Nuxalk Language
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Nux%C3%A1lk Language
Bella Coola
Native toCanada
RegionBella Coola area, Central Coast region, British Columbia
Ethnicity1,660 Nuxalk (2014, FPCC)[2]
Native speakers
17 (2014, FPCC)[2]
  • Nuxalk
Language codes
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Nuxalk , also known as Bella Coola , is a Salishan language spoken by the Nuxalk people. Today it is "an endangered language with fewer than 10 fluent speakers" in the vicinity of the Canadian town of Bella Coola, British Columbia.[4]

While the language is still sometimes called Bella Coola by linguists, the native name Nuxalk is preferred by some, notably by the Nuxalk Nation government.[5][1]

Though the number of truly fluent speakers has not increased, the language is now taught in both the provincial school system and the Nuxalk Nation's own school, Acwsalcta, which means "a place of learning". Nuxalk language classes, if taken to at least the Grade 11 level, are considered adequate second language qualifications for entry to the major B.C. universities. CKNN-FM Nuxalk Radio is also working to promote the language.


The name "Nuxalk" for the language comes from the native nuxalk (or nu?alk), referring to the "Bella Coola Valley."[6] "Bella Coola" is a rendering of the Heiltsuk bx?lá, meaning "stranger".[7]

Geographical distribution

Nowadays, Nuxalk is spoken only in Bella Coola, British Columbia, surrounded by Wakashan- and Athabascan-speaking tribes. It was once spoken in over 100 settlements, with varying dialects, but in the present day most of these settlements have been abandoned and dialectal differences have largely disappeared.[7]


Nuxalk forms its own subgroup of the Salish language family. Its lexicon is equidistant from Coast and Interior Salish, but it shares phonological and morphological features with Coast Salish (for example, the absence of pharyngeals and the presence of marked gender). Nuxalk also borrows many words from contiguous North Wakashan languages (especially Heiltsuk), as well as some from neighbouring Athabascan languages and Tsimshian.[7]



Nuxalk has 28 consonants depicted below in IPA and the Americanist orthography of Davis & Saunders when it differs from the IPA.

Labial Alveolar Velar Uvular Glottal
central sibilant lateral palatal labialized plain labialized
Stop aspirated p? ⟨p⟩ t? ⟨t⟩ t?s? ⟨c⟩ c? ⟨k⟩ k ⟨k?⟩ q? ⟨q⟩ q ⟨q?⟩
ejective p' ⟨p?⟩ t' ⟨t?⟩ t?s' ⟨c?⟩ t' ⟨⟩ c' ⟨k?⟩ k'? ⟨k⟩ q' ⟨q?⟩ q'? ⟨q⟩ ?
Fricative s ? ⟨?⟩ ç ⟨x⟩ x? ? ⟨x?⟩ ⟨x⟩ (h)
Sonorant m n l j ⟨y⟩ w

What are transcribed in the orthography as 'plain' velar consonants are actually palatals, and the sibilants s c c? palatalize to ? ? before k k? x.



/i/ may be pronounced:

  • [?] before postvelars
  • [?:, ?:] between postvelars
  • [e?, e?:], before a sonorant followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [i] adjacent to palatovelars
  • [e] elsewhere

/a/ may be pronounced:

  • [?] ([?]?) surrounded by postvelars
  • [?] before rounded velars followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [a] ([ä]?) before a sonorant followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [æ] elsewhere

/o/ may be pronounced:

  • [o?] surrounded by postvelars
  • [o?, o?:, ?, ?:] before a sonorant followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [u, ?] before rounded velars followed by a consonant or word boundary
  • [o] elsewhere[8]


In addition to the Americanist orthography of Davis & Saunders used in this article for clarity, Nuxalk also has a non-diacritical Bouchard-type practical orthography that originated in Hank Nater's The Bella Coola Language (1984), and was used in his 1990 Nuxalk-English Dictionary. It continues to be used today at Acwsalcta for Nuxalk language learning, as well as in Nuxalk documents and names.[9] The orthographic variants are summarized below.

