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Tewa language

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Native toUnited States
RegionNew Mexico, Arizona
EthnicityTewa people
Native speakers
1,600 (2007)[1]
  • Tewa
Language codes
ISO 639-3tew
Tewa is classified as Definitely Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Tewa (/ˈtwə/ TAY-wə)[2] is a Tanoan language spoken by some Pueblo people, mostly in the Rio Grande valley in New Mexico north of Santa Fe, and in Arizona. It is also known as Tano,[3] or Tée-wah (archaic). There is some disagreement among the Tewa people about whether or not Tewa should have a written form, as some Pueblo elders believe that their language should be preserved by oral tradition alone. Because of this, it was not until the 1960s that the language was written down for the first time. However, many Tewa speakers have decided that Tewa literacy is an important aspect in passing down the language and so orthographies have been created for this purpose.[4]

The language has struggled to maintain a healthy speaker base; however, because of efforts to preserve the language starting in the 1980s—both by native speakers and linguists—this problem is not as dire as it for some other indigenous languages.

Tewa has a fairly large phoneme inventory with 45 distinct individual sounds. Twelve of these are vowels, which can be either long or short. Tewa, like other Tanoan languages, also makes use of tones, of which it has four.

Dialects and usage[edit]

The 1980 census counted 1,298 speakers, almost all of whom are bilingual in English.

Today, the Endangered Languages Project estimates a total of 1,500 speakers worldwide, with 1,200 of them in the New Mexico pueblos and 300 in the Arizona village of Hano. Of these speakers, few are fluent with the vast majority being semi-speakers, and only in a few places, like Hano, are children acquiring Tewa. The largest New Mexico pueblo, San Juan, there are only 30 fluent speakers left as of 2008.[5]

As of 2012, Tewa is defined as "severely endangered" in New Mexico by UNESCO.[6]

In the names "Pojoaque" and "Tesuque", the element spelled "que" (pronounced something like [ɡe] in Tewa, or /ki/ in English) is Tewa for "place".

Tewa can be written with the Latin script; this is occasionally used for such purposes as signs (Be-pu-wa-ve 'Welcome', or sen-ge-de-ho 'Bye'). Because alphabet systems have been developed in the different pueblos, Tewa has a variety of orthographies rather than a single standardized alphabet.[7]

One of the main dialectical delineations of the Santa Clara dialect is the use of /j/ in words where only /y/ is heard in other pueblos, although some Santa Clara speakers use /y/ and /j/ sporadically.[8]

Another important dialectical difference aligns Santa Clara, Tesuque, and San Ildefonso Tewa against San Juan and Nambe Tewa. The former use /d/ in the same environments where the latter use a nasal plus /d/.[8]

In two-syllable word bases, words that have a short /u/ in the initial syllable have a long /u/ in the Santa Clara dialect. In the Santa Clara dialect, where other pueblos have a high tone on this syllable, there will instead be a glide tone. [8]


The phonemes of Rio Grande Tewa are as follows:[8][9]


Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
plain sibilant plain lab.
voiceless p ⟨t⟩ ts ⟨ch⟩ k ⟨kw⟩ ʔ ⟨'⟩
ejective tsʼ tʃʼ ⟨ch'⟩ kʷʼ ⟨kw'⟩
voiced b d () ⟨j⟩ ɡ
Fricative voiceless f θ ⟨th⟩ s ʃ ⟨sh⟩ x ⟨xw⟩ h
voiced v
Nasal m n ɲ ⟨ñ⟩
Trill r
Approximant j ⟨y⟩ w
  • The voiced postalveolar affricate // occurs in the Santa Clara dialect.
  • All alveolars shown are apico-alveolar.
  • /g/ and /k/ are dorso-prevelar [k̟, ɡ̟] before front vowels and dorso-velar [k, ɡ] before back vowels. Spirantization can also occur, causing /ɡ/ to be pronounced like [ɣ] or [ʁ].
  • // is apico-dental.
  • /f/ ranges from [f] to [ɸ] to [].
  • /θ/ ranges from apico-dental [θ] to [].
  • /x/ ranges from [x] to [].
  • /v/ ranges from [v] to [β].
  • /n/ is pronounced as [ŋ] if proceeding velar or glottal consonants, /w/, or an external transition.


Front Back
Close i ĩ u ũ
Close-mid e ẽ o õ
Open æ æ̃ a ã
  • Vowels have both length and nasal differentiation.
  • In syllables closed by nasal consonants or in final weak stressed syllables, /i/ occurs as [ɪˆ].
  • /e/ is [e] when long, but is [eˇ] when short and [əˆ] when closed by a nasal consonant.
  • /æ/, when following /m/ is realized a bit raised, and when following /n/ is realized as [əˆ].
  • /u/ is realized as [ʊˆ] in syllables closed by a nasal vowel.
  • The long nasalized variety of /a/ is, in some speakers, realized as [ɐ].

Syllable structure[edit]

There are 9 types of syllables in Tewa: CV, CV:, CVN, CVh, CVʔ, CV', CVʔN, V, and VN.

