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Nuxálk language

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Nuxálk language

Bella Coola
Native to Canada
Region Bella Coola area, Central Coast region, British Columbia
Native speakers
20  (2007)[1]
  • Bella Coola
Language codes
ISO 639-3 blc
Glottolog bell1243[2]

Nuxalk (English pronunciation: ), also known as Bella Coola (English [3]) is a Salishan language spoken in the vicinity of the Canadian town of Bella Coola, British Columbia by perhaps 20 elderly people. While the language is still sometimes called Bella Coola by linguists, the native name Nuxalk is preferred by some, notably by the Nuxalk Nation government.[4]

Though the number of truly fluent speakers has not increased, the language is now taught in both the provincial school system and the Nuxalk Nation's own school, Acwsalcta, which means "a place of learning". Nuxalk language classes, if taken to at least the Grade 11 level, are considered adequate second language qualifications for entry to the major B.C. universities.


The name Nuxalk is the native nuχalk, referring to the "Bella Coola Valley",[5] while Bella Coola is a rendering of the Heiltsuk bḷ́xʷlá "stranger".[6]

Geographical distribution

Nuxalk is spoken in Bella Coola, British Columbia, surrounded by Wakashan- and Athabascan-speaking tribes. It was once spoken in over 100 settlements, with varying dialects, but in the present day most of these settlements have been abandoned and dialectal differences have largely disappeared.[6]


Nuxalk forms its own subgroup of the Salish language family. Its lexicon is equidistant from Coast and Interior Salish, but it shares phonological and morphological features with Coast Salish (for example, the absence of pharyngeals, and the presence of marked gender). Nuxalk also borrows many words from contiguous North Wakashan languages (especially Heiltsuk), as well as some from neighbouring Athabascan languages and Tsimshian.[6]



The 28 consonants of Nuxalk, with the orthography of (Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 23) when it differs from the IPA. (An alternate orthography without diacritics is shown at the link below.):

Labial Alveolar Velar Uvular Glottal
central sibilant lateral palatal labial plain labial
Stop aspirated p t t͡sʰ c kʲʰ k kʷʰ q qʷʰ
ejective t͡sʼ t͡ɬʼ ƛ̓ kʼʲ kʼʷ k̓ʷ qʼʷ q̓ʷ ʔ
Fricative s ɬ ł x χ χʷ x̣ʷ (h)
Sonorant m n l j y w

(Nater 1984, p. 3) postulates the existence of phonemic syllabic consonantal counterparts of the sonorants: /m̩, n̩, l̩/ (ṃ ṇ ḷ), and /i, u/ (reanalysing them as /j, w/).

By this analysis Nuxalk would only have one phonemic vowel, /a/. (Words claimed to have unpredictable syllables include sṃnṃnṃuuc(ts?) 'mute', smṇmṇc(ts?)aw '(the fact) that they are children'.[7])


Front Central Back
Close i u
Open a


/i/ may be pronounced:

  • [ɪ] before postvelars
  • [ɪː, ɛː] between postvelars
  • [e̞, e̞ː], before a sonorant followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [i] adjacent to palatovelars
  • [e] elsewhere

/a/ may be pronounced:

  • [ɑ] ([ɒ]?) surrounded by postvelars
  • [ɐ] before rounded velars followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [a] ([ä]?) before a sonorant followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [æ] elsewhere

/u/ may be pronounced:

  • [o̞] surrounded by postvelars
  • [o̞, o̞ː, ɔ, ɔː] before a sonorant followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [u, ʊ] before rounded velars followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [o] elsewhere



The notion of syllable is challenged by Nuxalk in that it allows long strings of consonants without any intervening vowel or other sonorant. Salishan languages, and especially Nuxalk, are famous for this. For instance, the following word contains only obstruents:

'he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant.'
    (Nater 1984, cited in Bagemihl 1991: 16)

Other examples are:

