Wakashan languages

British Columbia, Canada
Linguistic classification: One of the world's primary language families
  • Northern
  • Southern
ISO 639-2 / 5: wak
Glottolog: waka1280[1]


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:[2]

I. Northern Wakashan (Kwakiutlan) languages

1. Haisla (AKA Xaʼislak’ala, X̌àh̓isl̩ak̓ala, with two dialects, spoken by the Haisla) – about 200 speakers (2005)
  • C̓imo'c̓a (Kitimaat) - X̄a’islak̓ala dialect
  • Gitlo'p (Kitlope) - X̄enaksialak̓ala dialect
2. Kwak'wala (AKA Kwakiutl and Lekwala / Liq̓ʷala, with four dialects, spoken by and Kwakwaka'wakw or Northern Kwakiutl and the Laich-kwil-tach or Southern Kwakiutl) – 235 speakers (2000)
Northern Kwakiutl or Kwak'wala
  • G̱ut̕sala / G̱uc̓ala / Quatsino Sound dialect (Bands of Quatsino Sound, today by the Gwa'sala people from Smiths Inlet and the 'Nakwaxda'xw people from Blunden Harbour)
  • Kwak̕wala / Kwaḵ̓wala dialect (Bands of Gilford Island, Knight Inlet, Kwakiutl, Nimpkish, Alert Bay, Kincome Inlet)
  • 'Nak̕wala / Northern Kwak̓wala dialect (spoken by the Northern Bands or 'Nak̕waxda'x̱w and Gwa'sa̱la peoples)
  • T̕łat̕łasik̕wala / Nahwitti dialect (Bands of today's T̕łat̕łasiḵ̕wala people on Hope Island)
Southern Kwakiutl
  • Lekwala / Liq̓ʷala / Lekwiltok dialect (Bands of the Laich-kwil-tach (Lekwiltok), they were oft called Southern Kwakiutl but identify as a separate people from the Kwakwaka'wakw and their dialect is sometimes considered a separate language)
A. Heiltsuk-Oowekyala (AKA Bella Bella) – about 200 speakers (2005)
3. Heiltsuk dialect (AKA Bella Bella and Haihais, Haiɫzaqvla, with two subdialects, spoken by the Heiltsuk people, once incorrectly known as the Northern Kwakiutl)
  • Waglisla / Bella Bella subdialect of the Heiltsuk (Bella Bella)
  • Haihais / Klemtu subdialect of the Xai’xais (Haihais / Hihg-hais)
4. Oowekyala dialect (AKA Wuikyla or ’Uwik̓ala, spoken by the Wuikinuxv people, once incorrectly known as the Northern Kwakiutl)

II. Southern Wakashan (Nootkan) languages

5. Nuu-chah-nulth (AKA Nuučaan̓uł, Nootka, Nutka, Aht, West Coast, T’aat’aaqsapa, spoken by the Nuu-chah-nulth, 12 different dialects) – 510 speakers (2005)[3]
6. Nitinaht (AKA 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[4] – 30 speakers (1991)
7. Makah (AKA Qʷi·qʷi·diččaq, Q'widishch'a:'tx, spoken by the Makah together with the known extinct Ozette people, who spoke 'Osi:l-'a:'tx) – extinct (Last speaker died in 2002)

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).[5]

Name and contact

The name Wakesh or Waukash is Nuu-chah-nulth for "good." It was used by early explorers including Captain James Cook, who believed it to be the tribal appellation.[6]

Juan de Fuca was probably the first European 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. There were dramatic population losses in the early 20th century due to smallpox epidemics, because the First Nations had no acquired immunity to the new disease; 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.[7]

The name "Wakish Nation" is featured in Arrowsmith's Oregon Dispute-era map as the name for Vancouver Island.[8][9]


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Wakashan". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. "The Wakashan Languages", hosted by University of Washington
  3. "Nuučaan̓uł – Nuu-chah-nulth-Nootka language", Language Geek
  4. "Diitiidʔaatx̣ language", First Peoples Language Map of British Columbia
  5. Jan Henrik Holst, Einführung in die eskimo-aleutischen Sprachen. Buske Verlag
  6. Boas and Powell, 205
  7. "Wakash Indians", Catholic Encyclopedia. (retrieved 6 Feb 2010)
  8. Auction No. 83 listings (Closed July 18, 1998), Old World Mail Auctions website – has link to map.
  9. Mapping the American West 1540–1857, A Preliminary Study by Carl I. Wheat, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Association, p. 88, on their website ]


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
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