This Research Guide covers the very complex subject of Native American languages in Western Oregon. It is a resource for Lane Community College's classes on the Chinuk Wawa native language.
The map above displays the linguistic and cultural diversity of aboriginal Oregon. East of the Cascades, less abundant resources dictated lower population density and higher group mobility; the areas covered by the speakers of a given language tended to be large. More productive areas west of the Cascades supported higher populations. The areas covered by speakers of any given language were smaller, and overall linguistic diversity was correspondingly higher. The language map illustrates graphically the effect of ecological relationships on human societies.
The 17 Oregon languages fall into five major language families shown on the map at left, along with others that did not quite reach into Oregon. Each of these large family groupings extend far beyond the state’s borders and contains many languages, of which only the Oregon representatives are shown in the key at the right. Each family represents a set of daughter languages descended in parallel from an original mother tongue that was spoken deep in the past. Individual languages within a major language family can be closely or only very distantly related. Some of these languages are classified on the basis of scant evidence, so any classification scheme must be tentative in some areas. The linguistic diversity of Oregon indicates a long and complex history played out among many different people.
The Native Americans of Western Oregon lived in a region of incredible linguistic diversity. In only a few other areas of the world – New Guinea, the Caucasus, Northern California – were so many tongues spoken in such a small area. In this complex region of mountains, bays and valleys, 17 languages were spoken, some as different as English from Japanese.
This chart summarizes the languages of Western Oregon around 1700. In many cases, dialects are not exactly known, and the classification of many dialects and languages is still a matter of some dispute. Dialects often varied slightly from village to village, forming an intergrading dialect chain – for example, along the Lower Columbia River. In many places, especially at linguistic borders, villages were bilingual or even trilingual, and trade languages were also used to bridge communication gaps. Languages and dialects are listed north-to-south, except for west-to-east along the Columbia River.
There are four broad language families recognized in Western Oregon. These are the:
Athapaskan languages were spoken mainly in southwest Oregon, with two tiny pockets of speakers in northwest Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River. Penutian languages – a family that is rather loosely defined – were spoken on the central Oregon Coast, along the Lower Columbia, in the Cascades, in the Willamette Valley, and in the Rogue Valley. An isolated Salish language (Tillamook) was spoken on the northern Oregon coast, and a small pocket of the Hokan family (Shasta) was spoken in the southern Rogue Valley.
Penutian and Hokan languages are thought to form the oldest strata of languages in Western Oregon, perhaps going back 10,000 years. At some time in the last 2-3,000 years, a new infusion of peoples entered the region. These were Athapaskan migrants from Northern Canada, and their languages were unrelated to the Penutian and Hokan speakers. The Athapaskans filled in valleys and coastal inlets between Penutian speakers, such as the Upper Coquille Valley, the Umpqua Valley, the Applegate Valley, and the Lower Rogue River. The isolated Tillamook language was at some point separated from other Salish languages, which are mainly found in Washington and British Columbia. It is possible that Chinookan speakers came down the Columbia River from Central Oregon and split apart the Salish language family at the mouth of the Columbia. At the southern end of Western Oregon, a small pocket of Shastan speakers spilled over the Siskiyou Mountains from Northern California into the Bear Creek Valley, near modern Ashland.
the Lower Columbia Language consisting of
the Umpqua Language consisting of:
the Coquille-Tututni Language consisting of:
the Galice-Applegate Language consisting of:
the Chetco-Tolowa Language consisting of:
the Tillamook Language consisting of:
the Lower Chinookan Language consisting of:
the Upper Chinookan or Kiksht Language consisting of:
the Alsean Language consisting of:
the Siuslawan Language consisting of:
the Coosan Language consisting of:
the Molalan Language consisting of:
the Northern Kalapuyan Language consisting of:
the Central Kalapuyan Language consisting of:
the Southern Kalapuyan (Yoncalla) Language consisting of:
the Takelma Language consisting of:
the Shasta Language consisting of: