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definition - Salishan_languages

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Salishan languages

Pacific Northwest and Interior Plateau/Columbia Plateau in Canada and the United States
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: sal
Salishan langs.png
Pre-contact distribution of Salishan languages (in red).

The Salishan (also Salish) languages are a group of languages of the Pacific Northwest (the Canadian province of British Columbia and the American states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana).[1] They are characterised by agglutinativity and astonishing consonant clusters — for instance the Nuxálk word xłp̓x̣ʷłtłpłłskʷc̓ (IPA: [xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ]) meaning ‘he had had [in his possession] a bunchberry plant’ has thirteen obstruent consonants in a row with no vowels. The Salishan languages are a geographically continuous block, with the exception of Bella Coola, on the north British Columbian coast, and Tillamook, to the south on the coast of Oregon.

The terms Salish and Salishan are used interchangeably by Salishan linguists and anthropologists. The name Salish is the endonym of the Flathead Nation. Linguists later applied the name to related languages. Many languages do not have self-designations and instead have specific names for local dialects, as the local group was more important culturally than larger tribal relations.

All Salishan languages are extinct or endangered—some extremely so, with only three or four speakers left. Few Salish languages currently have more than one to two thousand speakers. Practically all Salishan languages have only speakers who are over sixty years of age, and many have only speakers over eighty. Salish is most commonly written using the Americanist phonetic notation to account for the various vowels and consonants that do not exist in most modern alphabets.


  Family division

The Salishan language family consists of twenty-three languages. Below is a list of Salishan languages, dialects, and sub-dialects. The genetic unity between the Salish languages is evident. Neighboring groups have communicated often, to the point that it’s difficult to untangle the influence each dialect and language has upon others. This list is a linguistic classification that may not correspond to political divisions. Many Salishan groups consider their variety of speech to be a separate language rather than a dialect.

  Flathead Indians (1903)

  Bella Coola

1. Nuxálk (AKA Bella Coola, Salmon River)

  Coast Salish

A. Central Coast Salish (AKA Central Salish)
2. Comox
3. Halkomelem
Island (AKA Hulʼq̱ʼumiʼnumʼ, həl̕q̓əmín̓əm̓)
Downriver (AKA Hunqʼumʔiʔnumʔ)
Upriver (AKA Upper Sto:lo, Halqʼəméyləm)
4. Lushootseed (AKA Puget Salish, Skagit-Nisqually, Dxʷləšúcid)
5. Nooksack (AKA Nooksack ɬə́čələsəm, ɬə́čælosəm) (†)
6. Pentlatch (AKA Pənƛ̕áč) (†)
7. Sháshíshálh (AKA Sechelt, Seshelt, Shashishalhem, šášíšáɬəm)
8. Squamish (AKA Sḵwx̱wú7mesh snichim, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Sqwxwu7mish, sqʷx̣ʷúʔməš)
i. Straits Salish group (AKA Straits)
9. Klallam (AKA Clallam, Nəxʷsƛ̕áy̓emúcən)
  • Becher Bay
  • Eastern
  • Western
10. Northern Straits (AKA Straits)
  • Lummi (AKA Xwlemiʼchosen, xʷləmiʔčósən) (†)
  • Saanich (AKA SENĆOŦEN, sənčáθən, sénəčqən)
  • Samish (AKA Siʔneməš)
  • Semiahmoo (AKA Tah-tu-lo) (†)
  • Sooke (AKA Tʼsou-ke, c̓awk) (†)
  • Songhees (AKA Lək̓ʷəŋín̓əŋ) (†)
11. Twana (AKA Skokomish, Sqʷuqʷúʔbəšq, Tuwáduqutšad) (†)
B. Tsamosan (AKA Olympic)
i. Inland
12. Cowlitz (AKA Lower Cowlitz, Sƛ̕púlmš) (†)
13. Upper Chehalis (AKA Q̉ʷay̓áyiɬq̉) (†)
ii. Maritime
14. Lower Chehalis (AKA ɬəw̓ál̕məš) (†)
15. Quinault (AKA Kʷínayɬ)
C. Tillamook
16. Tillamook (AKA Hutyéyu) (†)

