Zuni language

Native to U.S.
Region Western New Mexico
Ethnicity Zuni
Native speakers
9,700 and increasing (2006–2010)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2 zun
ISO 639-3 zun
Glottolog zuni1245[2]

Pre-European contact distribution of Zuni

Zuni /ˈzni/ (also formerly Zuñi) is a language of the Zuni people, indigenous to western New Mexico and eastern Arizona in the United States. It is spoken by around 9,500 people worldwide, especially in the vicinity of Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, and much smaller numbers in parts of Arizona.

Unlike most indigenous languages in the US, Zuni is still spoken by a significant number of children and, thus, is comparatively less threatened with language endangerment. Edmund Ladd reported in 1994 that Zuni is still the main language of communication in the pueblo and is used in the home (Newman 1996).

Within the language, the language itself is called Shiwi'ma (shiwi "Zuni" + -’ma "vernacular", trans. as "Zuni way") and its speakers are collectively A:shiwi (’a:(w)- "plural" + shiwi "Zuni").


Zuni is considered a language isolate (i.e., unrelated to any other known language). Zuni may have become a distinct language at least 7,000 years ago.[3] The Zuni have, however, borrowed a number of words from Keresan, Hopi, and Pima pertaining to religion and religious observances.[4]

A number of possible relationships of Zuni to other languages have been proposed by various researchers, although none of these has gained general acceptance. The main hypothetical proposals have been connections with Penutian (and Penutioid and Macro-Penutian), Tanoan, and Hokan phyla, and also the Keresan languages.

The most clearly articulated hypothesis is Newman's (1964) connection to Penutian, but even this was considered by Newman (according to Michael Silverstein) to be a tongue-in-cheek work due to the inherently problematic nature of the methodology used in Penutian studies (Goddard 1996). Newman's cognate sets suffered from common problems in comparative linguistics, such as comparing commonly borrowed forms (e.g. "tobacco"), forms with large semantic differences (e.g. "bad" and "garbage", "horse" and "hoof"), nursery forms, and onomatopoetic forms (Campbell 1997). Zuni was also included under Morris Swadesh's Penutioid proposal and Joseph Greenberg's very inclusive Penutian sub-grouping – both without convincing arguments (Campbell 1997).

Zuni was included as being part of the Aztec-Tanoan language family within Edward Sapir's heuristic 1929 classification (without supporting evidence). Later discussions of the Aztec-Tanoan hypothesis usually excluded Zuni (Foster 1996).

Karl-Heinz Gursky published problematic unconvincing evidence for a Keresan-Zuni grouping. J. P. Harrington wrote one unpublished paper with the title "Zuñi Discovered to be Hokan" (Campbell 1997).

Language contact

Zuni man

As Zuni is a language in the Pueblo linguistic area, it shares a number of features with Hopi, Keresan, and Tanoan (and to a lesser extent Navajo) that are probably due to language contact. The development of ejective consonants in Zuni may be due to contact with Keresan and Tanoan languages which have complete series of ejectives. Likewise, aspirated consonants may have diffused into Zuni. Some Tanoan languages have i-e-a-o-u vowel systems, which may have resulted from contact with Zuni. Other shared traits include: final devoicing of vowels and sonorant consonants, dual number, ceremonial vocabulary, and the presence of a labialized velar [kʷ] (Campbell 1997).


Main article: Zuni phonology

The 16 consonants of Zuni (with IPA phonetic symbol when different from the orthography) are the following:

Bilabial Dental/Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral plain labial
Plosive p t k, ky /k/ kw /kʷ/ /ʔ/
Affricate ts ch /tʃ/
Fricative s ł /ɬ/ sh /ʃ/ h
Nasal m n
Approximant l y /j/ w

The vowels are the following:

Front back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

Zuni syllables have the following specification:



Word order in Zuni is fairly free with a tendency toward SOV. There is no case-marking on nouns. Verbs are complex, compared to nouns, with loose incorporation. Like other languages in the Southwest, Zuni employs switch-reference.

Newman (1965, 1996) classifies Zuni words according to their structural morphological properties (namely the presence and type of inflectional suffixes), not according to their associated syntactic frames. His terms, noun and substantive, are therefore not synonymous.


