Southern Sierra Miwok language

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Southern Sierra Miwok
RegionCalifornia, western slopes of Sierra Nevada
EthnicityValley and Sierra Miwok
Native speakers
7  (1994)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3skd
Pre-contact Utian language distribution
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
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Southern Sierra Miwok
RegionCalifornia, western slopes of Sierra Nevada
EthnicityValley and Sierra Miwok
Native speakers
7  (1994)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3skd
Pre-contact Utian language distribution
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Southern Sierra Miwok is an Utian language spoken by the Native American people called the Southern Sierra Miwok of Northern California. Southern Sierra Miwok is a member of the Miwok language family along with Lake Miwok, Coast Miwok (extinct), Saclan (extinct), Plains Miwok (extinct), Northern Sierra Miwok and Central Sierra Miwok. The Miwok languages are a part of the larger Penutian language stock. The original territory of the Southern Sierra Miwok people is similar to modern day Mariposa County, California. The Southern Sierra Miwok language is nearly extinct with only a few speakers existing today.[3] However, as of 2012, an active revitalization program is underway.[4]

The name Miwok comes from the Sierra Miwok word miwwik meaning "people" or "Indians". It was originally used in 1877 for the Plains and Sierra Miwok people, but was later reassigned to its current usage in 1908 to describe the set of Utian languages distinct from the western Coastanoan (Ohlone) languages.[3]



Below are the 15 consonants of the Southern Sierra Miwok written in IPA (the common orthography is noted within ):

Nasalm n ŋ 
Plosiveptt  kʔ
Affricate  c,tš   
Fricative  sʃ š h
Lateral  l   
Approximant  j w 

There is considerable variation within the phonemes listed in the chart above. For example, the following allophones are in free variation with each other intervocalically and proceeding voiced consonants: /p/ ([p] ~ [b] ~ [β]), /t/ ([t̪] ~ [d̪] ~ [ɾ]), /tʃ/ ([tʃ] ~ [dʒ]), /k/ ([k] ~ [ɡ] ~ [ɣ]). Also, [s] is in free variation with [z] only in intervocalic environments. /k/ is slightly postvelar when it occurs before /a/ or /o/, and in these situations it is often written . When positioned intervocalically or after voiced consonants there is free variation between the velar and slightly postvelar variants of the following sounds: ([k̺] ~ [ɣ] ~ [g]). Lastly, the following phonemes only occur in English loan words: /b, d, ɡ, f, dʒ, r/.[5]


Below are the long and short variants of the 6 vowels of the Southern Sierra Miwok language written in IPA (the common orthography is noted within ):

  Short  Long 
 Front  Central  Back  Front  Central  Back 
Highɪ iɨ yuɨː
Midɛ e   ɔː
Low aɒ o  ɑː

/i, u, e, o/ are highest when long, as shown in the chart above. However, /o/ is also high before /w/ and /j/. /i/ is at its lowest before /k/ and /ʔ/ while /u/ is lowest only before /ʔ/. /e/ is slightly lower before /j/, but, along with /o/ and /ɨ/, is lowest before /ʔ/, /k/ and /h/, with /ɨ/ pronounced at approximately [ə]. Also, /ɨ/ is slightly backed before /w/. /a/ acts the most differently compared to the other vowels as it is backed to [ɑ] when long and is slightly fronted before /w/ and /j/ and both fronted and raised before /ʔ/ and /k/.[5]


Since vowel and consonant length is contrastive, length (represented as /ː/ is considered to be a separate (archi-)phoneme.)

Syllable Structure[edit]

There are two types of syllables in Southern Sierra Miwok: light, CV, and heavy, CV: or CVC. In each word, one of the first two syllables is always heavy, so therefore every Southern Sierra Miwok word contains at least one heavy syllable. Because of this preference towards heavy syllables, consonant clusters are usually separated to form codas of preceding syllables.


Southern Sierra Miwok uses the following three stress levels:


Every Southern Sierra Miwok word consists of a root and (usually) one to two suffixes. Below are definitions of common terms used to describe the basic structure of a Southern Sierra Miwok word:


Below is a list of frequently occurring morphophonemic rules which Broadbent (1964) defines as "a rule of phonologically conditioned variation which applies to all morphemes, or allomorphs, of suitable morphophonemic shape.".[5]

Verbal Themes[edit]

Verbal Themes are morpheme sequences followed immediately by pronominal (final) suffixes.

