Scott Martens at Pedantry is asking:

BTW – any readers out there who are experts in Salishan languages? I’m trying to find out which Salishan languages, if any, still have a reasonably healthy speaking community (e.g., spoken in most households in at least one place and has at least some speakers under the age of 10.) Ethnologue suggests that the answer is none.

If anybody has an answer, pop over there and tell him, will ya? He’s good folks and deserves to know.


  1. In the US you probably would have a problem finding a community where the children are acquiring the language, but my guess is that in Canda among the Thompson Salish or Shuswap you maight still find healthy language communities. You can track down contacts via
    These folks would probably know:
    A list of speaker estimates for Native AMerican languages. Note that a lot of these are based on Ethnologue estimates, which are often pretty inaccurate for languages with under 500 speakers.
    Experiences in language revival at Salish Kootenai College.
    Loohootseed Research on Pugit Sound Salishan
    Salish language communities, estimates of speaker populations reported here are based primarily on the Statistics Canada’s 2001 census
    Secwepemc(tsín)/Shuswap 600
    Okanagan/Nsilxcín 500 in Canada, 200 in US
    Nlaka’pamux/Thompson 400
    Comox/Sliammon 400
    Lillooet/St’át’imcets 200
    Halkomelem/Halq’eméylem 125
    Nuxalk/Bella Coola 20
    Straits 20

  2. My old friend Dave Robertson knows about indigenous languages in Washington state, and about Chinuk jargon. I think Salish fits in to his field of expertise somehow. Have not talked to him in a long time but here are some e-mail addresses for him:

  3. One of the reasons for the Chinook project (I went to a Chinook weekend in Upriver Salish territory) is that the Salish languages are dwindling and hard to learn without … ha ha I’m having ambiguity problems with the term “native language acquisition” because all the Salish languages are “native languages.”
    Chinook being a trade language is easier for anyone to learn–we were communicating in it after a weekend–so it’s an option for people who want to keep a hold on their culture but are daunted by Halkomelem.
    Coincidentally, my March 14th blog entry concerned the persistence of the sounds of Salish in the throats of urban non-speakers of the language.

  4. I work on British Columbia native languages and keep track of their status. I’m afraid that none of the Salishan languages spoken in Canada can be considered healthy either. Some of them have relatively large numbers of speakers, which seem healthy in comparison to the handful of speakers of most of the US languages, but even so these speakers are a small fraction of the population and restricted to older people. There is no community in which children are routinely learning the language. The only community in which a significant number of children speak the language is Adams Lake, B.C., where there is an immersion school; they aren’t learning the language at home. For speaker numbes in British Columbia see: First Nations Languages of British Columbia. I’ve posted more details in a commont at Pedantry.

  5. Greg Kindall says

    “Columns” Dec ’03 (UW alumni magazine) has a pertinent article “Keeping Their Words,” on UW anthropologist Melville Jacobs and the Melville Jacobs collection at the University of Washington.
    “A disciple of renowned Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas, Melville Jacobs taught anthropology at the University of Washington from 1928 until 1971. However, it was in the field, not the classroom, that Jacobs forged his legacy. Documenting Pacific Northwest tribal cultures by focusing on their grammar, vocabulary and folklore, he spent the early part of his career traveling to numerous tribal communities, filling notebook after notebook—and a few recordings—with interviews and conversations, stories and songs, collected from native people in their native tongues.”

  6. joe tomei says

    Out of curiosity, I’d be interested to know why Scott wants to know (I’ll post this to his blog as well) There’s a long discussion in the literature about what number is an appropriate benchmark for determining endangered status. Joshua Fishman has probably written more than anyone about it, but a lot of his work is based on languages like Irish and Basque, that have speakers in the thousands.
    My sense from the literature is that it is not simply a numerical line, but one has to include access to the majority culture, especially the “glass teat” of TV (Harlan ellison’s term).
    One should also note that speakers of these languages don’t particularly care for some of the terminology. Describing people as speakers of a ‘dying language’ often puts a terrible onus on the speakers, making them feel guilty for not preserving their language in face of the onslaught of modernity.

