10: Introduction to The Nuxalk language
By Linden Alexander Pentecost, written December 2021 and January 2022. Thank you to the Nuxalk people who have helped me to learn about their language
This section includes an introduction with acknowledgements, the sounds of Nuxalk, noun examples, onamatopoeia, 'sung language', reduplication, prepositions, example sentences with articles, polysynthetic verbs, more example sentences. This section contains 1857 words.
Written first and foremost as an expression of honour and respect for the Nuxalk and for other indigenous peoples, I hope that this writing creates only a positive affect for indigenous peoples (not that I expect anything I write to have an affect, but if it does, I hope it is only a positive one for indigenous peoples)
I acknowledge the Nuxalk as the original people of their traditional lands and culture, and that from what I understand they have been in their lands for a very, very long time.
I do not have Nuxalk or any other indigenous American ancestry, and I would like to state that I am by no means an expert on, or knowledgeable about this culture. Most of all, I would like to say that this writing is from my interest in the language as a non-Nuxalk person, and what I have learned is by no means comparable to how the Nuxalk people can tell the facts of their history and language. The Nuxalk people's understanding of their history and language should, in my opinion, always be considered the upmost authority on these subjects. This also applies to all indigenous cultures, I feel strongly that, I am very interested in and have a great love for the Nuxalk and their language, but I am of not of this culture, and therefore my own words should only be taken as my limited understanding as a fascinated outsider. This writing is from my love for the language, people and landscapes.
There is also a sad history between my country, Britain, and the indigenous nations of Canada and elsewhere, in how Britain was responsible for causing trauma to indigenous people, trying to exterminate indigenous cultures, trying to wipe out indigenous languages, and trying to steal and take everything they could from the land. I am deeply sorry for this. I can't think of how it could be healed, and I have no personal experience of this. But, if those like me from the Western World started to listen to indigenous people more, then that would not make up for what has happened in the past, but I feel it would be something good.
Nuxalk is an indigenous language which is linguistically a part of the Salishan family of languages. Nuxalk is the most northerly spoken of the Salishan languages, and is distinctive from the other languages, to the extent that it is in its own branch of Salishan. The traditional Nuxalk lands cover a wide area of what is now known as Northwestern British Columbia in Canada. According to what I understand, the Nuxalk language has been spoken in this land for a very long time.
Like other Salishan languages, Nuxalk has a large number of consonant sounds, which are different, and often grouped differently to those in England for example, because Nuxalk consonants often represent a different spectrum of phonemes to those found in for example English and European languages as a whole. These consonants are not unusual in many parts of the Americas however, and are especially common in the northwest Pacific region of the Americas.
In terms of northwest Pacific languages though, Nuxalk has fewer vowels than most others. This, along with consonants in general in the northwest Pacific, are connected to a sprachbund area, so that unrelated languages may share similar consonants, as well as other things in common. The Wakashan languages spoken close to Nuxalk also have fewer vowels, and similar consonants, demonstrating this relatedness is sound to a particular region, even in two different language families. I wonder if perhaps the concept of the 'vowel' is a little different in Nuxalk. Nuxalk does have vowels, but, they are perhaps harder to define, at least in my limited understanding of the language. In some instances, the vowels seem to be more changeable, and in a sense, optional, and context-dependant. This is a little like the radicals in some Afro-Asiatic languages, where vowels are somewhat fluid around a consonant root. But it is surely not the same as this, even if the concept of vowels in Nuxalk may be sometimes, but not always, be somewhat fluid also. This is also not unique to Nuxalk among Northwest Pacific languages, nor do I believe that is it unique to languages as such.
Vowels can change quality, so a can sound a bit like ‘e’ in ‘send’ in certain words. The letter uu can also sound a little like a long ‘o’. Letters that are followed by an apostrophe, are glottalised sounds. These sounds are completely unfamiliar in English, but they can be made by following the consonant with a sort of ‘popping’ sound. The letter tl’ is a very special sound, that can sound a little like a click. The letter 7 is a glottal stop, like the pause in ‘uh-oh’.
Many Nuxalk words consist of several consonants in a row. Many of these shortest words are connected to things frequently encountered in the natural world, which I feel in a sense is deeply connected to the origins of the language, although I cannot explain how. For example, the word mtm -'sea urchin', tmcw - 'river', smt or smnt - 'mountain', qnklst - 'island', mt - to sit up or down, qlhm - 'black cod', smlhk - 'salmon', or fish in general, plhtkn - 'bitterberry bark', stn - 'tree', snx - 'sun', xwnxwnm - 'humming bird'. Many more root words may contain only a single vowel, for example, sts'ix - 'sand', 'gravel'. Many of these words seem to be onomatopoeic in a sense, I feel that they have a strong connection to the natural sounds and poetry of nature. The word xwnxwnm is one such example, the word tsitstsipii - 'bird' is another beautiful example, this word has the same root as tsitstsip 'a big bird', plus ii 'small', this root also exists in the form tsitsip.
