EthnicityWintun people
Linguistic classificationPenutian ?
  • Wintun
  • Northern
  • Southern
Wintu langs.png
Pre-contact distribution of Wintuan languages

Wintuan (also Wintun, Wintoon, Copeh, Copehan) is a family of languages spoken in the Sacramento Valley of central Northern California.

All Wintuan languages are either extinct or severely endangered.


Family division

Shipley (1978:89) listed three Wintuan languages in his encyclopedic overview of California Indian languages. More recently, Mithun (1999) split Southern Wintuan into a Patwin language and a Southern Patwin language, resulting in the following classification.

I. Northern Wintuan

1. Wintu (a.k.a. Wintu proper, Northern Wintu) (†)
2. Nomlaki (a.k.a. Noamlakee, Central Wintu) (†)

II. Southern Wintuan

3. Patwin (a.k.a. Patween)
4. Southern Patwin (†)

Wintu became extinct with the death of the last fluent speaker in 2003 (Golla 2011:143). Nomlaki has at least one partial speaker (as of 2010, Golla 2011:143). One speaker of Patwin (Hill Patwin dialect) remained in 2003 (Golla 2011:145). Southern Patwin, once spoken by the Suisun local tribe just northeast of San Francisco Bay, became extinct in the early 20th century and is thus poorly known (Golla 2011:146; Mithun 1999). Wintu proper is the best documented of the four Wintuan languages.

Pitkin (1984) estimated that the Wintuan languages were about as close to each other as the Romance languages. They may have diverged from a common tongue only 2,000 years ago. A comparative study including a reconstruction of Proto-Wintun phonology, morphology and lexicon was undertaken by Shepherd (2006).

Possible relations to external language families

The Wintuan family is usually considered to be a member of the hypothetical Penutian language phylum (Golla 2011:128-168) and was one of the five branches of the original California kernel of Penutian proposed by Roland B. Dixon and Alfred L. Kroeber (1913a, 1913b). However, recent studies suggest that the Wintuans independently entered California about 1,500 years ago from an earlier location somewhere in Oregon (Golla 2007:75-78). The Wintuan pronominal system closely resembles that of Klamath, while there are numerous lexical resemblances between Northern Wintuan and Alsea that appear to be loans (Golla 1997; DeLancey and Golla 1997; Liedtke 2007).