Last updated
Native to Canada
Regionalong the Queen Charlotte Strait
Ethnicity3,665 Kwakwaka'wakw
Native speakers
450 (2016 census) [1]
  • Northern
    • Kwak'wala
Language codes
ISO 639-3 kwk
Glottolog kwak1269 [2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Kwak'wala ( /kwɑːˈkwɑːlə/ ), [3] also written as Kwak̓wala, previously known as Kwakiutl ( /ˈkwɑːkjʊtəl/ ), [4] is the indigenous language spoken by the Kwakwaka'wakw (which means "those who speak Kwak'wala"). It belongs to the Wakashan language family. There are fewer than 200 fluent Kwak'wala speakers today, which amounts to 3% of the Kwakwaka'wakw population. Because of the small number of speakers, most of whom are elders, as well as the fact that very few if any children learn Kwak'wala as a first language, its long-term viability is in question. However, interest from many Kwakwaka'wakw in preserving their language and a number of revitalization projects are countervailing pressures which may extend the viability of the language.

Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast

The Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are composed of many nations and tribal affiliations, each with distinctive cultural and political identities, but they share certain beliefs, traditions and practices, such as the centrality of salmon as a resource and spiritual symbol, and many cultivation and subsistence practices. The term Northwest Coast or North West Coast is used in anthropology to refer to the groups of Indigenous people residing along the coast of British Columbia, Washington state, parts of Alaska, Oregon, and northern California. The term Pacific Northwest is largely used in the American context.



The ethnonym Kwakwaka'wakw means "speakers of Kwak'wala," effectively defining an ethnic connection between different tribes by reference to a shared language. However, the Kwak'wala spoken by each tribe exhibits dialectal differences, which may be quite significant in some cases. There are four major unambiguous dialects of Kwak'wala: Kwak̓wala, ’Nak̓wala, G̱uc̓ala and T̓łat̓łasik̓wala. [5]

An ethnonym is a name applied to a given ethnic group. Ethnonyms can be divided into two categories: exonyms and autonyms, or endonyms.

In addition to those dialects, there are also Kwakwaka'wakw tribes that speak Liq'wala. Liq'wala has sometimes been considered to be a dialect of Kwak'wala and sometimes a separate language. The standard orthography for Liq'wala is quite different from the most widely used orthography for Kwak'wala, which tends to widen the apparent differences between Liq'wala and Kwak'wala.


Note: Kwak'wala text in this section is written in IPA transcription. For the difference between this and other transcription systems used for Kwak'wala, see the following section. Note also that vowel length and stress are not marked in all forms in this section.

Kwak'wala phonology exhibits many traits of the Northwest Coast Sprachbund of which it is a part. They include a large phonemic inventory with a very rich array of consonantal contrasts and relatively few vowels, frequent use of a reduced vowel (ə), contrastively glottalized sonorant consonants, the existence of ejectives at all places of articulation, and the existence of lateral affricates.

A sprachbund – also known as a linguistic area, area of linguistic convergence, diffusion area or language crossroads – is a group of languages that have common features resulting from geographical proximity and language contact. They may be genetically unrelated, or only distantly related. Where genetic affiliations are unclear, the sprachbund characteristics might give a false appearance of relatedness. Areal features are common features of a group of languages in a sprachbund.

The vowels of Kwak'wala are a, e, i, o, u, ə. There is a phonemic length distinction as well; however, not all vowels exist in both long and short versions. The phonemic status of some of the vowels in question is relatively unclear, as especially evident in the case of a and ə. They often interchange in different instances of the same stem or suffix, depending on the phonological content. ( Grubb 1969 ) presents some cases of complementary distribution between a and ə but concludes that those vowels must be underlyingly distinct in some other cases.

In linguistics, complementary distribution, as distinct from contrastive distribution and free variation, is the relationship between two different elements of the same kind in which one element is found in one set of environments and the other element is found in a non-intersecting (complementary) set of environments.

( Bach 1975 ) analyzes all vowels other than ə and a as derived rather than underlying: i from /əj/; u from /əw/; e from /əja/; and o from /əwa/.