  • [pʰs] 'shape, mold'
  • [pʼs] 'bend'
  • [pʼχʷɬtʰ] 'bunchberry'
  • [t͡sʰkʰtʰskʷʰt͡sʰ] 'he arrived'
  • [tʰt͡sʰ] 'little boy'
  • [skʷʰpʰ] 'saliva'
  • [spʰs] 'northeast wind'
  • [tɬʼpʰ] 'cut with scissors'
  • [st͡sʼqʰ] 'animal fat'
  • [st͡sʼqʰt͡sʰtʰx] 'that's my animal fat over there'
  • [sxs] 'seal fat'
  • [tʰɬ] 'strong'
  • [qʼtʰ] 'go to shore'
  • [qʷʰtʰ] 'crooked'
  • [kʼxɬɬtʰsxʷ sɬχʷtʰɬɬt͡s] 'you had seen that I had gone through a passage' (Nater 1984, p. 5)

Linguists disagree as to how to count the syllables in such words, what if anything constitutes the nuclei of those syllables, and if the concept of 'syllable' is even applicable to Nuxalk. Some assign every stop consonant in such words to a separate syllable, whereas others attempt to consolidate them.

For example, /tɬ/ 'strong' at first appears to be a single syllable with /ɬ/ as the syllable nucleus. However, [tʰt͡sʰ] 'little boy' (phonemically /tt͡s/) may be thought of as having one syllable or two (/t.t͡s/). If one, /t͡s/ would make an unusual nucleus, with /t/ the syllable onset; and if two, both /t/ and /t͡s/ would be considered nuclei, since most theoretical approaches require every syllable to have a nucleus, as part of the definition of 'syllable'. If that assumption is relaxed, so that Nuxalk syllables can be modeled without nuclei, then /tɬ/ 'strong' could be thought of as onset and coda of a single syllable, but it would still not be clear if the /t/ and /t͡s/ of 'little boy' should be considered onset and coda of one syllable, or two onset-only syllables.

Compare Miyako language § Phonology.



The first element in a sentence expresses the event of the proposition. It inflects for the person and number of one (in the intransitive paradigm) or two (in the transitive paradigm) participants.

Single-participant event inflections[9]
Intr. inflection Singular Plural
First Person -c -(i)ł
Second Person -nu -(n)ap
Third Person -Ø or -s -(n)aw

E.g. ƛ̓ikm-Ø ti-wac̓-tx 'the dog is running'.

Whether the parenthesized segments are included in the suffix depends on whether the stem ends in an underlying resonant (vowel, liquid, nasal) and whether it is non-syllabic. So qāχla 'drink' becomes qāχla-ł 'we drink', qāχla-nap 'you (pl.) drink', qāχla-naw 'they drink', but nuyamł 'sing' becomes nuyamł-ił 'we're singing', nuyamł-ap 'you (pl.) are singing', nuyamł-aw 'they're singing'.

However, the choice of the 3ps marker -Ø or -s is conditioned by semantics rather than phonetics. For example, the sentences tix-s ti-ʔimlk-tx and tix-Ø ti-ʔimlk-tx could both be glossed 'it's the man', but the first is appropriate if the man is the one who is normally chosen, while the second is making an assertion that it is the man (as opposed to someone else, as might otherwise be thought) who is chosen.

The following are the possible person markers for transitive verbs, with empty cells indications non-occurring combinations and '--' identifying semantic combinations which require the reflexive suffix -cut- followed by the appropriate intransitive suffix:

Two-participant event inflections[10]
Singular Plural
1 2 3 1 2 3
Executor Sg 1 -- -cinu -ic -tułap -tic
2 -cxʷ -- -ixʷ -tułnu -tixʷ
3 -cs -ct -is -tułs -tap -tis
Pl 1 -tułnu -ił -- -tułap -tił
2 -cap -ip -tułp -- -tip
3 -cant -ct -it -tułt -tap -tit

E.g. sp̓-is ti-ʔimlk-tx ti-stn-tx 'the man struck the tree'.

Whether a word can serve as an event isn't determined lexically, e.g. ʔimmllkī-Ø ti-nusʔūlχ-tx 'the thief is a boy', nusʔūlχ-Ø ti-q̓s-tx 'the one who is ill is a thief'.