Some words in Nuxalk appear related through their similar sounds, and these sound words are visible, but often articulated differently in different words. For example snx ‘sun’, suyuncw ‘sky’ and suuncw ‘day’, suyuncw has more the meaning of 'sky'; but can also be said to be the 'sung' or 'singing' version of the word suuncw (1)
Other words are build on more identifiable common words, like stnaax ‘timber’, being built on the word stn ‘tree’, and and saaxwan ‘tidal flats’, could perhaps be connected to sxwaxwa ‘mud’.
Nuxalk uses reduplication in order to intensify an aspect of a word. I like this. Reduplication can be employed to indicate if something is a single noun, or occurrence, or multiple of something. Like sma – story, which can be reduplicated to form smsma - 'a story' or 'to tell a story'. Reduplication can also intensify certain qualities about something, particularly when used with an adjectival root like -ii- ‘small’. Like
stntnii ‘a small tree’
sulut – ‘branch of sea, inlet, fjord'
susluutii – ‘a small inlet or part of the sea'
I think that in Nuxalk, the excact concept of a noun is not quite the same as I am familiar with in European languages. But again I do not feel that this is unusual for a language of the northwest Pacific. Nouns and verbs seem to be less distinguishable, and from what I understand, every noun can also be a verb in terms of Latin understanding. The sound s has a wide range of meanings and contexts in Nuxalk as an addition to words, as far as I understand, I think it can mean 'she/he is', 'it is'; it also alters the meaning of 'nouns' and 'verbs'.
Some things in Nuxalk and in other Salishan languages are not too dissimilar to the grammar found in certain European languages. One of these things is the way in which Nuxalk and other Salishan languages can have prepositions, in English, examples of these are to, from, against, with, by, beside, for, through, within, between. For example:
qw’xwmts ula kulhanks ti smt tc - I moved to the side of the mountain, where qw'xwm-ts means 'I moved, travelled', ts is the pronoun, ula is the preposition-like word, in this sentence approximately equivalent to 'to' or 'towards', kulhanks is the side of something (1), and ti smt tc means 'the' mountain, with ti serving as a kind of article, sometimes but not always approximately equivalent to 'the' in English. In this phrase, ula kulhanks ti smt tc as ' towards the side of the mountain', has a rather similar crossover between the definite article and the genitive, as found in insular Celtic languages for example.
Another example, tl'ap ti nan tc ula kulhanks wa sulut ts - the bear goes to the side of the inlet, tl'ap - he, she, or it goes, the third person does not usually have the pronoun marker s, which is talked about a little further down. nan means 'bear', ti nan ts means approximately 'the' bear, ula - to, towards, kulhanks - side, wa sulut ts - (of) the inlet; the article wa implies that the thing in question is uncountable (1), and so plural by comparison with Latin and English. Negation in Nuxalk is indicated with axw, e.g. axw tl'ap ti nan tc ula kulhanks wa sulut ts.
Nuxalk is often a polysynthetic language, even though it has prepositions and articles like many Indo-European languages.
For example, one can say 'I make rope', by combining tam (not strictly a verb, (1)) and q'lscw - 'rope', tam-q'lscw-ts - I make rope, more commonly this would be written probably as tamq'lscwts, from what I understand anyway. The following sentences I have written to try and show something of the word order, and the way that articles and prepositions appear in the language.
tl’apts ska k'cts ula kulhuuts ts – I go to look towards the shore/beach
tl’apts – I go, tl’ap-ts (go-I)
ska – to, intend to, movement with direction
ula - towards-the, uulh + wa (1)
kulhuuts - beach
ka alhwlalh ala susluutii ats – there will be rain at the (this) little inlet
ka – will be, there will be (1)
alhwlalh – rain (1)
susluutii – little inlet
ats – 'this', in this context
kwnaaxutsayc ti imlk tc uulh ti smt tc – the man walks across the sandbar, towards the mountain
kwnaaxutsayc – (he/she) walks along a sand bar
ti imlk tc – the man
uulh – towards
ti smt tc – the mountain
(1) indicates where Dale McCreery has taught me something or corrected a word
(update January 2023): some further information on Nuxalk words, grammar and some other sentences, is available in my free ebook, A Journey Of Languages Around The Northern Seas With Discussions On Germanic Celtic And Salishan Languages Second Edition, pages 32, 33 and 34.
Thank you to all who have helped and I wish happiness and health