The Nisenan language was spoken throughout the American, Bear, and Yuba River drainages, from where those rivers met the Sacramento River to their headwaters in the Sierra Nevada. There were four major dialect groups: Valley Nisenan, spoken along the Sacramento and Feather Rivers and along the lower American River; Northern Hill Nisenan, spoken along the middle and upper Yuba River; Central Hill Nisenan, spoken on the North and Middle Forks of the American River; and Southern Hill Nisenan, spoken from the South Fork of the American River to the North and Middle Forks of the Cosumnnes River. In pre-contact times, there were approximately 9000 speakers of Konkow, Maidu, and Nisenan together (Kroeber 1925). Today, there are no first-language speakers (Golla 2011).
Nisenan is a member of the Maiduan language family, the other members of which are Konkow and Maidu. Together, the Maiduan languages form one branch of the hypothesized Penutian language family. This groups also includes Klamath-Modoc, the Miwokan languages (Central Sierra Miwok, Coast Miwok, Lake Miwok, Northern Sierra Miwok, Plains Miwok, Saclan, and Southern Sierra Miwok), the Ohlone languages (Awaswas, Chalon, Chochenyo, Karkin, Mutsun, Ramaytush, Rumsen, and Tamyen), the Wintuan languages (Nomlaki, Patwin, and Wintu), and the Yokuts languages.
Selected archival materials at Berkeley
- Eatough, Andrew. 1999. Central Hill Nisenan texts with grammatical sketch. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Golla, Victor. 2011. California Indian languages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Kroeber, Alfred L. 1929. The Valley Nisenan. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 24:253-290. [PDF]
- Uldall, Hans Jørgen and William Shipley. 1966. Nisenan texts and dictionary. Berkeley: University of California Press.