There is a further causative paradigm whose suffixes may be used instead:

Causative paradigm[11]
Singular Plural
1 2 3 1 2 3
Executor Sg 1 -- -tuminu -tuc -tumułap -tutic
2 -tumxʷ -- -tuxʷ -tumułxʷ -tutixʷ
3 -tum -tumt -tus -tumułs -tutap -tutis
Pl 1 -tumułnu -tuł -- -tumułap -tutił
2 -tumanp -tup -tumułp -- -tutip
3 -tumant -tumt -tut -tumułt -tutap -tutit

This has a passive counterpart:

Passive Causative paradigm[12]
Passive Causative Singular Plural
First Person -tuminic -tuminił
Second Person -tumt -tutap
Third Person -tum -tutim

This may also have a benefactive gloss when used with events involving less activity of their participant (e.g. nuyamł-tus ti-ʔimlk-tx ti-ʔimmllkī-tx 'the man made/let the boy sing'/'the man sang for the boy'), while in events with more active participants only the causative gloss is possible. In the later group even more active verbs have a preference for the affix-lx- (implying passive experience) before the causative suffix.

The executor in a transitive sentence always precedes the experiencer. However, when an event is proceeded by a lone participant, the semantic content of the event determines whether the participant is an executor or an experiencer. This can only be determined syntactically if the participant is marked by the preposition ʔuł-, which marks the experience.

Some events are inherently transitive or intransitive, but some may accept multiple valencies (e.g. ʔanayk 'to be needy'/'to want [something]').

Prepositions may mark experiencers, and must mark implements. Any participants which are not marked by prepositions are focussed. There are three voices, which allow either the executor, the experiencer, or both to have focus:

  • Active voice - neither is marked with prepositions.
  • Passive voice - the event may have different suffixes, and the executor may be omitted or marked with a preposition
  • Antipassive voice - the event is marked with the affix -a- before personal markers, and the experiencer is marked with a preposition

The affix -amk- (-yamk- after the antipassive marker -a-) allows an implement to have its preposition removed and to be focused. For example:

  • nuyamł-Ø ti-man-tx ʔuł-ti-mna-s-tx x-ti-syut-tx 'the father sang the song to his son'
  • nuyamł-amk-is ti-man-tx ti-syut-tx ʔuł-ti-mna-s-tx 'the father sang the song to his son'


There are four prepositions which have broad usage in Nuxalk:

Prepositions Proximal Distal
Stative x- ʔał-
Active ʔuł- wixłł-


Nuxalk has a set of deictic prefixes and suffixes which serve to identify items as instantiations of domains rather than domains themselves and to locate them in deictic space. Thus the sentences wac̓-Ø ti-ƛ̓ikm-tx and ti-wac̓-Ø ti-ƛ̓ikm-tx, both 'the one that's running is a dog', are slightly different - similar to the difference between the English sentences 'the visitor is Canadian' and 'the visitor is a Canadian' respectively.[14]

The deixis system has a proximal/medial/distal and a non-demonstrative/demonstrative distinction. Demonstratives may be used when finger pointing would be appropriate (or in distal space when something previously mentioned is being referred to).

Proximal demonstrative space roughly corresponds to the area of conversation, and proximal non-demonstrative may be viewed as the area in which one could attract another's attention without raising one's voice. Visible space beyond this is middle demonstrative, space outside of this but within the invisible neighborhood is medial non-demonstrative. Everything else is distal, and non-demonstrative if not mentioned earlier.

The deictic prefixes and suffixes are as follows:

Deictic suffixes[15]
Proximal Medial Distal
Masculine -tx -t̓ayx -t̓aχ -tχ -taχ
Feminine -cx -c̓ayx -ʔiłʔaył -ʔił -ʔił
Plural -c -ʔac -t̓aχʷ -tχʷ -tuχ

Female affixes are used only when the particular is singular and identified as female; if not, even if the particular is inanimate, masculine or plural is used.

The deictic prefixes only have a proximal vs. non-proximal distinction, and no demonstrative distinction:

Deictic prefixes[16]
Proximal Medial and Distal
Masculine ti- ta-
Feminine ci- ła- (ʔił-)
Plural wa- ta- (tu-)

tu- is used in earlier varieties and some types of narratives, except for middle non-demonstrative, and the variant ʔił- may be used "in the same collection of deictic space".