N here stands for nasal, and as seen, there are some constructions where the only consonants available are :, h, or nasals, and as such these have been specified in order to create maximum specificity, instead of just referring to these constructions with just the C for consonant.


Tewa has three tones, high, low, and glide.

Within two-syllable words, the only combinations found are high-high, low-low, low-high, and high-low.


The use of stress in Tewa is still relatively unknown.

In two-syllable nouns with the pattern CVCV and the tone pattern high-high or low-low, there is heavier stress placed on the first syllable. Roots also tend to show heavier stress than affixes if each is the same syllable and tone type. A stronger stress is associated with a higher tone and greater vowel length. However, because of the complex use of tone, syllable type, and contour segments more research does need to be done.



Tewa has what are called both "free" and "bound" roots.

Free roots are defined as those roots which can be converted directly into a word, sometimes be the addition of a word superfix. Within free roots, there are two additional types, isolated and non-isolated free roots. There is a very small number of isolated free roots, as these are roots that are neither combinable with other roots nor affixable. Non-isolated free roots are roots that are combinable with other roots and/or are affixable. A limited non-isolated free root is one which can combine only with affixes, but not with other roots. A universal non-isolated free root is one which can combine both with other roots and affixes.

Bound roots are defined as those roots which cannot be converted directly into a word.


Tewa has 15 types of verbs, and a few example verbs and their conjugations are shown below.

Meaning Habitual Progressive Completive Potential Imperative Combining Stative
divide wiyende' wiyende' wiye wiyé wíyé wiye wiʔyen
enter cʔuyaʔ curemaen cʔú cʔún cuwave cure
get (pl. obj.) hónde' hónde' hógi hón hó'gí xon xo'gin
stir wí:re' wí:re' wí: wí: wí: wí: wíʔin
return bunde' bummá: bun bu:n bun bun buʔun
bite xunde' xunde' xu:gi: xu:n xú'gí xu:gi: xu'gin

Verbs can be divided into two classes, S and A, standing for stative and active, based of the pronomial prefixes which they contain. In general, S verbs deal with identity, quality, feeling, condition, position, and motion. Class A verbs are, in general, transitive verbs.

Verb affixes[edit]

All known verb affixes are included in the chart below, showing where the affixes fall in particular constructions of words.

6 5 4 3 2 1 Root 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
ti VP pi ra wé: ri: í ri raʔ ân kun ho'
ri' an á á waen bo
waen bo há' an

This affixes are used to delineate tense, subject, negation, and emphasis.


Nouns are divided into two classes: class N, which is affixed with set marker /-n/, and class non-N, which does not have this affix.

Class non-N is the larger of the two, containing almost all nouns in Tewa, which are, for the most part, mono- or di-syllabic.

Class N nouns are mostly designations for age-sex differentiation, kinship terms, and forms which translate as pronouns.

Noun affixes[edit]

All known noun affixes are included in the chart below.

Root 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
ti ge n gí' á bo raʔ ân kun ho'
n2 á2 waen há' á á
waen há'

/-n2/ is different from /-n/ because of the occurrence of /-n2/ with singular, dual, and plural situations involving the same root, which is never the case for /-n/.

Class Z words[edit]

Class Z words are neither particles, verbs, or nouns. They are affixable with suffixes like /-á/, /-ân/, /-bo/, and /-ho'/, /-reʔ/, /-an/, /-we/, and /-ge/, but unlike nouns and verbs they do not occur with the specific affixes which delineate those classes (/wé:-/ or /pi-/ and /-ví/ respectively).

These compromise words whose English equivalents involve time, location, manner, interrogation, etc.

Morphological processes[edit]

  • Substitution:
    • /d/ becomes /r/, /d/ being the initial occurrence and following /n/.
    • /b/ becomes /v/ in similar vowels to the /d/ ~ /r/ substitution.
    • /n/ becomes /m/, with the latter occurring before labials and the latter elsewhere.
  • Augmentation: Some suffixes occur with a longer form following /n/.
  • Contraction: Certain suffixes occur preceding /-á/ series marker, /-á/ emphasizer, /-ân/ emphasizer, and /-an/ question marker.


Word order[edit]

Tewa sentences follow subject-object-verb order, however there are simple sentences in Tewa such as "handiriho gi-c'u" (that's how we got in) which are simply a subject and a predicate.[10]

There are also many ways to say what would be translated as the same thing in English in Tewa. For example, there are three ways to say the sentence "The man and the woman are entering":[citation needed]








sen-ná-dí kwiyó da-cu:de-ʔeʔe

man-EMPH-ASSOC woman 3:DU:STAT-enter:come








sen-ná-dí kwiyo-wá-dí da-cu:de-ʔeʔe

man-EMPH-ASSOC woman-EMPH-ASSOC 3:DU:STAT-enter:come








sen kwiyo-wá-dí da-cu:de-ʔeʔe

man woman-EMPH-ASSOC 3:DU:STAT-enter:come

Noun hierarchy[edit]

Tewa has a noun hierarchy in order to determine which noun phrase goes in which position, however this only influences passive sentences. In Tewa, this is a simple binary distinction between animate and nonanimate noun phrases.