The consonantal inventory of Kwak'wala includes a three-way contrast in plosives (plain (voiceless), voiced, and ejective). There is an extensive series of distinctions between rounded and non-rounded consonants in the dorsal region. Notably, there are no velar consonants without secondary articulation: they are all either palatalized or labialized. The consonants are shown in the following table.

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral pal. lab. plainlab.
Nasal plain m n
Plosive voiceless p t q ʔ
voiced b d ɡʲɡʷ ɢ ɢʷ
ejective kʲʼkʷʼ qʷʼ
Affricate voiceless ts
voiced dz dl
ejective tsʼ tɬʼ
Fricative s ɬ χ χʷ h
Approximant plain l j w

Stress placement depends on syllable weight. A syllable is heavy if it has a long vowel or a moraic coda; otherwise it is light. A moraic coda is a non-glottalized sonorant. Thus, pən is a heavy syllable, while pət is light ( Zec 1994 ). If a word has any heavy syllables, primary stress falls on the leftmost heavy syllable. Otherwise, primary stress falls on the rightmost syllable.

Secondary stress also occurs, but its distribution is less well understood. According to ( Wilson 1986 ), secondary stress falls on the second syllable following the primary stress and iteratively thereafter on every second syllable. This statement may be amended to take into account the observation of ( Boas 1947 ) that epenthetic vowels never bear stress, including secondary stress, and they seem to be invisible when syllables are counted for the assignment of secondary stress.

Kwak'wala appears to have an otherwise unattested pattern of repair strategies for coda condition violations. Underlyingly voiced consonants are devoiced word-finally but surface faithfully with following epenthesis when they are word-internal. Glottalized consonants remain glottalized when word-final but surface with a following epenthetic vowel when they are word-internal. ( Davenport 2007 )


Kwak'wala has a rich morphological system which, like other Wakashan languages, is entirely suffixing (except for reduplication). Like other Wakashan languages, Kwak'wala morphology is notable for the complex effects that certain suffixes trigger or correlate with in the stems to which they affix. There are two basic categories of changes associated with suffixes: fortition or lenition of a stem-final consonant and expansion of stem material through vowel lengthening or reduplication.

Hardening and weakening

Suffixes fall into three classes according to their behaviour: neutral, weakening, and hardening. Following the Boasian orthographic tradition, the suffix types are indicated by a symbol preceding the suffix: '-', '=' or '-!', respectively.) Weakening and hardening suffixes alter the stem to which they attach by changing the features of the stem-final consonant.

Weakening suffixes trigger a kind of lenition. Plain voiceless stops and affricates are changed to their voiced equivalent. The behaviour of fricatives is somewhat more erratic. /s/ weakens to [dz] or [j], depending on the root, a classification apparently arbitrary. /xʲ/ weakens to [n]. Both /xʷ/ and /χʷ/ weaken to [w], but /χ/ does not change in a weakening context. /ɬ/ voices when weakened, surfacing as [l]. Sonorants weaken by becoming glottalized.

In addition to the somewhat unpredictable set of changes, the patterns involved in weakening are further complicated by the fact that some suffixes weaken stops but do not affect fricatives. Boas lists 11 suffixes weakening stops and affricates but not fricatives; these suffixes are indicated by the notation (=) as seen in the following list: (=)əs "continuously"; (=)əχsta "mouth, opening, to talk about"; (=)əxʲsa "away"; (=)təwiʔ or (=)toʔji "to do something while doing something else" – weakens /s/; (=)ɡʲəɬ "continuing motion in a definite direction" – weakens /k, q, s/; (=)ɡʲətɬəla "to go attend, to be on the way"; (=)χəkʷ "place where there are many (plants etc.)" – does not weaken /s/; (=)χs "canoe"; (=)χsikʲa "in front of house, body, mountain"; (=)χtɬəjˀa "by force"; (=)tɬiʔ "moving on water".

