Siouan languages

Last updated
central North America
Linguistic classification One of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-2 / 5 sio
Linguasphere 64-A
Glottolog siou1252 [1]
Siouan-Catawban langs.png
Pre-contact distribution of the Siouan–Catawban languages

Siouan or Siouan–Catawban is a language family of North America that is located primarily in the Great Plains, Ohio and Mississippi valleys and southeastern North America with a few other languages in the east.

Language family group of languages related through descent from a common ancestor

A language family is a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestral language or parental language, called the proto-language of that family. The term "family" reflects the tree model of language origination in historical linguistics, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological family tree, or in a subsequent modification, to species in a phylogenetic tree of evolutionary taxonomy. Linguists therefore describe the daughter languages within a language family as being genetically related.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Great Plains broad expanse of flat land west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada

The Great Plains is a broad expanse of flat land, much of it covered in prairie, steppe, and grassland, located in America and Canada. It lies west of the Mississippi River tallgrass prairie in the United States and east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada. It embraces:



Authors who call the entire family Siouan distinguish the two branches as Western Siouan and Eastern Siouan or as Siouan-proper and Catawban. Others restrict the name "Siouan" to the western branch and use the name Siouan–Catawban for the entire family. Generally, however, the name "Siouan" is used without distinction.

Western Siouan languages

The Western Siouan languages, also called Siouan proper or simply Siouan, are a large language family native to North America. They are closely related to the Catawban languages, sometimes called Eastern Siouan, and together with them constitute the Siouan (Siouan–Catawban) language family.

Family division

Siouan languages can be grouped into the Western Siouan languages and Catawban languages. The Western Siouan languages can be divided into Missouri River languages (such as Crow and Hidatsa), Mandan, Mississippi River languages (such as Dakotan, Chiwere-Winnebago, and Dhegihan languages), and Ohio Valley Siouan branches. The Catawban languages consist only of Catawban and Woccon.

Catawban languages

The Catawban, or Eastern Siouan, languages form a small language family in east North America. The Catawban family is a branch of the larger Siouan a.k.a. Siouan–Catawban family.

Crow is a Missouri Valley Siouan language spoken primarily by the Crow Nation in present-day southeastern Montana. The word, Apsáalooke, translates to "children of the large beaked bird." It is one of the larger populations of American Indian languages with 4,280 speakers according to the 1990 US Census.

Hidatsa is an endangered Siouan language that is related to the Crow language. It is spoken by the Hidatsa tribe, primarily in North Dakota and South Dakota.


Previous proposals

There is a certain amount of comparative work in Siouan–Catawban languages. Wolff (1950–51) is among the first and more complete works on the subject. Wolff reconstructed the system of proto-Siouan, and this was modified by Matthews (1958). The latter's system is shown below:

Comparative method in linguistics, technique for studying the development of languages

In linguistics, the comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages with common descent from a shared ancestor and then extrapolating backwards to infer the properties of that ancestor. The comparative method may be contrasted with the method of internal reconstruction in which the internal development of a single language is inferred by the analysis of features within that language. Ordinarily, both methods are used together to reconstruct prehistoric phases of languages; to fill in gaps in the historical record of a language; to discover the development of phonological, morphological and other linguistic systems and to confirm or to refute hypothesised relationships between languages.

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
plosive *p*t*k
fricative *s*x*h
nasal *m*n
approximant *w*r*j

With respect to vowels, five oral vowels are being reconstructed /*i, *e, *a, *o, *u/ and three nasal vowels /*ĩ, *ã, *ũ/. Wolff also reconstructed some consonantal clusters /*tk, *kʃ, *ʃk, *sp/.

A nasal vowel is a vowel that is produced with a lowering of the soft palate so that the air flow escapes through the nose and the mouth simultaneously, as in the French vowel /ɑ̃/  or Amoy []. By contrast, oral vowels are produced without nasalization. In a stricter sense, nasal vowels shall not be confused with nasalised vowels.

