Achumawi language

Native to California
Ethnicity Achomawi people and Madhesi tribe
Extinct (date missing)[1]
10 semi- and passive speakers (2007)[1]
Hokan ?
Language codes
ISO 639-3 acv
Glottolog achu1247[2]

The Achumawi language (also Achomawi or Pit River language) is the native language spoken by the Pit River people of present-day California. The term Achumawi is an anglicization of the name of the Fall River band, ajúmmááwí, from ajúmmá "river". Originally there were nine bands, with dialect differences among them but primarily between upriver and downriver dialects, demarcated by the Big Valley mountains east of the Fall River valley.

Genetic relationships

Together, Achumawi and Atsugewi are said to comprise the Palaihnihan language family. The basis of this assertion is weakened by poor quality of data. David Olmsted's dictionary depends almost entirely upon de Angulo, and carelessly includes Pomo vocabulary from a manuscript in which he (de Angulo) set out to demonstrate that Achumawi and Pomo are not related.[3] William Bright has also pointed out problems with Olmsted's methods of reconstruction.[4] The phenomenon of non-reciprocal intelligibility is a matter of bilingualism (due to intermarriage) being more prevalent in the smaller speech community (Atsuge) than in the larger.[5]


Achumawi has 29 consonants. Most of these form pairs of plain and laryngealized or glottalized series. Plosives and affricates also have a third, aspirated member of the series (except for the single glottal stop) which is contrastive only syllable-initially and probably derives historically from clusters, as in the neighboring and possibly related Yana language.[6]

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stop plain p t c k q  
laryngealized ʔ
Fricative plain   s       h
Nasal plain m n        
Approximant plain w l y      

The laryngealized stops are similar in articulation to the ejective glottalized stops of neighboring languages, but more lenis, that is, not "popped" unless an unusual effort is made at articulating the distinction. The plain-aspirated distinction is neutralized and realized with aspiration or voiceless release in syllable-final position and before another consonant. Plain stops are voiced before a short vowel or after an aspirated stop, voiceless elsewhere.[7]

In a 5-vowel system, i e a o u, the mid vowels may be of secondary origin historically, as in Yana and Atsugewi. A schwa [ə] appears epenthetically between the consonants of certain prefixes, as in lhúpta "let's go!". Two degrees of length are contrastive for both vowels and consonants. In downriver dialects, the second mora of a long vowel is devoiced before a plain or aspirated consonant (preaspiration) and laryngealized before a laryngealized consonant. Long vowels are typically more peripheral and short vowels more centralized. In downriver dialects, utterance-final syllables may be devoiced or whispered.[7]

Unlike the neighboring and related language Atsugewi, Achumawi has distinctive tone on every syllable.[7][8]

Current status

An elderly Ahjumawi Indian woman, likely one of the final remaining speakers of the language.

Today, the Achumawi language is severely endangered. Out of an estimated 1500 Achumawi people remaining in northeastern California, perhaps ten spoke the language in 1991, with only 8 in 2000. However, out of these 8, 4 had a limited English proficiency.

As of 2013, a mobile app is planned for the language.

Louise Davis, who lives in northern California, is almost tearful when she describes hearing people using the language of her Pit River tribe in conversation for the first time. It happened years ago when an older man from another part of the state met up with her grandmother.

It was such a powerful, emotional experience that Davis is driven to use flashcards at home with her children and do whatever it takes to preserve the language.

“You can say things in our language that you can’t say in English,” she said.

Testing out a language app in February [2013], she said she couldn’t wait to see it being used among young people in the tribe.[9]


  1. 1 2 Achumawi at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Achumawi". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Gursky, Karl-Heinz (1987). "Achumawi und Pomo, eine besondere Beziehung?". Abhandlungen der völkerkundlichen Arbsgemeinschaft. Nortorf. 57.
  4. Bright, William (1965). "Review of A history of Palaihnihan phonology by D. L. Olmstead". Language. Baltimore: Linguistic Society of America. 41 (1): 175–178. doi:10.2307/411871.
  5. Olmstead, David L. (1954). "Achumawi-Atsugewi non-reciprocal intelligibility". International Journal of American Linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 20: 181–184. doi:10.1086/464275.
  6. Nevin, Bruce (1998). Aspects of Pit River Phonology (PDF) (Ph.D.). The University of Pennsylvania.
  7. 1 2 3 Nevin 1998.
  8. Mithun, Marianne (2001). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-521-29875-9.
  9. "American Indian tribes turn to technology in race to save endangered languages". Washington Post. 2013-04-17. Retrieved 2013-04-19.



External links

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