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Siouan languages

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central North America
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-2 / 5sio
Pre-contact distribution of the Siouan–Catawban languages

Siouan (/ˈsən/ SOO-ən) or Siouan–Catawban is a language family of North America that is located primarily in the Great Plains, Ohio and Mississippi valleys and southeastern North America with a few other languages in the east.


Authors who call the entire family Siouan distinguish the two branches as Western Siouan and Eastern Siouan or as "Siouan-proper" and "Catawban". Others restrict the name "Siouan" to the western branch and use the name Siouan–Catawban for the entire family. Generally, however, the name "Siouan" is used without distinction.

Family division[edit]

Siouan languages can be grouped into Western Siouan languages and Catawban.

The Western Siouan languages are typically subdivided into Missouri River languages (such as Crow and Hidatsa), Mandan, Mississippi River languages (such as Dakota, Chiwere-Winnebago, and Dhegihan languages), and Ohio Valley Siouan languages (Ofo, Biloxi, and Tutelo). The Catawban branch consisting of Catawban and Woccon.

Charles F. Voegelin established, on the basis of linguistic evidence, that Catawban was divergent enough from the other Siouan languages, including neighboring Siouan languages of the Piedmont and Appalachia, to be considered a distinct branch.[1] Voegelin proposes that Biloxi, Ofo and Tutelo consistute one group which he terms Ohio Valley Siouan. This group includes various historical languages spoken by Siouan peoples not only in the Ohio River Valley, but across the Appalachian Plateau and into the Piedmont regions of present-day Virginia and the Carolinas. Some of these groups migrated or were displaced great distances following European contact, ending up as far afield as present-day Ontario and southern Mississippi. Collectively, Siouan languages of Appalachia and the Piedmont are sometimes grouped under the term Tutelo, Tutelo-Saponi, or Yesah (Yesa:sahį)[2] as the language historically spoken by the Monacan, Manahoac, Haliwa-Saponi, and Occaneechi peoples.[3]


Previous proposals[edit]

There is a certain amount of comparative work in Siouan–Catawban languages. Wolff (1950–51) is among the first and more complete works on the subject. Wolff reconstructed the system of proto-Siouan, and this was modified by Matthews (1958). The latter's system is shown below:

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive *p *t *k
Fricative *s *x *h
Nasal *m *n
Approximant *w *r *j

With respect to vowels, five oral vowels are being reconstructed /*i, *e, *a, *o, *u/ and three nasal vowels /*ĩ, *ã, *ũ/. Wolff also reconstructed some consonantal clusters /*tk, *kʃ, *ʃk, *sp/.

Current proposal[edit]

Collaborative work involving a number of Siouanists started at the 1984 Comparative Siouan Workshop at the University of Colorado with the goal of creating a comparative Siouan dictionary that would include Proto-Siouan reconstructions.[4] This work yielded a different analysis of the phonemic system of Proto-Siouan, which appears below:[5]


Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive plain *p *t *k
glottalized *pʼ *tʼ *kʼ
preaspirated *ʰp *ʰt *ʰk
postaspirated *pʰ *tʰ *kʰ
Fricative plain *s *x *h
glottalized *sʼ *ʃʼ *xʼ
Sonorant *w *r *j
Obstruent *W *R

In Siouanist literature (e.g., Rankin et al. 2015), Americanist phonetic transcriptions are the norm, so IPA *ʃ is Americanist *š, IPA *j is Americanist *y, and so on.

The major change to the previously-proposed system was accomplished by systematically accounting for the distribution of multiple stop series in modern Siouan languages by tracing them back to multiple stop series in the proto-language. Previous analysis posited only a single stop series.[6]

Many of the consonant clusters proposed by Wolff (1950–1951) can be accounted for due to syncopation of short vowels before stressed syllables. For example, Matthews (1958: 129) gives *wróke as the proto-form for 'male.' With added data from a larger set of Siouan languages since the middle of the twentieth century, Rankin et al. (2015) give *waroː(-ka) as the reconstructed form for 'male.'

