Penutian languages

Penutian languages

Penutian is a proposed grouping of language families that includes many Native American languages of western North America, predominantly spoken at one time in Washington, Oregon, and California. There is a number of varying opinions concerning its validity.

The name is based on the words meaning "two" in the Wintuan, Maiduan, and Yokutsan languages (which is pronounced something like [pen]) and the Utian languages (which is pronounced something like [uti]).


The existence of a Penutian family, let alone its precise composition, has so far not been demonstrated to the satisfaction of all specialists. Even the unity of some of its component families have been disputed. A number of the languages proposed to belong to Penutian are extinct and poorly documented, leaving researchers with no new data to work with. A further complication is due the large amount of borrowing that occurred among neighboring peoples. Mary Haas states the following regarding this borrowing:

Even where genetic relationship is clearly indicated ... the evidence of diffusion of traits from neighboring tribes, related or not, is seen on every hand. This makes the task of determining the validity of the various alleged Hokan languages and the various alleged Penutian languages all the more difficult […] [and] point[s] up once again that diffusional studies are just as important for prehistory as genetic studies and what is even more in need of emphasis, it points up the desirability of pursuing diffusional studies along with genetic studies. This is nowhere more necessary than in the case of the Hokan and Penutian languages wherever they may be found, but particularly in California where they may very well have existed side by side for many millennia. (Haas 1976:359)

Some subgroupings have been convincingly demonstrated. The Miwokan and the Costanoan languages have been grouped into an Utian language family by Catherine Callaghan. There seems to be convincing evidence for the Plateau Penutian grouping (originally named Shahapwailutan by J. N. B. Hewitt and John Wesley Powell in 1894) which would consist of Klamath-Modoc, Molala, and the Sahaptian languages (Nez Percé and Sahaptin). There is growing evidence supporting a grouping of Utian and Yokutsan (into a Yok-Utian family).

History of the hypothesis

The 5 core families

The original hypothesis of Penutian consisting of 5 language families was suggested by Roland B. Dixon and Alfred L. Kroeber in 1903 and published in 1913. Evidence for this proposal was published in 1919. This proposal, what has been called alternately Core Penutian, California Penutian, or the Penutian Kernel, is listed below.

  1. Maiduan languages
  2. Miwokan languages
  3. Costanoan languages
  4. Wintuan languages
  5. Yokutsan languages

The grouping, like many of Dixon & Kroeber's other phylum proposals, was based mostly on shared typological characteristics and not the standard methods used to determine genetic relationships. Starting from this early date, the Penutian hypothesis was controversial.

In 1910, Kroeber suggested a relationship between the Miwokan and Costanoan languages. Previously, as early as 1877 Albert S. Gatschet had grouped Miwokan and Costanoan into a Mutsun group. This grouping, now termed Utian, was later conclusively demonstrated by Catherine Callaghan.

  1. Maiduan languages
  2. Utian languages (a.k.a. Miwok-Costanoan, Mutsun)
  3. Wintuan languages
  4. Yokutsan languages

Sapir's expansion

In 1916 Edward Sapir expanded Dixon and Kroeber's California Penutian family with a sister stock, Oregon Penutian, which included the Coosan languages and also the isolates Siuslaw and Takelma:

* California Penutian
** Maiduan languages
** Utian languages (a.k.a. Miwok-Costanoan)
** Wintuan languages
** Yokutsan languages
* Oregon Penutian
** Coosan languages
** Siuslaw
** Takelma

Later Sapir and Leo Frachtenberg added the Kalapuyan and the Chinookan languages and then later the Alsean and Tsimshianic families, culminating in Sapir's 1921 four-branch classification:

I. California Penutian family
# Maiduan   (Maidu)
# Utian   (Miwok-Costanoan)
# Wintuan   (Wintu)
# Yokutsan   (Yokuts)
II. Oregon Penutian family
# Coosan   (Coos)
# Siuslaw
# Takelma
# Kalapuyan   (Kalapuya)
# Alsean   (Yakonan)
III. Chinookan family   (Chinook)
IV. Tsimshianic family   (Tsimshian)