Phoneme Americanist Practical
a a a
x? x c
x? x? cw
h h h
i i i
k k k
k'? k? k'
k k? kw
k'? k kw'
l l l
? ? lh
m m m
n n n
p? p p
p' p? p'
q? q q
q' q? q'
q q? qw
q'? q qw'
s s s
t? t t
t' t? t'
t' tl'
t?s? c ts
t?s' c? ts'
u u u
w w w
? x? x
x xw
j y y
? ? 7


The notion of syllable is challenged by Nuxalk in that it allows long strings of consonants without any intervening vowel or other sonorant. Salishan languages, and especially Nuxalk, are famous for this. For instance, the following word contains only obstruents:

'then he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant.'
    (Nater 1984, cited in Bagemihl 1991: 16)

Other examples are:

  • [p?s] 'shape, mold'
  • [p's] 'bend'
  • [p't?] 'bunchberry'
  • [t?s?k?t?skt?s?] 'he arrived'
  • [t?t?s?] 'little boy'
  • [skp?] 'saliva'
  • [sp?s] 'northeast wind'
  • [t?'p?] 'cut with scissors'
  • [st?s'q?] 'animal fat'
  • [st?s'q?t?s?t?x] 'that's my animal fat over there'
  • [sxs] 'seal fat'
  • [t] 'strong'
  • [q't?] 'go to shore'
  • [qt?] 'crooked'
  • [k'x?:t?sx?.st:t?s] 'you had seen that I had gone through a passage' (Nater 1984, p. 5)

There has been some dispute as to how to count the syllables in such words, what, if anything, constitutes the nuclei of those syllables, and if the concept of 'syllable' is even applicable to Nuxalk. However, when recordings are available, the syllable structure can be clearly audible, and speakers have clear conceptions as to how many syllables a word contains. In general, a syllable may be C?, CF? (where F is a fricative), CV, or CVC. When C is a stop, CF syllables are always composed of a plain voiceless stop (p?, t?, t?s?, k?, k?, q?, q?) plus a fricative (s, ?, x, x?, ?, ). For example, p?t 'thick' is two syllables, p.t, with a syllabic fricative, while in t'?t? 'stone', st's 'salt', q?t? 'crooked', kx 'to see' and ?q? 'wet' each consonant is a separate syllable. Stop-fricative sequences can also be disyllabic, however, as in t? 'strong' (two syllables, at least in the cited recording) and k?s 'rough' (one syllable or two). Syllabification of stop-fricative sequences may therefore be lexicalized or a prosodic tendency. Fricative-fricative sequences also have a tendency toward syllabicity, e.g. with sx 'bad' being one syllable or two, and s?s 'seal fat' being two syllables (s?.s) or three. Speech rate plays a role, with e.g. ?x?tt?s?x? 'you spat on me' consisting of all syllabic consonants in citation form (?.x?.t?.?.t?s?.x?) but condensed to stop-fricative syllables (?x?.t?.t?s?x?) at fast conversational speed.[10] This syllabic structure may be compared with that of Miyako.

The linguist Hank Nater has postulated the existence of a phonemic contrast between syllabic and non-syllabic sonorants: /m?, n?, l?/, spelled ?, ?, ?. (The vowel phonemes /i, u/ would then be the syllabic counterparts of /j, w/.)[11] Words claimed to have unpredictable syllables include s?n?n?uuc 'mute', sm?m?caw '(the fact) that they are children'.[12]



The first element in a sentence expresses the event of the proposition. It inflects for the person and number of one (in the intransitive paradigm) or two (in the transitive paradigm) participants.

Single-participant event inflections[13]
Intr. inflection Singular Plural
First Person -c -(i)?
Second Person -nu -(n)ap
Third Person -Ø or -s -(n)aw

E.g. ikm-Ø ti-wac?-tx 'the dog is running'.

Whether the parenthesized segments are included in the suffix depends on whether the stem ends in an underlying resonant (vowel, liquid, nasal) and whether it is non-syllabic. So qla 'drink' becomes qla-? 'we drink', qla-nap 'you (pl.) drink', qla-naw 'they drink', but nuyam? 'sing' becomes nuyam?-i? 'we're singing', nuyam?-ap 'you (pl.) are singing', nuyam?-aw 'they're singing'.

