John Stonham, a Canadian-born linguist based at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, has just published the first dictionary of the group of languages known in English as Nootka (the tribe apparently chose the name Nuuchahnulth, which means ‘along the mountains,’ for themselves in 1981). The press release says:

Publication of the 537-page dictionary, which will be used to support the teaching of Native Americans the language of their ancestors, will give hope to those who have expressed concern about the death of many of the world’s minority languages, largely caused by economic globalisation and increased social mobility.
Today, only two to three hundred people can speak Nuuchahnulth, and most of these are aged over 60 years. There are also few written records, and experts predict it could die out in one generation if action is not taken to preserve it.
Nuuchahnulth has three basic vowels, there are 40 consonants and it has a very complex sound structure when spoken.
Dr Stonham incorporated 20-years experience of researching and writing about Nuuchahnulth into his dictionary, as well as the fieldwork materials of the linguist and anthropologist, Edward Sapir, which spans 1910-1924.
His team of researchers used a computer programme to analyse Sapir’s extraordinarily detailed notes, and the resulting database consists of approximately 150,000 words of the language…

Nuuchahnulth referrs to around 15 languages, but some have disappeared since 1900 and the remainder are all on the verge of extinction. Each language has distinct differences in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, which are acknowledged in the dictionary.
Dr Stonham, who hails from Montreal, added: “They are some of the most morphologically complex languages, which is what initially attracted me to them more than 20-years ago.

You can see a pdf file containing extracts from the dictionary here; the words are cee?iy ‘be secluded in the house observing taboos, so as not to spoil a hunter’s luck,’ kampuu?c’is ‘high rubber boots’ (?u?uuyiihši?aλma ?u?uuiihma kampuu?c’is ‘he sang for high rubber boots’), nuuniiqa ‘speak to one whom one happens to meet,’ quu?as ‘person; Nootka’ (na?aackwi qwayac’iik ?uukwil quuquu?as ‘wolves understood what humans were saying’), t’aat’aaqsapa ‘speak Aht or Nuuchahnulth; speak true or straight,’ and t’ih ‘wipe the tears from one’s eyes with the back of one’s hand’ (I’ve substituted for the special symbols as best I could, but h should have a dot underneath: ḥ, if that comes out right). And you can see a regular webpage with an extract from what was then “the forthcoming Nuuchahnulth dictionary,” with words beginning with k’- (eg, k’in’a ‘herring guts’).
The Queen Bee, from whose excellent blog I got this information, adds the following quote from Stonham’s personal page:

On the personal side, I am a journeyman sheetmetal worker, a black belt in Kodokan Judo, a licensed welder, an NCCP level 2 coach, and I’ve raised and shown dogs (Akitas – I still have one, Bok-Soon) to champion level in the conformation ring. I’ve taught in three different fields (judo, my trade, and linguistics), in three (sort of 4) languages, in four countries, in five different universities, and I love what I do.



  1. As I remember, Nuuchahnulth is the language that has around 30 lexical terms relating to salmon in much the same way that Eskimo (Inuit) has an almost equal number related to “snow” and Irish Gaelic for types of rain and rainfall. Indeed, when a language dies, it is not just an inventory of sounds and words that die but a way of thinking that dies also.

  2. The whole “way of thinking” thing (associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is very controversial, and Inuit has no more words for snow than English. I never heard the “Irish words for rain” thing before, but I seriously doubt they have any more words for it than English either; having googled a bit, I found a delightful cross-myth on this page: “the eskimos have 22 words for rain, but there’s no eskimo language forum on boards.”

  3. As always, I wish they wouldn’t concentrate on contrived compounds and speshialist [curse that anti-spam] terminology — the way the OED issue press releases mentioning “bling bling”. The real core of the language is much more interesting. I want to know the morphology of yaqw?ii?at?itq and ?as^x.`atl’atwe?in?aalha and I want to get to the point where I can say them fluently.