Current proposal

Collaborative work involving a number of Siouanists started at the 1984 Comparative Siouan Workshop at the University of Colorado with the goal of creating a comparative Siouan dictionary that would include Proto-Siouan reconstructions. [2] This work yielded a different analysis of the phonemic system of Proto-Siouan, which appears below: [3]


Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive plain *p*t*k
glottalized *pʼ*tʼ*kʼ
preaspirated *ʰp*ʰt*ʰk
postaspirated *pʰ*tʰ*kʰ
Fricative plain *s*x*h
glottalized *sʼ*ʃʼ*xʼ
Sonorant *w*r*j
Obstruent *W*R

In Siouanist literature (e.g., Rankin et al. 2015), Americanist phonetic transcriptions are the norm, so IPA *ʃ is Americanist *š, IPA *j is Americanist *y, and so on.

The major change to the previously-proposed system by systematically accounting for the distribution of multiple stop series in modern Siouan languages by tracing them back to multiple stop series in the proto-language. Previous analysis posited only a single stop series. [4]

Many of the consonant clusters proposed by Wolf (19501951) can be accounted for due to syncopation of short vowels before stressed syllables. For example, Matthews (1958: 129) gives *wróke as the proto-form for 'male.' With added data from a larger set of Siouan languages since the middle of the twentieth century, Rankin et al. (2015) give *waroː(-ka) as the reconstructed form for 'male.'

Unlike Wolff and Matthew's proposals, there are no posited nasal consonants in Proto-Siouan. Nasal consonants only arise in daughter languages when followed by a nasal vowel. [5] In addition, there is a set of sounds that represent obstruentized versions of their corresponding sonorants. These sounds have different reflexes in daughter languages, with *w appearing as [w] or [m] in most daughter languages, while *W has a reflex of [w], [b], [mb], or [p]. The actual phonetic value of these obstruents is an issue of some debate, with some arguing that they arise through geminated *w+*w or *r+*r sequences or a laryngeal plus *w or *r. [6]


Previous work on Proto-Siouan only posited single vowel length. However, phonemic vowel length exists in several Siouan languages such as Hidatsa, Ho-Chunk, and Tutelo. Rankin et al. (2015) analyze numerous instances of long vowels as present due to common inheritance rather than common innovation. The five oral vowels and three nasal vowels posited by earlier scholars is expanded to include a distinction between short and long vowels. The proposed Proto-Siouan vowel system appears below:

Oral vowels
Front Central Back
short long short long short long
High *i*iː*u*uː
Mid *e*eː*o*oː
Low *a*aː
Nasal vowels
Front Central Back
short long short long short long
High *ĩː*ũː
Low *ãː

External relations

The Yuchi isolate may be the closest relative of Sioux–Catawban, based on both sound changes and morphological comparison. [7]

In the 19th century, Robert Latham suggested that the Siouan languages are related to the Caddoan and Iroquoian languages. In 1931, Louis Allen presented the first list of systematic correspondences between a set of 25 lexical items in Siouan and Iroquoian. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wallace Chafe further explored the link between Siouan and Caddoan languages. In the 1990s, Marianne Mithun compared the morphology and syntax of all the three families. At present, this Macro-Siouan hypothesis is not considered proved, and the similarities between the three families may instead be due to their protolanguages having been part of a sprachbund. [8]

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  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Siouan". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Rankin, Robert L., Carter, Richard T., Jones, A. Wesley, Koontz, John E., Rood, David S. & Hartmann, Iren (Eds.). (2015). Comparative Siouan Dictionary. Leipzig, Germany: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2015-12-13.)
  3. Rankin, Robert L., Carter, Richard T. & Jones, A. Wesley (n.d.). Proto-Siouan Phonology and Grammar. Ms. University of Kansas.
  4. Wolff, Hans (1950). "Comparative Siouan II". International Journal of American Linguistics. 16 (3): 113–121. doi:10.1086/464075.
  5. Some Siouan languages have however developed a phonemic contrast between the non-nasal sonorants w- and r- and the corresponding nasals m- and n-. These historical developments are presented in the following article: Michaud, Alexis; Jacques, Guillaume; Rankin, Robert L. (2012). "Historical Transfer of Nasality Between Consonantal Onset and Vowel: From C to V or from V to C?". Diachronica. 29 (2): 201–230. doi:10.1075/dia.29.2.04mic.
  6. Rankin, Robert L., Carter, Richard T. & Jones, A. Wesley. (n.d.). Proto-Siouan Phonology and Grammar. Ms. University of Kansas.
  7. Kasak, Ryan (2016). "A distant genetic relationship between Siouan-Catawban and Yuchi".
  8. Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The languages of native North America. p.305. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Further reading