By the time Sapir's 1929 Encyclopædia Britannica article was published, he had added two more branches:

* Plateau Penutian family
** Klamath-Modoc   (Lutuami)
** Waiilatpuan
*** Cayuse
*** Molala
** Sahaptian   (Sahaptin)
* Mexican Penutian family
** Mixe-Zoque
** Huave

resulting in a six-branch family:

  1. California Penutian
  2. Oregon Penutian
  3. Chinookan
  4. Tsimshianic
  5. Plateau Penutian
  6. Mexican Penutian

(Sapir's full 1929 classification scheme including the Penutian proposal can be seen here: Classification schemes for indigenous languages of the Americas#Sapir (1929): Encyclopædia Britannica.)

Further expansions

Other linguists have suggested other languages be included within the Penutian grouping.

Yet others have produced hypotheses of relationships between Penutian and other large-scale families.

Note: Some linguists link the Penutian hypothesis to the Zuni language. This link, earlier proposed by Stanley Newman, has now been shown to be the result of a hoax (Jane Hill 2002).

Recent hypotheses

California Penutian and Takelma-Kalapuyan are no longer accepted as valid nodes by many Penutian researchers. However, Plateau Penutian, Oregon Coast Penutian, and Yok-Utian are increasingly supported.

Scott DeLancey suggests the following relationships:


Evidence for the Penutian hypothesis

Perhaps because many Penutian languages have ablaut, vowels are difficult to reconstruct. However, consonant correspondences are common. For example, the proto-Yokuts (Inland Penutian) retroflexes correspond to Klamath (Maritime Penutian) , whereas the Proto-Yokuts dental correspond to Klamath alveolar . Kalapuya, Takelma, and Wintu do not show such obvious connections, and DeLancey has not investigated Mexican Penutian or other geographic outliers.

Based on archeological calculations, the Yok-Utian family may be as old as Indo-European, and the Klamath appear to have lived in their current location for 7000 years. Thus the time depth of the proposed Inland Penutian branch alone approaches the limits of what many think traditional historical reconstruction can determine; this is sometimes used as an argument against the Penutian hypothesis.

See also


  • Berman, Howard. (1996). The position of Molala in Plateau Penutian. International Journal of American Linguistics, 62, 1-30.
  • Callaghan, Catherine A. (1967). Miwok-Costanoan as a subfield of Penutian. International Journal of American Linguistics, 33, 224-227.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • DeLancey, Scott; & Golla, Victor. (1997). The Penutian hypothesis: Retrospect and prospect. International Journal of American Linguistics, 63, 171-202.
  • Dixon, Roland R.; & Kroeber, Alfred L. (1903). The native languages of California. American Anthropologist, 5, 1-26.
  • Dixon, Roland R.; & Kroeber, Alfred L. (1913). Relationship of the Indian languages of California. Science, 37, 225.
  • Dixon, Roland R.; & Kroeber, Alfred L. (1913). New linguistic families in California. American Anthropologist, 15, 647-655.
  • Dixon, Roland R.; & Kroeber, Alfred L. (1919). Linguistic families of California (pp. 47-118) Berkeley: University of California.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. (1910). The Chumash and Costanoan languages. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 9, 259-263.
  • Liedtke, Stefan. Wakashan, Salishan and Penutian and Wider Connections Cognate Sets. Linguistic data on diskette series, no. 09. M unchen: Lincom Europa,zv1995, 1995. ISBN 3929075245
  • Liedtke, Stefan. The Relationship of Wintuan to Plateau Penutian. LINCOM studies in Native American linguistics, 55. Muenchen: Lincom Europa, 2007. ISBN 9783895863578
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1921). A bird's-eye view of American languages north of Mexico. Science, 54, 408.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1929). Central and North American languages. Encyclopaedia Britaannica (14th ed.; Vol. 5; pp. 138-141).

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