Nez Perce
Native toUnited States
Ethnicity610 Nez Perce people (2000 census)[1]
Native speakers
20 (2007)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3nez
ELPNez Perce
Nez Perce is classified as Critically Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger
Pre-contact distribution of Plateau Penutian languages

Nez Perce, also spelled Nez Percé or called nimipuutímt (alternatively spelled nimiipuutímt, niimiipuutímt, or niimi'ipuutímt), is a Sahaptian language related to the several dialects of Sahaptin (note the spellings -ian vs. -in). Nez Perce comes from the French phrase nez percé, "pierced nose"; however, Nez Perce, who call themselves nimiipuu, meaning "the people", did not pierce their noses.[3] This misnomer may have occurred as a result of confusion on the part of the French, as it was surrounding tribes who did so.[3]

The Sahaptian sub-family is one of the branches of the Plateau Penutian family (which, in turn, may be related to a larger Penutian grouping). It is spoken by the Nez Perce people of the Northwestern United States.

Nez Perce is a highly endangered language. While sources differ on the exact number of fluent speakers, it is almost definitely under 100. The Nez Perce tribe is endeavoring to reintroduce the language into native usage through a language revitalization program, but (as of 2015) the future of the Nez Perce language is far from assured.[4]


The phonology of Nez Perce includes vowel harmony (which was mentioned in Noam Chomsky & Morris Halle's The Sound Pattern of English), as well as a complex stress system described by Crook (1999).[5]


Consonant phonemes of Nez Perce[6]
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central sibilant lateral plain lab. plain lab.
plain p t ts k () q () ʔ
ejective tsʼ tɬʼ (kʼʷ) (qʼʷ)
Fricative s ɬ ( ʃ ) x χ h
Sonorant plain m n l j w

The sounds , kʼʷ, , qʼʷ and ʃ only occur in the Downriver dialect.[6]


Nez Perce has an average-sized inventory of five vowels, each marked for length. Unusually for a five-vowel system, however, it lacks a mid front vowel /e/, with low front /æ/ in its place. Such an asymmetrical configuration is found in less than five percent of the languages that distinguish exactly five vowels, and among those that do display an asymmetry, the "missing" vowel is overwhelmingly more likely to be a back vowel /u/ or /o/ than front /e/. Indeed, Nez Perce's lack of a mid front vowel within a five-vowel system appears unique, and contrary to basic tendencies toward triangularity in the allocation of vowel space. A potential reason for this peculiarity is discussed in the section on vowel harmony below.

Vowel phonemes of Nez Perce[6]
Front Central Back
High i u
Mid o
Low æ æː ⟨e ee⟩ a

Stress is marked with an acute accent ⟨á, é, í, ó, ú⟩.


Nez Perce distinguishes seven diphthongs, all with phonemic length:

Front Central Back
High (level) iu̯ iːu̯ ui̯ uːi̯
Mid (rising) oi̯ oːi̯
Low (rising) æu̯ æːu̯ æi̯ æːi̯ au̯ aːu̯ ai̯ aːi̯

Vowel harmony

Nez Perce displays an extensive system of vowel harmony. Vowel qualities are divided into two opposing sets, "dominant" /i a o/ and "recessive" /i æ u/. The presence of a dominant vowel causes all recessive vowels within the same phonological word to assimilate to their dominant counterpart; hence /tsǽːqæt/ cé·qet "raspberry" becomes /tsáːqat'ajn/ cá·qat'ayn "for a raspberry" with the addition of the dominant-marked suffix /-ʔajn/.[7] With very few exceptions, therefore, phonological words may contain only vowels of the dominant or recessive set. Despite occurring in both sets, /i/ is not neutral; instead, it is either dominant or recessive depending on the morpheme in which it occurs.

This system presents a challenge to common concepts of vowel harmony, since it does not appear to be based on obvious considerations of backness, height, or tongue root position. To account for this, Katherine Nelson (2013)[8] proposes that the two sets be considered as distinct "triangles" of vowel space, each by themselves maximally dispersed, where the recessive set is somewhat retracted (further back) in comparison to the dominant:

Recessive → dominant
Front Central Back
High i (→ i) u → o
Low æ → a

This dual system would simultaneously explain two apparent phonological aberrances: the absence of a mid front vowel /e/, and the fact that phonemic /i/ can be marked either as dominant or recessive. Since the three vowels of a given set are placed with regard to the other vowels of the same set, the low height of the front vowel /æ/ appears natural (that is, maximally dispersed) against its high counterparts /i u/, as in a three-vowel system such as those of Arabic and Quechua. The high front vowel /i/ meanwhile, is retracted much less in the transition from recessive to dominant - little enough that the distinction does not surface phonemically - and therefore can be placed near to the crux around which the triangle of vowel space is "tilted" by retraction.[8]

Syllable structure

The Nez Perce syllable canon is CV(ː)(C)(C)(C)(C); that is, a mandatory consonant-vowel sequence with optional vowel length, followed by up to four coda consonants. The arrangement of permitted coda clusters is summarized in the following table, where segments in each column can follow those to their right (C' represents any glottalized consonant), except when the same consonant would occur twice:

