Linguistics Caddoan Languages
Anthony Grant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0106


The Caddoan languages were traditionally spoken in various locations in the Great Plains. In his article on Caddoan, which appears in The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment (1979), edited by Lyle Campell and Marianne Mithun, Wallace L. Chafe suggests that they were originally spoken in the area where Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana now converge, and this remained the area where Caddo was spoken until well into the nineteenth century. When first contacted, speakers of Wichita and Kitsai were living in central Oklahoma, Pawnees in Kansas and Nebraska, and Arikaras were semi-sedentary and living in the Dakotas. The Caddos, Wichitas, and Pawnees were each actually groups of smaller bands or tribes who shared a common language. The late nineteenth century was the period of Indian Removal, when thousands of Native Americans living in the Plains saw their lands expropriated to be made available for homesteaders, and many were moved into Oklahoma, which constituted “Indian Territory.” As a result, speakers of all these languages, apart from Arikara, ended up in rural parts of northern or central Oklahoma. Arikaras found themselves at the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota, where, with the Siouan-speaking Mandans and Hidatsas, they constituted the Three Affiliated Tribes. The Caddoan languages have relatively simple phonological systems of three to five oral vowels that developed from /i a u/, which distinguish short from long forms, and (apart from Caddo) fewer than a dozen consonants, including usually only one nasal, /n/. Wichita and Caddo also have a distinctive pitch accent, and Wichita and Pawnee, at least, have some three or four-element consonantal clusters (these are simplified in Arikara). Nouns are lightly inflected though they exhibit an absolutive suffix, the form of which varies from one language to another. Verbs are heavily inflected, marking aspect, plurality of arguments, direction of action (instead of using adpositions), and many other features, and verb roots are often discontinuous with each part consisting of just a few segments (or even only one). The Caddoan languages are polysynthetic in structure, incorporating noun elements within their complex verbs. Word-coinage is favored over borrowing for expressing new items of acculturation. Caddoan languages are highly endangered and it is likely that no one uses them today as their means of everyday conversation. As of 2013 Wichita had one remaining fluent speaker. Kitsai died out about 1940. Only partially fluent speakers of Arikara or Pawnee apparently remain, and fluent speakers of Caddo are few, though all of these groups have language revitalization programs in place.

Comparative Caddoan

Most of these works have historical approaches, though Parks 1977 is a collection of texts. Lesser and Weltfish 1932 provides an invaluable picture of band grouping among the Caddoan groups at a time when all the Caddoan languages still had speakers. Taylor 1963a presents a history of the study of Caddoan languages, while Taylor 1963b is the fundamental study of intra-Caddoan relationships, a study taken up in Parks 1979 and Parks 2001 for Northern Caddoan and in Chafe 1979 in general. Palmer 2018 presents texts from all Caddoan languages, mostly previously published, and from other languages of the Southern Plain.

  • Chafe, Wallace L. 1979. Caddoan. In The languages of Native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Edited by Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun, 213–237. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    DOI: 10.7560/746244-004

    Discusses the composition of the Caddoan family, outlines the literature available on the language up to 1975, and presents sound correspondences in Caddoan words and structural morphemes, with examples from each language where it is relevant.

  • Lesser, Alexander, and Gene Weltfish. 1932. Composition of the Caddoan linguistic stock. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 87.6: 1–15.

    This short account contains a useful classification of the Caddoan languages, with much information on the names of clans and subtribes, and on the parlous state of the Kitsai language at the time of writing.

  • Palmer, Gus., Jr. 2018. When Dream Bear sings: Native literatures of the Southern Plains. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    An anthology of texts, mostly bilingual Indigenous and English, from languages spoken in the Southern Plains, including Arikara, Pawnee, Kitsai, Wichita, and Caddo. Most of these texts have been published previously elsewhere.

  • Parks, Douglas R., ed. 1977. Caddoan texts. Native American Texts Series 2, no. 1. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Fine collection of glossed texts in Arikara, collected by Douglas Parks (pp. 1–19) and Allan Taylor (pp. 20–26); Caddo, collected by Wallace Chafe (pp. 27–43); Kitsai, collected by Alexander Lesser (pp. 44–64), Pawnee (two Skiri and four South Band Pawnee texts), collected by Parks (pp. 65–90); and Wichita texts, collected by David Rood (pp. 91–128).

  • Parks, Douglas R. 1979. The Northern Caddoan languages: Their subgrouping and time depths. Nebraska History 60.2: 197–213.

    After introducing basic information about tribes and tribelets, Parks classifies Northern Caddoan languages using a modified 100-item Swadesh wordlist, showing that Wichita split off first, followed by Kitsai, while Arikara is a branch of South Band Pawnee.

  • Parks, Douglas R. 2001. Caddoan languages. In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 13, Great Plains. Edited by Raymond DeMallie, 80–93. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

    Discusses the history of the Caddoan languages apart from Caddo and presents information on their subgrouping, structure, and loan lexicon, with a few sets of comparative examples given in tables.

  • Taylor, Allan R. 1963a. The classification of the Caddoan languages. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107:51–59.

    Presents a rich history of work on the Caddoan languages and provides much rare and interesting information on the lives and works of the people who worked on them (and often also on other languages).

  • Taylor, Allan R. 1963b. Comparative Caddoan. International Journal of American Linguistics 29.2: 113–131.

    DOI: 10.1086/464725

    Compares lexical and a few morphemic items from Caddoan languages and also the isolate Adai, and reconstructs the segmental phonology and a portion of the lexicon for Proto-Caddoan, Proto-Northern Caddoan, and Proto-Panian. Details on a twenty-five-item wordlist are given (usually from a range of available sources) for Adai and for all Caddoan languages apart from Kitsai.

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