  7. Joe – I’m playing with an idea for a SF short story that involves a somewhat different sociolinguistic situtation in North America. It’s not so much out of an effort to define “endangered” as to identify languages that could at least conceivably still be spoken in a century.
    So I have a question for Qov or anyone who can answer it. Is Chinook Jargon a trade language with Salishan roots?
    What I’m really trying to get at is a bit of a farfetched hypothetical question more appropriate to SF than language policy debates: Imagine a resurgent Native American nationalist movement in the Pacific northwest, one so attractive and hegemonic that it was not only able to count natives among its adherents but non-natives who chose to reject American or Canadian identities in favour of something more locally bound. If such a movement were to try to propagate a language with which it could identify, what language or languages are both genuinely identifiable with the Pacific northwest and its aboriginal people, and well documented enough, widely spoken enough, or at least have enough of an activist community that they could be taught or revived (a bit like modern Hebrew)?
    If there was a Salishan language in as good shape as Dakelh that would be the obvious choice. Failing that, if Chinook Jargon is something with genuinely Salishan roots, it might be appealing on those grounds.

  8. Chinook Jargon Page:
    The Grande Ronde Confederated tribes still maintains the Chinook Jargon, somewhat.

  9. joe tomei says

    Thanks Scott, interesting stuff. I’m not a Chinook Wawa expert, so take all this with a shaker of salt.
    I think there are two basic theories about Chinook Wawa, one is that it is a contact language that came about with europeans coming to trade and another that it is a trade language that adapted to English and French. This may or may not be tied into debate about the genesis of pidgins, with one school of thought claiming there was a single source (monogenesis) and one arguing that pidgins arose separately (polygenesis) (a second battle is over substrate, superstrate, or bio-program, a glossary to figure out the terminology is here)
    As for having Salishan roots, I think there are several theories, but if you go for the English/French contact theory, it can’t really. Of course, the people who recorded Chinook Wawa were Europeans, so there is a strong bias for the informant to present Chinook Wawa words that are understandable to the person asking, and it is really difficult to figure out what NA language is the base.
    A person I went to school with, Janna Underinner, is now working with one of the Oregon Coast reservations (it may be the Grand Ronde reservation) to make Chinook wawa their language (I’m a little fuzzy about the exact situation), so your short story would be good, but my impression is that Chinook Jargon is based on Nuuchanuulth which is Wakashan, not Salishan. Check out the Chinook Jargon page that zaelic gives and head out to the conference to get the latest word, though. Off here in japan, I’m not really up to date on all this. hope this gives you some terms to Google.

  10. When, oh mighty Lords of lexicology, will Master Languagehat turn his gaze upon Mobilian?

  11. I don’t think there’s much doubt as to where most of the lexicon of Chinook Jargon came from. There are words from English and French, and from various NW languages (including Salish and Wakashan languages) but the largest single source appears to be Lower Chinook (Chinook Proper) of the Chinookan family. I would imagine that if a native source language is to be identified, it would probably be Chinookan. There’s some information on etymology, and the change in the lexicon over time, in the introduction to Shaw’s 1909 dictionary (online at the site zaelic linked to above).
    As Joe says, there’s controversy over the origin. Someone should ask Language Log’s Sally Thomason. My main source for this is the entry in Marianne Mithun’s The Languages of Native North America, and it keeps referring to Thomason’s 1983 paper “Chinook Jargon in areal and historical context”.
    In any case, as Qov has noted, the grammar is radically simpler than that of the local languages (which are highly polysynthetic – see e.g. this brief description of Salish languages or Davidson’s Studies in Southern Wakashan Grammar (long!)).
    From Mithun:

    Morphological structure is minimal. There is no gender or case: yáka means “he”, “she”, “it”, “him”, “her”, “his”, “her”, “its”. Nouns are seldom inflected for number: man “man”, “men”. There are no tense, aspect, or mood affixes. kúmtuks is translated “know”, “knew”, and “to know”.

    (I’d quote more, but it’s impossible to adequately reproduce the Americanist orthography).
    Incidentally, is there any particular reason why Scott is interested in Salishan languages specifically, rather than the NW Coastal sprachbund in general? Wakashan, at least, shares many of the typologically interesting features of Salishan.

