Kutenai language

Native to Canada, United States
Region British Columbia, Montana, Idaho
Ethnicity 1,510 Ktunaxa (2000 census – 2014)[1]
Native speakers
31 (2002–2014)[1]
Latin script
Language codes
ISO 639-2 kut
ISO 639-3 kut
Glottolog kute1249[2]

Kutenai language

The Kutenai language (English pronunciation: /ˈktn, -ni/), also Kootenai, Kootenay and Ktunaxa, is named after and is spoken by some of the Kutenai people Native American/First Nations, indigenous to the area of North America that is now Montana and Idaho, United States, and British Columbia, Canada.[3] It is a language isolate, unrelated to the Salishan family of languages spoken by neighboring tribes on the coast and in the interior Plateau.


Kutenai is a language isolate. There have been attempts to place Kutenai in either a Macro-Algonquian or Macro-Salishan language family, most recently with Salish,[4] but they have not been generally accepted as proven.[5][6]


Like other languages in the area, Kutenai has a rich inventory of consonants and a small inventory of vowels. But, there are other allophones of the three basic phonemic vowels. The lack of a phonemic distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants is much like other languages of the area.[4] Due to Kutenai's location on the periphery of this linguistic area, the loss of a rich lateral inventory is consistent with other nearby languages, which now have only one or two lateral consonants. One such language group contains the Sahaptian languages, which have had a similar loss of laterals. Nez Perce has /ts/, believed to be the lateral affricate in the proto-language. Nez Perce, like Kutenai, lies in the eastern periphery of the Northwest Linguistic area.[4]

Another typological analysis investigates the lexical category of preverbs in Kutenai. This lexical category distinguishes neighboring Algonquian languages, found to the east of the Kootenay Rocky Mountains and near the Kutenai linguistic area.[7] Another typological relationship Kutenai could have is the presence of its obviation system.[8][9]

Current status

As of 2012, the Ktunaxa people in Canada are working on a language revitalization effort.[3] Tribal councils from the separate communities of the Ktunaxa nation have contributed a selection of audio recordings of Kutenai words and phrases to the FirstVoices website, an online catalogue of the indigenous languages of North America.[10] The Ktunaxa nation aims to target younger generations with the FirstVoices materials to teach fluency in the Kutenai language.[11]

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation have founded the Salish Kootenai College, a tribal college on the Flathead reservation in Pablo, Montana. The college offers a certificate program in Native American studies, which requires that students have knowledge of the history and culture of the Salish and Ktunaxa people. The curriculum also offers classes in basic Kutenai language pronunciation and grammar.[12] Some sources suggest that the knowledge and preservation of the native communities culture will contribute to the preservation of the communities language, but there is no evidence yet from the Salish Kootenai College to support this claim.[13]

History of description

The first grammar of Kutenai was compiled by Roman Catholic missionary Philippo Canestrelli, and was published in 1894 in Latin.[14](Online text here)

Paul L. Garvin did various descriptive work describing the phonemics, morphology, and syllabification in Ktunaxa. He also has two sources of transcriptions of speakers talking.[15][16]

In 1991 Lawrence Richard Morgan wrote a description of the Kutenai Language as his PhD dissertation through the University of California, Berkeley. This description is focused on how the language works and specifically defining the working parts of the language. Morgan's work is an exhaustive list of each grammatical particle, morpheme, and affix, with their respective environments and their varying forms.[4]


Consonant phonemes

Kutenai has no phonemic distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants.[4]

Labial Dental Lateral Palatal Velar Uvular Laryngeal Labiovelar
Stops p [p] t [t̪] k [k] q [q] ʔ [ʔ]
Affricate ȼ [ts]
Ejectives [pʼ] [tʼ] [kʼ] [qʼ]
Ejective affricate ȼʼ [tsʼ]
Fricatives s [s] [ɬ] x [χ] h [h]
Nasals m [m] n [n]
Syllabic nasals [m̩] [n̩]
Approximants y [j] w [w]

Vowel phonemes

Vowel length in Ktunaxa is also contrastive, so two words can be differentiated just by lengthening or shortening a vowel. Some such minimal pairs are the verbal stem 'to dig something up' [ʔakaːkʼuː] and the noun '(steel animal) trap' [ʔaːkaːkʼuː][4] and the verbal stem for 'to fall out in this direction/to fall out from somewhere' [ʔakmuːxuː] and 'the place where (someone is) sitting, one's place at a table' [ʔaːkmuːxuː].[4] Both pairs differ only in the length of the first vowel, [a] vs [a:].

Front Back
High i [i] u [u]
Low a [a]


In general terms, Kutenai is an agglutinative language, with many grammatical functions being served by both prefixes and suffixes, primarily on the verb (but some affixes that select nouns, as well).[17] As mentioned above, a distinctive feature of Kutenai is its use of an obviation system as a way to track which entities and concepts are particularly central/salient to a story being told and a grammatical way of clarifying the roles of each entity in sentences with two third-person arguments. "Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adverbs all take obviative markers",[17] making it particularly different from some more well-known obviation systems (like the Algonquian one, which allows for obviation only on third-person animate nouns). Kutenai also makes use of an inverse system.[18][19] The language has an overt copula, ʔin `to be'.