Hardening suffixes trigger a kind of fortition. Stem-final plain stops or affricates or sonorants become glottalized. As with weakening suffixes, the hardening patterns of fricatives are less predictable. /s/ hardens to [ts] or [jˀ]. (The classification is apparently arbitrary and not necessarily consistent with the weakening behavior of a given stem; a stem in which /s/ becomes [dz] when weakened may become either [ts] or [jˀ] when it is hardened, etc.) /xʲ/ hardens to [nˀ]. Both /xʷ/ and /χʷ/ harden to [wˀ], while /χ/ in a hardening context surfaces with an additional following glottal stop: [χʔ]. /ɬ/ hardens to [lˀ].

In keeping with the avoidance of laryngeally marked non-final codas, weakening and hardening often trigger epenthesis, yielding a schwa between the stem and suffix.

The table below illustrates how various roots weaken and harden.


Some stems with underlying final voiced stops or glottalized segments are attested with hardening and weakening suffixes. However, they are too infrequent to give generalizations for how they behave in those contexts.

Stem expansion

In addition to fortition and lengthening, suffixes may also be associated with lengthening or reduplication effects on the stems which precede them. ( Boas 1947 ) distinguishes seven classes of suffix (with many subclasses), which all have different effects on some of the twenty possible root shapes which he identifies:

A1.CəTnəp==– or V+=ˈa or +əˈa– or ˘+=ˈa or CVC*a˘+=+aˈa+v
A2.CəRkən=-+== or ˘+=˘+=– or ˘+=˘+=˘+=+=-+˘ or –-+˘-+˘-+˘-+˘
A3.CəYdəy=– or V+=˘+= or -"– or ˘+=˘+=˘+=-" or ˘+=˘+=-+˘-+˘-+˘-+˘-+˘
A4.CəDwˀəd==ˈ-= (?)
B1.CVTɡʲuːkʷ===– or -+˘-" or ˘+=˘+= or -" or CajaC-" or ˘+=-" or ˘+=-" or ˘+=-" or -+=˘+=˘+=+=-+˘ or -+-+v– or -+a-+a-+˘
B2.CVRqʼuːm===˘+=˘+- or əm-+˘
B3.CVY===-" or ˘+=˘+-
B4.CVDjˀuːɡʷ===˘+= or ˈ--" or ˘+=˘+=
B5.CVTʼsiːqʼ====˘+=(a)– or ˘+=˘+=v+=˘+--+˘– or ˘+-
C1.CVRTqəns===– or -+˘ or CaRaC– or ˘+= or CaRaC˘+= or CaRaC– or ˘+=˘+= or CaRaC˘+= or –– or ˘+=˘+=˘+=+=-+˘-+=-+=˘-+˘-+=
C4.CəRDməndz==v+=– or ˘+=v+=˘+-
C5.CəRTʼjəŋkʲʼ===˘+=– or ˘+=˘+=v+=˘+-
D.CəTTtsʼəɬkʲ==˘+=-" or ˘+=˘+=˘+=˘+=+?-+˘

Key: The chart follows the one given in ( Boas 1947 , p. 235), with a few alterations. Root shapes refer to an initial consonant C, a nucleus ə or a full vowel V, and final consonants including plain voiceless obstruents (T), voiced obstruents (D), glides (Y), other sonorants (R) and glottalized versions of each of T and R (Tʼ and Rˀ). Cells show the effect of suffixes belonging to the various classes (columns) on roots or stems of various shapes (rows). = indicates that the suffix leaves the stem unchanged. – indicates that the suffix triggers vowel lengthening in the stem (often causing ə to turn into ). A cell with a vowel (a or e) indicates that the stem vowel is replaced with the vowel in the cell. Several symbols occurring together with + in the middle indicates that reduplication occurs; the symbols on each side of + indicate the shape of each syllable of the reduplicative stem.

For example, class 7 suffixes added to C1 roots trigger reduplication on the pattern -+= which means that the reduplicative stem has two syllables, with the first syllable long and the second syllable preserving the length of the original stem. ˘ indicates a short copy; thus a 6a suffix on a D root will produce a reduplicative stem, with the second syllable being short and the first syllable having a nucleus a. C refers to one of the stem consonants. Stress marks show the location of primary stress in the suffixed form. In non-reduplicative forms, they indicate that the stem itself bears stress. In reduplicative forms, stress marks indicate which stem syllable bears stress. When no stress mark is included, stress assignment follows the regular pattern for Kwak'wala stress. Cells with multiple options are given as in the original chart; it is not clear whether the optionality is systematic in any way.

