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Washo language

wá:šiw ʔítlu
Native to United States
Region CaliforniaNevada border
Ethnicity Washoe people
Native speakers
20  (2008)[1]
Hokan (?)
  • Washo
Language codes
ISO 639-2 was
ISO 639-3 was
Glottolog wash1253[2]
Pre-contact distribution of the Washo language

Washo [3] (or Washoe; endonym wá:šiw ʔítlu)[4] is an endangered Native American language isolate spoken by the Washo on the CaliforniaNevada border in the drainages of the Truckee and Carson Rivers, especially around Lake Tahoe. While there are only 20 elderly native speakers of Washo,[1] since 1994 there has been a small immersion school that has produced a number of moderately fluent younger speakers. The immersion school has since closed its doors and the language program now operates through the Cultural Resource Department for the Washoe Tribe. The language is still very much endangered; however, there has been a renaissance in the language revitalization movement as many of the students who attended the original immersion school have become teachers.

Ethnographic Washo speakers belonged to the Great Basin culture area and they were the only non-Numic group of that area.[5] The language has borrowed from the neighboring Uto-Aztecan, Maiduan and Miwokan languages and is connected to both the Great Basin and California sprachbunds.


  • Regional variation 1
  • Genetic relations 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Vowels 3.1
    • Consonants 3.2
  • Grammar 4
    • Verbs 4.1
    • Nouns 4.2
  • History 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Regional variation

Washo shows very little geographic variation. Jacobsen (1986:108) wrote, "When there are two variants of a feature, generally one is found in a more northerly area and the other in a more southerly one, but the lines separating the two areas for the different features do not always coincide."

Genetic relations

Washo is conservatively considered a language isolate.[6] That is, it shares no demonstrated link with any other language, including its three direct neighboring languages, Northern Paiute (a Numic language of Uto-Aztecan), Maidu (Maiduan), and Sierra Miwok (Utian). It is often classified as a Hokan language, but this language family is not universally accepted among specialists, nor is Washo's connection to it.[7]

The language was first described in "A Grammar of the Washo Language" by William H. Jacobsen, Jr. in a University of California, Berkeley PhD dissertation and this remains the sole complete description of the language. There is no significant dialect variation. (Jacobsen's lifelong work with Washo is described at the University of Nevada Oral History Program.)[8]



There are six distinct vowel qualities found in the Washo language, each of which occurs long and short. The sound quality of a vowel is dependent upon their length and the consonant they precede, as well as the stress put on the vowel.[9]

Washo vowels
Letter Pronunciation Example
á or a
á: or a:
ʔámaʔ (grandmother [on father’s side])
é or e
é: or e:
mégel (Indian tea)
í or i
í: or i:
míši milí:giyi (I see you [directed at more than one person])
ó or o
ó: or o:
mókó (shoes)
ú or u
ú: or u:
gúʔu (grandmother [on mother’s side])
c'ɨkɨ (spider)
ay máyŋa (fawn)
ey béyu (to pay; younger brother [used in context])

Vowels marked with the acute accent ( ´ ) are pronounced with stress, such as in the Washo ćigábut (summer).

In Washo, vowels can have either long or short length qualities; the longer quality is noted by appending a /:/ to the vowel, as in the above example míši milí:giyi. Vowels with such a mark are usually pronounced twice its normal length. This can be seen in the difference between the words móko (shoes) mó:ko (knee). However, vowels pronounced this way may not always be followed by a colon.


Sequences not represented by a single letter in Washo almost always tend to occur in borrowed English words, such as the nd in k'indí (candy).[10]

Washo consonants
Letter Pronunciation Example
ʔ /ʔ/ kókšiʔ (Sego lily)
b /b/
c' /tsʼ/ c'aliʔ (Cottontail rabbit)
d /d/
g /ɡ/
h /h/
k /k/
k' // bik'us (baby basket)
l /l/
L //
m /m/
M //
n /n/
ŋ /ŋ/ ŋaŋawŋ (children)
Ŋ /ŋ̊/
p /p/
p' // p'isew (great grandparent, sibling of great grandparent)
s /s/
š /ʃ/ wašiw (the Washoe)
t /t/
t' //
w /w/
W //
y /j/
Y //
z /dz/


Washo has a complex tense system.

Washo uses partial or total reduplication of verbs or nouns to indicate repetitive aspect or plural number. Washo uses both prefixation and suffixation on nouns and verbs.


Verbal inflection is rich with a large number of tenses. Tense is usually carried by a suffix that attaches to the verb. The tense suffix may signal recent past, intermediate past, the long-ago-but-remembered past, the distant past, the intermediate future, or the distant future. For example, the suffix -leg indicates that the verb describes an event that took place in the recent past, usually earlier the previous day as seen in the Washo sentence, "dabóʔo lew búʔlegi” (the white man fed us’’).

