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Native toU.S.
RegionWestern New Mexico
Native speakers
9,620 (2015)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2zun
ISO 639-3zun
Pre-European contact distribution of Zuni
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Zuni /ˈzni/ (also formerly Zuñi, endonym Shiwiʼma) is a language of the Zuni people, indigenous to western New Mexico and eastern Arizona in the United States. It is spoken by around 9,500 people, especially in the vicinity of Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, and much smaller numbers in parts of Arizona.

Unlike most indigenous languages in the United States, Zuni is still spoken by a significant number of children and, thus, is comparatively less threatened with language endangerment. Edmund Ladd reported in 1994 that Zuni is still the main language of communication in the pueblo and is used in the home (Newman 1996).[2]

The Zuni name for their own language, Shiwiʼma (shiwi "Zuni" + -ʼma "vernacular"; pronounced [ˈʃiwiʔma]) can be translated as "Zuni way", whereas its speakers are collectively known as ʼA꞉shiwi (ʼa꞉(w)- "plural" + shiwi "Zuni").


Zuni is considered a language isolate. The Zuni have, however, borrowed a number of words from Keres, Hopi, and O’odham pertaining to religion and religious observances.[3]

A number of possible relationships of Zuni to other languages have been proposed by various researchers, although none of these have gained general acceptance. The main hypothetical proposals have been connections with Penutian (and Penutioid and Macro-Penutian), Tanoan, and Hokan phyla, and also the Keresan languages.

The most clearly articulated hypothesis is Newman's (1964) connection to Penutian, but even this was considered by Newman (according to Michael Silverstein) to be a tongue-in-cheek work due to the inherently problematic nature of the methodology used in Penutian studies (Goddard 1996). Newman's cognate sets suffered from common problems in comparative linguistics, such as comparing commonly borrowed forms (e.g. "tobacco"), forms with large semantic differences (e.g. "bad" and "garbage", "horse" and "hoof"), nursery forms, and onomatopoetic forms (Campbell 1997). Zuni was also included under Morris Swadesh's Penutioid proposal and Joseph Greenberg's very inclusive Penutian sub-grouping – both without convincing arguments (Campbell 1997).

Zuni was included as being part of the Aztec-Tanoan language family within Edward Sapir's heuristic 1929 classification (without supporting evidence). Later discussions of the Aztec-Tanoan hypothesis usually excluded Zuni (Foster 1996).

Karl-Heinz Gursky published problematic unconvincing evidence for a Keresan-Zuni grouping. J. P. Harrington wrote one unpublished paper with the title "Zuñi Discovered to be Hokan" (Campbell 1997).

Language contact

Zuni man

As Zuni is a language in the Pueblo linguistic area, it shares a number of features with Hopi, Keresan, and Tanoan (and to a lesser extent Navajo) that are probably due to language contact. The development of ejective consonants in Zuni may be due to contact with Keresan and Tanoan languages which have complete series of ejectives. Likewise, aspirated consonants may have diffused into Zuni. Other shared traits include: final devoicing of vowels and sonorant consonants, dual number, ceremonial vocabulary, and the presence of a labialized velar [kʷ] (Campbell 1997).


Main article: Zuni phonology

The 16 consonants of Zuni (with IPA phonetic symbol when different from the orthography) are the following:

Bilabial Dental/Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral plain labial
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k ⟨k, ky⟩ ⟨kw⟩ ʔ ⟨ʼ⟩
Affricate ts ⟨ch⟩
Fricative s ɬ ⟨ł⟩ ʃ ⟨sh⟩ h
Approximant l j ⟨y⟩ w

The vowels are the following:

Front back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

Zuni syllables have the following specification:



Word order in Zuni is fairly free with a tendency toward SOV. There is no case-marking on nouns. Verbs are complex, compared to nouns, with loose incorporation. Like other languages in the Southwest, Zuni employs switch-reference.

Newman (1965, 1996) classifies Zuni words according to their structural morphological properties (namely the presence and type of inflectional suffixes), not according to their associated syntactic frames. His terms, noun and substantive, are therefore not synonymous.