A few symbols whose meaning is unclear have been retained directly, as given in Boas. These include V and v. The symbol -" corresponds to a special symbol in the original chart (a dash with trema); its meaning is also unclear. A few corrections to the original chart are made in the version above. Class 2 suffixes are listed in this chart as "all -", i.e. lengthening all stems. However, all the class 2 suffixes described by Boas which productively apply to roots of type B or C leave stems unchanged rather than triggering lengthening. This also adheres to the phonotactics of Kwak'wala, which do not allow super-heavy syllables of the type which would be created by lengthening these stems.

Therefore, the chart above treats class 2 suffixes as causing no change in roots of these types. Additionally, several forms in the original chart have "-" in place of "+" in reduplicative forms. They are taken as errors here, and corrected in the chart above. Root classes C2 and C3 are included in this chart as they are included in his chart even though there are no known roots belonging to these classes (which would presumably have the shapes CəRR and CəRY). Root class B3 is included with the changes noted in the original chart although ( Boas 1947 , p. 217) states that there are no known roots of this type.

An example of a suffix that triggers stem changes is -!əm "exclusively; real, really; just only; common," which belongs to class 3f. Its effect on roots of various shapes is shown in the following table.

Root classRootSuffixed formGloss
A1məxʲmaːnˀəm"hit with fist and nothing else"
A2kʲənkʲəkʲənˀəmxʲʔid"to get really loose"
A3qʼəjqʼaqʼajˀəm"really many"
A4wˀədwˀadaʔəm"really cold"
A5χəkʲʼχaːkʲʼaʔəm"really to stay away"
A6ɬəlˀɬaːlaʔəm"really dead"
B1ɡʲuːkʷɡʲəɡʲuːkʷʼəm"a house and nothing else"
B2ɡʲaːlɡʲəɡʲaːlaʔəm"very first"
B4juːɡʷjˀəjˀuːɡʷamˀ or jˀuːɡʷamˀ"really rain"
B5χanˀχəχaːnˀaʔəm"really naked"
C1ləmχʷlələmwˀəm"really dry"
Dpʼədəkʲpʼaːdəkʲʼəmxʲʔid"it gets really dark"

Other word-formation processes

In addition to suffix-driven reduplication, word formation may also involve reduplication not tied to any suffix. There are at least two reduplication patterns.


Expansion of stems through suffixation is a central feature of the language, which transforms a relatively small lexicon of roots into a large and precise vocabulary. Different linguistic analyses have grouped these suffixes into classes in various ways, including "formative" vs. "incremental" and "governing" vs. "restrictive". ( Boas 1947 ) rejects these morphosyntactic classifications and divides suffixes into various classes based mainly on semantic criteria. Nevertheless, there are morphosyntactic facts that distinguish classes of suffixes, including suffix ordering and the existence of paradigms for certain suffix types. At a minimum, there is sufficient evidence from syntax and phonology to distinguish between stem-forming suffixes and inflectional suffixes. The classes are comparable to the distinction between derivational and inflectional morphology although they are not necessarily homologous with them.

Stem-forming suffixes

The suffixes in Kwak'wala can be grouped into at least nineteen different classes, principally on semantic grounds. ( Boas 1947 , p. 237) In the order given by Boas, the classes correspond generally but not completely to the order in which these suffixes appear within a word:

1. General locatives: e.g. =axʲsa "away" (maːxtsʼaxʲsa "to go away for shame"); =ʔdzu "on a flat object" (ʔaleːwədzəweʔ "sea hunter on flat, i.e. Orion").

2. Special locatives: e.g. -ʔstu "round opening, eye, door" (t͡ɬeːχʼʷstu "to miss a round place"); =is "open space, bottom of sea, world, beach, in body" (mˀəɡʷiːs "round thing in stomach").

