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  • Southern Wakashan:Descriptive and Theoretical Perspectives
  • Henry Davis and Rachel Wojdak

1. Introduction

This special volume of CJL/RCL is the first collection of papers devoted specifically to the Southern Wakashan languages Makah, Ditidaht (also known as Nitinat), and Nuu-chah-nulth (also known as Nootka). These three closely related languages form a continuum stretching from the northwest tip of Washington State to northwest Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The Southern Wakashan languages are remarkable for the typologically unusual traits they exhibit in virtually all areas of their grammars. These properties were first illuminated by Edward Sapir in his foundational work on Nuu-chah-nulth (1911, 1915, 1921; Sapir and Swadesh 1939), which helped thrust Wakashan to the forefront of early Amerindian scholarship. The papers brought together in this volume reflect a recent resurgence of interest in Southern Wakashan, and highlight the potential of lesser-studied languages to contribute to linguistic theory, as well as the range of insights that theoretically informed perspectives can bring to the grammatical description of these languages.

This latest intense period of research on Southern Wakashan has come none too soon: like all languages of northwestern North America, the Southern Wakashan languages are gravely endangered. Makah is no longer spoken as a first language; Ditidaht is down to a handful of mostly elderly speakers; and there are estimated to be fewer than 200 remaining speakers of Nuu-chah-nulth, with many of its 15 or so distinct dialects verging on extinction. The present volume is thus extremely timely, for if further serious descriptive and theoretical work on Southern Wakashan languages is to take place, it must happen soon. [End Page 1]

2. Family Ties and Nomenclature

The Southern Wakashan languages form one of the two branches of the Wakashan family. The Southern languages Nuu-chah-nulth and Ditidaht are spoken on western Vancouver Island, while the single American outlier of the family-Makah-is found directly across the Juan de Fuca Strait on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The languages of the Northern (or Kwaguitlan) branch-Kwakw'ala (also known as Kwaguitl), Haisla, Heiltsuk, and Oowekyala-are spoken on the central west coast of mainland British Columbia, extending southward to northeastern Vancouver Island. Although the sister languages within each branch share close grammatical and lexical ties, the division between Southern and Northern Wakashan is great. The time depth separating the two halves of the family has been estimated at approximately 29 centuries (Swadesh 1953:26, 41; Jacobsen 1979c:769). Boas (1890) was the first to recognize the genetic ties between the Northern and Southern branches, with J. W. Powell (1891) standardizing the label "Wakashan" as the overarching term for the family (Jacobsen 1979c:768-769).

The provenance of the term Wakashan may be traced to Captain James Cook's 1778 encounter with the indigenous population of Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. Upon hearing shouts of "waakaash!" or "bravo!" from the local Mowachaht people as he came ashore, Cook proposed the name "Wakashian" for this group (Cook 1967:308). The name Nootka likely arose from a similar miscommunication surrounding the labelling of the area near the Mowachaht summer village at Friendly Cove. One traditional account attributes the naming of Nootka Sound to the directions of 'get around' given to Cook so that he could safely manoeuvre around the reefs (Arima et al. 1991:6). The misnomer took hold, both as the now-obsolete band name for the Mowachaht people, as well as a more widespread collective reference to the closely related peoples up and down the Island. Linguistically, different usages of the term have coexisted: Nootkan is synonymous with the branch label Southern Wakashan, while Nootka most commonly refers to the dialect continuum stretching from Cape Cook in the north to Barkley Sound in the south. In recent years, Nootka has been replaced by Nuu-chah- nulth, which is the preferred designation of the people themselves. As a linguistic label, Nuu-chah-nulth typically excludes the language of the Ditidaht (formerly Nitinaht or Nitinat), who are nevertheless often politically subsumed under the term Nuu-chah-nulth.1

The Nuu-chah-nulth (or Nuuchahnulth) language is made up of a chain of...


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