Unlike Wolff and Matthew's proposals, there are no posited nasal consonants in Proto-Siouan. Nasal consonants only arise in daughter languages when followed by a nasal vowel.[7] In addition, there is a set of sounds that represent obstruentized versions of their corresponding sonorants. These sounds have different reflexes in daughter languages, with *w appearing as [w] or [m] in most daughter languages, while *W has a reflex of [w], [b], [mb], or [p]. The actual phonetic value of these obstruents is an issue of some debate, with some arguing that they arise through geminated *w+*w or *r+*r sequences or a laryngeal plus *w or *r.[8]


Previous work on Proto-Siouan only posited single vowel length. However, phonemic vowel length exists in several Siouan languages such as Hidatsa, Ho-Chunk, and Tutelo. Rankin et al. (2015) analyze numerous instances of long vowels as present due to common inheritance rather than common innovation. The five oral vowels and three nasal vowels posited by earlier scholars is expanded to include a distinction between short and long vowels. The proposed Proto-Siouan vowel system appears below:

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
High oral *i *iː *u *uː
nasal *ĩː *ũː
Mid *e *eː *o *oː
Low oral *a *aː
nasal *ãː

External relations[edit]

The Yuchi isolate may be the closest relative of Sioux–Catawban, based on both sound changes and morphological comparison.[9]

In the 19th century, Robert Latham suggested that the Siouan languages are related to the Caddoan and Iroquoian languages. In 1931, Louis Allen presented the first list of systematic correspondences between a set of 25 lexical items in Siouan and Iroquoian. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wallace Chafe further explored the link between Siouan and Caddoan languages. In the 1990s, Marianne Mithun compared the morphology and syntax of all the three families. At present, this Macro-Siouan hypothesis is not considered proven, and the similarities between the three families may instead be due to their protolanguages having been part of a sprachbund.[10]


  1. ^ Voegelin, C.F. (1941). "Internal Relationships of Siouan Languages". American Anthropologist. 42 (2): 246–249. doi:10.1525/aa.1941.43.2.02a00080. JSTOR 662955.
  2. ^ https://www.yesasahin.org/
  3. ^ Ryan M. Kasak. 2016. A distant genetic relationship between SiouanCatawban and Yuchi. In Catherine Rudin & Bryan J. Gordon (eds.), Advances in the study of siouan languages and linguistics, 5–39. Berlin: Language Science Press. DOI:10.17169/langsci.b94.120 https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/be94144a-3e4f-4913-9089-2bcfe5bd0879/611691.pdf
  4. ^ Rankin, Robert L., Carter, Richard T., Jones, A. Wesley, Koontz, John E., Rood, David S. & Hartmann, Iren (Eds.). (2015). Comparative Siouan Dictionary. Leipzig, Germany: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://csd.clld.org, Accessed on 2015-12-13.)
  5. ^ Rankin, Robert L., Carter, Richard T. & Jones, A. Wesley (n.d.). Proto-Siouan Phonology and Grammar. Ms. University of Kansas.
  6. ^ Wolff, Hans (1950). "Comparative Siouan II". International Journal of American Linguistics. 16 (3): 113–121. doi:10.1086/464075. S2CID 197656511.
  7. ^ Some Siouan languages have however developed a phonemic contrast between the non-nasal sonorants w- and r- and the corresponding nasals m- and n-. These historical developments are presented in the following article: Michaud, Alexis; Jacques, Guillaume; Rankin, Robert L. (2012). "Historical Transfer of Nasality Between Consonantal Onset and Vowel: From C to V or from V to C?". Diachronica. 29 (2): 201–230. doi:10.1075/dia.29.2.04mic. S2CID 53057252.
  8. ^ Rankin, Robert L., Carter, Richard T. & Jones, A. Wesley. (n.d.). Proto-Siouan Phonology and Grammar. Ms. University of Kansas.
  9. ^ Kasak, Ryan (2016). "A distant genetic relationship between Siouan-Catawban and Yuchi".
  10. ^ Mithun, Marianne (1999). The languages of native North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 305. ISBN 9780521232289.


  • Parks, Douglas R.; & Rankin, Robert L. (2001). "The Siouan languages." In R. J. DeMallie (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Plains (Vol. 13, Part 1, pp. 94–114). W. C. Sturtevant (Gen. Ed.). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-050400-7.
  • Voegelin, C.F. (1941). "Internal Relationships of Siouan Languages". American Anthropologist. 42 (2): 246–249. doi:10.1525/aa.1941.43.2.02a00080. JSTOR 662955.

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