3. Special locatives referring to body parts: e.g. -!pəla "throat" (teːkʼʷəpəla "to have hanging on chest"); -!iq "in mind" (nˀeːnˀkʼʲiχʼid "to begin to say in mind").

4. Limitations of form: Generally used with numerals, e.g. =ukʷ' "human beings" (malˀuːkʷ "two persons"); -tsʼaq "long" (nˀəmpˈinatsʼaxsta "only once along street of village").

5. Temporal suffixes: e.g. -xʲid "recent past" (qaːsaxʲid "he went (about a week ago)"); -ajadzəwˀaɬ "used to be, to do" (t͡ɬiːqˈinuχajadzəwˀaɬ "used to be a canoe-builder").

6. Suffixes creating a transitive verb: e.g. -a, which turns a static or intransitive verb or a noun into a transitive verb: cf. ʔamχ "water-tight" and ʔamχa "to make water-tight"; and jaːsikʷ "tallow" and jaːsikʷa "to put tallow on".

7. Aspect: e.g. -(ə)s "continuously" (-!məmiːχəs "to sleep continuously, all the time"); -aːɬa "to be in the position of performing an act" (xʲuːsaɬa "to be at rest").

8. Plurality (human): i.e. -xʲdaʔχʷ (ʔaχiːdəxʲdaʔχʷ "they took").

9. Mode: e.g. - "hypothetical" (qasuʔ wət͡ɬasuʔt͡ɬuʔ "if you should be asked"); - "exhortative" (ɢʷalaxʲənts "do not let us do so!")

10. Passive: e.g. =əm "passive of verbs with instrumental" (halaːɢimaχa maːmajuɬtsila "it is paid to the midwife"); -ɬ "passive of verbs expressing sensations and mental actions; also sensations produced by outer actions" (ʔamdəɬ "to be affected by a furuncle").

11. Restriction of subject: e.g. -(xʲ)sanala "some" ((huːχʷsanalaɡʲəliɬ "some of them vomit in house"); -amənqʷəla "some" (kʲˈəlxʲamənqʷəla "some are unripe").

12. Nominal suffixes: e.g. -!ənχ "season" (xʲaːmˀaʔənχ "season of scarcity of food"); =id "the one by whom one is owned as" (qʼaːɡʷid "master (i.e. the one by whom one is owned as a slave)").

13. Verbal suffixes: e.g. =alisəm "to die of inner troubles" (xʷəljalisəm "to die of longing"); -buɬa "to pretend" (qʼʷaːsabuɬa "to pretend to cry").

14. Adverbal/adjectival suffixes: e.g. -kʲas "real, really" (nənwalakʼʷinikʲasus "your real supernatural power"); -dzi "large" (qʼaːsadzikʲas "a great number of sea otters").

15. Source of information: e.g. -lˀ(a) "it is said" (χənt͡ɬəlalˀ "very much, it is said"); -ʔəŋɡʲa "in a dream" (laʔəŋɡʲa "in a dream it was seen that he went").

16. Degree of certainty: e.g. -ɡʲanəm "perhaps" (suːɡʲanəm "you perhaps"); -dza "emphatic certainty" (ladzat͡ɬən "I am going to go").

17. Conjunctions: e.g. - "referring to a previous subject of conversation or narrative"; -tˈa "but, on his part".

18. Emotional attitudes: e.g. -id͡l "astonishing!" (saʔid͡la "is that you?!"); -niʔsd͡l "oh if!" (-ɡʲaːχniʔsd͡liʔ "oh, if he would come!").

19. Auxiliary suffixes: e.g. -ɡʲəɬ "motion without cessation, away" (uːχt͡ɬəɡʲəɬəχsa "to lift a load out of a canoe"); -əm "plural of locative suffixes" (jəpəmliɬ "to stand in a row in the house").

Inflectional suffixes

There are two major types of inflectional suffixes in Kwak'wala: verbal suffixes that modify a predicate; and nominal clitics, which may agree with a noun present in the sentence, or may be entirely pronominal.