Zuni uses overt pronouns for first and second persons. There are no third person pronouns.[4] The pronouns distinguish three numbers (singular, dual and plural) and three cases (subject, object and possessive). In addition, some subject and possessive pronouns have different forms depending on whether they appear utterance-medially or utterance-finally (object pronouns do not occur utterance-medially). All pronoun forms are shown in the following table:

Subject Object Possessive
Medial Final Medial Final
1st person singular hoʼ ho꞉ʼo hom hom homma
dual hon hoʼno hoʼnaʼ hoʼnaʼ hoʼnaʼ
plural hon hoʼno hoʼnaʼ hoʼnʼa꞉wan hoʼnʼa꞉wan
2nd person singular doʼ do꞉ʼo dom dom domma
dual don doʼno doʼnaʼ doʼnaʼ doʼnaʼ
plural don doʼno doʼnaʼ doʼnʼa꞉wan doʼnʼa꞉wan

There is syncretism between dual and plural non-possessive forms in the first and second persons. Utterances with these pronouns are typically disambiguated by the fact that plural pronouns agree with plural-marked verb forms.


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2008)


Zuni adults are often known after the relationship between that adult and a child. For example, a person might be called "father of so-and-so", etc. The circumlocution is used to avoid using adult names, which have religious meanings and are very personal.[5]


There are twenty letters in the Zuni alphabet.

a b ch d e h i k l ł m n o p s t u w y

This orthography was largely worked out by Curtis Cook.

Old orthographies

Linguists and anthropologists have created and used their own writing system for Zuni before the alphabet was standardized. One was developed for Zuni by linguist Stanley Newman (Newman 1954). This practical orthography essentially followed Americanist phonetic notation with the substitution of some uncommon letters with other letters or digraphs (two-letter combinations). A further revised orthography is used in Dennis Tedlock's transcriptions of oral narratives.

See the table below for a comparison of the systems.

In Newman's orthography (used in his dictionary, Newman 1958), the symbols, ⟨ch, j, lh, q, sh, z, /, :⟩ replaced Americanist ⟨č, h, ł, kʷ, š, c, ʔ, ˑ (used in Newman's grammar, Newman 1965).

Tedlock's orthography uses ⟨ʼ⟩ instead of Newman's ⟨/⟩ except at the beginning of words where it is not written. Additionally, in Tedlock's system, long vowels are written doubled instead of with a length mark ⟨꞉⟩ as in Newman's system (e.g. ⟨aa⟩ instead of ⟨a꞉⟩) and ⟨h⟩ and ⟨kw⟩ are used instead of ⟨j⟩ and ⟨q⟩. Finally, Tedlock writes the following long consonants – ⟨cch, llh, ssh, tts⟩ – with a doubled initial letter instead of Newman's doubling of the digraphs – ⟨chch⟩, ⟨lhlh⟩, ⟨shsh⟩ – and ⟨kkw⟩ and ⟨tts⟩ are used instead of Newman's ⟨qq⟩ and ⟨zz⟩.


  1. ^ Zuni at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016) Closed access icon
  2. ^ From "Pueblo of Zuni Head Start Program FY 2018 Annual Report" available on the Zuni Pueblo web site: The Zuni Language and Culture  Through the years, the Zuni Head Start Program has seen a decline of the native language spoken by children and their parents The parents of our children are young and speak mostly the English language. The lack of the native language spoken in the home is the primary reason our children do not speak their native language. Most parents are able to understand the native language but unable to speak the language fluently.   Families who live with elders such as grandparents, aunts or uncles speak more of their native language and are fluent speakers. The percentage of children speaking their native language has declined over the last 29 years; therefore the Zuni Head Start Program has taken an active stance to incorporate the daily use of the Zuni language in the classrooms, which include the teaching of the Zuni culture. There is a lot of encouragement for everyone in the center to speak the Zuni language in social conversations so that our children will hear the language and become to be [sic] comfortable to speak [sic] their language.  Language use of the children enrolled in Head Start: 137 Children spoke English as their primary language 15 Children spoke Zuni as their primary language. This indicates only 16 percent of the Zuni children are able to understand and speak their native language.
  3. ^ Hill, Jane H. "Zunian as a Language Isolate." American Southwest Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2008, p. 3
  4. ^ Nichols, Lynn (1997). Topics in Zuni Syntax. Harvard University. p. 35.
  5. ^ Kroeber, Albert L. (1917). Zuñi kin and clan. Anthropological papers of the American Museum of Natural History (Vol. 18, Pt. 2). New York: The Trustees. (Online:


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