California’s Native Languages: Endangered, but Revitalized
Native Languages of California
Before European contact, about 100 distinct Indigenous languages and dialects were spoken in California. Many are now endangered. This podcast series follows dedicated families and community members across the state who are working to revitalize their Native languages and cultures.
Traditional concepts of property tended to vary by degree rather than kind in native California. Groups and extended families exercised exclusive use rights to particular foods, medicinal plants, and materials such as obsidian.
Several languages within California belong to the Hokan language family. These are sometimes grouped together under the broader umbrella of the Coahuiltecan language grouping (which also includes languages in Texas and Mexico). One of these is the Chimariko language of northern California, which has only a few living speakers. Another is the Palaihnihan language of Baja California, which has an estimated 3,000 former speakers today.
Although it is now generally accepted that the Hokan language families are related, little evidence supports the idea of a single Proto-Hokan phylum. For this reason, few linguists use the term Hokan today. Nevertheless, general overviews of indigenous American languages often devote a chapter to the Hokan family. These include Campbell 1997, Golla 2011, and Mithun 1999.
Penutian is a proposed major grouping (phylum) of language families in western North America, including languages from Oregon to California. It has been the focus of much research. While the phylum’s 15 family-level languages are relatively closely related, a number of differences remain, and some groups are more distantly related than others.
The most recent reappraisal of the Penutian phylum was published by DeLancey and Campbell in 1997, and included a strong linkage between Wintun, Miwok-Costanoan, and Maiduan. There is also mounting evidence for a relationship between Klamath-Modoc and Sahaptian. However, these relationships should be considered provisional. Historic Kennewick Man may have spoken a non-Penutian language and may have been displaced by a group of Penutian speakers. Similarly, it cannot be excluded that the ancestral language of Modoc was not Penutian.
A large Meso-American language family, the Uto-Aztecan languages extend from Oregon to El Salvador. Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, is one of the best-known members of this family. It is spoken in Mexico by more than a million people. The remaining members include the Comanche and Shoshone languages of southwestern America, as well as the Tepehuan (Lower Pima, Tarahumara, Corachol) and Huichol languages of western Mexico.
Linguistics scholars have long agreed that the Uto-Aztecan languages belong to six subgroups: Takic, Numic, Pimic, Lower Pima, Nahuatl and Corachol. However, there is ongoing debate over the inclusion of certain languages in these groupings. In addition, it is not clear how many speakers these languages have today.
There are 27 Algonquian languages still spoken. They cover a large area, from central and eastern Canada to the United States’ Atlantic coast, and even as far south as Virginia. Many of the Algonquian languages have writing systems, including the Roman alphabet and syllabics. The latter, known as Canadian Aboriginal syllabics, are unique among consonant-based scripts in that they allow vowels to be indicated by the orientation of symbols rather than by diacritics.
Most Algonquian languages are endangered, with only a few elderly speakers remaining. The Yurok language, spoken in northwest California, is one of the few that is not currently in a critical condition, and linguists are actively working to revive it.
While many indigenous languages in California have lost their native speakers, some have been revitalized through the efforts of community groups and the help of CSU scholars. All of the native languages of Northern California are listed by UNESCO as either severely or critically endangered. The majority of fluent native speaker are grandparents and older and they do not speak the language with their children.
The linguistic geography of California is unique in that most indigenous languages of the state fall into one of three larger family groupings. These are Hokan, Penutian, and Uto-Aztecan. Some, however, do not fit into these categories and belong to other family groups. The Karuk and Yurok languages are examples of this. They are close relatives of Hupa.