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Wappo language

Native to United States
Region Alexander Valley, California
Ethnicity Wappo people
Extinct with Laura Fish Somersal (d. 1990)
  • Wappo
Language codes
ISO 639-3 wao
Glottolog wapp1239[1]
Pre-contact distribution of the Wappo language

Wappo is an extinct language that was spoken in the Alexander Valley north of San Francisco by the Wappo Native Americans. The last fluent speaker, Laura Fish Somersal, died in 1990. Wappo's language death is attributed to the use of English in schools and economic situations such as the workplace.[2] According to Somersal, the name for the people and language is derived from the Spanish word guapo, meaning "handsome" or "brave".[3] The name for the people was originally Ashochimi.[4]

Wappo is generally believed to be distantly related to the Yuki language, and is distinct largely due to Pomoan influence.[5]

Paul Radin published the first texts on Wappo grammar in the 1920s. Jesse O. Sawyer published the "English-Wappo Vocabulary" in 1965 and continued to study Wappo grammar throughout his life. Other linguists who have contributed to the study of Wappo include William E. Elmendorf, Alice Shepherd, Sandra Thompson, Joseph Sung-Yul Park and Charles N. Li.[2]


  • Phonology 1
    • Vowels 1.1
    • Consonants 1.2
    • Stress and Tone 1.3
    • Phonological Processes 1.4
  • Morphology 2
    • Nouns 2.1
    • Verbs 2.2
  • Syntax 3
    • Word Order 3.1
    • Case System 3.2
  • Questions 4
    • Yes-no questions 4.1
    • Question-word questions 4.2
  • Language Contact and Influence 5
  • Regional variation 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • External links 10



Wappo has five vowel qualities, but the literature is inconsistent as to whether a length distinction exists. In his Wappo lexicon, Sawyer transcribes long vowels, but Thompson et al., who worked with the same speaker, report that they did not hear any long vowels.[3][6]

According to Radin, the following diphthongs occur in Wappo: /ao/, /ai/, /ɛo/, /ɛi/, /ɛu/, /ei/, /ɔi/, /iɛ/, and /ui/.[7]

 Front   Back 
 High  i u
 Mid  e o
 Low  a


The transcription style (bolded symbols below) is based on Sawyer's work with Somersal, with further interpretation by Thompson, Park and Li. Thompson et al. propose that Wappo has three types of stops: plain, aspirated and glottalized. Stops plus /h/ are therefore treated as single aspirated stops.[3] Sawyer notes that /f/, /d/, /g/, /r/ and /rʼ/ are used for Spanish borrowings.[6]

Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive voiceless p [p] t [t̻] [t̺] k [k] ʔ [ʔ]
aspirated [pʰ] [t̻ʰ] ṭʰ [t̺ʰ] [kʰ]
glottalized [pʼ] [t̻ʼ] ṭʼ [t̺ʼ] [kʼ]
Affricate voiceless c [t͡s] č [t͡ʃ]
glottalized [t͡sʼ] čʼ [t͡ʃʼ]
Fricative voiceless s [s] š [ʃ] h [h]
Nasal plain m [m] n [n]
glottalized [mʼ] [nʼ]
Approximant plain w [w] l [l] y [y]
glottalized [wʼ] [lʼ] [yʼ]

Stress and Tone

Wappo word stress is predictable, in that the first syllable of the word stem is stressed. In the examples below, the accent marks stress.

  • méhwa "wild grape vine"
  • kálkuʔ "greyhound"

Wappo does not make distinctions in tone.

