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Tsimshian languages

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Tsimshian languages

British Columbia, Alaska
Linguistic classification: Penutian ?
  • Tsimshianic
  • Maritime Tsimshian
  • Nass–Gitksan
Ethnologue code: 17-3855

Pre-contact distribution of Tsimshianic languages

The Tsimshianic languages are a family of languages spoken in northwestern British Columbia and in southern Alaska on Annette Island and Ketchikan. About 2,170 people of the ethnic Tsimshian /ˈsɪmʃiən/ population in Canada still speak a Tsimshian language;[1] about 50 of the 1,300 Tsimshian people living in Alaska still speak Coast Tsimshian.[2][3] Tsimshianic languages are considered by most linguists to be an isolate group of languages, with four main languages or lects: Coast Tsimshian, Southern Tsimshian, Nisga’a, and Gitksan.[4]

The Tsimshianic languages were included by Edward Sapir in his Penutian hypothesis, a theory which is currently not widely accepted but is undergoing investigation by Marie-Lucie Tarpent.

Family division

Tsimshianic consists of 4 lects:

  1. Tsimshian ( Maritime Tsimshianic, Lower Tsimshian, Northern Tsimshian)
    • Coast Tsimshian ( Tsimshian proper, Sm’algyax̣, Sm’algax)
    • Southern Tsimshian ( Sgüüx̣s)
  2. Nass–Gitksan ( Interior Tsimshianic, Inland Tsimshianic)
    • Nisga’a ( Nisqa’a, Nisg̱a’a, Nishga, Nisgha, Niska, Nass, Nishka)
    • Gitksan ( Gitxsan, Gitksanimx̣)

Coast Tsimshian is spoken along the lower Skeena River in Northwestern British Columbia, on some neighbouring islands, and to the north at New Metlakatla, Alaska. Southern Tsimshian is spoken on an island quite far south of the Skeena River in the village of Klemtu. Southern Tsimshian is severely endangered, nearing extinction. Nisga’a is spoken along the Nass River. Gitksan is spoken along the Upper Skeena River around Hazelton and other areas.

Nisga’a and Gitksan are very closely related and are usually considered dialects of the same language by linguists. However, speakers from both groups consider themselves ethnically separate from each other and from the Tsimshian and thus consider Nisga’a and Gitksan to be separate languages. Coast and Southern Tsimshian are also often regarded as dialects of the same language.

As of 2013, Tsimshian courses are available at the University of Alaska Southeast.[5]


Consonantal inventory of Proto-Tsimshian:[6]

Labial Dental Palatal Velar Labio-
Uvular Labio-
simple *p *t *ts *k *kʷ *q *qʷ *ʔ, *ʔʷ
glottalized *pʼ *tʼ *tsʼ *kʼ *kʷʼ *qʼ *qʷʼ
Fricative *s, *ɬ *x *χʷ *h, *hʷ
Approximant simple *l *j *w
glottalized *lˀ *jˀ *wˀ
Nasal simple *m *n
glottalized *mˀ *nˀ

See also

  • Tsimshian



  • Boas, Franz. (1902). Tsimshian Texts. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology. Bulletin 27.
  • Boas, Franz. (1911). "Tsimshian." Handbook of American Indian Languages Bulletin No. 40, part I, pp. 287–422.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk).
  • Tarpent, Marie-Lucie. (1997). "Tsimshianic and Penutian: Problems, Methods, Results, and Implications." International Journal of American Linguistics 63.52-244.

External links

  • Tsimshianic languages (YDLI)
  • map of Northwest Coast First Nations (including Tsimshian and Nisga’a)
  • Sm'algyax – "The Real Language"
  • Dum Baal-dum
  • Sealaska Heritage Institute
  • William Ridley
  • Bibliography of Materials on the Coast Tsimshian Language (YDLI)
  • Bibliography of Materials on the South Tsimshian Language (YDLI)
  • Bibliography of Materials on the Gitksan Language (YDLI)
  • Bibliography of Materials on the Nisga'a Language (YDLI)

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