  4. If you’re interested in Nuuchahnulth grammar, take a look at this dissertation by Matthew Davidson. (It’s actually focussed on the closely related Makah, but he failed to get enough Makah data for a full description and so supplemented it with material from the better known Nuuchahnulth.)
    The publisher’s page for the dictionary is here, incidentally.
    The Eskimo don’t have that many words for snow, but they do, I understand, have a relatively large vocabulary for seals. I’ve never really seen why there is such controversy over the idea that people for whom some topic is particularly relevant should have more specific terminology for it than those for whom it is not. It would be surprising if this wasn’t true to some extent, but I don’t see any particular Whorfian significance.

  5. Language Hat,
    Re: Your skepticism about lexical items for various words in other languages …
    Let me start out with a quote from Ambrose Clancy – “The Washington Post” – Sunday, April, 8, 2001:
    “Rain, oh God. The Irish language (heard more here (Galway) than in any other Irish city) has, it’s said, as many words for rain as the Eskimo has for snow. Spend some time and you’ll get all varieties. But with rain comes what forecasters call “bright spells” — sun showers and heart-stopping rainbows, often double, that arch over the town and melt in 5wide Galway Bay.”
    And he is essentially right. Below are many, though not all, of the terms that Irish Gaelic has for describing rainfall. Some of the terms appear in linguistic journals and are not found in standard Irish Gaelic dictionaries (of which there are few, unfortunately).
    biadh an tsic (“food for rain”) – rain in frosty weather
    brádán báistí – light rain
    braon – the dripping of the rain
    cith agus dealán – sunshine with showers
    ceóbhrán – light drizzle, mist
    durach mor – a big shower
    focíth fearthainne – occasional rain showers
    frás- shower
    fuarbháisteach earraigh – a cold Spring downpour
    lá frasaidheacht – a showery day
    greadadh báistí – heavy (pelting) (driving) rain
    plimp fearthainne – a sudden downpour of rain
    síorbháisteach – a continuous downpouring of rain
    scáth báistí (“rain shield”)-umbrella
    smurán – a shower
    stoirm ceatha – breeze before a shower
    stoirm shíobhta bháistí – a driving rainstorm
    taom fearthainne – a bucketing down of rain
    Keep in mind that “lexical items” or “terms” are not quite the same thing as “words”. They are words or groups of words which deal with “lexical concepts”. For example, “nag, stallion, colt, pack-horse and pony” are all lexical concepts in English dealing with “horse” but some other languages like Spanish and Arabic have more of them than English does. In like manner, Nuuchahnulth is rich in lexical items for ‘salmon’, Eskimo for ‘snow’ and ‘ice’, Irish and Hawaiian for ‘rain’ etc. Although these terms can be translated into English, they are not necessarily “lexical concepts” in English. Sometimes they are just translations in English and approximate or circumlocuitous translations at that.
    — Brian

  6. Brian: Sorry, but I stand by my guns. The standard technique for demonstrating that language X is far richer than English in some area is to dig up every vaguely related word and word combination and compare it to the most basic English word: “See, Eskimo/Inuit has words like qengaruk ‘snow bank’ and poor English just says “snow”! Well, in the first place, snow bank is just as good a lexical item as qengaruk (and I’ll take your careful explanation of “lexical item” as a kindness to the common reader rather than an insult to my linguistic education), and in the second place, the Eskimo fan is relying on your not thinking of all the snow-related English vocabulary like avalanche, blizzard, flurry… That’s why that comparative list I linked to in my earlier comment is so useful and convincing. You have to apply the same standards to both languages.
    Now, in the first place, if we’re going to play “lexical items” (which, as you know, is not what most people mean by words), then light rain is just as good as brádán báistí. And braon doesn’t mean “the dripping of the rain,” it means ‘drop,’ and is no more specific to rain than the latter. Furthermore, if we’re going to trawl the Irish vocabulary we have to trawl the English one as well, including words like cataclysm and sprinkle. So no, I don’t believe the Irish have “more words for rain” under any definition, but if you’re still clinging to the idea that Inuit is particularly rich in snow words after decades of debunking, there’s perhaps no point in our trying to convince each other.

