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Wintu language


Wintu language

Northern Wintun
Native to United States
Region Shasta County, Trinity County, California
Ethnicity Wintu people
Native speakers
(being revived)
  • Northern
    • Wintu
Language codes
ISO 639-3 wnw
Glottolog nucl1651[1]

Wintu [2] is a critically endangered Wintuan language spoken by the Wintu people of Northern California. It is the northernmost member of the Wintun family of languages. The Wintuan family of languages was spoken in the Sacramento River Valley and in adjacent areas up to the Carquinez Strait of San Francisco Bay. Wintun is a branch of the hypothetical Penutian language phylum or stock of languages of western North America, more closely related to four other families of Penutian languages spoken in California: Maiduan, Miwokan, Yokuts, and Costanoan (Golla 2011:128-168).

The Wintu were in contact also with adjacent speakers of Hokan languages such as Southeastern, Eastern, and Northeastern Pomo; Athabaskan languages such as Wailaki and Hupa; Yukian languages such as Yuki and Wappo; and other Penutian languages such as Miwok, Maidu, Yokuts, and Saclan. Besides these contiguous languages surrounding the Wintun area wider contacts with speakers of Russian, Spanish, and English.

As of 2011, Headman Marc Franco of the Winnemem Wintu has been working with the Indigenous Language Institute on revitalization of the Winnemem Wintu language.[3]


  • Phonology 1
    • Consonants 1.1
    • Vowels 1.2
    • Syllable structure 1.3
    • Stress 1.4
    • Phonological processes 1.5
    • Morphology 1.6
    • Vowel ablaut 1.7
    • Consonant ablaut 1.8
    • Nouns 1.9
    • Verbs 1.10
  • Syntax 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5
  • Bibliography 6



Wintu has 28 (to 30) consonants:

Labial Alveolar Post-
Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral
voiced b d (d͡ʒ)
ejective t͡ɬʼ ƛ' t͡ʃʼ ch' qχʼ
voiceless p t t͡ɬ ~ ɬ
t͡ʃ j k q ʔ
Fricative (f) (θ) ʃ sh x χ h
Nasal m n
Approximant w l j y
  • /f, dʒ/ are nonnative phonemes borrowed from English.
  • /θ/ is a rare phoneme that occurred, only word finally, in only one of Pitkin's informants (his main consultant. In other speakers, it has merged with /tɬ/.
  • Dental stops are denti-alveolar: [d̪], [t̪], [t̪ʰ], [t̪ʼ]. Younger speakers, however, employ (apico-)alveolar-stop articulations as in English [t], [tʰ], [tʼ], [d] .
  • The lateral /tɬ/ is usually a fricative [ɬ] but occasionally an affricate among McCloud speakers while Trinity speakers have only the affricate. It is interdental after non-low front vowels /i, e/, post-dental after low /a/, and retroflex after non-low back /u, o/.
  • In the speech of older speakers, postalveolar /ʃ/ is retroflex [ʂ] adjacent to back vowels /u, o, a/.
  • Velars /k, kʼ, x/ are advanced before non-low front vowels /i, e/ and retracted before non-low back vowels /u, o/. In the manner of articulation, velars and post-velars can be glottalized and non-glottalized (voiceless).
  • The trill /ṛ/ is apico-postalveolar retroflex. It is occurs as a flap [ɽ] between vowels.
  • The glottal stop /ʔ/ is weakly articulated except when the speaker is being deliberate or emphatic. It is always fully articulated in word-final position.


Wintu has 10 (or 11) vowels:
   Short   Long 
 Front   Back   Front   Back 
 High (close)  i u
 Mid  e o
 Low (open)  a
 Anomalous   æ
  • Wintu has short and long vowels.
  • /æ/ is a phoneme that only occurs in borrowed English words.
  • All vowels are slightly nasalized before the glottal consonant /ʔ/
  • All vowels are voiced and oral (except for the above mentioned nasal allophones).

Syllable structure

Segmental phonemes require obligatorily a single onset consonant. The rhyme is usually composed of a vowel nucleus of a long or a short vowel optionally followed by a single consonant. The syllabic canon is


Some examples of a generic syllable structure are:

CV [qa]=and, or.
CVː [miː]=tree
CVC [nuq]=pus
CVːC [baːs]=food.

Consonant clusters result only from conjoined closed syllables. For example, clusters of consonants occur when a syllable ending in a consonant is followed in the same word by another syllable. Some examples of consonant clusters are:

CVC.CVC [pot.xom]=poison oak.
CVC.CVːC [net.taːn]=my father.
CVC.CVC [ʔel.ʔih]=you put it in.

Vowels may be long, but sequences of vowels do not occur.


Syllable stress in Wintu are predictable components of two junctures hyphen/-/ and plus/+/. There are four phonemic junctures ranked by their magnitude: Plus/+/, hyphen/-/, comma/,/ and period/./.

  • Plus juncture is a central juncture. In Plus Juncture the location of the pitch and the stress in a phonemic word is determined by the structure of the syllable and its position relative to the juncture.