However, the choice of the 3ps marker -Ø or -s is conditioned by semantics rather than phonetics. For example, the sentences tix-s ti-?imlk-tx and tix-Ø ti-?imlk-tx could both be glossed 'it's the man', but the first is appropriate if the man is the one who is normally chosen, while the second is making an assertion that it is the man (as opposed to someone else, as might otherwise be thought) who is chosen.[further explanation needed]

The following are the possible person markers for transitive verbs, with empty cells indications non-occurring combinations and '--' identifying semantic combinations which require the reflexive suffix -cut- followed by the appropriate intransitive suffix:

Two-participant event inflections[14]
Singular Plural
1 2 3 1 2 3
Executor Sg 1 -- -cinu -ic -tu?ap -tic
2 -cx? -- -ix? -tu?nu -tix?
3 -cs -ct -is -tu?s -tap -tis
Pl 1 -tu?nu -i? -- -tu?ap -ti?
2 -cap -ip -tu?p -- -tip
3 -cant -ct -it -tu?t -tap -tit

E.g. sp?-is ti-?imlk-tx ti-stn-tx 'the man struck the tree'.

Whether a word can serve as an event isn't determined lexically, e.g. ?immllk?-Ø ti-nusl?-tx 'the thief is a boy', nusl?-Ø ti-q?s-tx 'the one who is ill is a thief'.

There is a further causative paradigm whose suffixes may be used instead:

Causative paradigm[15]
Singular Plural
1 2 3 1 2 3
Executor Sg 1 -- -tuminu -tuc -tumu?ap -tutic
2 -tumx? -- -tux? -tumu?x? -tutix?
3 -tum -tumt -tus -tumu?s -tutap -tutis
Pl 1 -tumu?nu -tu? -- -tumu?ap -tuti?
2 -tumanp -tup -tumu?p -- -tutip
3 -tumant -tumt -tut -tumu?t -tutap -tutit

This has a passive counterpart:

Passive Causative paradigm[16]
Passive Causative Singular Plural
First Person -tuminic -tumini?
Second Person -tumt -tutap
Third Person -tum -tutim

This may also have a benefactive gloss when used with events involving less activity of their participant (e.g. nuyam?-tus ti-?imlk-tx ti-?immllk?-tx 'the man made/let the boy sing'/'the man sang for the boy'), while in events with more active participants only the causative gloss is possible. In the later group even more active verbs have a preference for the affix-lx- (implying passive experience) before the causative suffix.

The executor in a transitive sentence always precedes the experiencer. However, when an event is proceeded by a lone participant, the semantic content of the event determines whether the participant is an executor or an experiencer. This can only be determined syntactically if the participant is marked by the preposition ?u?-, which marks the experience.

Some events are inherently transitive or intransitive, but some may accept multiple valencies (e.g. ?anayk 'to be needy'/'to want [something]').

Prepositions may mark experiencers, and must mark implements. Any participants which are not marked by prepositions are focussed. There are three voices, which allow either the executor, the experiencer, or both to have focus:

  • Active voice - neither is marked with prepositions.
  • Passive voice - the event may have different suffixes, and the executor may be omitted or marked with a preposition
  • Antipassive voice - the event is marked with the affix -a- before personal markers, and the experiencer is marked with a preposition

The affix -amk- (-yamk- after the antipassive marker -a-) allows an implement to have its preposition removed and to be focused. For example:

  • nuyam?-Ø ti-man-tx ?u?-ti-mna-s-tx x-ti-syut-tx 'the father sang the song to his son'
  • nuyam?-amk-is ti-man-tx ti-syut-tx ?u?-ti-mna-s-tx 'the father sang the song to his son'


There are four prepositions which have broad usage in Nuxalk:

Prepositions Proximal Distal
Stative x- ?a?-
Active ?u?- wix-


Nuxalk has a set of deictic prefixes and suffixes which serve to identify items as instantiations of domains rather than domains themselves and to locate them in deictic space. Thus the sentences wac?-Ø ti-ikm-tx and ti-wac?-Ø ti-ikm-tx, both 'the one that's running is a dog', are slightly different - similar to the difference between the English sentences 'the visitor is Canadian' and 'the visitor is a Canadian' respectively.[18]

The deixis system has a proximal/medial/distal and a non-demonstrative/demonstrative distinction. Demonstratives may be used when finger pointing would be appropriate (or in distal space when something previously mentioned is being referred to).

Proximal demonstrative space roughly corresponds to the area of conversation, and proximal non-demonstrative may be viewed as the area in which one could attract another's attention without raising one's voice. Visible space beyond this is middle demonstrative, space outside of this but within the invisible neighborhood is medial non-demonstrative. Everything else is distal, and non-demonstrative if not mentioned earlier.

