Ona language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Native toArgentina, Chile
RegionPatagonia, Tierra del Fuego.
Extinct1970s (is being revitalised by the modern community)[1]
  • Chon proper †
    • Island Chon †
      • Ona
Latin script
Language codes
ISO 639-3ona

Ona, also known as Selk'nam (Shelknam), is a language spoken by the Selk'nam people in Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego in southernmost South America.

Part of the Chonan languages of Patagonia, Selk'nam is almost extinct, due to the late 19th-century Selk'nam genocide by European immigrants, high fatalities due to disease, and disruption of traditional society. One source states that the last fluent native speakers died in the 1980s.[2] A Radboud University linguist worked with speaker Herminia Vera-Ona, who died in 2014, to write a reference grammar of the language.[3]


Within the Southern Chon language family, Selk'nam is closest to Haush, another language spoken on the island of Tierra del Fuego.

There is speculation that Chon together with the Moseten languages, a small group of languages in Bolivia, form part of a Moseten-Chonan language family. Another proposal is, that it is related to the Pano-Tacanan languages.

Joseph Greenberg classifies Selk'nam as an Amerind language of the Southern Andean group.[4]


The Selk'nam people, also known as the Ona, are an indigenous people who inhabited the northeastern part of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They were nomads known as "foot-people," as they did their hunting on land, rather than being seafarers.

A Selk'nam family

The last full-blooded Selk'nam, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be reached by Europeans. Their language, believed to be part of the Chonan family, is considered extinct as the last native speakers died in the 1980s. Currently, Selk'nam communities are revitalizing the language. A man of mixed Selk'nam and Mapuche ancestry, Joubert Yanten Gomez (indigenous name: Keyuk) has successfully taught himself the language.[5]


Based on available data, Selk'nam seems to have had 3 vowels and 23 consonants.[3]

Selk'nam has three vowels: /a, ɪ, ʊ/.

Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Velar Uvular Glottal
dental plain
Nasal m n
plain p t t͡ʃ k q ʔ
ejective t͡ʃʼ
Fricative s ʂ x h
Liquid rhotic ɾ
lateral l
Semivowel w j


The Ona language is an object–verb–subject language (OVS). This is a rare word order: only 1% of languages use it as their default word order. There are only two word classes in Selk'nam: nouns and verbs.[6]


The Selk'nam language has Chonan vocabulary similar to the Haush language, though some words have been adopted from Spanish and English, such as the word for "cat", in Selk'nam, k'lattítaŭ; from the Spanish word gatito, which translates to "kitten".[7]

Comparative vocabulary[edit]

The following is a list of examples of comparative vocabulary from Chonan languages: Ona, Haush and Tehuelche; and also vocabulary from the unrelated Yahgan (Yámana).[8][9][10][11]

Ona Haush Tehuelche Yahgan English
Heil Hel Hel Hach Egg
Chon Kon Chonke Ona Man
Naa Mna Karken, Naa Kipa Woman
Chen Chen Chen Mar'po Hand
Ya Iá, Ya I, me
Koy Kowen, Chowen Koy Yká Sea
Ma, Mak Maha, Maak Sa You

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ona". Ethnologue. SIL International. Retrieved 17 November 2023.
  2. ^ Adelaar, Willem (2010). "South America". In Moseley, Christopher; Nicolas, Alexandre (eds.). Atlas of the world's languages in danger (3rd entirely revised, enlarged and updated ed.). Paris: UNESCO. pp. 86–94. ISBN 978-92-3-104096-2.
  3. ^ a b c Rojas-Berscia, Luis Miguel (2014). A Heritage Reference Grammar of Selk’nam (Thesis). Nijmegen: Radboud University.
  4. ^ Bolnick, Deborah; Shook, Beth; Campbell, Lyle; Goddard, Ives (2004). "Problematic Use of Greenberg's Linguistic Classification of the Americas in Studies of Native American Genetic Variation". American Journal of Human Genetics. 75 (3): 519–523. Retrieved 20 November 2023.
  5. ^ Thurman, Judith. "A loss for words: Can a dying language be saved?". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  6. ^ Najlis, Elena L. (1973). Lengua selknam. Filología y lingüística (in Spanish). Vol. 3. Buenos Aires: Universidad de Salvador.
  7. ^ Lehmann-Nitsche, Roberto (1913). Selk'nam words. The Ōōna vocabulary collected by Roberto Lehmann-Nitsche.
  8. ^ "Lengua Haush. Vocabulario". pueblosoriginarios.com (in Spanish). Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  9. ^ "Lenguas Ona o Selknam. Prospecto comparativo Idioma Tehuelche". pueblosoriginarios.com (in Spanish). Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  10. ^ "Lengua Tehuelche. Diccionario Aónikenk - Español". pueblosoriginarios.com (in Spanish). Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  11. ^ "Lenguas Yámana y Kawésqar. Vocabulario comparativo". pueblosoriginarios.com (in Spanish). Retrieved 2023-04-27.

External links[edit]