Tolowa language

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Native to USA
Region southwest Oregon
Ethnicity one thousand Tolowa (2000); one hundred Chetco (1977)[1]
Extinct 1 elderly semispeaker in 2001[1]
Revival growing number with limited competence
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
tol – Tolowa
ctc – Chetco
Glottolog tolo1259[2]

The Tolowa (Taa-Laa-Wa) language (also called Chetco-Tolowa, or Siletz Dee-ni) is a member of the Pacific Coast subgroup of the Athabaskan language family. Together with two other closely related languages (Rogue River Athabaskan and Upper Umpqua) it forms a distinctive Oregon Athabaskan cluster within the subgroup.

Geographic distribution[edit]

At the time of first European contact Tolowa was spoken in several large and prosperous village communities along the Del Norte County coast in the far northwestern corner of California and along the southern coast of adjacent Curry County, Oregon. Today the term Tolowa (or sometimes Smith River) is used primarily by those residing in California, most of whom are affiliated with Smith River Rancheria. Those residing in Oregon, most of whom are affiliated with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz southwest of Portland, where their ancestors were removed in the 1850s (Beckham 1971), refer to themselves as Chetco, Tututni, or Deeni.

For details of the linguistic documentation of Chetco-Tolowa and a survey of Oregon Athabaskan phonology and grammar, see Golla (2011:70-75).

Tolowa language revitalization[edit]

Loren Bommelyn, a fluent speaker and linguist, has published several pedagogical books and teaches young Tolowa students in Crescent City, California.

Three alphabets have been used since the formation of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Language program, sponsored by the Del Norte Indian Welfare Association in 1969. The first was a "Tolowa version of the Uni-fon alphabet', written by hand. A new Practical Alphabet was devised in 1993 for purposes of typing on the computer. In 1997, Loren Bommelyn developed an alphabet which did not require a barred l or nasal hook characters called the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Alphabet.[3]

Siletz Dee-ni language revitalization[edit]

Siletz Dee-ni is a form of Tolowa historically spoken by members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians on the Siletz Indian Reservation in Oregon. According to a report by the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, it is the last of many languages spoken on the reservation and was said in 2007 to have only one living speaker.[4] However, the language has since been at least partially revived, and in some areas, ‘many now text each other in Siletz Dee-ni’.[5]

Courses for 6th- through 8th-graders have been offered at Oregon's Siletz Valley Charter School. Alfred "Bud" Lane has gathered 14,000 words of Siletz Dee-ni, a variety of Chetco-Tolowa "restricted to a small area on the central Oregon coast," in an online audio/picture dictionary for the use of the community.[6][7][8]


  1. ^ a b Tolowa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Chetco at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tolowa". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ "Language : Smith River Rancheria". Retrieved 2012-06-04. 
  4. ^ Wilford, John Noble (September 19, 2007). "Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words". New York Times. Retrieved September 19, 2007. 
  5. ^ ‘Embracing the future’, The Economist, 25 Feb 2012
  6. ^ "BBC News - Digital tools 'to save languages'". Retrieved 2012-06-03. 
  7. ^ "Siletz Talking Dictionary". Retrieved 2012-06-03. 
  8. ^ "How to Help an Endangered Language". Voice of America. 2012-08-05. Retrieved 2012-08-05.  Missing or empty |series= (help)


  • Beckham, Stephen Dow (1971). Requiem for a People: The Rogue River Indians and the Frontiersmen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Bommelyn, Loren (1995). Now You're Talking Tolowa. Arcata: Humboldt State University, Center for Indian Community Development.
  • Collins, James (1998). Understanding Tolowa Histories: Western Hegemonies and Native American Responses. London: Routledge
  • Golla, Victor (2011). California Indian Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-052-026667-4.

External links[edit]