  7. The usual debunking technique won’t quite work for Irish words for rain. We collect the corresponding list of English words, drizzle, spate, downpour, mizzle, spatter, sleet, bucketing down, pissing down, cats and dogs, and so on, and the debunkee can just point meaningfully to a map of the British Isles. What’s telling is to compile things like lists of English words for kangaroo or desert: roo, wallaby, wallaroo, joey, pademelon, euro …

  8. I must defer to my Iowegean:
    “Nuuchahnulth refers to around 15 languages, but some have disappeared since 1900 and the remainder are all on the verge of extinction. Each language has distinct differences in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, which are acknowledged in the dictionary.”
    The glorious conqueror spin to get funding to help out the poor extinctable indigenous populations. Likely digging for funding from local mining and development companies to cover their butts in case it really is an isolated group that they don’t want to get in trouble for extinct-guishing.
    These endless attempts to glorify the “preservation” of a “nearly-EXTINCT” indigenous form of anything cultural is enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck.
    The reference to the fact that the researcher is in cahoots with a post-secondary educational institution sends me big red flags as well.
    It they guy is really trying to help out these locals in keeping their language why the dramatics about the ongoing genocide? I wonder how much of his funding is generated to provide the Nuuchahnulth with assistance in creating interest in their own culture and language while they are getting displaced and hustled out of their land and holdings? Did he do all this work on his own without pay? Hmmm, doubt it.
    Like the Llacota that is spoken in Bolivia (down the road a piece from the Lakota of North American Great Plains,) it is likely that if this guy would publish his research and dictionary for other indigenous Americans across both continents instead of casting sad looks at presentations amongst his invasionist peers at post-secondary educational spelling bees that are funded to continue the propaganda of extinction for the facilitation of the developers that would find such extinctions convenient for economic gain (wow, almost a Germanesque sentence here, huh? A big breath even for somebody from Ioway…), I guess I could be really impressed. Maybe. Anybody ask where are the Nuuchahnulth living? Hmmm, well on and around Vancouver Island, one of the most sought after real estate areas on Earth ( Hishuk ish tsawalk with a great sound wav on the welcome page where you can hear their language. Then go here:
    Anybody ask the Nuuchahnulth about how they receive the work, the content, the goal of the work and the acceptance of the researcher(s)? Did the university involved pay them for their participation and their specialized expertise in the field? What’s wrong with this picture? If the Nuuchahnulth manage to pull back out of this well-oiled extinction, then this guy won’t be the only expert anymore and the funding he is getting should be going to the Nuuchahnulth themselves. I would be impressed if he was working for them rather than for a post-secondary educational institution. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t see the name John Stonham anywhere on the Nuuchahnulth site…
    Built in fatalistic expectations for the expiration of these languages rather than the preservation are a big possibly, from the way the research is “presented.” Does Stonham know how the implications he is writing look in the face of 500 years of genocide in the Americas? The Pueblos would question why he wants to know about stuff that isn’t his. Anybody ask the Nuuchahnulth if they even wanted the research done by outsiders? It is their language after all…
    Day-in-day-out-same-old-stuff. Fortunately I see linguists like those who share Quechua from Canada to Bolivia chattin’ online in their own languages and understanding each other relatively well. Hopefully this new alphabetic mastication of Nuuchahnulth will do somebody somewhere some good beside paying this guys bills for 2 decades. Hopefully he is worthy of the funding. Who knows?
    Cordially, Deb Huglin, Repatriation Archaeologist for the Wolf Clan of the Chahta.
    Nobody is extinct. Nothing is lost. The People have always been on Turtle Island since Creation.
    I don’t think the Nuuchahnulth are going anywhere and it is likely they aren’t telling a bunch of strangers from the outside what they are doing with their language and culture, when it is the outsiders that make it all at risk.
    (Geeze, I just came here to see if you could shed some light on the Greek snippet of poetry…here I am caught up in the stuff I do on a daily basis…how many other extinctionist linguistic maneuvers are being researched by outsiders in post-secondary educational institutions I wonder, and for what purpose??? Bet these people have the added misfortune of sittin’ on a potential oil well or gold mine to glean this kind of interest across a couple of decades. I can’t go anywhere and step away from the ongoing nightmare in the Americas.)

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