The deictic prefixes and suffixes are as follows:

Deictic suffixes[19]
Proximal Medial Distal
Masculine -tx -t?ayx -? -t?a? -t? -ta?
Feminine -cx -c?ayx -? -?iay? -?i? -?i?
Plural -c -?ac -? -t?a -t -tu?

Female affixes are used only when the particular is singular and identified as female; if not, even if the particular is inanimate, masculine or plural is used.

The deictic prefixes only have a proximal vs. non-proximal distinction, and no demonstrative distinction:

Deictic prefixes[20]
Proximal Medial and Distal
Masculine ti- ta-
Feminine ci- ?a- (?i?-)
Plural wa- ta- (tu-)

tu- is used in earlier varieties and some types of narratives, except for middle non-demonstrative, and the variant ?i?- may be used "in the same collection of deictic space".

While events are not explicitly marked for tense per se, deixis plays a strong role in determining when the proposition is being asserted to occur. So in a sentence like mus-is ti-?immllk?-tx ta-q?lsx?-t?a? 'the boy felt that rope', the sentence is perceived as having a near-past (same day) interpretation, as the boy cannot be touching the rope in middle space from proximal space. However this does not hold for some events, like k?x 'to see'.[21]

A distal suffix on any participant lends the event a distant past interpretation (before the past day), a medial suffix and no distal suffix lends a near past time, and if the participants are marked as proximal the time is present.

Not every distal participant occurs in past-tense sentences, and vice versa--rather, the deictic suffixes must either represent positions in space, time, or both.

The -m suffix is one of the most puzzling verbal affixes in the language. Some argue that it has varying uses of its morpheme, or that the suffix itself represents different morphemes due to the transitive bases the suffix consists of. The plural of the -m suffix has no known cognates. Another suffix is -uks. This suffix was never recorded,[clarification needed] and there is skepticism about its derivatives.[clarification needed] Some say that, because of the -uks suffix, Bella Coola influenced the Wakashan and Athapaskan languages, also originating from the British Columbian coast. Others believe, though, that the -uks suffix used in the Bella Coola language were previously recorded in the Chinook Jargon, thus it was taken from that language.[clarification needed] At this point in time, linguists have two stances on this argument: either -uks did originate from the Chinook jargon, or -uks is one of the few elements originating from languages spoken south of the Salishan area of the British Columbia coast, which is difficult to decipher due to the lack of recorded evidence on it. Linguists are unsure what this meaning could bring. An opinion sometimes considered is that people of all the mentioned languages, from Chinook to Bella Coola to Wakashan/Athapaskan, were somehow congregated, and its people were, for more than a brief amount of time, associated with one another. This could have derived from intertribal marriages, which meshed the different structural components of the language to form one unique, syntactical language structure. We cannot testify to this hypothesis, though, due to the lack of archives previously produced/left behind by the people that once spoke these languages fluently.


Personal pronouns are reportedly nonexistent but the idea is expressed via verbs that translate as "to be me", etc.[22]

Pronouns[23] Singular Plural
First person ?nc ?mi?
Second person ?inu ?up
Third person tix,cix wix


Particle Label Gloss
k? Quotative 'he said'
ma Dubitative 'maybe'
?alu Attemptive 'try'
ck Inferential Dubitative 'I figure'
cak? Optative 'I wish/hope'
su Expectable 'again'
tu Confirmative 'really'
ku Surprisative 'so'
lu Expective 'expected'
a Interrogative [yes/no questions]
c? Perfective 'now'
c?n Imperfective 'now'
k Usitative 'usually'
mas Absolutive 'always'
ks Individuative 'the one'
Persistive 'still, yet'
t? Non-contrastive
?i...k Contrastive

See also


  1. ^ a b Ignace, Marianne; Ignace, Ronald Eric (2017). Secwépemc people, land, and laws = Yerí7 re Stsq?ey?s-kucw. Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. ISBN 978-0-7735-5203-6. OCLC 989789796.
  2. ^ a b Nuxalk at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Bella Coola". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Canadian Geographic magazine, November/December 2018, p.19,
  5. ^ Suttles, Wayne (1990), "Introduction". In "Northwest Coast", ed. Wayne Suttles. Vol. 7 of Handbook of North American Indians, ed. William C. Sturtevant, p.15.
  6. ^ John R. Swanton, The Indian Tribes of North America, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145--1953
  7. ^ a b c Nater 1984, p. xvii
  8. ^ Nater 1984, p. 5
  9. ^ "Acwsalcta School".
  10. ^ James Hoard (1978) "Syllabification in Northwest Indian Languages", in Bell & Bybee-Hooper (eds.) Syllables and Segments, p. 67–68.
  11. ^ Nater 1984, p. 3
  12. ^ Nater 1984, p. 14
  13. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 24.
  14. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 26.
  15. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 29.
  16. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 43.
  17. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 36.
  18. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, pp. 83-84.
  19. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 86.
  20. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 89.
  21. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, pp. 89-90.
  22. ^ Nater, H.F. 1984. The Bella Coola Language. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada. Cited in Bhat, D.N.S. 2004. Pronouns. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 26
  23. ^ Davis & Saunders 1997, p. 114.
  24. ^ Davis & Saunders, p. 180.