  Interior Salish

A. Northern
17. Shuswap (AKA Secwepemctsín, səxwəpməxcín)
  • Kinbasket
  • Shuswap Lake
  • Canim Lake
  • Chu Chua
  • Deadman's Creek–Kamloops
  • Fraser River
  • Pavilion-Bonaparte
18. Lillooet (AKA Lilloet, St'át'imcets)
  • Lillooet-Fountain
  • Mount Currie–Douglas
19. Thompson River Salish (AKA Nlakaʼpamux, Ntlakapmuk, nɬeʔkepmxcín, Thompson River, Thompson Salish, Thompson, known in frontier times as the Hakamaugh, Klackarpun, Couteau or Knife Indians)
  • Lytton
  • Nicola Valley
  • Spuzzum–Boston Bar
  • Thompson Canyon
B. Southern
20. Coeur d’Alene (AKA Snchitsuʼumshtsn, snčícuʔumšcn)
21. Columbia-Moses (AKA Columbia, Nxaʔamxcín)
  • Chelan
  • Entiat
  • Columbian
  • Wenatchee (AKA Pesquous)
22. Colville-Okanagan (AKA Okanagan, Nsilxcín, Nsíylxcən, ta nukunaqínxcən)
23. Montana Salish (Kalispel–Pend d'Oreille language, Spokane–Kalispel–Bitterroot Salish–Upper Pend d'Oreille)
  • Salish (AKA Séliš, Bitterroot Salish, Flathead)
  • Kalispel (AKA Qalispé)

Pentlatch, Nooksack, Twana, Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis, Cowlitz, and Tillamook are now extinct. Additionally, the Lummi, Semiahmoo, Songhees, and Sooke dialects of Northern Straits are also extinct.

  Genetic relations

No relationship to any other language is well established. The most plausible connection is with the language isolate Kutenai (Kootenai), but this is not solidly established.

Edward Sapir suggested that the Salishan languages might be related to the Wakashan and Chimakuan languages in a hypothetical Mosan family. This proposal persists primarily through Sapir’s stature: with little evidence for such a family, no progress has been made in reconstructing it.[3]

The Salishan languages, principally Chehalis, contributed greatly to the vocabulary of the Chinook Jargon.

  Family features


Salishan languages are known for their polysynthetic nature. A verb stem will often have at least one affix, which is typically a suffix. These suffixes perform a variety of functions, such as transitive, causative, reciprocal, reflexive, and applicative. Applicative affixes seem to be present on the verb when the direct object is central to the event being discussed, but isn’t the theme of the sentence. The direct object may be a recipient, for example.

It may also refer to a related noun phrase, like the goal a verb intends to achieve, or the instrument used in carrying out the action of the verb. In the sentence ‘The man used the axe to chop the log with,’ the axe is the instrument and is indicated in Salish through an applicative affix on the verb. Applicative affixes increase the number of affixes a verb can take on, that is, its syntactic valence. They are also known as “transitivizers” because they can change a verb from intransitive to transitive. For example, in the sentence ‘I got scared,’ ‘scared’ is intransitive. However, with the addition of an applicative affix, which is syntactically transitive, the verb in Salish becomes transitive and the sentence can come to mean ‘I got scared of you.’

Although there is a wide array of Salish languages, they all share some basic traits. All are verb initial languages, with VSO (verb-subject-object) being the most common word order. Some Salishan languages allow for VOS and SVO as well. There is no case marking, but central noun phrases will often be preceded by determiners while non-central NPs will take prepositions. Some Salishan languages are ergative, and many take unique object agreement forms in passive statements. Subject and object pronouns usually take the form of affixes that attach to the verb. All Salish languages are head-marking. Possession is marked on the possessed noun phrase as either a prefix or a suffix, while person is marked on predicates. In Central Salish languages like Tillamook and Shuswap, only one plain NP is permitted aside from the subject.

