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British Columbia, Canada
Linguistic classification: One of the world's primary language families
  • Northern
  • Southern
Ethnologue code: 5: wak

Pre-contact distribution of Wakashan languages

Wakashan is a family of languages spoken in British Columbia around and on Vancouver Island, and in the northwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, on the south side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

As is typical of the Northwest Coast, Wakashan languages have large consonant inventories—the consonants often occurring in complex clusters.


Family division

The Wakashan language family consists of seven languages:[1]

I. Northern Wakashan (Kwakiutlan) languages

1. Haisla ( Xaʼislak’ala, X̌àh̓isl̩ak̓ala, with two dialects: X̄a’islak̓ala and X̄enaksialak̓ala, spoken by the Haisla or Northern Kwakiutl) – about 200 speakers (2005)
2. Kwak'wala ( Kwakiutl and Lekwiltok (Liq̓ʷala), spoken by the Laich-kwil-tach or Southern Kwakiutl and Kwakwaka'wakw peoples) – 235 speakers (2000)
A. Heiltsuk-Oowekyala ( Bella Bella) – about 200 speakers (2005)
3. Heiltsuk ( Haiɫzaqvla, spoken by the Heiltsuk or Northern Kwakiutl)
4. Oowekyala (’Uwik̓ala, spoken by the Wuikinuxv or Northern Kwakiutl)

II. Southern Wakashan (Nootkan) languages

5. Makah ( Qʷi·qʷi·diččaq, Q'widishch'a:'tx, spoken by the Makah people together with the known extinct Ozette people, who spoke 'Osi:l-'a:'tx) – extinct (Last speaker died in 2002)
6. Nitinaht ( Diidiitidq, Diitiidʔaatx̣, Nitinat, Ditidaht, Southern Nootkan, spoken by the Ditidaht or Southern Nootka, known to themselves as Diitiidʔaaʔtx̣ and Pacheedaht), located in southwestern Vancouver Island[2] – 30 speakers (1991)
7. Nuu-chah-nulth ( Nuučaan̓uł, Nootka, Nutka, Aht, West Coast, T’aat’aaqsapa, spoken by the Nuu-chah-nulth people) – 510 speakers (2005)[3]

Possible relations to external language families

In the 1960s Swadesh suggested a connection with the Eskimo-Aleut languages. This was picked up and expanded by Holst (2005).[4]

Name and contact

The name Wakesh or Waukash is Nuu-chah-nulth for "good", and was given by one of the early explorers including Captain James Cook, who believed it to be the tribal appellation.[5]

Juan de Fuca was probably the first white man to meet Wakashan-speaking peoples, and Juan Perez visited the Nuu-chah-nulth people in 1774. After 1786, English mariners frequently sailed to Nootka Sound; in 1803 the crew of the American ship Boston were almost all killed by these Indians. In 1843 the Hudson's Bay Company established a trading post at Victoria. European-Canadians had regular contact with the First Nations after that time, resulting in population losses in the early 20th century due to smallpox epidemics, social disruption and alcoholism. In 1903 the Aboriginals numbered about 5200, of whom 2600 were in the West Coast Agency, 1300 in the Kwakewith Agency, 900 in the North West Coast Agency, and 410 at Neah Bay Company, Cape Flattery. In 1909 they numbered 4584, including 2070 Kwakiutl and 2494 Nootka. Roman Catholic missionaries were active in the region.[6]



  • Boas, Frank and J. W. Powell. ISBN 978-0-8032-5017-8.

Further reading

  • Liedtke, Stefan. Wakashan, Salishan, Penutian and Wider Connections Cognate Sets. Linguistic data on diskette series, no. 09. München: Lincom Europa, 1995. ISBN 3-929075-24-5
  • William H. Jacobsen Jr. (1979): "Wakashan Comparative Studies" in The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment, Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.), Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Fortescue, Michael (2007). Comparative Wakashan Dictionary. Lincom Europa. ISBN 3-89586-724-1

External links

  • Wakashan Word Sets, Native Languages of the Americas
  • First Peoples Language Map of British Columbia
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