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Tonkawa language

The Tonkawa language was spoken in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico by the Tonkawa people. A language isolate, with no known related languages, Tonkawa is now extinct. Members of the Tonkawa tribe now speak English.


  • Phonology 1
    • Vowels 1.1
    • Consonants 1.2
    • Consonant clusters 1.3
    • Phonological processes and morphophonemics 1.4
    • Syllable structure 1.5
  • Grammar and Morphology 2
    • Morphology 2.1
    • Grammar 2.2
      • Nouns 2.2.1
      • Verbs 2.2.2



Tonkawa has 10 vowels:

Front Back
short long short long short long
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a
  • Each vowel is distinguished by the quality of sound and the length of the vowel.
  • The vowels occur in five pairs that have differing vowel lengths (i.e. short vowels vs. long vowels).
  • In the front and the mid back vowel pairs, the short vowels are phonetically lower than their high counterparts: /i/ → , /e/ → , /o/ → .
  • The low vowels /a, aː/ vary between central and back articulations: [a~ɑ, aː~ɑː].
  • Vowels that are followed by j and w are slightly raised in their position of articulation


Tonkawa has 15 consonants:

Bilabial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
plain labial
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k ʔ
Affricate t͡s
Fricative s x h
Approximant l j w
  • The affricate /ts/ and fricative /s/ vary freely between dental and postalveolar articulations, i.e. [ts~tʃ] and [s~ʃ]. There is a tendency for [ʃ] to occur at the end of words (but no tendency for [tʃ]).
  • The other coronals /t, n, l/ are consistently dental.
  • The dorsal obstruents are normally velar, but palatal before front vowels /i, iː, e, eː/:
    • /k, kʷ, x, xʷ/[c, cʷ, ç, çʷ]
  • The dorsal approximants /j, w/ are consistently palatal and labiovelar respectively.

Consonant clusters

There are two environments in which consonant clusters occur in Tonkawa:

  • when a consonant is repeated
  • when the cluster is within the syllable

Repeated or identical consonants are treated as one unit. However, the condition that causes this repetition has not been fully analyzed.

  • Example: sʔa-ko 'he scrapes it' versus mʔe-t-no 'lightning strikes him'

There are cases where the glottal stop is not used in the cluster or combination

There are certain consonants that can either begin or end in a cluster. However if the cluster begins the syllable, there can be no intervening vowel.

  • Initial Cluster Consonants: kʷ, m, n, s, x
  • Final Cluster Consonants: ʔ

Phonological processes and morphophonemics

Initial stem syllables that begin with h-

  • the h- is dropped when a prefix is added
  • if the syllable is C + V, then the vowel is lengthened and given the quality of the stem vowel.
  • if the syllable ends in a consonant, then the initial stem forms a new syllable with the final consonant of the prefix.

Final stem syllables

  • Forms: C V w or C V y
  • The form changes to C if followed by a suffix that starts with a consonant
  • If a long vowel occurs the suffixes change from (-we/-wesʔ/aːdew) to (- or -o/oːsʔ/-aːdo)

An interesting feature of Tonkawan phonology is that the vowels in even-numbered syllables are reduced. That is, long vowels are shortened, while short vowels disappear. Analyses of this were given by Kisseberth (1970), Phelps (1973, 1975) and Noske (1993).

Syllable structure

The Tonkawa language is a syllabic language that bases its word and sentence prosody on even stressed syllables.

  • Disyllabic words are when the stress is placed on the final syllable.
  • Polysyllabic words are when the stress is moved to the next to last syllable, the penult.

There are five types of syllable arrangements: (CL consonant, CC: consonant cluster, V: vowel)

  • C + V → ka-la 'mouth'
  • C + V + C → tan-kol 'back of head'
  • CC + V → sʔa-ko 'he scrapes it'
  • CC + V + C → mʔe-t-no 'lightning strikes him'
  • C + V + ʔs or / / jam-xoʔs 'I paint his face'

Grammar and Morphology


Morphological terms that are important for Tonkawa:

  • Morpheme - the smallest unit of sound that has meaning

These are distinguished by hyphens. Example: ka-la 'mouth'

  • Affixation or Affixes - this includes prefixes, suffixes, and infixes

The morphemes in Tonkawa can be divided as follows:

I. Themes

  • Free - the stem can stand alone
  • Bound - the stem must have a suffix or prefix attached; it cannot stand alone

In Tonkawa the them is composed of morphologic units. The basic unit is the stem. The stem is composed of two elements (the consonant and vowel) and modified by affixes. The theme, or stem, is functional, which means it changes as more affixation is added. This leads to the fusion of the stem and affix where it becomes difficult to isolate the word into its smaller units.

II. Affixes

  • Transformative - the affix changes the meaning and/or function of the word
  • Verbal - the affix changes a certain aspect of the verb
  • Noun and Pronoun - the affix changes a certain aspect of the noun or pronoun

III. Enclitics


Unlike English, where the pronouns, nouns, verbs, etc. are individual words, Tonkawa forms these parts of speech in a different manner. In Tonkawa, the most important grammatical function is affixation. This process shows the subjects, objects, and pronouns of words and/or verbs. Within affixations, the suffix has more importance than the prefix.

The differenation between subject and object is shown in the word ending, aka the suffix. While the word order tends to be subject, object, verb (SOV), compounding words is very common in Tonkawa. Reduplication is very common in Tonkawa and affects only the verb themes. Usually only one syllable is duplicated, and this duplication symbolizes a repeated action, vigorous action, or a plural subject.


Nouns function as free themes, or stems, in Tonkawa. There is a limit of only two or three affixes that can compound with a noun. However, there are cases were a bound theme can occur in noun compounds. This occurs with the suffix -an is added. In English, pronouns and nouns are usually grouped together, but because pronouns in Tonkawa are bound themes, they will be discussed with the verb section.

Noun Suffixes
Case Indefinite (singular/plural) Definite (singular/plural)
Nominative -la/ -ka -ʔaːla/ -ʔaːka
Accusative -lak/ -kak -ʔaːlak/ -ʔaːkak
Genitive -ʔan -ʔaːlʔan
Dative (Arrival) -ʔaːyik
Dative (Approach) -ʔaːwʔan
Instrumental -es / -kas -aːlas/ -ʔaːkay
Conjunctive -ʔen -ʔaːlʔen
Vocative (bare stem) (bare stem)


Verbs are bound morphemes that have a limit of only two themes, of which the 2nd theme is the modifying theme. The 2nd theme usually serves an adverbial theme. However if the suffix -ʔe/-wa is added the verb functions as a free theme.


Pronouns are only used for emphasis on the subject and are affixated as prefixes. Person and number are usually indicated by the affixation of the verb. Most pronouns are bound themes, especially the demonstrative pronouns.

Personal Pronoun Tonkawa Personal Pronoun English Personal Pronoun
1st person singular saː- me
2nd person singular naː- you
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