Word order

Word order in Kutenai can be flexible in response to discourse and pragmatic concerns.[4] As is the case with many head-marking languages, it is rare to have both an overt subject and an overt object in a sentence since the morphology on the verb makes it clear who is acting on whom. Morgan states that if it is appropriate to express both arguments of a verb in a "neutral" context, VOS word order is preferred; however, it also alternates with VSO order.[4] The pre-verbal position can be occupied by adverbs, as seen in these three examples:

1) qa·kiⱡ hiȼ'kiⱡ -ni hukiʔ -s tiⱡna
adverb search -IND louse/lice -OBV old.woman
The old lady started looking for lice.
2) pikʔak -s naqaʔi -ni titkat' qakⱡik xaxa -s
long.ago OBV exist -IND man called crow -OBV
Long ago there was a man named `Xaxa' (or Crow).
3) is -iⱡ ȼⱡakiⱡ -ni xaxa naʔuti -s
very PREVERB like -IND crow girl -OBV
Crow loves Naʔuti.

One aspect of Kutenai that complicates these word order facts somewhat is the fact that the verb is marked for first- or second-person subjects by "affixal or clitic pronouns" that precede the stem, hu/hun for 'I' and hin for 'you'.[4] It is common in the orthography to write the pronouns as separate words, making it seem as if the word order were Subject Pronoun + Verb (+ Object).


In many languages, conditions for inverse include situations in which the first or second person is in the "object" role, and the third person is the "subject" as in 'She saw you/me.' In Kutenai, however, the situations use specific "first-/second-person object" morphology, separate from the inverse.[18] As a consequence, Kutenai's inverse system is most clearly observable in interactions between third persons. The following two examples (from Dryer 1991) show the direct and inverse, respectively:

4) wu·kat -i paⱡkiy -s titqat'
see -IND woman OBV man
The man saw the woman.
5) wu·kat -aps -i titqat' -s paⱡkiy
see -INV -IND man -OBV woman
The (obviative) man saw the (proximate) woman.

Clause typing

Kutenai subordinate/dependent clauses are marked with a k and a lack of indicative morphology on the verb, as are questions, nominalizations, and relative clauses.[4] The k can cliticize to the material that follows it, as can be seen in this example.

6) wu·kat -i titqat' -s k- was- aqna -p -s
see -IND man OBV SUB- quick do -IN S3
He saw a man doing something in a hurry. (He saw him, a man that he does something quickly.)

See also


  1. 1 2 Kutenai at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Kutenai". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. 1 2 "Canada: The Ktunaxa - Living the Language". Living the Language. Al Jazeera English. 2012-05-02. Retrieved 2012-07-08.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Morgan, Lawrence (1991). "A Description of the Kutenai Language". eScholarship. Retrieved 2015-07-29.
  5. Marianne Mithun. The Languages of Native North America (1999, Cambridge).
  6. Lyle Campbell. American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (1997, Oxford).
  7. Dryer, Matthew S. 2002. "A comparison of Preverbs in Kutenai and Algonquian." In D. Pentland (Ed.), Proceedings of the Thirtieth Algonquian Conference (pp. 63-94). Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
  8. Dryer, Matthew S. 2007. "Kutenai, Algonquian, and the Pacific Northwest from an areal perspective." In H. Wolfart (Ed.), Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Algonquian Conference (pp. 155-206). Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
  9. Dryer, Matthew S. 1992. "A comparison of the obviation systems of Kutenai and Algonquian." Papers of the 23rd Algonquian Conference. Ottawa: Carleton.
  10. "FirstVoices: Ktunaxa Community Portal". Retrieved 2012-07-08.
  11. Pagliaro, J. 2010. "Technology gives dying languages voice." Geolinguistics 37: 114-116.
  12. "Salish Kootenai College". Retrieved 2016-11-11.
  13. Richardson, Louise B. 1997. "Tribal College Curricula as Evidence for the Contemporary Use of Indigenous Languages in North America." Geolinguistics 23: 61-77.
  14. Canestrelli, Philippo (1894). Grammar of the Kutenai Language. Retrieved 2010-11-15.
  15. Garvin, Paul L. 1948. "Kutenai III: Morpheme Distributions (Prefix, Theme, Suffix)."
  16. Garvin 1953
  17. 1 2 Mast, Susan J. 1988. "Aspects of Kutenai Morphology." Master's Thesis, University of Pittsburgh.
  18. 1 2 Dryer, Matthew S. 1991. "Subject and Inverse in Kutenai." Occasional papers on linguistics No. 16, Proceedings from the American Indian Languages Conference edited by James E. Redden. (Conference held at the University of California at Santa Cruz.)
  19. Dryer, Matthew S. 1994. "The discourse function of the Kutenai inverse." Voice and inversion 28 (1994): 65.


External links

Kutenai language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator

Ktunaxa language learning resources

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