Chilcotin language: Wikis


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Spoken in Canada
Region British Columbia
Total speakers 2,000
Language family Dené-Yeniseian
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 ath
ISO 639-3 clc

Chilcotin (also Tsilhqot’in, Tsilhqut’in, Tzilkotin) is a Northern Athabaskan language spoken in British Columbia by the Tsilhqot’in people.

The name Chilcotin is derived from the Chilcotin name for themselves: Tŝilhqot’in (IPA: [ts̱ˤʰᵊĩɬqʰotʼin]), literally "people of the red ochre river".




Chilcotin has 47 consonants:

  Bilabial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral plain labial plain labial
Nasal m                
Stop unaspirated p       k q  
aspirated t̪ʰ       kʷʰ qʷʰ  
ejective   t̪ʼ       kʼʷ qʼʷ ʔ
Affricate unaspirated   ts̪ tsˤ̱          
aspirated   ts̪ʰ tɬʰ ts̱ˤʰ tʃʰ          
ejective   ts̪ʼ tɬʼ ts̱ˤʼ tʃʼ          
Continuant voiceless   ɬ s̱ˤ ç   χ χʷ h
voiced   l ẕˤ j   w ʁ ʁʷ  
  • Like many Athabaskan languages, Chilcotin does not have a contrast between fricatives and approximants.
  • The alveolar series is pharyngealized.
  • Dentals and alveolars:
    • Both Krauss (1975) and Cook (1993) describe the dental and alveolar as being essentially identical in articulation—postdental—with the only differentiating factor being their different behaviours in the vowel flattening processes (described below).
    • Gafos (1999, personal communication with Cook) describes the dental series as apico-laminal denti-alveolar and the alveolar series as lamino-postalveolar.


Chilcotin has 6 vowels:

  Front   Back
tense-long lax-short tense-long lax-short tense-long lax-short
High i ɪ   u ʊ
Low   æ ɛ  
  • Chilcotin has both tense and lax vowel phonemes. Additionally, tense vowels may become lax due a vowel laxing process (see below).

Every given Chilcotin vowel will have a number of different phonetic realizations due to complex phonological processes (e.g. nasalization, laxing, flattening). For instance, the vowel /i/ can be variously pronounced [i, ĩ, ɪ, e, ᵊi, ᵊĩ, ᵊɪ].


Chilcotin is a tonal language with two tones:

  • high tone
  • low tone

Phonological processes

Chilcotin has a number of interesting phonological processes, namely vowel flattening and consonant harmony. Consonant harmony (i.e. sibilant harmony) is rather common in the Athabaskan language family. Vowel flattening, though unique to Chilcotin, is similar to phonological processes in other unrelated Interior Salishan languages spoken in the same area, such as Shuswap, St'át'imcets, and Thompson River Salish (and thus was probably borrowed into Chilcotin). This type of harmony is an areal feature common in this region of North America. The Chilcotin processes, however, are much more complicated.

Vowel nasalization and laxing

Vowel nasalization is a phonological process where the phoneme /n/ is realized as nasalization on the preceding vowel. This process occurs when the vowel + /n/ sequence is followed by a (tautosyllabic) continuant consonant (e.ɡ. /ɬ, sˤ, zˤ, ç, j, χ/).

    /pinɬ/ [pĩɬ] 'trap'

Vowel laxing is a process where tense vowels (i.e. /i, u, æ/) become lax when followed by a syllable-final /h/ (i.e. the tense and lax distinction is neutralized).

    /ʔɛstɬʼuh/ [ʔɛstɬʼʊh] 'I'm knitting'   (u → ʊ)
    /sɛjæh/ [sɛjɛh] 'my throat'   (æ → ɛ)

Vowel flattening

Chilcotin has a type of Retracted Tongue Root harmony (or post-velar harmony) called Vowel Flattening. Generally, "flat" consonants lower vowels in both directions, i.e. the assimilation is both progressive and regressive.

Chilcotin consonants can be grouped into three categories: Neutral, Sharp, and Flat.

Neutral Sharp Flat
p, pʰ, m

t, tʰ, tʼ, n
tɬ, tɬʰ, tɬʼ, ɬ, l
tʃ, tʃʰ, tʃʼ, ç, j
ʔ, h

ts, tsʰ, tsʼ, s, z

k, kʰ, kʼ
kʷ, kʷʰ, kʼʷ, xʷ, w

sˤ-series: tsˤ, tsʰˤ, tsʼˤ, sˤ, zˤ
q-series: q, qʰ, qʼ, χ, ʁ

qʷ, qʷʰ, qʼʷ, χʷ, ʁʷ

  • Flat consonants trigger vowel flattening.
  • Sharp consonants block vowel flattening.
  • Neutral consonants do not affect vowel flattening in any way.

The flat consonants can be further divided into two types:

  1. a -series (i.e. /tsˤ, tsʰˤ, tsʼˤ/ˌ etc.), and
  2. a q-series (i.e. /q, qʷ, qʰ/ˌ etc.).

The -series is stronger than the q-series in that the -series affects vowels for a greater distance across the word.

The table below shows both unaffected vowels and flattened vowels.

i ᵊi or e
ɪ ᵊɪ
u o
ʊ ɔ
ɛ ə
æ a

The vowel /i/ surfaces as [ᵊi] if preceded by a flat consonant and as [e] if followed by a flat consonant:

    /sˤit/ [sˤᵊit] 'kinɡfisher'   (sˤ flattens i → ᵊi)
    /nisˤtsˤun/ [nesˤtsˤon] 'owl'   (sˤ flattens i → e)

Below the progressive and regressive flattening processes are described below in separate sections.