There are three general patterns of negation among the Salishan languages. The most common pattern involves a negative predicate in the form of an impersonal and intransitive stative verb, which occurs in sentence initial position. The second pattern involves a sentence initial negative particle that is often attached to the sentence’s subject, and the last pattern simply involves a sentence initial negative particle without any change in inflectional morphology or a determiner/complementizer. In addition, there is a fourth restricted pattern that has been noted only in Squamish.

  Historical linguistics

There are twenty-three languages in the Salishan language family. They occupy the Pacific Northwest, with all but two of them being concentrated together in a single large area. It’s clear that these languages are related, but it’s difficult to track the development of each because their histories are so interwoven. The different speech communities have interacted a great deal, making it nearly impossible to decipher the influences of varying dialects and languages on one another. However, there are several trends and patterns that can be historically traced to generalize the development of the Salishan languages over the years.

The variation between the Salishan languages seems to depend on two main factors: the distance between speech communities and the geographic barriers between them. The diversity between the languages corresponds directly to the distance between them. Closer proximity often entails more contact between speakers, and more linguistics similarities are the result. Geographic barriers like mountains impede contact, so two communities that are relatively close together may still vary considerably in their language use if there is a mountain dividing them.

The rate of change between neighboring Salishan languages often depends on their environments. If for some reason two communities diverge, their adaptation to a new environment can separate them linguistically from each other. The need to create names for tools, animals, and plants creates an array of new vocabulary that divides speech communities. However, these new names may come from borrowing from neighboring languages, in which case two languages or dialects can grow more alike rather than apart. Interactions with outside influences through trade and intermarriage often result in language change as well.

Some cultural elements are more resilient to language change, namely, religion and folklore. Salishan language communities that have demonstrated change in technology and environmental vocabulary have often remained more consistent with their religious terminology. Religion and heavily ingrained cultural traditions are often regarded as sacred, and so are less likely to undergo any sort of change. Indeed, cognate lists between various Salishan languages show more similarities in religious terminology than they do in technology and environment vocabulary. Other categories with noticeable similarities include words for body parts, colors, and numbers. There would be little need to change such vocabulary, so it’s more likely to remain the same despite other changes between languages. The Coast Salishan languages are less similar to each other than are the Interior Salishan languages, probably because the Coast communities have more access to outside influences.

Another example of language change in the Salishan language family is word taboo, which is a cultural expression of the belief in the power of words. Among the Coast languages, a person’s name becomes a taboo word immediately following their death. This taboo is lifted when the name of the deceased is given to a new member of his/her lineage. In the meantime, the deceased person’s name and words that are phonetically similar to the name are considered taboo and can only be expressed via descriptive phrases. In some cases these taboo words are permanently replaced by their chosen descriptive phrases, resulting in language change.


At least one Salish language, Lillooet Salish, differs from Indo-European languages in terms of pragmatics. ‘Pragmatics’ loosely deals with the role that context plays in meaning. Lillooet Salish doesn’t allow presuppositions about a hearer’s beliefs or knowledge during a conversation.[citation needed] To demonstrate, it’s useful to compare Lillooet Salish determiners with English determiners. English determiners take the form of the articles ‘a,’ ‘an’ and ‘the.’ The indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ refer to an object that is unfamiliar or that has not been previously referenced in conversation.

The definite article ‘the’ refers to a familiar object about which both the speaker and the listener share a common understanding. Lillooet Salish and several other Salish languages use the same determiner to refer to both familiar and unfamiliar objects in conversation. For example, when discussing a woman, Lillooet Salish speakers used [ɬəsɬánay] (with [ɬə] serving as the determiner and [sɬánay] meaning ‘woman’) to refer to the woman both when initially introducing her and again when referencing her later on in the conversation. Thus, no distinction is made between a unique object and a familiar one.

This absence of varying determiners is a manifestation of the lack of presuppositions about a listener in Salish. Using a definite article would presuppose a mental state of the listener: familiarity with the object in question. Similarly, a Salishan language equivalent of the English sentence “It was John who called” would not require the assumption that the listener knows that someone called. In English, such a sentence implies that someone called and serves to clarify who the caller was. In Salish, the sentence would be void of any implication regarding the listener’s knowledge.[citation needed] Rather, only the speaker’s knowledge about previous events is expressed.

