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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General Typological Treatments of Penutian Topics
  • Comparative Studies
  • Tsimshianic
  • Chinookan
  • Klamath-Modoc
  • Molala
  • Cayuse
  • Kalapuyan
  • Takelma
  • Maiduan
  • Wintuan
  • Further Proposed Connections

Linguistics Penutian Languages
Anthony Grant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0171


The Penutian language family (or Penutian hypothesis) is the largest genealogical linguistic grouping in western North America; it involves sixteen families or isolates. Only a few are demonstrably relatable to one another according to current knowledge. Sometimes Penutian is split by observers into groups of languages assumed to be interrelated, without assumptions that the groups themselves are interrelated. This article focuses on “Sapir’s Penutian,” the most commonly accepted version. Some claims about Penutian interrelationships are based on typological criteria (such as extensive use of ablaut and the possession of nominal case systems) rather than on evidence from sets of lexical and structural morphemes pointing to a common origin. However, typological criteria are insufficient to prove genealogical relationships—not all show this stem type abundantly. In any case, original shapes could be modified by subsequent sound changes (such as vowel loss). The future of Penutian languages is dire. Chinookan, Kalapuyan, Molala, Cayuse, Alsea, Coosan, Siuslawan, Klamath, Takelma, and Costanoan are certainly extinct; Maiduan, Yokutsan, Wintuan, and Miwokan have a handful of speakers of one or two constituent languages. Tsimshianic and (less so) Sahaptian are the most-vibrant families in Penutian. The emphasis here is on work that is robustly comparative or that describes individual Penutian languages (although some works that examine other aspects of language, using Penutian data, are included). The two kinds of study are intimately connected. Much work has been carried out comparing sets of Penutian languages (often in pairs); less work has been done that attempts to substantiate the Penutian hypothesis. There is little in Penutian scholarship that parallels the kinds of research that Indo-Europeanists have at their disposal, but without such work it is not going to be possible to validate the Penutian hypothesis. It may be said that comparing Penutian languages (and the evidence from the few reconstructed protolanguages) in an attempt to reconstruct Proto-Penutian is like comparing modern Indo-European languages in order to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European. Sometimes one source provides most of the known morphemic inventory of the language in question, but in other cases such material has yet to be extracted from available textual and other data. Although texts and descriptive material in Chinookan languages are plentiful, no adequate dictionary of a Chinookan language is available, and the same is true for Kalapuyan, Molala, Konkow, Nomlaki, Patwin, and Costanoan or Yokutsan languages. Much material gathered by investigators such as J. P. Harrington remains in manuscript form or on tape.

General Overviews

There is an extensive literature dealing with native North American languages as a whole; some titles are listed here. Boas 1911 and Boas 1922 can be regarded as parts of a whole that was never completed; they are collections of grammatical sketches of native languages viewed from the inside of the languages in question, rather than having the grammars forced into preordained molds, and they were always intended to be comparative and contrastive in approach. Hale 1846 and Powell 1877 contain the first attestations of a number of Penutian and other languages. Sapir 1929 is an early attempt to classify and characterize the Penutian languages, and its typological sketch is still useful. Golla 2011 and Bright 1964 focus on Californian languages, but their remits are much broader than the titles would suggest. Golla 2007 provides an invaluable account and catalogue of endangered and extinct Penutian and other native North American languages and illustrates the depredations that the Penutian stock has experienced since World War II. Mithun 1999 is the best single-volume guide to the structure and scholarship on native North American languages. Much material on Penutian languages has become available to the general public since the mid- to late 1990s through the Internet and can be accessed by anyone. Much of this comprises reprints of older works on these languages. Survey of California and Other Indian Languages contains information on several branches of Penutian and on many other languages too, while the Sm’algyax Living Legacy Talking Dictionary is an online dictionary of Coast Tsimshian.

  • Boas, Franz, ed. 1911. Handbook of American Indian languages. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 40.1. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    Boas himself contributed a grammar of (Coast and Gitksan) Tsimshian (pp. 283–421) to Part 1, as well as one of Coastal Chinook (pp. 559–677), bolstered by Edward Sapir’s comparative notes on Kiksht. Roland B. Dixon provides a sketch of Mountain Maidu (pp. 679–734). Text available online.

  • Boas, Franz, ed. 1922. Handbook of American Indian languages. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 40.2. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    In Part 2 there are grammars of Takelma (pp. 1–298), by Edward Sapir, and of Coos (pp. 299–429) and Siuslaw (pp. 431–629), by Leo J. Frachtenberg. Text available online.

  • Bright, William, ed. 1964. Studies in Californian linguistics. University of California Publications in Linguistics 34. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This rich collection of mostly short but always tempting papers includes nine that cover data from one or more Penutian groups. See also Callaghan 1964, cited under Western Miwok.

  • Golla, Victor. 2007. North America. In Atlas of the world’s languages. 2d ed. Edited by Christopher Moseley, 1–97. London: Routledge.

    In addition to a genealogical classification of North American languages, this chapter includes two alphabetical lists of endangered and extinct North American languages, with brief paragraphs on their speaker situation (in the first case) or their approximate date of extinction (in the latter).

  • Golla, Victor. 2011. California Indian languages. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This work, by a specialist in Athabaskan and Yokuts who was also one of the last people to do fieldwork on Hanis Coos, covers much more than the title suggests. It includes data on and discussion of Takelma and Klamath-Modoc, both of which had some territory within the boundaries of California, in addition to the “California Penutian” languages.

  • Hale, Horatio. 1846. United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 under the command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N. Vol. 6, Ethnography and philology. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard.

    DOI: 10.5479/sil.266433.39088000956565

    This work contains a wealth of data (most of it lexical) on western US and Canadian native languages (pp. 531–634), including material from Chinookan, Kalapuyan, Sahaptian, Molala, Cayuse, and Klamath, with some data collected by James Dana and others from Maiduan, Wintuan, and Costanoan languages. Furthermore, Hale provides the first scientific report on Chinuk Wawa / Chinook Jargon, with wordlists and phrases. Text available online.

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

    This volume covers all the languages of the area, with structural and historical information and illustrative texts and interlinear glossing wherever possible for a representative language of each family.

  • Powell, J. W. 1877. Linguistics. In Contributions to North American ethnology. Vol. 3, Tribes of California. Edited by Stephen Powers, 535–614. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    Among many other materials, this collection contains vocabularies of various Wintuan, Maiduan, Miwokan, and Costanoan languages (the latter subsumed in the “Mewan family”), including the only certain vocabulary of Tamyen (Santa Calara) Costanoan. Text available online.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1929. Central and North American languages. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol. 5, Cast–cole. 14th ed. Edited by J. L. Garvin, 138–141. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica.

    Sapir outlines his theory of the six phyla of North American languages, providing brief typological characterizations of each. His list of languages for Penutian includes the languages covered in this article, although he also suspects that Penutian may extend into Mexico, involving Mixe-Zoque, Totonacan, and Huave; some authors, including Morris Swadesh, develop and extend this idea.

  • Sm’algyax Living Legacy Talking Dictionary.

    A 5,000-item online dictionary of Coast Tsimshian, with English translations. Regularly updated.

  • Survey of California and Other Indian Languages. Univ. of California at Berkeley.

    This online resource contains a huge amount of material relating to Penutian and other native languages of California and often beyond, including many classic papers and monographs, which are free to download as PDFs.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.