In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Salish Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Collections of Papers
  • Grammars
  • Dictionaries
  • Text Collections
  • Historical-Comparative Studies
  • Phonetics and Phonology
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
  • Language, Cognition, and Culture

Linguistics Salish Languages
Donna B. Gerdts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0090


The Salish language family consists of twenty-three languages spoken in southwestern Canada and the northwestern United States. The languages are classified into five branches: Bella Coola; Central Salish (Comox, Halkomelem, Klallam, Lushootseed, Nooksack, Northern Straits, Pentlatch, Sechelt, Squamish, Twana); Tsamosan (Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis, Cowlitz, Quinault); Interior Salish (Northern Interior Salish: Lillooet, Shuswap, Thompson; Southern Interior Salish: Coeur d’Alene, Columbian, Kalispel, Okanagan); and Tillamook. There are two outlier languages: Bella Coola in British Columbia is the northernmost, and Tillamook in Oregon is the southernmost. The Central Salish languages form a chain of ten languages along the Salish Sea. The four Tsamosan languages are located along the coast of the state of Washington. The Interior Salish languages are spoken in the plateau area east of the Cascade Mountains in British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. This branch is divided into Northern and Southern Interior subbranches. Pentlatch, Nooksack, Twana, Tillamook, and the Tsamosan languages are no longer spoken, and the other Salish languages are endangered or near extinction. Fortunately, most tribes or bands have revitalization programs and plans for preserving their languages. There is a robust amount of information on many of the languages, and a legion of scholars is currently actively engaged in research on all aspects of the languages. Besides research focusing on primary documentation and the production of grammars, dictionaries, and texts, much theoretically informed analysis has been done on Salish languages.

General Overviews

Several useful overviews exist for Salish languages. Thompson 1979 gives a survey of early research, classification, subgrouping, and Proto-Salish phonological reconstruction. Czaykowska-Higgins and Kinkade 1998 and Mithun 1999 give more in-depth overviews, including discussion of linguistic properties and a critical evaluation of the literature. The Northwest is the second most linguistically diverse region in North America (after California). For a discussion of broader genetic relationships, see Beck 2000, and for catalogues of areal features, see Thompson and Kinkade 1990 for the Northwest Coast area and Kinkade, et al. 1998 for the Plateau area. These last two works also give concise information on each language and branch, including locations where the languages are spoken, dialect diversity within each language, and early and modern descriptive research. The overviews give discussion but little or no data. For a data-rich introduction to a Salish language, see the sketch of the Thompson language in Thompson, et al. 1996. The names of the languages used in the scholarly literature are not phonetically accurate and often do not represent the usage of the native speakers themselves. Therefore, many linguists prefer to use the name selected by the band or tribal authority for referring to a language. There have been a multiplicity of practical orthographies used in the area, even for the same language, complicating references to a language. Furthermore, many names refer to a dialect of a language, rather than the whole language, often because a general name for the language is not shared by all of its speakers. For a guide to the various names used for Salish languages, see Poser 2009.

  • Beck, David. 2000. Grammatical convergence and the genesis of diversity in the Northwest Coast Sprachbund. Anthropological Linguistics 42.2: 147–213.

    This paper evaluates the evidence for grouping Salish languages with Wakashan and Chimakuan languages into the larger phylum “Mosan.” The author argues that similarities are areal rather than genetically based.

  • Czaykowska-Higgins, Ewa, and M. Dale Kinkade. 1998. Salish languages and linguistics. In Salish languages and linguistics: Theoretical and descriptive perspectives. Edited by Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins and M. Dale Kinkade, 1–68. Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 107. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110801255.1

    The lengthy introductory chapter to this edited volume gives a survey of a century of research on Salish languages, with thorough citations, and an overview of key properties and current issues, but with little illustrative data.

  • Kinkade, M. Dale, William W. Elmendorf, Bruce Rigsby, and Haruo Aoki. 1998. Languages. In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 12, Plateau. Edited by Deward E. Walker Jr., 49–72. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    The Interior Salish languages share the Plateau cultural area with languages from the Na-Dene and Penutian phyla and the language isolate Kutenai. Besides cataloging areal features, this article lists key aspects of the phonology and morphology of each Interior Salish language.

  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The languages of Native North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The section on the Salish family includes an excellent survey of the literature, a succinct description of key properties, and a sketch of Saanich (mostly based on the work of Tim Montler).

  • Poser, William J. 2009. The names of the First Nations languages of British Columbia.

    This paper includes a discussion of issues surrounding language names, along with information about their origin and representation.

  • Thompson, Laurence C. 1979. Salishan and the Northwest. In The languages of Native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Edited by Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun, 692–765. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    This chapter provides a thorough grounding in early published and unpublished work on Salish languages, including surveys, classification, and reconstruction.

  • Thompson, Laurence C., and M. Dale Kinkade. 1990. Languages. In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 7, Northwest coast. Edited by Wayne Suttles, 30–51. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    Besides giving a quick overview of the branches in the Coast Salish area (Bella Coola, Central Salish, Tsamosan, and Tillamook), their dialects, and fundamental primary research, this paper compares Salish and other languages of the Pacific Northwest with respect to a variety of phonetic, morphological, syntactic, and semantic features.

  • Thompson, Laurence C., M. Terry Thompson, and Steven M. Egesdal. 1996. Sketch of Thompson, a Salishan language. In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 17, Languages. Edited by Ives Goddard, 609–665. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    Although mostly a synopsis of the Thompson and Thompson reference grammar (Thompson and Thompson 1992, cited under Grammars), this lengthy sketch is notable for its clear and well-illustrated discussion and its informative tables of paradigms. Beautiful photos and a short word list add life. This paper is highly recommended as the first piece to read on Salish.

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