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Nisenan language

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Title: Nisenan language  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Nisenan, Maiduan languages, Takelma language, Nomlaki language, Chico language
Collection: Endangered Maiduan Languages, Indigenous Languages of California, Maiduan Languages
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Nisenan language

Southern Maidu
Native to United States
Region California: Central California, scattered, foothills of the Sierras.
Extinct (1 speaker reported in 1994)[1]
  • Nisenan
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nsz
Glottolog nise1244[2]

Nisenan (or alternatively, Southern Maidu, Neeshenam, Nishinam, Pujuni, or Wapumni) is a nearly extinct Maiduan language spoken by the Nisenan (or Southern Maidu, etc. as above) people of central California in the foothills of the Sierras, in the whole of the American, Bear and Yuba river drainages.

Ethnologue states that there is only one speaker left. However, it is believed that there are a few other speakers left, although the number is not known. Most speakers also speak one or more of the different dialects.

There has recently been a small effort at language revival. Most notably the release of the "Nisenan Workbook" (three volumes so far) put out by Alan Wallace, which can be found at the California State Indian Museum in Sacramento and the Maidu Interpretive Center in Roseville.

As the Nisenan (like many of the Natives of central California) were not a single large tribe but a collection of independent "tribelets" (smaller tribes, as compared to Native groups in the east) which are grouped together primarily on linguistic similarity, there were many dialects to varying degrees of variation. This has led to some degree of inconsistency in the available linguistic data, primarily in regards to the phonemes.


The phonology of Nisenan is similar to both Konkow and Maidu. Taking into account the various dialects, there appears to be a fair amount of allophones across the dialects.


Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Stop voiceless p t k ʔ
implosive ɓ ɗ
Affricate ts ~ tʃ
Fricative s ~ ʃ h
Approximant l j w

The single affricate consonant has been most commonly described as alveolar [ts], though some sources describe it as postalveolar [tʃ]. According to the Nisenan Workbook by Alan Wallace, [tʃ] and [ts] appear in complementary distribution. For example, the word for 'ten' is transcribed as 'maacam' (/c/ being realized as [tʃ]) in Workbook #1 and 'maatsam' in Workbook #2. Similar allophony occurs between [s] and [ʃ].

/pʼ tʼ kʼ/ have been listed as ejectives (lenis ejectives according to "Central Hill Nisenan Texts with Grammatical Sketch" by Andrew Eatough) while other sources have labeled them simply as emphatic not specifying further as to how they contrast with the plain plosives. The Nisenan Workbooks depict these in transcription, though the sound guides have yet to distinguish them from the plain plosives.

One source noted an audible click with /b/ and /d/ among some older speakers of at least one dialect of one of the Maiduan languages. The sound guides in the Nisenan Workbooks hold /b/ and /d/ as voiced plosives as in English.

Some words have a double consonant (i.e. wyttee [one], dappe [coyote], konna [girl]) but it has not been made clear as to whether this is due to gemination as the double consonants in Japanese, or just simply the same consonant being on the end of one syllable and the start of the next.

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