San Francisco Bay Area
Linguistic classificationYok-Utian
Pre-contact distribution of the Ohlone languages
ISO 639-3 codes
  • krb: Karkin
  • cst: N. Costanoan
  • css: S. Costanoan

The Ohlone languages, also known as Costanoan, form a small Indigenous language family historically spoken in Northern California, both in the southern San Francisco Bay Area and northern Monterey Bay area, by the Ohlone people. Along with the Miwok languages, they are members of the Utian language family. The most recent work suggests that Ohlone, Miwok, and Yokuts are branches of a Yok-Utian language family.[1]

Myth of the Coyote in the Rumsen language recorded by Alfred L. Kroeber in 1902


Ohlone comprises eight attested varieties: Awaswas, Chalon, Chochenyo (also spelt as Chocheño), Karkin, Mutsun, Ramaytush, Rumsen, and Tamyen. Overall, divergence among these languages seems to have been roughly equivalent to that among the languages of the Romance sub-family of Indo-European languages. Neighboring groups seem to have been able to understand and speak to each other.[2]

The number and geographic distribution of Ohlone language divisions partially mirrors the distribution of Franciscan missions in their original lands. While the known languages are, in most cases, quite distinct, intermediate dialects may have been lost as local groups gathered at the missions.[3] A newly discovered text from Mission Santa Clara provides evidence that Chochenyo of the East Bay area and Tamyen of the Santa Clara Valley were closely related dialects of a single San Francisco Bay Ohlone language.[4][5]

The last native speakers of Ohlone languages died by the 1950s. However, Chochenyo, Mutsun, and Rumsen are now in a state of revival (relearned from saved records).[6]

The classification below is based primarily on Callaghan (2001). Other classifications list Northern Costanoan, Southern Costanoan, and Karkin as single languages, with the following subgroups of each considered as dialects:

The Muwekma-Tah-Ruk theme house at Stanford University: Muwekma-Tah-Ruk means "house of the people" in Ohlone

More recently, Callaghan (2014)[7]: 17  groups Awaswas together with Mutsun as part of a South Central Costanoan subgroup with the Southern Costanoan branch.

Dialect or language debate

Regarding the eight Ohlone branches, sources differ on if they were eight language dialects, or eight separate languages.[8] Richard Levy, himself a linguist, contradicted himself on this point: First he said "Costanoans themselves were a set of tribelets [small tribes] who spoke a common language... distinguished from one another by slight differences in dialect"; however after saying that, he concluded: "The eight branches of the Costanoan family were separate languages (not dialects) as different from one another as Spanish is from French" (Levy, 1978:485, "Language and Territory"). Randall Milliken (1995:24–26) stated in 1995 that there were eight dialects, citing missionary-linguist Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta to the effect that the idioms seemed distinct as one traveled from mission to mission, but actually formed a dialect chain from one neighboring local tribe to another. Catherine Callaghan (1997, 2001), a linguist who steeped herself in the primary documents, offered evidence that the Costanoan languages were distinct, with only Ramaytush, Tamyen, and Chochenyo possibly being dialects of a single language. Milliken (2008:6), himself an ethnohistorian and not a linguist, shifted his position in 2008 to follow Callaghan, referring to separate Costanoan languages rather than dialects.

Native placenames

The Ohlone native people belonged to one or more tribes, bands or villages, and to one or more of the eight linguistic group regions (as assigned by ethnolinguists). Native names listed in the mission records were, in some cases, clearly principal village names, in others the name assigned to the region of a "multifamily landholding group" (per Milliken). Although many native names have been written in historical records, the exact spelling and pronunciations were not entirely standardized in modern English. Ethnohistorians have resorted to approximating their indigenous regional boundaries as well. (The word that Kroeber coined to designate California tribes, bands and villages, tribelet, has been published in many records but is advisably offensive and incorrect, per the Ohlone people.)[9]

Many of the known tribal and village names were recorded in the California mission records of baptism, marriage, and death. Some names have come from Spanish and Mexican settlers, some from early Anglo-European travelers, and some from the memories of Native American informants. Speakers were natives still alive who could remember their group's native language and details.[10]

Some of the former tribe and village names were gleaned from the land maps ("diseños de terreno") submitted by grantees in applying for Spanish and Mexican land grants or designs ("diseños") that were drawn up in Alta California prior to the Mexican–American War.[11] In this regard, large amounts of untranslated material is available for research in the records of Clinton H. Merriam housed at the Bancroft Library, and more material continues to be published by local historical societies and associations.[12]