Progressive flattening

In the progressive (left-to-right) flattening, the q-series consonants affect only the immediately following vowel:

    /ʁitʰi/ [ʁᵊitʰi] 'I slept'   (ʁ flattens i → ᵊi)
    /qʰænɪç/ [qʰanɪç] 'spoon'   (qʰ flattens æ → a)

Like the q-series, the stronger -series consonants affects the immediately following vowel. However, this series additionally affects the vowel in the following syllable, if the first flattened vowel is a lax vowel. If the first flattened is tense, then the vowel of the following syllable is not flattened.

    /sˤɛɬ.tʰin/ [sˤəɬ.tʰᵊin] 'he's comatose'   (sˤ flattens both ɛ → ə, i → ᵊi )
    /sˤi.tʰin/ [sˤᵊi.tʰin] 'I'm sleeping'   (sˤ flattens first i → ᵊi, but not second i: *sˤᵊitʰᵊin)

As can be seen above, the neutral consonants are "transparent" in the flattening process. In the first word /sˤɛɬ.tʰin/ 'he's comatose', /sˤ/ flattens the /ɛ/ of the first syllable to [ə] and the /i/ of the second syllable to [ᵊi]. In the word /sˤi.tʰin/ 'I'm sleeping', /sˤ/ flattens /i/ to [ᵊi]. But since the vowel of the first syllable is /i/ which is a tense vowel, the /sˤ/ cannot flatten the /i/ of the second syllable.

The sharp consonants, however, block the progressive flattening caused by the -series:

    /tizˤ.kʼɛn/ [tezˤ.kʼɛn] 'it's burning'   (flattening of ɛ is blocked by kʼ: *tezˤkʼən)
    /sˤɛ.kɛn/ [sˤə.kɛn] 'it's dry'   (flattening of ɛ is blocked by k: *sˤəkən)
Regressive flattening

In regressive (right-to-left) harmony, the q-series flattens the preceding vowel (just like it does in the progressive harmony mentioned above).

    /ʔælæχ/ [ʔælaχ] 'I made it'   (χ flattens æ → a)
    /junɛqʰæt/ [junəqʰat] 'he's slappinɡ him'   (qʰ flattens ɛ → ə)

The regressive (right-to-left) harmony of the -series, however, is much stronger than in the progressive harmony. Here these consonants flatten all preceding vowels in a word:

    /kunizˤ/ [konezˤ] 'it is lonɡ'   (zˤ flattens all vowels, both i → e, u → o)
    /kʷɛtɛkuljúzˤ/ [kʷətəkoljózˤ] 'he is rich'   (zˤ flattens all vowels)
    /nækʷɛnitsˤɛ́sˤ/ [nakʷənetsˤə́sˤ] 'fire's gone out'   (tsˤ, sˤ flatten all vowels)

Both progressive and regressive flattening processes occur in Chilcotin words:

    /niqʰin/ [neqʰᵊin] 'we paddled'
    /ʔɛqʰɛn/ [ʔəqʰən] 'my husband'

Consonant harmony


External links


  • Andrews, Christina. (1988). Lexical phonology of Chilcotin. (Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of British Columbia).
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Clements, G. N. (1991). A note on Chilcotin flattening. (Unpublished manuscript).
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1976). A phonological study of Chilcotin and Carrier. A report to the National Museums of Canada. (Unpublished manuscript).
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1983). Chilcotin flattening. Canadian Journal of Linguistics, 28 (2), 123-132.
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1986). Ambisyllabicity and nasalization in Chilcotin. In Working papers for the 21st International Conference on Salish and Neighboring Languages (pp. 1-6). Seattle: University of Washington.
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1989). Articulatory and acoustic correlates of pharyngealization: Evidence from Athapaskan. In D. Gerdts & K. Michelson (Eds.), Theoretical perspectives on native American languages (pp. 133-145). Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1989). Chilcotin tone and verb paradigms. In E.-D. Cook & K. Rice (Eds.), Athapaskan linguistics (pp. 145-198). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1993). Chilcotin flattening and autosegmental phonology. Lingua, 91 12/3, 149-174.
  • Cook, Eung-Do; & Rice, Keren (Eds.). (1989). Athapaskan linguistics: Current perspectives on a language family. Trends in linguistics, State of-the-art reports (No. 15). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 0-89925-282-6.
  • Gafos, Adamantios. (1999). The articulatory basis of locality in phonology. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-8153-3286-6. (Revised version of the author's Doctoral dissertation, Johns Hopkins University).
  • Hansson, Gunnar O. (2000). Chilcotin vowel flattening and sibilant harmony: Diachronic cues to a synchronic puzzle. (Paper presented at the Athabaskan Language Conference, Moricetown, British Columbia, June 10).
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1975). Chilcotin phonology, a descriptive and historical report, with recommendations for a Chilcotin orthography. Alaskan Native Language Center. (Unpublished manuscript).
  • Krauss, Michael E., and Victor K. Golla (1981) Northern Athapaskan Languages, In June Helm (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Subarctic, Vol.6. Smithsonian Institution, Washington.
  • Latimer, R. M. (1978). A study of Chilcotin phonology. (M.A. thesis, University of Calgary).
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.

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