Verbal inflection

A typologically notable feature of Kwak'wala is the distinction made in verbal conjugation between visible and invisible subjects. A distinction is also made between subjects that are near the listener and those that are far. The verb paradigm for la "to go" (classified as a Paradigm 2 verb) illustrates these properties ( Boas 1947 , p. 261):

3sg. near-me visiblelakʲlaːʔəkʲ
3sg. near-me invisiblelaɡʲaʔlaːʔəɡʲaʔ
3pl. near-you visiblelaχlaːʔuχʷ
3pl. near-you invisiblelaʔlaːʔuʔ
3pl. elsewhere visiblelalaːʔiʔ
3pl. elsewhere invisiblelaːʔlaːʔijˀa

Nominal inflection

An entity can be present in a sentence in one of three ways: as a full overt noun, as a pronoun, or without any overt exponent. In each case, the entity will also be represented by an agreement clitic. If the entity takes the form of a noun or pronoun, the clitic will be from the prenominal set; if the entity has no overt exponent, a pronominal clitic will be used. Clitics always precede the nominal with which they agree, which violates the generalization that Kwak'wala affixes are always suffixing. However, the clitic always forms a phonological word with the preceding word rather than the nominal, with the result that the suffixing generalization is always true as far as the phonology is concerned.

Verbal suffixes are shown in the following table:

Pronominal     Prenominal
1pl. inclusive -ənts-ənts
1pl. exclusive -əntsuxʼʷ-əntsuxʼʷ

Because first and second person entities are always deictically accessible, there is no distinction between demonstrative and non-demonstrative clitics. However, third person clitics are distinguished in this way. As with verbal inflection, agreement clitics distinguish entities that are near and far and entities that are visible and invisible. Pronominal demonstrative clitics are shown in the following table (1 indicates an entity near the speaker; 2 indicates an entity near the hearer; 3 indicates an entity distant from both hearer and speaker):

1 visible--qəkʲ-səkʲ
1 invisible-ɡʲaʔ-χɡʲaʔ-sɡʲaʔ
2 visible---suχ
2 invisible--qʼʷ; -quʔ-suʔ
3 visible-iq-q-s
3 invisible--qi-si

Prenominal demonstrative clitics do not distinguish between visible and invisible entities. They are divided into two classes: consonantal forms (which precede proper names, indefinite nouns, and third person possessive forms whose possessor is not the subject of the sentence) and vocalic forms (which precede all other nouns and pronouns):

ConsonantalVocalic   ConsonantalVocalic   ConsonantalVocalic
2--uχda-χuχ; -χʷ-χuχda; -χʷa-suχ; -sa-suχda; -sa
3-i-ida; -ida-χ-χa-s-sa

Another set of suffixes is used to simultaneously indicate the subject and object/instrument, as shown in the following tables. (Note that when the extension of the subject and object/instrument overlap, no suffix is available. Another construction must be used to express this kind of reflexive relation.)

1sg.1pl. inclusive1pl. exclusive2-sg./pl.3sg./pl.
1pl. inclusive-əntsaq
1pl. exclusive-ənuxʼʷut͡ɬ-ənuxʼʷaq

In the preceding table, forms with a first person object do not use a verbal suffix. Rather, they use a periphrastic auxiliary form of the verb ɡʲaχ "to come". The auxiliary precedes the main verb in the sentence.

1sg.1pl. inclusive1pl. exclusive2-sg./pl.3sg./pl.
1pl. inclusive-əntsas
1pl. exclusive-ənuxʼʷus-ənuxʼʷas

Suffixation is also used for genitive constructions. These suffixes can be either prenominal/pronominal or postnominal. First person genitives allow either form. Third person genitives observe a robust differentiation between those cases in which the subject and possessor are the same entity and those in which they are not. In the former case, the instrumental suffix -s is added to the prenominal genitive marker, and the possessed noun take the postnominal demonstrative genitive ending. In the latter case, the instrumental -s attaches to the postnominal genitive ending on the possessed noun, and the prenominal suffix remains unchanged. ( Boas 1947 , p. 254)

The following table shows genitive suffixes for first and second person possessors. Prenominal forms include a distinction between first and second person while the distinction in postnominal forms is made by adding the pronominal verbal inflection for the appropriate person.