Phonological Processes

  • Glottal stops are inserted word-initially in words that would otherwise begin with a vowel.
  • If a word stem ends in a vowel and a suffix immediately following the stem begins with a vowel, one of those vowels is elided. In most cases, the vowel at the beginning of the suffix is deleted. For example, čoči-iʔ, which is the root "weave" plus the durative suffix, has the surface representation of čočiʔ.[3]



Nouns can be divided into human and non-human classes, which is relevant for pluralization. Human nouns are consistently inflected for plurality, but non-human nouns do not have to be inflected for plurality, even when their reference is in fact plural. For example, onoʔšiʔ-te "Indians" has the plural suffix -te, but mansanaʔi "apples" lacks the suffix.[3]


Wappo also has rich inflectional and derivational morphology in its verb phrases. There are five categories of tense or aspect: habitual/progressive, stative, past, inchoative and future. Each verb root takes at least two forms to which suffixes are added. The form used depends on the tense. The forms themselves are determined by the verb's semantic class, which is basically determined by the habitual/progressive suffix used. Specific suffixes result in changes to the verb stem, for example, -lik- is added to the root of verbs occurring with the rare imperative suffix -laʔ. This occurs in the imperative for "sleep", in which the stem is changed from hinto- to hintolik-. Epenthesis also occurs in certain situations, depending on the form of the root and the suffix added.[3]

Thompson et al. provide the following examples of tense/aspect categories. The relevant forms are bolded, and all of the forms follow Sawyer's transcription style.
Category Suffix(es) Wappo example English translation
Habitual/progressive 13 different forms exist ah yekhe k'el-iʔ "I eat acorn mush"
Stative -khiʔ i-meʔ c'ic'-i čhoʔel-khiʔ "my bird has died"
Past -taʔ ah leʔa mey-ocow el-taʔ "I dug lots of swamp-roots"
Inchoative -iš and -eš ah yomtoʔ-iš-khiʔ "I've become a doctor"
Future -ya:miʔ (more certain) and -siʔ (less certain) miʔ may' ohk'eč'e-siʔ "[be careful-] you'll cut yourself"

Negatives are marked by the suffix lahkhiʔ.

  • paʔ - ta - lahkhiʔ
    eat - PST - NEG
    "did not eat"
  • ah te oyaʔ keʔ - tis - ta -lahkhiʔ
    1SG:NOM 3SG pot break - CAUS - PST - NEG
    "I didn’t make him/her break the pot"

Prefixes are also added to verb phrases. There are speaker-oriented directional prefixes which are grouped into two classes, depending on whether the motion of the verb is directed at or away from the speaker. In narrative contexts, the direction may refer to a character. For example, two directional prefixes are ma- "away from speaker" and te- "toward speaker". Non-speaker-oriented directional prefixes include ho-, meaning "around" and pi-, meaning "accidentally". Wappo also includes pre-verbal desiderative and optative mood particles. The desiderative particle, k'ah, is used to indicate that the speaker wishes something were true. The optative particle, keye, is translated as "could", "can", or "should".


Word Order

Wappo has a predicate-final word order.

  • cephi onoʔšiʔ okel haṭel - khiʔ
    3SG:NOM Indian language learn -STAT
    "s/he's learning Indian language"

Patient-initial structures are acceptable, albeit less common.

  • ce ew ce k'ew - i t'um- taʔ
    DEM fish DEM man - NOM buy - PST
    "that fish, the man bought (it)"

Wappo allows for more freedom in word order in complement clauses, especially when they have first person subjects. All three sentences below are acceptable translations of "I know that the man caught a fish".

  • ah ce k'ew ew ṭ'oh - taʔ haṭis - khiʔ
    1SG:NOM DEM man fish catch - PST know - STAT
  • ah haṭis - khiʔ ce k'ew ew ṭ'oh - taʔ
    1SG:NOM know - STAT DEM man fish catch - PST
  • ce k'ew ew ṭ'oh-taʔ ah haṭis-khiʔ
    DEM man fish catch - PST 1SG:NOM know - STAT

In noun phrases, demonstrative and genitive modifiers precede the noun, while numerals and adjectives follow the noun.

  • he tonči
    DEM cat
    "this cat"
  • te - meʔ č'ešma
    3SG - GEN bed
    "his/her bed"
  • hinta hopoka ah k'ešu mehlahi - khiʔ
    day three 1SG:NOM deer hunt - STAT
    "for three days, I was hunting"

In verb phrases, oblique arguments and adverbs come before the verb.

