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Yakima language documentation and grammar


Language Yakima (ISO639-3:yak), Yakama, Sahaptin
Depositor Joana Jansen
Affiliation University of Oregon, Northwest Indian Language Institute
Location United States
Collection ID 0220
Grant ID IGS0035
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This collection contains materials from the Yakima Language Documentation and Grammar Project. Yakima (or Yakama) Sahaptin is a Penutian language spoken in and around the Yakama Indian reservation in central Washington State, USA. It is now close to extinct; only a handful of fluent speakers remain, although there is growing interest in teaching and preserving the language.

There is a variety of video and audio recordings covering different genres, with interlinear transcriptions. Also included are teaching materials to aid teachers and learners.


Group represented

Yakima is spoken by the Yakima people, who form part of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

Today, there are few fluent speakers of Yakima, all of whom are elderly, and so the work of documenting this disappearing language is extremely pressing. Mithun (1999) noted that ten fluent Yakima speakers remained. Virginia Beavert, teacher of Sahaptin at Heritage University and consultant to this project, estimates five fluent elders, with an additional handful of semi-speakers who use Yakima for ceremonial purposes (p.c. 2004). There are younger speakers (forty to fifty years old and older) who heard and spoke the language when young, but have not maintained their knowledge, and do not use the language for communication. Other Sahaptin dialects are similarly endangered. While the few fluent speakers may use the language to speak amongst themselves, and while some ceremonies are still in the Yakima language, the dominant language of the community, and the only language understood by the vast majority of tribal members, is English.


Language information

Yakima is a dialect of the Sahaptin language family. Sahaptin languages are spoken in the southern plateau region of the United States along the Columbia River and its drainages in what is now Eastern Oregon and Washington.

Sahaptin and Nez Perce comprise the Sahaptian Family, classified within Penutian. Sahaptian, Molala, Klamath-Modoc, and possibly Cayuse make up the Plateau Penutian branch (DeLancey and Golla 1997). Salish and Chinookan languages were traditionally spoken to the west and north of Sahaptin-speaking areas, while Nez Perce and Cayuse were spoken to the west.

Rigsby (1965) describes three dialect groups: Northeast; Northwest, spoken in the Yakima River drainage and including Yakima; and Columbia River. These Sahaptin dialects are mutually intelligible and syntactically similar, with slight differences in orthographies, phonology, and lexicon. Speakers refer to their dialects by the individual names (such as Yakima or Umatilla) or if referring to all dialects together, as ichishkín (lit. ‘in this way’).

Tribal members are supportive of restoring their ancestral language to a living place in their community. However, their tasks are immense. The elder speakers and teachers, who are often learners themselves, must prepare curricula and lessons for a language which has not traditionally been taught in a classroom setting and for which there are no readily-accessible materials. The availability of teachers is limited by the desire to teach only the Yakima dialect. Currently, most learners have not advanced to the point of being able to communicate with even simple sentences in their language. Another issue that confronts teachers and learners is reluctance by some elders to have their language documented in written form or taught in schools. They would prefer that the language be passed along as it was traditionally. This conviction has been changing, as more elders have died and others have come to realize that without written materials, their language will not survive.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Jansen, Joana. 2016. Yakima language documentation and grammar. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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