Prenominal: 1st personPrenominal: 2nd personPostnominal
near-me visible-ɡʲin, -ɡʲints-ɡʲas-ɡʲ-
near-me invisible-ɡʲinuxʼʷ-ɡʲas-ɡʲa-
near-you visible-ən, -ənts-us, -χs-(a)q- [6]
near-you invisible-ən, -ənts-uχs-(a)qʼ- [6]
elsewhere visible-ənuxʼʷ-is-(i)- [6]
elsewhere invisible-ənuxʼʷ-is-a-

Genitive suffixes with a third-person possessor are shown in the following table:

Possessor is subjectPossessor is not subject
PrenominalPostnominal   PrenominalPostnominal
near-me visible-ɡʲas--ɡʲa-ɡʲas
near-me invisible-ɡʲas-ɡʲaʔ-ɡʲa-ɡʲaʔəs
near-you visible-us-q--(a)χs
near-you invisible-us---qʼəs
elsewhere visible-is-i-s
elsewhere invisible-is-a-i-as

Prenominal forms for the objective and instrumental are formed by suffixing the prenominal forms given above to -χ or s, respectively.

Independent pronouns also exist in Kwak'wala. Pronouns have verbal and nominal forms. Verbal forms inflect like other verbs. Nominal forms occur in subject, object, and instrumental forms. The full set of pronouns is shown in the following table:

Verbal formsNominal forms
1pl. inclusivenuːɡʷəntsjəntsɡʲaχəntsjənts
1pl. exclusivenuːɡʷənuxʼʷjənuxʼʷɡʲaχənuxʼʷjənuxʼʷ
3sg./pl. near-meɡʲajəχɡʲalaχɡʲajəsɡʲa
3sg./pl. near-youjujəχuχlaχuχjəsuχ
3sg./pl. elsewherehijəχlaqjəs

Object forms are clearly related to ɡaχ "to come" (in the first person) and la "to go" (in the second and third person).


Kwak'wala formally distinguishes only three classes of words: predicates/substantives, particles, and exclamatory forms. Nouns and verbs are distinguished mainly by syntactic context. Thus, the bare form kʼʷasʼ "sit" is a verb; combined with an article-like particle, it serves as a noun: jəχa kʼʷasʼ "the one who sits" ( Boas 1947 ).

A minimal sentence consists of a predicate. Although that is syntactically simple, it is not necessarily semantically impoverished. The rich morphological system of Kwak'wala allows the expression of many features in a single predicate: ɢaɢakʼʲənt͡ɬut͡ɬ "I shall try to get you to be my wife"; ɬawadənt͡ɬasəkʲ "I have this one for my husband (lit. I am husband owner of him)" ( Boas 1947 , p. 281).

In sentences with greater syntactic complexity, word order is identical to the order in which inflectional morphemes are added to a stem, stem/predicate-subject-direct object-instrument-direct object:

The man clubbed the sea-otter with his club. ( Boas 1947 , p. 282), ( Anderson 1984 )

A number of clitics are used to mark agreement with nouns, including clitics for definiteness/deixis and case (including accusative and instrumental case). Clitics are positioned at the left edge of the noun they agree with but lean phonologically to their left. The result is a systematic mismatch between syntactic and phonological constituent structure such that on the surface, each prenominal word appears to be inflected to agree with the following noun.

That can be seen in the preceding example: the sentence-initial predicate kʷixidida includes a clitic /-ida/, which belongs together with the nominal bəɡʷanəmaχa in terms of syntactical constituency. That nominal, in turn, includes a clitic /-χa/, syntactically connected to the following noun, and so on.


Word lists and some documentation of Kwak'wala were created from the early period of contact with Europeans in the 18th century, but a systematic attempt to record the language did not occur before the work of Franz Boas in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, Boas was not solely responsible for the data collection of the Kwak'wala language; George Hunt provided tens of thousands of pages of the language in which he worked with Boas to officially document. Through this data collection, Boas and Hunt developed a systematic orthography for documentation of Kwak'wala, which captured almost all of the important distinctions in the language (although some features, such as vowel length and stress, were not recorded systematically). [7]

Although the Boasian orthography was able to capture almost all of the important features of Kwak'wala, it was difficult for Kwak'wala speakers to use: it was impossible to write with a standard typewriter due to its abundant use of special symbols, and it used some standard letters very differently from English orthography, which was familiar to many Kwakwaka'wakw. A practical orthography, developed by the Kwakwaka'wakw linguist David Grubb, became the standard system for writing Kwak'wala.