Vowel Suffixes
Suffix Letter Meaning Used Example
-ayʔ intemediate past earlier than the current day, but not the distant past di hulúyay (I fell over)
-gul long ago, remembered past within the lifetime of the speaker gedí yeyemi ʔúšgulaygi (They used to call him that)
-lul distant past before the lifetime of the speaker ga móŋil halúliya (They planted it here long ago)
-a recent past action just finished lép'amaʔ (I got there)
-i present actions currently in progress míši milí:giyi (I see you)
-aša near future soon dimú sek hayášaʔi (I will choke him)
-tiʔ intermediate future within the day ʔilc’ác’imiʔ etiʔi (It’s getting green. It will be green)
-gab distant future the following day or later milí:gi gabigi (I’ll see you. See you later)


Possession in Washo is shown by prefixes added to the object. There are two sets of prefixes added; the first set being used if the object begins with a vowel and the second set being used if the object begins with a consonant.

Noun Prefixes
Vowel-initial Prefix Usage Example
l- first-person possessive láŋal (my/our house)
m- second-person possessive máŋal (your house)
t'- third-person possessive t'áŋal (his/her/its/their house)
d- unidentified possessive dáŋal (somebody’s house)
Consonant-initial Prefix Usage Example
di- first-person possessive diháŋa (my/our mouth)
ʔum- second-person possessive ʔumháŋa (your mouth)
da- third-person possessive

(when first vowel of the object is a or o)

daháŋa (his/her/its/their mouth)

dak’ómol (his/her/its/their ball)

de- third person possessive

(when first vowel of the object is e, i, ɨ, or u')

deMélɨw (his/her/its/their belt)

dedí:geš (his/her/its/their net)

debɨk’ɨ (his/her/its/their grandmother’s sister)

degúšuʔ (his/her/its/their pet)

unidentified possessive háŋa (somebody’s mouth)


In 2012, Lakeview Commons Park in South Lake Tahoe was renamed in the Washo language. "The Washoe Tribe has presented the name Tahnu Leweh (pronounced approx. [tanu lewe]) which, in native language, means "all the people's place." It is a name the Tribe would like to gift to El Dorado County and South Lake Tahoe as a symbol of peace, prosperity and goodness."[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b Victor Golla (2011) California Indian Languages
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Washo". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ "The Washo Project: wá:šiw ʔítlu". The Washo Project. University of Chicago. Retrieved 9 September 2011. 
  5. ^ d'Azevedo 1986
  6. ^ Lyle Campbell. American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. (1997, Oxford, pg. 125).
    Marianne Mithun. The Languages of Native North America (1999, Cambridge, pg. 557)
  7. ^ WA SHE SHU: "The Washoe People", Past and Present. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California
  8. ^ "William Jacobson Jr.". University of Nevada Oral History Program. Retrieved 2013-01-26. 
  9. ^ The Washo Project: Vowels
  10. ^ The Washo Project: Consonants
  11. ^ Jeff Munson (2012-04-16). "Washoe offers sacred name 'Tahnu Leweh' for Lakeview Commons in South Lake Tahoe". Carson City Nevada News - Carson Now. Retrieved 2012-08-05. 


  • Bright, William O. “North American Indian Languages.” Encyclopædia Britannica 2007: 762-767.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • d'Azevedo, Warren L. (1986). "Washoe" in Great Basin, Warren L. d'Azevedo, ed. pp. 466–498. Volume 11 in Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant, general editor. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-004578-9/0160045754.
  • Goddard, Ives (Ed.). (1996). Languages. Handbook of North American Indians (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. Language in the Americas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).
  • Jacobsen, William. A Grammar of the Washo Language. Diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1964. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1964. Print.
  • Jacobsen, William H. (1986). "Washoe Language" in Great Basin, Warren L. d'Azevedo, ed. pp. 107–112. Volume 11 in Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant, general editor. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-004578-9/0160045754.
  • Jacobsen, William H. 1996. Beginning Washo. Occasional Papers 5: Nevada State Museum.
  • Kaufman, Terrence. 1988. "A Research Program for Reconstructing Proto-Hokan: First Gropings." In Scott DeLancey, ed. Papers from the 1988 Hokan–Penutian Languages Workshop, pp. 50–168. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon. (University of Oregon Papers in Linguistics. Publications of the Center for Amerindian Linguistics and Ethnography 1.)
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • The Washo Project. The University of Chicago, 2008. Web. 4 May 2011
  • Yu, Alan C. L. “Quantity, stress and reduplication in Washo.” Phonology 22.03 (2006): 437.

Further reading

  • Dangberg, Grace. 1927. Washo texts. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 22:391-443.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1907. The Washo language of east central California and Nevada. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 4:251-317.

External links

  • University of Chicago Washo Revitalization Project
  • Speaking the Language of the Land
  • Reno Linguist Foremost Expert on Washoe Language
  • Washo basic lexicon at the Global Lexicostatistical Database
  • Washo language overview at the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages
  • OLAC resources in and about the Washo language
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