Voices of the Pacific Northwest
Language and Life along the Columbia and throughout Cascadia
from the 18th Century to the Present
A Curriculum of Historical and Linguistic Inquiry
Overview of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Language
Nuu-chah-nulth is still spoken by perhaps a hundred people on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It, like many languages of the region, is a polysynthetic language, meaning that most words are made up of a lot of morphemes. Consider, for example, the following two “sentence-words:” the word saapniqiiłitʔiš contains the morphemes for ‘bread’ and ‘make,’ as well as the markers for past, 3rd person (she), and other markers. And čiiłčiiyamitʔiš contains the morphemes for ‘carve,’ the marker for a repetitive action, and others. The words are shown in the context of longer sentences in the following two examples.
‘Kay made bread yesterday.’
‘Ken was carving.’
There are quite a few letters in these Nuu-chah-nulth used to represent sounds. Knowing those sounds or how to produce them won’t affect what you need to know for this problem-solving activity, but it’s kind of fun to know a bit about how to say the words. The ʔ is called a glottal stop. Say the word uh-oh; the sound in between the two parts of the word is a glottal stop. The č is a “ch” sound like in chip. The š represents the “sh” sound of ship, and the ł, called a barred “l”, is kind of like a “hissed l,” like in clear or athlete. Try to say some words! You can find some more pronunciation guidelines here...
Also, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nation has great language resources on their web site.