Umatilla language

Umatilla is a variety of Southern Sahaptin, part of the Sahaptian subfamily of the Plateau Penutian group. It was spoken during late aboriginal times along the Columbia River and is therefore also called Columbia River Sahaptin. It is currently spoken as a first language by a few dozen elders and some adults in the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Some sources say that Umatilla is derived from imatilám-hlama: hlama means 'those living at' or 'people of' and there is an ongoing debate about the meaning of imatilám, but it is said to be an island in the Columbia River. B. Rigsby and N. Rude mention the village of ímatalam that was situated at the mouth of the Umatilla River and where the language was spoken.


Rigsby and Rude use a technical alphabet based upon the Americanist phonetic notation to transcribe Umatilla, though other practical orthographies also exist.


front central back
high i, ii ɨ u, uu
low a, aa
All long vowels are written as clusters of identical short vowels.

  • The pronunciation of /a/ ranges from [ɑ] to [ʌ] and it shifts to [a] or [ɛ] when preceded or followed by /y/.
  • The pronunciation of /aa/ ranges from [a:] to [ɑ:].
  • The pronunciation of /i/ ranges from [ɪ] to [i] and it shifts to [e] near /q qʼ x̣/.
  • /ii/ has a schwa-like offglide before uvulars and it shifts to [e] after uvulars.
  • /ɨ/ is pronounced [ɨ].
  • /u/ is pronounced [u] and it shifts to [o] near uvulars.
  • /uu/ is pronounced [u:] and it shifts to [o] near uvulars.

Vowels of different quality never appear in clusters. Allowed diphthongs are the following: /ay aay aw aaw iw iiw uy uuy/.


bilabial dental dental continuant lateral alveopalatal velar labiovelar uvular labio-uvular laryngeal
stop & affricate p t c ƛ č k q ʔ
glottalized stop & affricate ƛʼ čʼ kʼʷ qʼʷ
spirant & continuant s ł š x x̣ʷ h
nasal m n
lateral l
glide w y
Consonant clusters are common and show few restrictions. All words begin with a consonant, even though according to orthographic conventions, an initial glottal stop before a vowel is not written and initial unstressed /ʔɨ/ is not written before /m n l/ plus a consonant. Initial clusters of up to three consonants are allowed (pccák 'pepper'), medials of up to five consonants and finals of up to four consonants (látx̣tx̣ 'ashes'). Clusters of identical consonants also occur: qqápni 'silly', ččù 'quiet'. The laryngeals /h ʔ/ usually occur in initial position and sometimes in intervocalic position.

Syllable structure

As yet, no detailed description of syllable structure in Umatilla Sahaptin has been written.


Primary stress is distinctive and is indicated by an acute accent. It occurs on one syllable of a word. Stress contrast can be seen in the following examples: ámapa 'husband' (objective case) and amápa 'island' (locative case); páqʼinušana 'he saw him' and paqʼínušana 'they saw (him)'. Nondistinctive secondary and lesser stresses occur phonetically and are conditioned by phonetic and syntactic environments.

Phonological processes

Alternation in the phonetic shapes of morphemes is frequent and most often vocalic.

Vocalic alternations result from processes (ablaut, epenthesis and truncation) that can be morphologically or phonologically conditioned.

Consonantal alternations arise from two processes: velar stops /k kʼ/ may palatalize to /c č/ and affricates /c č/ become /t/ before /s š/. For instance, /c/ + /š/ becomes /t/ + /š/.


The morphological structure of Umatilla and other Sahaptin dialects is synthetic to mildly polysynthetic.
The processes used are clisis, reduplication, ablaut, compounding, suppletion, order and the most common one is affixation (suffixation in particular).
Nouns, adjectives and pronouns inflect for number and case. There are three number categories: singular, dual and plural. The singular is not marked. The dual is marked by the suffix -in (with allomorphs -win, -yn or -n depending on the final). There are two main ways to mark the plural: with the suffix -ma (tílaaki-ma 'women") and by full or partial reduplication (pšwá 'stone', pšwápšwa 'stones'). These two markers can sometimes co-exist in the same word. Several nouns feature irregular plural marks that might have been more widely used in the past, such as the prefix a- and the suffix -tu.
Verbs have the most complex morphology of all the parts of speech. Their internal structure is characterized by three major positions:

1) the pronominal prefix
This position is not necessarily occupied, it depends on the aspects of sentence structure external to the verb.

2) the theme
It can be composed of one or several elements. Theme-derivational processes include notions such as the distribution of action and the iteration of action which is expressed by the reduplication of a part of or the totality of the theme (i-ƛúp-ƛúp-ša 'he keeps on jumping up and down', where ƛúp means 'to jump'). Affixations of adverbial notions also occur: qá- 'suddenly', máy- 'in the morning, twá- 'with the edge of a long object', tísɨm- 'while sitting'.

3) the auxiliary suffix complex
Its inflectional system marks the verbs for:

  • mood: indicative (unmarked), conditional and imperative
  • aspect: imperfective for an action in process (suffix -ša, -šan), customary for the usual character of an action (suffix -x̣a, -x̣an)
  • tense
  • directionality for motion verbs: cislocative suffix -ɨm (motion or activity towards or with respect to speaker), translocative suffix -kik (motion away from the speaker).


Umatilla, like other varieties of Sahaptin, is characterized by a free word order and a complex case-marking system.

Noun case endings

Nonhuman   Human  
Singular Dual Plural
Unmarked kʼúsi (horse) ɨwínš (man) awínšin awínšma
Inverse ergative kʼúsinɨm ɨwínšnɨm no dual no plural
Obviative ergative kʼúsiyin ɨwínšin no dual no plural
Objective kʼúsina ɨwínšna awínšinaman awínšmaaman
Comitative kʼúsiyin ɨwínšin no dual no plural
Genitive kʼúsinmí ɨwínš awínšinamí awínšmaamí
Benefactive kʼúsiyay ɨwínšmíyay awínšinamíyay awínšmaamíyay
Dative kʼúsiyaw ɨwínšmíyaw awínšinamíyaw awínšmaamíyaw
Allative kʼúsikan ɨwínšmíkan awínšinamíkan awínšmaamíkan
Ablative kʼúsikni ɨwínšmíkni awínšinamíkni awínšmaamíkni
Instrumental kʼúsiki ɨwínšmíki awínšinamíki awínšmaamíki
Locative kʼúsipa ɨwínšmípa awínšinamípa awínšmaamípa

See also

External links



Rigsby, B. and Rude, N. 1996. Sketch of Sahaptin, a Sahaptian language. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 17, Languages: 666-692. Smithsonian Institute Washington D.C.; ISBN 0160487749

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