  • Bruce Bagemihl (1991). "Syllable Structure in Bella Coola". Proceedings of the New England Linguistics Society. 21: 16-30.
  • Bruce Bagemihl (1991). "Syllable Structure in Bella Coola". Linguistic Inquiry. 22: 589-646.
  • Bruce Bagemihl (1998). Maximality in Bella Coola (Nuxalk). In E. Czaykowska-Higgins & M. D. Kinkade (Eds.), Salish Languages and Linguistics: Theoretical and Descriptive Perspectives (pp. 71-98). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh.
  • Philip W. Davis & Ross Saunders (1973). "Lexical Suffix Copying in Bella Coola". Glossa. 7: 231-252.
  • Philip W. Davis & Ross Saunders (1975). "Bella Coola Nominal Deixis". Language. Language, Vol. 51, No. 4. 51 (4): 845-858. doi:10.2307/412696. JSTOR 412696.
  • Philip W. Davis & Ross Saunders (1976). "Bella Coola Deictic Roots". International Journal of American Linguistics. 42 (4): 319-330. doi:10.1086/465436.
  • Philip W. Davis & Ross Saunders (1978). Bella Coola Syntax. In E.-D. Cook & J. Kaye (Eds.), Linguistic Studies of Native Canada (pp. 37-66). Vancouver: University of British Columbia.
  • H. F. Nater (1979). "Bella Coola Phonology". Lingua. 49 (2-3): 169-187. doi:10.1016/0024-3841(79)90022-6.
  • Philip W. Davis & Ross Saunders (1980). Bella Coola Texts. British Columbia Provincial Museum Heritage Record (No. 10). Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum. ISBN 0-7718-8206-8.
  • Philip W. Davis & Ross Saunders (1997). A Grammar of Bella Coola. University of Montana Occasional Papers in Linguistics (No. 13). Missoula, MT: University of Montana. ISBN 1-879763-13-3.
  • Forrest, Linda. (1994). The de-transitive clauses in Bella Coola: Passive vs. inverse. In T. Givón (Ed.), Voice and Inversion (pp. 147-168). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Montler, Timothy. (2004-2005). (Handouts on Salishan Language Family).
  • Nater, Hank F. (1977). Stem List of the Bella Coola language. Lisse: Peter de Ridder.
  • Nater, Hank F. (1984). The Bella Coola Language. Mercury Series; Canadian Ethnology Service (No. 92). Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.
  • Nater, Hank F. (1990). A Concise Nuxalk-English Dictionary. Mercury Series; Canadian Ethnology Service (No. 115). Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization. ISBN 0-660-10798-8.
  • Newman, Stanley. (1947). Bella Coola I: Phonology. International Journal of American Linguistics, 13, 129-134.
  • Newman, Stanley. (1969). Bella Coola Grammatical Processes and Form Classes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 35, 175-179.
  • Newman, Stanley. (1969). Bella Coola Paradigms. International Journal of American Linguistics, 37, 299-306.
  • Newman, Stanley. (1971). Bella Coola Reduplication. International Journal of American Linguistics, 37, 34-38.
  • Newman, Stanley. (1974). Language Retention and Diffusion in Bella Coola. Language in Society, 3, 201-214.
  • Newman, Stanley. (1976). Salish and Bella Coola Prefixes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 42, 228-242.
  • Newman, Stanley. (1989). Lexical Morphemes in Bella Coola. In M. R. Key & H. Hoenigswald (Eds.), General and Amerindian Ethnolinguistics: In Remembrance of Stanley Newman (pp. 289-301). Contributions to the Sociology of Language (No. 55). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 0-89925-519-1.

External links

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Music Scenes