Syllables are determined by the presence or absence of vowels and semi-vowels. Light syllables contain short vowels. Heavy syllables contain short vowels followed by a semi-vowel. Extra-heavy syllables contain long vowels. The prominent syllable of a phonemic word is always the first, unless the second syllable is heavier, in which case the second syllable is stressed.

  • Degree of intensity

In the primary stress the greater is the magnitude of the preceding juncture, the greater is the intensity of the stress. The secondary stress, on the other hand, occurs when a heavy syllable follows the prominent syllable and varies in intensity. The weakest stress occurs when a syllable is not stressed and follows immediately after a phonemic juncture.

Ex. Extra heavy syllable: bó•s= house.
Ex. Syllable with secondary stress: ní= I.
Ex. Light Syllable: Lilá•=to accuse.
  • The Hyphen Juncture occurs with phonemic words and ir represents a phonemically functional unity with particular phonetic proprieties that contrast with other junctures.

Like the plus juncture, the hyphen juncture affects the location of higher pitch and stress. But instead of conditioning the location of the syllables like the plus juncture, the hyphen shifts the pitch and the stress. The Hyphen juncture is the juncture with the least magnitude, being the only one occurring within words (for example, following certain prefixes and preceding some auxiliaries and enclitics).

Ex./+ma•tceki+/ ear wax.
Ex./+ma•t-ceki-/one split ear.
Ex./+ʔelwine+/ with, along, accompanying.
Ex./+ʔel-wine-/ to look straight in the eye.
  • Comma juncture/,/

It has two phonetic features: a fully realised pause accompanied or preceded by glottal stricture.

  • Period Juncture/./

It is the juncture with the greatest magnitude and it has four phonetic features:

  • A fully realised pause
  • An associated glottal structure
  • A preceding phrasal accent of unpredictable location
  • A terminal pitch contour that drops sharply in pitch level and voicing

Period juncture delimits phonemic sentences.

Ex. ba•-s-bo•sin+ net, nis+λiya. They threw rocks at me because I was eating.
Ex. ba•s-bo•sin+ mat, mis+ λiya. They threw rocks at you because you were eating.
  • Phrasal Accent

It consists of very high pitch and particularly heavy stress.

Ex. Sukuyum+ límcada.=my dog is sick.
EX. Súkuyum+ límcada.=my dog is sick.

Phonological processes

A vast number of phonological processes occur in the Wintu language.

  • The glottalized velars are pronounced with a slight friction of the tongue when they are in contact with certain vowels in particular contexts.

For example /k'/ becomes prevelar before /i/ and /e/ but it is velar before /ʔa/ and it is backed before /u/ and /o/. In a similar way, the glottalized velar /q'/ is pronounced with more friction at the point of articulation as /q'ˣ/. It is in a frontal position before /i/ and /e/ and becomes backed with all the other vowels.

  • Among the stop consonants only /p/, /t/, and /k/ occur finally as well as initially.
  • The labiodental /f/ is an anomalous phoneme and it occurs only in two borrowed forms /foriĴulay/, Fourth of July or in /friho• lis/ beans.
  • Older speakers pronounce /s/ as /ṣ/, a retroflexed post-alveolar slit before or after /a/, /o/ and /u/ while younger speakers use /s/ everywhere.
  • /h/ becomes a glottal spirant before /u/, /o/ and /a/, as in /ha•sma/, to keep on yawning.
  • /r/ is a voiced trill but when it occurs between vowels it becomes a voiced flap, as for example /yor/ tear (imperative form) and /yura/ to tear (infinitive form).
  • /l/ a lateral apical-alveolar, is sometime confused with /r/ as in the word /lileter/ a corn meal.


Wintu possesses a sophisticated morphology with some polysynthetic characteristics. The combination of its morphemes into words involves several processes such as suffixation, prefixation, compounding, reduplication and consonant and vocalic ablaut. Nevertheless, the most common process is suffixation, which occurs primarily in verbs.

Vowel ablaut

The Vowel Ablaut is a change in the height (gradation) of the root-syllable vowels and it affects the vowel quantity. In Wintu, the vowel ablaut occurs only in the mutations of some verb-root vowels (called dissimilation), or in some root-deriving suffixes (assimilation). Root-vowel dissimilation is conditioned by the height of the vowel in the following syllable, while the suffix vowel assimilation is conditioned by the quantity of the vowel in the preceding syllable. An example of dissimilation takes place when /e/ and /o/, which occurs only in root syllables, are raised in height when they are preceded by a single consonant and followed by the low vowel /a/ in the next syllable.

Ex. lEla-/lila/ "to transform" and lElu-/lelu/ "transform".

An example of dissimilation takes place when the morphophoneme [V]assimilates completely to the quality of the vowel that precedes in the previous syllable.

Ex.cewVlVlVha=/ceweleleha/ "many to be wide open".

Consonant ablaut

A small amount of consonant ablaut is also present in Wintu, for example before word juncture /cʼ/ and /b/ change in /p/.