The absence of presuppositions extends even to elements that seem to inherently trigger some kind of implication, such as ‘again,’ ‘more,’ ‘stop,’ and ‘also.’ For example, in English, beginning a conversation with a sentence like “It also rained yesterday” would probably be met with confusion from the listener. The word ‘also’ signifies an addition to some previously discussed topic about which both the speaker and the listener are aware. However, in Salish, a statement like “It also rained yesterday” is not met with the same kind of bewilderment. The listener’s prior knowledge (or lack thereof) is not conventionally regarded by either party in a conversation. Only the speaker’s knowledge is relevant.[citation needed]

The use of pronouns illustrates the disregard for presuppositions as well. For example, a sentence like “She walked there, and then Brenda left” would be acceptable on its own in Lillooet Salish. The pronoun ‘she’ can refer to Brenda and be used without the introduction that would be necessary in English. It’s key to note that presuppositions do exist in Salishan languages; they simply don’t have to be shared between the speaker and listener the way they do in English and other Indo-European languages. The above examples demonstrate that presuppositions are present, but the fact that the listener doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of them signifies that the presuppositions only matter to the speaker. They are indicative of prior information that the speaker alone may be aware of, and his/her speech reflects merely his/her perspective on a situation without taking into account the listener’s knowledge. While English values a common ground between a listener and speaker and thus requires that some presuppositions about another person’s knowledge be made, Salish does not share this pragmatic convention.[citation needed]

  In popular culture

Stanley Evans has written a series of crime fiction novels that use Salish lore and language.

An episode of Stargate SG-1 ("Spirits", 2x13) features a culture of extraterrestrial humans loosely inspired by Pacific coastal First Nations culture, and who speak a language referred to as "ancient Salish".



  • Beck, David. (2000). Grammatical Convergence and the Genesis of Diversity in the Northwest Coast Sprachbund. Anthropological Linguistics 42, 147–213.
  • Boas, Franz, et al. (1917). Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes. Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society, 11. Lancaster, Pa: American Folk-Lore Society.
  • Czaykowska-Higgins, Ewa; & Kinkade, M. Dale (Eds.). (1997). Salish Languages and Linguistics: Theoretical and Descriptive Perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-015492-7.
  • Davis, Henry. 2005. On the Syntax and Semantics of Negation in Salish. International Journal of American Linguistics 71.1, January 2005.
  • Davis, H. and Matthewson, L. 2009. Issues in Salish Syntax and Semantics. Language and Linguistics Compass, 3: 1097–1166. Online.
  • Flathead Culture Committee. (1981). Common Names of the Flathead Language. St. Ignatius, Mont: The Committee.
  • Jorgensen, Joseph G. 1969. Salish Language and Culture. 3. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Publications.
  • Kiyosawa, Kaoru; Donna B. Gerdts. 2010. Salish Applicatives. Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV.
  • Kroeber, Paul D. (1999). The Salish Language Family: Reconstructing Syntax. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press in cooperation with the American Indian Studies Research Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • Kuipers, Aert H. (2002).Salish Etymological Dictionary. Missoula, MT: Linguistics Laboratory, University of Montana. ISBN 1-879763-16-8
  • Liedtke, Stefan. (1995). Wakashan, Salishan and Penutian and Wider Connections Cognate Sets. Linguistic Data on Diskette Series, no. 09. Munchen: Lincom Europa,z\v1995.
  • Pilling, James Constantine. (1893). Bibliography of the Salishan Languages. Washington: G.P.O..
  • Pilling, James Constantine (2007). Bibliography of the Salishan Languages. Reprint by Gardners Books. ISBN 978-1-4304-6927-8
  • Silver, Shirley; Wick R. Miller. 1997. American Indian languages: Cultural and Social Contexts. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Thompson, Laurence C. (1973). The Northwest. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Linguistics in North America (pp. 979–1045). Current Trends in Linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hague: Mouton.
  • Thompson, Laurence C. (1979). Salishan and the Northwest. In L. Campbell & M. Mithun (Eds.), The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment (pp. 692–765). Austin: University of Texas Press.

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