Zuni uses overt pronouns for first and second persons. There are no third person pronouns.[5] The pronouns distinguish three numbers (singular, dual and plural) and three cases (subject, object and possessive). In addition, some subject and possessive pronouns have different forms depending on whether they appear utterance-medially or utterance-finally (object pronouns do not occur utterance-medially). All pronoun forms are shown in the following table:

and number
Subject Object Possessive
Medial Final Medial Final
1st singular ho' hoo'o hom hom homma
2nd singular to' too'o tom tom tomma
3rd singular - - - - -
1st dual hon ho'no ho'na' ho'na' ho'na'
2nd dual ton to'no to'na' to'na' to'na'
3rd dual - - - - -
1st plural hon ho'no ho'na' ho'n'aawan ho'n'aawan
2nd plural ton to'no to'na' to'n'aawan to'n'aawan
3rd plural - - - - -

There is syncretism between dual and plural non-possessive forms in the first and second persons. Utterances with these pronouns are typically disambiguated by the fact that plural pronouns agree with plural-marked verb forms.



Zuni adults are often known after the relationship between that adult and a child. For example, a person might be called "father of so-and-so", etc. The circumlocution is used to avoid using adult names, which have religious meanings and are very personal.[6]


There are 18 letters in the Zuni alphabet.

A /a/, B, D, CH, E /e/, H, I /i/, K, L, Ł, M, N, O /o/, P, S, T, U /ʊ/, W, Y

This orthography was largely worked out by Curtis Cook.

Old orthographies

Linguists and anthropologists have made up and used their own writing system for Zuni before the alphabet was standardized. One was developed for Zuni by linguist Stanley Newman (Newman 1954). This practical orthography essentially followed Americanist phonetic notation with the substitution of some uncommon letters with other letters or digraphs (two letter combinations). A further revised orthography is used in Dennis Tedlock's transcriptions of oral narratives.

A comparison of the systems is in the table below.

Tedlock Newman Americanist Current orthography IPA
ʼ / ʔ /ʔ/
ʼʼ // ʔʔ ’’ /ʔʔ/
a a a a /a/
aa a: a: /aː/
ch ch č ch /tʃ/
cch chch čč chh /tʃtʃ/
e e e e /e/
ee e: e: /eː/
i i i i /i/
ii i: i: /iː/
h j h h /h/
hh jj hh hh /hh/
k k k k /k/
kk kk kk kk /kk/
kw q kw /kʷ/
kkw qq kʷkʷ kkw /kʷkʷ/
l l l l /ɬ/
ll ll ll ll /ll/
lh lh ł ł /ɬ/
llh lhlh łł łł /ll/
m m m m /m/

Tedlock Newman Americanist Current orthography IPA
mm mm mm mm /mm/
n n n n /n/
nn nn nn nn /nn/
o o o o /o/
oo o: o: /oː/
p p p p /p/
pp pp pp pp /pp/
s s s s /s/
ss ss ss ss /ss/
sh sh š sh /ʃ/
ssh shsh šš shh /ʃʃ/
t t t t /t/
tt tt tt tt /tt/
ts z c ts /ts/
tts zz cc tts /tsts/
u u u u /u/
uu u: u: /uː/
w w w w /w/
ww ww ww ww /ww/
y y y y /j/
yy yy yy yy /jj/

In Newman's orthography (used in his dictionary, Newman 1958), the symbols, ch, j, lh, q, sh, z, /, : replaced Americanist č, h, ł, , š, c, ʔ, and · (used in Newman's grammar, Newman 1965).

Tedlock's orthography uses ʼ instead of Newman's / except at the beginning of words where it is not written. Additionally, in Tedlock's system, long vowels are written doubled instead with a length mark : as in Newman's system (e.g. aa instead of a:) and h and kw are used instead of j and q. Finally, Tedlock writes the following long consonants – cch, llh, ssh, tts – with a doubled initial letter instead of Newman's doubling of the digraphs – chch, lhlh, shsh – and kkw and tts are used instead of Newman's qq and zz.


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Zuni". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. "Zuni Origins". Archaeology Southwest.
  3. Hill, Jane H. "Zunian as a Language Isolate." American Southwest Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2008, p. 3
  4. Nichols, Lynn (1997). Topics in Zuni Syntax. Harvard University. p. 35.
  5. Kroeber, Albert L. (1917). Zuñi kin and clan. Anthropological papers of the American Museum of Natural History (Vol. 18, Pt. 2). New York: The Trustees. (Online: digitallibrary.amnh.org/dspace/handle/2246/97).


Zuni language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
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