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Columbia River Valley
Linguistic classificationPenutian ?
  • Chinook
Pre-contact distribution of Chinookan languages

The Chinookan languages were a small family of languages spoken in Oregon and Washington along the Columbia River by Chinook peoples. Although the last known native speaker of any Chinookan language died in 2012, the 2009-2013 American Community Survey found 270 self-identified speakers of Upper Chinook.[2]

Family division

Chinookan consisted of three languages with multiple varieties. There is some dispute over classification, and there are two ISO 639-3 codes assigned: chh (Chinook, Lower Chinook) and wac (Wasco-Wishram, Upper Chinook). For example, Ethnologue 15e classifies Kiksht as Lower Chinook, while others consider it instead Upper Chinook (discussion), and others a separate language.


Consonants in the Chinookan languages
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral nor. lab. nor. lab.
Stop plain p t k q ʔ
ejective kʼʷ qʼʷ
voiced b d ɡ ɡʷ
Affricate plain ts
ejective tsʼ tɬʼ tʃʼ
Fricative plain s ɬ ʃ x χ χʷ h
voiced ɣ ɣʷ
Nasal m n
Approximant w l j

The vowels in the Chinookan languages are /a i ɛ ə u/. Stress is marked as /á/.


As in many North American languages, verbs constitute complete clauses in themselves. Nominals may accompany the verbs, but they have adjunct status, functioning as appositives to the pronominal affixes. Word order functions purely pragmatically; constituents appear in decreasing order of newsworthiness. Clauses are combined by juxtaposition or particles, rather than subordinating inflection.


Verbs may contain an initial tense or aspect prefix, ergative pronominal prefix, obligatory absolutive prefix, dative prefix, reflexive/reciprocal/middle prefix, adverbial prefix, directional prefix, and verb stem. The number of tense/aspect prefix distinctions varies among the languages. Kiksht shows six way tense distinctions: mythic past, remote past, recent past, immediate past, present, and future.

The pronominal prefixes are obligatory, whether free nominals occur in the clause or not. Three can be seen in the Kathlamet verb. The ergative refers to the agent of a transitive verb, the absolutive to the patient of a transitive or the single argument of an intransitive, and the dative to the indirect object. Reflexive prefixes can serve as reciprocals and as medio-passives. When the reflexive follows can ergative–absolutive pronoun sequence, it indicates that one indirectly affected is the same as the ergative. When it follows an absolutive–dative pronoun sequence, it indicates that one indirectly affected is associated with the absolutive, perhaps as the whole in a part-whole relationship, or the owner.

Absolutive pronominal prefixes
Sing. Dual Plural
1st excl. n- nt'- nc-
incl. lx-
2nd m- mt- mc-
3rd masc. i- c- l-
fem. a-
neut. l-

Aside from certain secondary irregularities in the third person dual and third person plural, the pronominal subject of the transitive verb differs from the pronominal subject of the intransitive verb only in the case of the third person singular masculine and feminine. The difference between the two sets of forms is for the most part indicated by position and, in part, by the use of a "post-pronominal" particle -g- which indicates that the preceding pronominal element is used as the subject of a transitive verb.

The phonetic parallelism would then be perfect among the absolutive, ergative, and possessive (see below). If we compare the theoretical forms *ag- "she" and *itc- "he" with the remaining subjective forms of the transitive verb, we obtain at once a perfectly regular and intelligible set of forms. Including the "post-pronominal" -g-, the system is as follows:

Ergative pronominal prefixes
Sing. Dual Plural
1st excl. n- nt-g- nc-g-
incl. lx-g- lx-g-
2nd m- mt-g- mc-g-
3rd masc. *i-tc- c-g- l-g-
fem. *a-g-
neut. l-g-

Verbs stems may be simplex or compound, the second member indicating direction, including motion out of, from water to shore or inland, toward water, into, down or up.

Suffixes include repetitive, causative, involuntary passive, completive, stative, purposive, future, usitative, successful completive and so on.


Nouns contain an initial prefix, pronominal prefix, possessive prefix, inner nominalizer, root, a qualifying suffix, plural, and final suffix. Initial prefixes serve primarily as nominalizers. Masculine prefixes appear with nouns designating male persons, feminine with those denoting female persons. The neuter may indicate indefiniteness. All are used for nouns referring to objects as well. Masculine prefixes appear with the large animals; feminine for small ones. Masculine prefixes also appear with nouns expressing qualities.

The gender-number prefixes are followed by possessive pronominal prefixes. These distinguish possessors by person, clusivity, and number.

The possessive prefix for the third person singular is -ga- when the noun itself is feminine, neuter, dual, or plural. It is -tca- when the noun itself is masculine. It is preceded by the gender-number prefixes:

Lower Chinook Wishram
Singular fem. ʋ̄ (w)ɑ-
neut. L- ii-
Dual c-, s- (ic-, is-)

The possessive prefix for the first person singular ("my") is –gE (Wishram -g-, -k-; -x̩- before k-stops) when the noun is feminine, neuter, dual or plural, but -tcE-, -tci- (Wishram -tc-) when the noun is masculine.

The possessive prefixes are followed by noun stem, perhaps including another nominalizer. Nominal suffixes indicate emphasis or contrast, specificity, succession in time, definiteness, plurality, and time, location, or similarity.


There were Lower and Upper Chinookan groups, but only a single variety of the latter now survives: Wasco-Wishram (Wasco and Wishram were originally two separate, similar varieties). In 1990, there were 69 speakers (7 monolinguals) of Wasco-Wishram; in 2001, 5 speakers of Wasco remained; the last fully fluent speaker, Gladys Thompson, died in 2012.

Chinook-speaking groups were once powerful in trade, before and during early European contact (Lewis & Clark), hence developed the Chinook Jargon – a pre-European contact language, with lexicon from at least Chinook, Chehalis, and Nootka or Nuu-chah-nulth.

Chinook people were quickly diminished by European diseases: Numbered around 800 persons in 1800; they mixed with Chehalis (in fact, the very word Chinook is a Chehalis word for those who lived on the south of the river). Most of the language family became extinct as separate groups by 1900, except a few hundreds who mixed with other groups. Around 120 people in 1945, though some 609 were reported in the 1970s, having by then mixed extensively with other groups. Language is now extinct.

Chinook Jargon also flourished from 1790s–1830s, then experienced a flood of English and French new vocabulary. It was used by up to 100,000 speakers of 100 mother tongues in the 19th century. Then declined, was recorded by linguists in the 1930s, and died out by the early 1900s. The Chinook people were finally recognized by the US Govt. in Jan. 2001, but in the 90-day grace period the Quinault Tribe filed an appeal stating that the Chinook Nation made mistakes when applying for federal recognition.

See also


  1. ^ Kristian Foden-Vencil (2012-07-17). "Last Fluent Speaker Of Oregon Tribal Language 'Kiksht' Dies". Oregon Public Broadcasting. Archived from the original on 2019-10-10. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
  2. ^ "Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English". US Census Bureau. Retrieved 2017-11-17.


Further reading