However, unlike in other languages with a noun hierarchy, such as Navajo, Tewa also marks the subject with the postposition -dí, meaning that there is not a concrete need to adhere to the noun hierarchy as that information is already morphologically encoded into sentences. Because of this, younger Tewa speakers tend to not use the noun hierarchy and instead rely on the morphology present in passive sentences. [11]

Grammatical number[edit]

Tewa, like other Tanoan languages, has a trepartite number system, which means that nouns can be counted through different syntactic constructions in three ways. In English, with morphosyntactic differences exist only for two numbers: singular and plural. Tewa, on the other hand differentiates between singular, dual, and plural nouns.

However, Tewa also appears to group its nouns into two categories: those of "sets" and "entities", with sets being marked by the affix /-n/ and entities the lack of said affix. Because of this, when creating plurality out of an entity, the affix /-n/ must be removed and the base root will be one not seen outside of plurality or duality.

Tewa also has what is called "inverse" numbering, which is a feature of many Tanoan languages. A chart of the indefinite articles for "a, some" can help show this phenomenon:

Singular Dual Plural
Class I wên wên
Class II wên wên
Class III wên

As seen, that which marks singular for one class marks plural for another class and vice versa.

Language revitalization[edit]

Esther Martinez, who lived to be 94 years old, was nationally known for her commitment to preserving the Tewa language.[12] Her San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary was published in 1982. The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act is named for her, and as of September 15, 2012, members of the New Mexico congressional delegation have introduced legislation to extend the program for another five years.[13][needs update]

Digital language documentation efforts were underway as of 1995.[14]

Tewa language programs are available for children in most of the Tewa-speaking pueblos.[3][15] The Santa Clara Pueblo Tewa Language Revitalization Program also sponsors cultural activities, such as visiting Crow Canyon.[16][17]

Children's stories in Tewa have been digitized by the University of New Mexico, and are available online.[18][19]

A 2012 documentary film, The Young Ancestors, follows a group of teenagers from Santa Fe Preparatory School as they learn the Tewa language in a self-study program with the help of a mentor, seventh grade literature teacher Laura Kaye Jagles.[20]


  1. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger". www.unesco.org. Retrieved 2018-05-24.
  2. ^ "Tewa". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved 2024-06-02.
  3. ^ a b "Tewa (Tano) Language and the Tewa Indian Tribes (Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, and Tesuque Pueblos)". Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  4. ^ "Tano/Tewa Indian Language". Retrieved 2023-01-29.
  5. ^ "Endangered languages project". Retrieved 2022-04-11.
  6. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger". Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  7. ^ Ashworth, Evan (2006). "On Nanbé Tewa Language Ideologies" (PDF). Santa Barbara Papers in Linguistics. 18. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-04-12. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  8. ^ a b c d Speirs, Randall Hannaford (1966). Some Aspects of the Structure of Rio Grande Tewa (PhD dissertation). State University of New York at Buffalo.
  9. ^ Speirs, Randall Hannaford (1974), An Orthography for Rio Grande Tewa
  10. ^ Naranjo, George; Naranjo, Christine; Curran, Mary; Speirs, Randall (1960). "Tewa text". Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session. 4 4. doi:10.31356/silwp.vol04.04.
  11. ^ Kroskrity, Paul V. (1978). "Aspects of Syntactic and Semantic Variation within the Arizona Tewa Speech Community". Anthropological Linguistics. 20 (6): 235–257. JSTOR 30027410.
  12. ^ Lamb, Yvonne Shinhoster (2006-09-19). "Esther Martinez, 94". Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  13. ^ "Legislation aims to preserve native languages". The Santa Fe New Mexican. 2012-09-15. Archived from the original on 2013-01-05. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  14. ^ "Saving the Tewa Stories: A Model for Preserving Native Languages". Archived from the original on 2012-09-30. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  15. ^ "Poeh Center". Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  16. ^ "Language preservation educators, students, and staff visit Crow Canyon". American Indian Student Education Project. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. Vol. 4, no. 9. 2009-09-25. Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  17. ^ Jacobs, Sue - Ellen; Tuttle, Siri G.; Martinez, Esther (August 29, 1998). "Multimedia Technology in Language and Culture Restoration Efforts at San Juan Pueblo: A Brief History of the Development of the Tewa Language Project". Wíčazo Ša Review. 13 (2): 45–58. doi:10.2307/1409145. JSTOR 1409145.
  18. ^ "American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL): Pueblo Stories--in Tewa--Digitized at the University of New Mexico". 6 March 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  19. ^ "Tewa". Lake Forest College.
  20. ^ Wright, Margaret (July 10, 2015). "Santa Fean's film captures Native teens' effort to help preserve language". Santa Fe New Mexican.
  • Speirs, Randall. (1966). Some aspects of the structure of Rio Grande Tewa. (Doctoral dissertation, SUNY Buffalo).
  • Martinez, Esther. (1982). San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary. San Juan Pueblo Bilingual Program, San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]