Substantives are marked for aspect and case. There are two different types of substantives: those formed directly from roots (pronouns, non possessed nouns, kinship terms) and those based on forms of complex derivation from radical and stems (mostly nouns). Pronouns can be singular, dual, and plural. They have particular suffixes (possessive for instrumental functions and for marking plural humans.) They are also very similar to verbs. Nouns have a variety of roots, they are an open class, they may show number in rare forms and they do not distinguish possessive from instrumental functions. Nouns can be classified in possessed and non possessed. The noun is composed of two elements:a stem and a suffix. The stem is usually a root. The suffixes specify numbers, animateness, personification or individuation. Some nouns have the same stem but have a different generic and particular meaning. Ex. /tu/ (particular aspect) eye; (generic aspect) face(s). The suffixes of the nouns can also have different cases: object [um](sedem-coyote), genitive[un](seden), locative [in], instrumental [r], possessive[t], emphatic possessive (reduplication of the last syllable).


Verbs are the wider class of words in Wintu. Also several nouns derivate from verbs. The category of verbs has a very sophisticated morphological structure. Pitkin (1964) identifies three stem forms: indicative, imperative and nominal.

  • Prefixes: optional in occurrence, when affixed directly to roots are followed by a hyphen juncture.
  • Roots: the most part are monosyllabic and with the shape CVC or CV•C. Two important processes are root derivation and reduplication.
  • Suffixes
    • Root-deriving suffixes (suffixes added to the root): distributive, repetitive, iterative, transitive, stative, privative.
    • Stem suffixes (added to the stem form):
    • Imperative Stem Suffixation
    • 1 position class derivation class=patient suffix, comitative suffix, generic comitative suffix
    • 2 position class: reflexive
    • 3 position class: causative
    • 4 position class: reciprocal, benefactive
    • 1 position class inflectional suffixes=warning, passive
    • 2 position class. Inflectional =inevitable future, potential temporal simultaneity, jussive, hortative
    • 3 position class= negative, dual hortative, necessary temporal anteriority, impersonal interrogative, temporal simultaneity or anteriority, personal object
    • Indicative Stem Suffixation
    • 1 position inflectional suffixes:non visual sensory evidential, hearsay evidential, inferential evidential, experiential evidential, subordinating causal anteriority, approximation
    • 2 position inflectional suffixes:first person, second person, dubitative, completive, subordinating temporal anteriority, subordinating unexpected simultaneity


The basic word order in Wintu is very flexible. A morphological word is the basic syntactical unit. In some cases a morphological word that is phonemically a single word can be syntactically two different words. A morphological word,can be clitic or non clitic. The clitic word, is always dependent on the non-clitic. The clitic words can be proclitic and postclitic depending on their position. Some morphemic words can be both clitics and full words. For example: the morphemic word / ʔel/, in, is both a full word in /qewelʔel/, in the house, and a proclitic in /ʔel-qewel/, which have the same meaning. The largest syntactic unit is the sentence. Sentences are considered a sequences of full words terminated by a period juncture /./. The sentence can be considered a clause if it contains verbs, sentence if it contains nouns. Sentences never contains main verbs. Clauses can be dependent or independent. This depends on the kind of suffix who forms the verb. Independent verbs take the personal inflectional suffixes while dependent verbs are characterised by the subordinating suffixes{r},{tan},{ʔa], {n},}{so}, and {ta}. In the sentences the syntactic relationships between full words and clitics are indicated by the word order and by the inflectional and derivational suffixes. Four types of functions can be distinguished for the sentences: head, attributive, satellite, and conjunction. The head is usually a noun and it is not dependent on other forms as for example /winthu/Wintu people. The attributive preceded and modify the head as for example in /winthu•n qewelin/ in a Wintu house. On the other hand, the satellite only occurs in clauses. A satellite could be either the subject or the object of a verb. If the satellite is the subject of the verb, it precedes the verb, as for example /po• m yel-hura/land destroyed, but if the satellite is the object and it is in a dependent clause or a noun-phrase containing a genitive attributive, follows. For example: /sedet ʔelew'kiyemti•n/ coyote never speaks wisely, or /wayda me•m hina/ a northern flood of water (will) arrive.

See also


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Wintu". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  3. ^ "Indigenous Language Activists - Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages". Retrieved 2012-09-02. 

External links

  • “Beedi Yalumina” (Don’t Give Up!): The Winnemem Wintu Language Project
  • Wintu language overview at the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages
  • Wintu Language at
  • Wintu at the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages
  • OLAC resources in and about the Wintu language
  • Wintu Language site (in German)


  • Golla, Victor (2011). California Indian languages. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26667-4.
  • Pitkin, Harvey (1984). Wintu Grammar. Berkeley: University of California Press.  
  • Pitkin, Harvey (1985). Wintu Dictionary. Berkeley: University of California Press.  
  • Shepherd, Alice (1989). Wintu Texts. Berkeley: University of California Press.  
  • Schlichter, Alice (1981). Wintu dictionary. Reports of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages. Retrieved 2011-03-01. 
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