  • ah kaphe kawaču - k'a hak' - šeʔ
    1SG:NOM coffee sugar - COM want - DUR
    "I want coffee with sugar in it"[3]

Case System

Wappo has a rich case system which uses suffixes to mark cases. In the examples below, the words relevant to the case being discussed are in boldface.

The accusative case is unmarked. Patients, arguments of transitive verbs that are patient-like, all subjects in dependent clauses and single arguments in equatorial sentences take the accusative case.

  • ce k'ew ceʔeʔ i ek'a
    DEM man COP 1SG
    "that man is my son"

The nominative case is marked with the suffix -i. Words functioning as initiators, agents, experiencers of transitive verbs and the single argument of an intransitive verb take the nominative case. If the noun stem to which this suffix is added happens to ends with a vowel, the stem-final vowel is dropped or changed. Otherwise, adding the nominative suffix does not change the stem. The examples below illustrate the contrast.

  • pol'eʔ "boy" → pol'eʔi "boys"
  • k'ešu "deer (singular)" → k'eši "deer (plural)"

The dative case, which is used to indicate the recipient or direction, is marked with -thu.

  • chic- i i -thu te -laha-khiʔ
    bear-NOM 1SG-DAT DIR-come-STAT
    "the bear is coming toward me"

The benefactive case is marked with -ma. It is used to mark whom the action benefits.

  • may- ma miʔ ce takaʔ mes-taʔ
    who - BENEF 2SG:NOM DEM basket make - PST
    "who did you make that basket for?"

The instrumental case, used with intensive reflexives and instruments, is marked with -thiʔ.

  • cephi kuči:ya - thiʔ chica ṭ'oh - taʔ
    3SG:NOM knife - INST bear kill - PST
    "s/he killed the bear with a knife"

The comitative case is marked with -k'a and is used to indicate accompaniment.

  • ah mi -k'a čo:-siʔ
    1SG:NOM 2SG - COM go - FUT
    "I’ll go with you"

The genitive case is marked with -meʔ. It can only be used in constructions with alienable possession. (Inalienable possession is expressed through the juxtaposition of the two relevant nouns.)

  • i - meʔ luč - i lakhiʔ
    1SG - GEN tobacco - NOM missing
    "I don’t have any cigarettes"

Wappo also has a locative case, which is marked with suffixes such as -pi "away from" and -cawoh "on top of".

  • thal - i čhuya - cawoh te - cewte - khiʔ
    what - NOM house - on:top DIR - fall - STAT
    "what fell on the roof?" [3]


Yes-no questions

To mark yes-no questions, a question particle, /hVʔ/, is added after the verb. It does not have to directly follow the verb. The particle's vowel harmonizes with the vowel that precedes it. In all of the examples blow, the question word is glossed as "Q" and is also in boldface.

  • uh miʔ c'ey - taʔ haʔ
    already 2SG:NOM finish - PST Q
    "have you finished already?
  • miʔ i hak'- šeʔ heʔ
    2SG:NOM 1SG like - DUR Q
    "do you like me?"
  • te ceʔ mi ek'a haʔ
    3SG COP 2SG son Q
    "is he your son?"

The particle is usually at the end of the sentence, but as the example below demonstrates, it is not always sentence-final. Its location depends on the composition of the verb phrase.

  • luče neʔ - khiʔ hiʔ miʔ
    tobacco have - STAT Q 2SG:NOM
    "do you have any cigarettes?"

Question-word questions

Question words are usually located clause-initially.

  • iṭa miʔ i yok'-okh hak'- šeʔ
    where 2SG:NOM 1SG sit - INF want - DUR
    "where do you want me to sit?"

Question words can also get case inflection, except in cases of inalienable possession, where no suffix is added.

  • may- i oyok'- eʔ
    who - NOM win - DUR
    "who’s winning?"
  • thal-i čhuya-cawote-cewte-khiʔ
    what - NOM house - on:top DIR - fall - STAT
    "what fell on the roof?"

Question words can also be used as indefinite pronouns.

