victor. (2011). California Indian Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-5202-6667-4
  4. ^ Dixon and Kroeber 1913
  5. ^ Sapir 1917
  6. ^ Klar 1977
  7. ^ Mithun 1999:390
  8. ^ Mithun 1999:390-392


  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Dixon, Roland R.; & Kroeber, Alfred L. (1913). New Linguistic Families in California. American Anthropologist 15:647-655.
  • Goddard, Ives (Ed.). (1996). Languages. Handbook of North American Indians (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9.
  • Klar, Kathryn. (1977). Topics in historical Chumash grammar. (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley).
  • Kroeber, Alfred Louis (1910). The Chumash and Costanoan languages. Berkeley, The University Press. Retrieved 2012-08-26. 
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Grant, Campbell. (1978). Chumash:Introduction. In California Handbook of North American Indians (William C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) Vol. 8 (Robert F. Heizer, Volume Ed.). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1917). The Position of Yana in the Hokan Stock. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and ethnology 13:1–34. Berkeley: University of California.