C1 V(ː) C2 C3 C4 C5 Example
(Any consonant) (Any vowel) NOT (k, q, h, C') téhes "ice"
NOT (ɬ, C') NOT (k, q, h, C') só·ts "deep water"
NOT (p, t, k, q, C') p, t, c, q, x, y t, c, s, x lílps "mushroom sp."
p, ʔ, h, x t, c, n, y, w, s p, k, s, x, q t, c, s t̓úxsks "I smashed with hand"

Writing system

Nez Perce alphabet (Colville Confederated Tribes)[9]
a c c’ e é· h i í· k k’ l l’ ł ƛ m m’ n n’ o
ó· p p’ q q’ s t t’ u ú· w w’ x y y’ ʔ


Nez Perce chiefs

As in many other indigenous languages of the Americas, a Nez Perce verb can have the meaning of an entire sentence in English. This manner of providing a great deal of information in one word is called polysynthesis. Verbal affixes provide information about the person and number of the subject and object, as well as tense and aspect (e.g. whether or not an action has been completed).
















ʔew ʔilíw wee ʔinipí qaw tée ce

1/2-3.OBJ fire fly grab straight.through go.away IMPERF.PRES.SG

'I go to scoop him up in the fire'[10]










hi tiw̓ele pááy e

3.SUBJ in.rain come PAST

'He arrived in the rain'[11]

Documentation History

Asa Bowen Smith developed the Nez Perce grammar by adapting the missionary alphabet used in Hawaiian missions, and adding the consonants s and t.[12] In 1840, Asa Bowen Smith wrote the manuscript for the book Grammar of the Language of the Nez Perces Indians Formerly of Oregon, U.S..[13] The grammar of Nez Perce has been described in a grammar (Aoki 1973) and a dictionary (Aoki 1994) with two dissertations.[14][5]


In Nez Perce, the subject of a sentence, and the object when there is one, can each be marked for grammatical case, an affix that shows the function of the word (compare to English he vs. him vs. his). Nez Perce employs a three-way case-marking strategy: a transitive subject, a transitive object, and an intransitive subject are each marked differently. Nez Perce is thus an example of the very rare type of tripartite languages (see morphosyntactic alignment).

Because of this case marking, the word order can be quite free. A specific word order tells the hearer what is new information (focus) versus old information (topic), but it does not mark the subject and the object (in English, word order is fixed — subject–verb–object).

Nouns in Nez Perce are marked based on how they relate to the transitivity of the verb. Subjects in a sentence with a transitive verb take the ergative suffix -nim, objects in a sentence with a transitive verb take the accusative suffix -ne, and subjects in sentences with an intransitive verb don’t take a suffix.

Ergative Accusative Intransitive subject
suffix -nim suffix -ne
(here subject to vowel harmony, resulting in surface form -na)




ᶍáᶍaas-nim hitwekǘxce


‘Grizzly is chasing me’









ʔóykalo-m titóoqan-m páaqaʔancix ᶍáᶍaas-na

all-ERG people-ERG they.respect.him grizzly-ACC

‘All people respect Grizzly’





ᶍáᶍaac hiwéhyem

grizzly has.come

‘Grizzly has come’[15]

This system of marking allows for flexible word order in Nez Perce:

Verb–subject–object word order








kii pée-ten’we-m-e qíiw-ne ’iceyéeye-nm

this 3→3-talk-CSL-PAST coyote-ERG

‘Now the coyote talked to the old man’

Subject–verb–object word order









Kaa háatya-nm páa-’nahna-m-a ’iceyéeye-ne

and wind-ERG 3→3-carry-CSL-PAST coyote-OBJ

‘And the wind carried coyote here’

Subject–object–verb word order











Kawó’ kii háama-pim ’áayato-na pée-’nehnen-e

then this husband-ERG woman-OBJ 3→3-take.away-PAST

‘Now then the husband took the woman away’[16]


  1. ^ Nez Perce language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger". Retrieved 2018-05-17.
  3. ^ a b "Facts for Kids: Nez Perce Indians (Nez Perces)". Retrieved 2017-02-09.
  4. ^ "Nimi'ipuu Language Teaching and Family Learning". NILI Projects. Retrieved 2017-08-10.
  5. ^ a b Crook 1999.
  6. ^ a b c Aoki 1994.
  7. ^ Aoki 1966.
  8. ^ a b Nelson 2013.
  9. ^ "Phonetic Alphabet". Colville Tribes Language Program.
  10. ^ Cash Cash 2004, p. 24.
  11. ^ Aoki 1979.
  12. ^ "Nez Perce National Historical Park". National Park Service. Retrieved 2021-11-04.
  13. ^ Smith & Tingley 1840.
  14. ^ Rude 1985.
  15. ^ Mithun 1999.
  16. ^ Rude 1992.


Vowel harmony

Language learning materials

Dictionaries and vocabulary


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