Practical writing of Kwak'wala today is typically done in the orthography promoted by the U'mista Cultural Society, [8] which largely resembles the Grubb orthography. Variants of this orthography allow for easier computer typesetting. For example, instead of marking ejective consonants with an apostrophe printed above the consonant, the apostrophe may be printed as a separate character following the consonant. Linguistic works on Kwak'wala typically use an IPA or Americanist transcription.

The following table compares different orthographic representations of some Kwak'wala words.

"that will be""and so first I throw""six kinds""raven dancer"

(NB: ḵ’, etc., in the U'mista transcription should be overstruck rather than written as digraphs.)

History and revitalization efforts

The T'lisalagi'lakw School near Alert Bay has made efforts to restore Kwak'wala. T'lisalagi'lakw bus.jpg
The T'lisalagi'lakw School near Alert Bay has made efforts to restore Kwak'wala.

The use of Kwak'wala declined significantly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mainly due to the assimilationist policies of the Canadian government, and above all the mandatory attendance of Kwakwa'wakw children at residential schools. Although Kwak'wala and Kwakwaka'wakw culture have been well-studied by linguists and anthropologists, the efforts did not reverse the trends leading to language loss. According to Guy Buchholtzer, "The anthropological discourse had too often become a long monologue, in which the Kwakwaka'wakw had nothing to say." [10] As a result of these pressures, there are relatively few Kwak'wala speakers today, and most remaining speakers are past the age of child-raising, which is considered crucial for language transmission. As with many other indigenous languages, there are significant barriers to language revitalization.

However, a number of revitalization efforts have recently attempted to reverse language loss for Kwak'wala. A proposal to build a Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations Centre for Language Culture has gained wide support. [10] A review of revitalization efforts in the 1990s shows that the potential to fully revitalize Kwak'wala still remains, but serious hurdles also exist. [11] The language is taught at The U'mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay, British Columbia. [12] In 2012, the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre on Quadra Island received funding for shelving to display its collection of First Nations books for the benefit of Kwak'wala speakers. [13]

Kwak'wala mobile app and portal

A Kwak'wala iPhone app was released in December 2011. [14] An online dictionary, phrasebook, and language learning portal is available at the First Voices Kwak'wala Community Portal. [15]

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  1. Canada, Government of Canada, Statistics. "Aboriginal Mother Tongue (90)". Retrieved 2018-05-21.
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Kwak'wala". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. "Kwakiutl". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw/Kʷakʷəkəw̓akʷ Communities
  6. 1 2 3 The presence of an underlying vowel in these forms is uncertain.
  7. Berman, Judith (1994). "George Hunt and the Kwak'wala Texts". Anthropological Linguistics. 36 (4): 482–514. doi:10.2307/30028391. JSTOR   30028391.
  8. For example, "Kwak'wala Alphabet Poster". U'mista Cultural Society: Language Education Products. Archived from the original on 2011-08-28. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  9. Anthony, Robert J.; Davis, Henry; Powell, J.V. (2003). "Kwak'wala Language Retention and Renewal: A Review with Recommendations" (PDF). First Peoples' Cultural Foundation . Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 September 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
  10. 1 2 SFU News Online – Native language centre planned – July 07, 2005
  11. Reversing Language Shift: Can Kwak'wala Be Revived?
  12. "Reliable Prosperity: Cultural Preservation" . Retrieved 2012-12-02.
  13. Brian Kieran (2012-11-15). "Preserving a language one shelf at a time". Campbell River Mirror. Retrieved 2012-12-02.
  14. "FirstVoices Apps". FirstVoices. Retrieved 2012-10-04.
  15. "FirstVoices: Kwak'wala Community Portal" . Retrieved 2012-10-04.