  12. Tim – I said this is for science fiction, so the reasons are a little strange. I want to do something I’ve never seen in SF and try to describe an America which is linguistically different from the present hegemony of English. In short – an America where standard American English is endangered.
    Doing this involves imagining that some relatively unlikely events happen, but nothing that isn’t fairly standard SF stuff: one moderately large man-made disaster and some gross, Dubya level incompetance. Nothing like what Vinge did in The Peace War or what Orson Scott Card did in his Folk of the Fringe stories or Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore. But the upshot is a place where mainstream American identity is so discredited that the white guy who is 1/32nd part Cherokee disavows any relationship to it and complains about how his ancestors were oppressed. A place where everyone grasps at any alternative identity they can find in order to dissociate themselves from the ancien régime.
    Language is one of the most visible and most decisive elements of identity, especially in America. There is no more tangible way to identify yourself as an outsider than to use a different language.
    So, this is to be an America where the vernacular English of the southeast and of black communities across America is doted with a more phonetic alphabet and a regularisation of its less mainstream syntactic and lexical features and called a different language. That’s more or less how Norwegian came to be different from Danish. (BTW – I can’t call this thing “Ebonics”, so I’m hunting for a better name. The best one I can think of is Kimagharibi, from the Swahili word for “west”, but it’s too long.) French makes a big comeback in Ontario and New England from people who associate it with Canada as an alternative identity. A sort of “artificial” trade language forms to unite the various Cree and Ojibwa speakers – something like Severn River Oji-Cree – and is adopted by other plains natives like the Dakota as a authentic and more modern native American language in opposition to English. Between the Rockies and the Sierras and Cascades a diverse set of conditions prevail. Spanish is the hegemonic language in Texas and parts of California and the Southwest (but not all of it – it has to compete with Navajo).
    There’s some other stuff – I just finished reading Bushwacked! and I’m thinking I might make Texas a Castro-style socialist state. But the idea is to portray an America where the linguistic assumptions most people have about the future are undermined – an America without English.
    So, I cracked out a map to try to construct a cypto-sociolinguistic map of this future America. On the Fraser plateau, Dakelh (a.k.a. Carrier) prevails. I thought I might make southwest BC and western Washington Chinese-Chinook Jargon bilingual, and maybe establish Jargon as the main language in western Oregon. East of the Rockies, it’s mostly Algonquian languages and this standard “official Algonquian.” But this leaves me with a big gap from Kamloops to Banff, covering southeast BC, northeast Washington, the Idaho panhandle and Montana west of the continental divide. That’s Salish country.
    Were there a relatively healthy Salishan language, that would be the answer. I could just say people there speak Jargon, but I’d like things to be a bit more diverse.
    One option I’m considering is a sort of simplified Salish which has really just taken over the exisiting linguistic categories of English – a sort of relexified English instead of a real Salishan language. Since this is more or less what happened when Hebrew was revived, I think it’s interesting to try to go there.
    But anyway, this is all sort of a spare thought I’ve been playing with on the bus to and from work. Whether anything will come of it remains to be seen.

  13. ed madsen says

    I have no idea if this will be helpful
    The headquarters of the confederated Kootenai-Salish was at Polson,Montana I think. my memory of this item is 40 years old and grown dim. The first non-English language I ever heard was Salish in 1947 near Ronan, Montana.

  14. Scott, you could extend the French sector enormously. I used to have an XVIII-C map which showed Louisiana and Quebec intersecting in Minnesota. When Minnesota became a state in ~1860 the French were still a major presence. You see French names all over the West. I’ve been told that there was a French-speaking community in Illinois into the XX-C.
    I’ve never read about the settlement of the American West from a francophone point of view. There’s definitely a story there (even more so in Canada with the Metis).

  15. Hello,
    My name is Shane Pekrul and I have a favour to ask. I am currently making a wedding gift for my fiancee. I am making a book of our love letters over the last 2 years. She is Shuswap First Nation and I would like the title of the book to be in Shuswap Salish if possible. Her mother or her siblings do not speak the language but as she is getting back to her native roots, she will find the title of the book perfect. Does anyone know the word for “Love Letters” in Salish? Thank you for you time and I hope to hear from someone soon.

  16. Shane: I suggest you contact the people mentioned in the first two comments above (zaelic’s and Jeremy’s). Good luck and congratulations!

  17. The Spokane Tribe (interior Salish) have Salishan web classes.You can find them at, Delish School of Spokane as well as the Tribal Preservation Website. Its fun, easy and educating!

  18. Sorry, auto-correct….Salish School of Spokane, not Delish!

  19. Heh. Thanks for the delicious information!

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