Below is a chart of allomorphs of common Southern Sierra Miwok irregular verbal bases.[5]

Present ImperfectPresent PerfectImperativeEnglish
nocuH-nocc- ~ noccu:-nocc-eH-"to cry"
ʔuhuH-ʔuhhu:-ʔuhhuH-Ø-"to drink"
ʔywwy-ʔywwy:-ʔywwyH-Ø-"to eat"
ʔuccu-ʔuccu:-ʔuccuH-Ø-"to stay"
wy:-wy:-wyH-Ø-"to go"
kotto-kotto:-kottoH-Ø-"to go on ahead"
(none)talli:-talliH-Ø-"to arise"
(none)hyj:- ~ hyjjy:-hyj:-eH-"to see"
(none)ʔell-ʔell-eH-"to leave"

Verbal Suffixes[edit]

Verbal suffixes occur before the verbal theme and, along with the root, form the base of the word. Southern Sierra Miwok has many verbal suffixes, most of which are fully productive and can be applied to any stem of an appropriate shape, class and meaning. Verbal suffixes have derivational meanings. Furthermore, each verbal suffix has rules and requirements as to the shape of the stem that it can follow e.g. the suffix /-cc-/ "static" must follow a stem that is shaped CV- or CVCV- or CVCVCV-. In the instance that a stem does not end in the appropriate form, either length /:/ or a glottal stop /ʔ/ will be added where a consonant is needed or /Y/ when a vowel is needed.

Also, many suffixes display allomorphy depending on the following modal suffix. In these cases, the suffix spoken before the present imperfect zero suffix /-Ø-/ is treated as the basic form. Lastly, two or more verbal suffixes often appear in the same word. Usually, the morphemes are ordered by immediate constituency, however, they can also be ordered depending on the stem-shape requirements of the last two suffixes of the base. In addition, some suffix combinations have separate stem requirements unlike if the suffixes were to appear alone. Below is an example of a typical verbal suffix:

Nominal Themes[edit]

Nominal themes refer to theme suffixes that are followed directly by case markings or by Series 1 or 2 pronominal suffixes (see Syntax) before the case marker. These themes can be hard for native English speakers to learn as many of them do not translate to English nouns but can be translated as past or future tense English verbs or verbal phrases. However, most forms which translate to English nouns, adverbs and adjectives are included as nominal themes. The three categories of nominal themes are:

Independent Personal Pronouns[edit]

Southern Sierra Miwok does not require the use of independent personal pronouns. Instead, they are used in the nominative and accusative cases for emphasis and clarification, they are as follows:


Demonstrative Roots[edit]

The following three demonstrative roots are class 3 nominal themes and are among the shortest roots in the language. They can be followed by a number of different suffixes and usually change considerably in meaning according to the attached suffix, they are:

Nominal Suffixes[edit]

Nominal suffixes are similar to verbal suffixes in that each suffix requires a particular stem shape to precede it and if there is not a necessary vowel or consonant before the suffix, /Y/ or /ʔ/ is added. Furthermore, some nominal suffixes are productive while others are not. Nominal suffixes also tend to have fewer allomorphs than verbal suffixes. Lastly, nominal themes may occur either word-medially or in the prefinal position before case or Series 1 or 2 pronominal suffixes. However, many follow class 3 nominal themes. Below is an example of a typical nominal suffix:


These affixes follow final suffixes such as pronominal suffixes and case, and are not obligatory. Furthermore, more than one postfix may occur in a Southern Sierra Miwok word. In these instances, the postfixes occur in a definite sequence. In addition, all postfixes are invariable in form and therefore do not contain more than one allomorph. Below is an example of a typical postfix:


Southern Sierra Miwok also has a class of monomorphemic words called particles. These are the only words that can stand alone as roots without suffixes and usually follow the word that they modify. hane: "maybe", hy:ʔy: "yes" and jej "hey!" are a few examples of typical particles.