  • cephi thal t'um'i - khiʔ
    3SG:NOM what go:buy - STAT
    "s/he went to buy something"
  • may- i i naw- ta -lahkhiʔ
    who-NOM 1SG see -PST- NEG
    "nobody saw me"[3]

Language Contact and Influence

Language contact with Spanish has influenced Wappo's sound structure and vocabulary. As listed above in the consonant section, /f/, /d/, /g/, /r/ and /rʼ/ are used for Spanish borrowings. Many of the first words borrowed from Spanish into Wappo referred to items that were traded. In some cases, words may have been borrowed from other American Indian languages in contact with Spanish, rather than directly from Spanish. Below are two examples of borrowings from Spanish.

  • čičaloʔ "pea" was borrowed from chícharo
  • háros "rice" was borrowed from arroz[2]

While contact with English has not greatly influenced Wappo's lexicon, it has influenced its syntax. Thompson et al. cite the sentences below as examples of an expanded use of the benefactive case that could have arisen from contact with English.

  • kaphe - ma ah mey k'o - taʔ
    coffee - BENEF 1SG:NOM water boil - PST
    "I boiled water for coffee"
  • [he takaʔ- i] i - ma eniya c'iti -khi? [čoč -ukh]
    DEM basket - NOM 1SG - BENEF very hard - STAT weave - INF
    "this basket was very hard for me to make"

While Wappo has a predicate-final structure, question words are clause-initial in most cases. This is unexpected, and possibly resulting from English influence.

  • may miʔ naw - taʔ
    who 2SG:NOM see - PST
    "who did you see?"

In another potential example of English influence, the word neʔ-khiʔ "have" is used in deontic expressions, and its meaning is adapted as "have to".

  • ah čoh - ukh neʔ - khiʔ maʔa heʔ
    1SG:NOM go - INF have - STAT just now
    "I have to go right now"[3]

Regional variation

Wappo had 5 varieties:

  • Clear Lake Wappo
  • Russian River Wappo (AKA Western Wappo)
  • Northern Wappo
  • Central Wappo
  • Southern Wappo

See also


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Wappo". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ a b c Sawyer, Jesse O., "Wappo studies" (1984). Survey Reports. Report #7.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Thompson, Sandra A.; Park, Joseph Sung-Yul; Li, Charles N. (2006). A Reference Grammar of Wappo. University of California Press.  
  4. ^ Powers, Stephen; Powell, John Wesley (1877). Tribes of California. U.S. Government Printing Office. 
  5. ^ Golla, Victor (2011). California Indian Languages. University of California Press.  
  6. ^ a b Sawyer, Jesse O., "English-Wappo Vocabulary" (Aug 25, 1965). UC Publications in Linguistics. Paper vol_43.
  7. ^ Radin, Paul. 1929. A grammar of the Wappo language. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 27:1-194.


  • Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian Languages The Historical Linguistics of Native America. New York : Oxford University Press.  
  • Sturtevant, William C.; Goddard, Ives (1996). Handbook of North American Indians Languages. Government Printing Office.  
  • Mithun, Marianne (1999). The Languages of Native North America. New York : Cambridge University Press.  
  • Powers, Stephen; Powell, John Wesley (1877). Tribes of California. U.S. Government Printing Office. 
  • Radin, Paul. 1929. A grammar of the Wappo language. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 27:1-194.
  • Sawyer, Jesse O., English-Wappo Vocabulary (Aug 25, 1965). UC Publications in Linguistics. Paper vol. 43.
  • Sawyer, Jesse O., "Wappo studies" (1984). Survey Reports. Report #7.
  • Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978–present). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1-20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1-3, 16, 18-20 not yet published).
  • Thompson, Sandra A.; Park, Joseph Sung-Yul; Li, Charles N. (2006). A Reference Grammar of Wappo. University of California Press.  

External links

  • Wappo Language Project at the Western Institute for Endangered Language Documentation
  • Wappo language overview at the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages
  • Wappo Texts
  • OLAC resources in and about the Wappo language
  • Wappo, California Language Archive
  • Wappo Indians of Napa County: Language
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