While events are not explicitly marked for tense per se, deixis plays a strong role in determining when the proposition is being asserted to occur. So in a sentence like mus-is ti-ʔimmllkī-tx ta-q̓lsxʷ-t̓aχ 'the boy felt that rope', the sentence is perceived as having a near-past (same day) interpretation, as the boy cannot be touching the rope in middle space from proximal space. However this does not hold for some events, like k̓x 'to see'.[17]

A distal suffix on any participant lends the event a distant past interpretation (before the past day), a medial suffix and no distal suffix lends a near past time, and if the participants are marked as proximal the time is present.

Not every distal participant occurs in past-tense sentences, and vice versa—rather, the deictic suffixes must either represent positions in space, time, or both.

The -m suffix is one of the most puzzling verbal affixes in the language. Some argue that it has varying uses of its morpheme, or that the suffix itself represents different morphemes due to the transitive bases the suffix consists of. The plural of the -m suffix has no known cognates. Another suffix is -uks. This suffix was never recorded, and its derivatives are skeptical. Some say that, because of the -uks suffix, Bella Coola influenced the Wakashan and Athapaskan languages, also originating from the British Columbian coast. Others believe, though, that the -uks suffix used in the Bella Coola language were previously recorded in the Chinook Jargon, thus it was taken from that language. At this point in time, linguists have two stances on this argument: either -uks did originate from the Chinook jargon, or -uks is one of the few elements originating from languages spoken south of the Salishan area of the British Columbia coast, which is difficult to decipher due to the lack of recorded evidence on it. Linguists are unsure what this meaning could bring. An opinion sometimes considered is that people of all the mentioned languages, from Chinook to Bella Coola to Wakashan/Athapaskan, were somehow congregated, and its people were, for more than a brief amount of time, associated with one another. This could have derived from inter-tribal marriages, which meshed the different structural components of the language to form one unique, syntactical language structure. We cannot testify to this hypothesis, though, due to the lack of archives previously produced/left behind by the people that once spoke these languages fluently.


Personal pronouns are reportedly nonexistent but the idea is expressed via verbs that translate as "to be me", etc.[18]

Pronouns[19] Singular Plural
First person ʔnc łmił
Second person ʔinu łup
Third person tix,cix wix


Particle Label Gloss
Quotative 'he said'
ma Dubitative 'maybe'
ʔalu Attemptive 'try'
ck Inferential Dubitative 'I figure'
cakʷ Optative 'I wish/hope'
su Expectable 'again'
tu Confirmative 'really'
ku Surprisative 'so'
lu Expective 'expected'
a Interrogative [yes/no questions]
Perfective 'now'
c̓n Imperfective 'now'
k̓ʷ Usitative 'usually'
mas Absolutive 'always'
ks Individuative 'the one'
łū Persistive 'still, yet'
ʔi...k Contrastive

See also


  1. ^ Bella Coola at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Bella Coola". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh.
  4. ^ Suttles, Wayne (1990), "Introduction". In "Northwest Coast", ed. Wayne Suttles. Vol. 7 of Handbook of North American Indians, ed. William C. Sturtevant, p.15.
  5. ^ [1]John R. Swanton, The Indian Tribes of North America, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145—1953
  6. ^ a b c Nater 1984, p. xvii
  7. ^ Nater 1984, p. 14
  8. ^ Nater 1984, p. 5
  9. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 24.
  10. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 26.
  11. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 29.
  12. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 43.
  13. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 36.
  14. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, pp. 83-84.
  15. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 86.
  16. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 89.
  17. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, pp. 89-90.
  18. ^ Nater, H.F. 1984. The Bella Coola Language. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada. Cited in Bhat, D.N.S. 2004. Pronouns. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 26
  19. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 114.
  20. ^ Davis & Saunders, p. 180.


External links

  • Nuxalk Nation Website
  • First Nations Languages of British Columbia Nuxalk page
  • Nuxalk bibliography
  • Nuxalk information at LanguageGeek.
  • UCLA Archive for Bella Coola
  • [2]
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