Spelling and pronunciation

Many of the original sounds were first heard and copied down by Spanish missionaries using Spanish as a reference language, subject to human error, later translated into English and Anglicized over time. Spelling errors crept in as different missionaries kept separate records over a long period of time, under various administrators. Ethnohistorians Kroeber, Merriam, and others interviewed Ohlone speakers and were able to define some pronunciations on word lists. Ethnolinguists have used this to some advantage to create phonetic tables giving some semblance of languages, notably the Selected Costanoan Words by Merriam.[13]

Native words

A partial table of words comes from Indian Names for Plants and Animals Among California and other Western North American Tribes by Clinton Merriam. This published list covers 400 Ohlone words from interviews of native speakers. The Ohlone words listed are by "phonetic English" pronunciations.[14]

Selected Costanoan Words by Merriam[15]
English Word Schedule #56 Schedule #57 Word #
Salmon[16] Oo'-rahk Hoo"-rah-ka 247
Abalone Oo==ch[17] Hah-shan 254
Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) Ho-o-pe 280
Valley Live Oak
(Quercus agrifolia or Quercus lobata)[18]
Yū'Ks You-kish 296
Big Round Tule[19] Rōks Ró-kus 409
  • Schedule # – record number of one more interviews, with one or more persons.
  • Word # – Merriam numbers his words for easy reference.


  1. ^ Utian and Penutian classification: Levy, 1978:485–486 (citing Kroeber), Callaghan 1997, Golla 2007. Yok-Utian as a taxonomic category: Callaghan 1997, 2001; Golla 2007:76
  2. ^ Names of dialects or languages: Levy 1978:485; Teixeira 1997:33–34; Milliken 1995:24–26. For the assertion they are dialects of one language, refer to Milliken, 1995:24–26 (an ethnohistorian, not a linguist), who cited missionary-linguist Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta to that effect. Levy 1978:485 (a linguist) asserted they were distinct languages, but he contradicted himself on same page. Callaghan (1997, 2001), a linguist who steeped herself in the primary documents, offered evidence that the languages were separate, with only Ramaytush, Tamyen, and Chochenyo possibly being dialects of a single language. Milliken (2008:6) followed Callaghan, referring to separate languages rather than dialects.
  3. ^ Milliken, 1995:24–26.
  4. ^ Blevins and Golla, 2005.
  5. ^ Forbes (1968:184), an ethnohistorian, introduced the term Muwekma for a hypothetical northern division of the Costanoan language family, with an Ohlone subdivision (San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Jose dialects) and a Huchiun–Karkin division. Beeler (1961), Levy (1978), and Callaghan (1997), all linguists, consider the Santa Cruz and Karkin dialects completely distinct from any of the other dialects grouped by Forbes.
  6. ^ for extinction classification, Gordon 2005 (krb, cst, css); For revitalization claims see external links section, revitalization articles.
  7. ^ Callaghan, Catherine. (2014). Proto-Utian Grammar and Dictionary: with notes on Yokuts. Trends in Linguistics Documentation 31. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. doi:10.1515/9783110276770
  8. ^ For the names of the languages, see Levy 1978:485; Teixeira 1997:33–34; and Milliken 1995:24–26. The latter two both cite Levy 1978:485 as their source.
  9. ^ Milliken 1995:13n and Appendix I; Term "tribelet" not accepted by many Native American scholars and others, per Bean 1994:299–300, article by Leventhal et al.
  10. ^ Village Names: Cook, 1976b, attributes a good village name list to Merriam's assistant. "Informant" interviews were made as early as 1890, and as late as the 1940s. Mainly from Bancroft (earliest), Kroeber and Merriam (published 1970s posthumously via R. F. Heizer and others).
  11. ^ For example of a Diseño de terreno, see Diseño de terreno de la Misión Dolores, 1854, from the Bancroft Library.
  12. ^ Merriam, 1979, "Preface"; also Teixeira, 1997.
  13. ^ Discussion of spelling, translation and mission record variances, Milliken, 1995. Phonetic tables: Merriam, 1979.
  14. ^ Phonetic tables, Merriam, 1979. See also "C. Hart Merriam" biography and endorsement, Teixeira, 1997:33–34.
  15. ^ Merriam, 1979.
  16. ^ While Merriam does not list the species, it is most likely Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), and less likely pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha); although both ply in both bay areas.
  17. ^ The double equals require a ch over them, as listed.
  18. ^ Merriam listed Valley Live Oak. Since that is not a listed species, he probably meant either Coast Live Oak or Valley Oak.
  19. ^ Merriam listed Big round tule. Since that species is NOT in California, he must mean one of the Bay Area tules possibly Scirpus lacustris. (See California Indian Watercraft by Richard W. Cunningham. 1989:36)