Personal Pronominal Suffixes[edit]

Personal pronominal suffixes are separated into four series in the Southern Sierra Miwok language. As discussed in the morphology section, Series 1 and 2 pronominal suffixes follow nominal themes and precede case markings, whereas Series 3 and 4 pronominal suffixes follow verbal themes. Series 3 and 4 are also more complex as they distinguish first person inclusive (speaker + addressee) and exclusive (speaker only). Furthermore, pronominal suffixes can refer to both the subject and the object of the sentence; these are called double pronominal suffixes. However, the subject cannot be included in the object and vice versa i.e. "I am doing it for you" is an acceptable phrase to use a double pronominal suffix, but, "I am doing it for us" is not acceptable because "I" is included in "us/we". The following table expresses the personal pronominal suffixes of Southern Sierra Miwok for singular subjects:

SubjectObjectSeries 1Series 2Series 3Series 4
1Sg -nti--te--ma:-m
2Sg -nY:-ni--sY:
3Sg -nY:-Ø--:-nih

The following table expresses personal pronominal suffixes for plural subjects in Southern Sierra Miwok:

SubjectObjectSeries 1Series 2Series 3Series 4
1Pl -tti--me-  
1Pl incl.   -ticci:-ticci:
1Pl excl.   -mahhi:-mahhi:
2Pl -mYko:-tokni--toksu:-ci:i:
3Pl -ko:-koH--ppu:-nihko:

Below is a table that lists the various pronominal suffix morphemes for Southern Sierra Miwok organized by series number:

 1 Singular2 Singular3 Singular1 Plural2 Plural3 Plural
Series 1a-nti-  -tti-  
Series 1b-kan-nY:-hY:-mahhi:  
Series 2a-te--ni--me-  
Series 2b-te:--ni:- -me:-  
Series 2c-teʔ-niʔ -meʔ  
Series 3a-ma:-sY:-:-tiH- -ppu:
Series 3b-Ø-     
Series 4a-m-nih- -cci: 
Series 4b     
Series 4c -:    
Series 4d -h-    

Case Marking[edit]

Southern Sierra Miwok is unique among Native American languages as it has nine case suffixes. For the purposes of discussion, Broadbent (1964) has separated the case suffixes into two categories, autonomous, which appear in the absolute final position of a word, and subordinate, which must be followed by an autonomous case suffix. Of these, four are considered autonomous, four are considered subordinate and one, the possessive (or genitive) case, can function as either autonomous or subordinate. Furthermore, the names given to each case suffix do not necessarily reflect the full range of their applications from the point of view of their Latin grammar counterparts. For example, the accusative case is mostly but not exclusively used for direct objects of a particular sentence.




Word Order[edit]

Due to the rich case system in Southern Sierra Miwok, the word order is of little to no importance to the syntax or semantics. For example, naŋŋaʔ halki: hika:hyj; naŋŋaʔ hika:hyj halki:; hika:hyj naŋŋaʔ halki:; and halki: naŋŋaʔ hika:hyj in which, naŋŋaʔ means "the man, nominative case", halki: means "he is hunting" and hika:hyj means "deer, accusative case" so each sentence given above regardless of the order means: "the man is hunting the deer".

Sentence Types[edit]

Southern Sierra Miwok contains three syntactic substitution classes, nominal expressions, verbal expressions and particles. Some members of each class can stand alone as a complete utterance. To form more complex sentences, members of the different classes are combined. Below are examples of possible complete utterances:

Documentary history[edit]

Field recordings of Southern Sierra Miwok were made in the 1950s by linguist Sylvia M. Broadbent, and several speakers, especially Chris Brown, Castro Johnson, and Alice Wilson.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Southern Sierra Miwok at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Southern Sierra Miwok". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ a b Golla, Victor. California Indian Languages. Berkeley: University of California, 2011. Print.
  4. ^ "The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians - Language Preservation". Retrieved 2012-07-23. 
  5. ^ a b c d Broadbent, Sylvia (1964). "The Southern Sierra Miwok Language". University of California publications in linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  6. ^ "BLC Audio Archive of Linguistic Fieldwork: Southern Sierra Miwok". Retrieved 17 May 2010. 

External links[edit]