Tolowa (Oregon Athabaskan)

Tolowa is the southernmost language within what is usually called Oregon Athabaskan. Tolowa is very closely related to Chetco, its neighbor immediately to the north in Oregon; the two together are regarded as a single (Tolowa-Chetco) language. This is in turn related, if not as closely, to the Rogue River Athabaskan varieties spoken north of Chetco, and more distantly to Upper Umpqua, the northernmost of the Oregon Athabaskan languages. The traditional area of Tolowa speech is in Del Norte County from Wilson Creek (south of Crescent City) north into Oregon. In pre-contact times, within what is now California there may have been as many as 2400 speakers of Tolowa itself (Gould 1978). Today, there are only a few first-language speakers of Tolowa, but there is an active movement to revitalize the language (Golla 2011).

Map of Tolowa speaking areas
Map of Tolowa speaking areas (Drucker 1937)

The broader Athabaskan language family is spoken across North America with concentrations in western Canada (Dëne Suliné, Sarsi, Slave), Alaska (Ahtna, Gwich'in, Koyukon), the southwest United States (Apache, Navajo), and coastal Oregon and northern California. The other Athabaskan languages of California are Eel River Athabaskan, Hupa, Kato, and Mattole.

Grammatical information

The phonological inventory of Tolowa, and of most other Oregon Athabaskan languages, is distinctive in having merged Proto-Athabaskan coronal affricates and fricatives *ts, *dz, *s, and *z as a single phoneme /s/ (fronted to dental or interdental articulation in some of the languages on the Oregon side of the border). Tolowa stands out from the other Oregon Athabaskan languages in having developed "palatalized and strongly r-colored" [šr] and [tšr'] where other Oregon Athabaskan languages have a less extreme apical retroflex articulation (Golla 2011).

Tolowa prosody requires at least one syllable of each utterance to have high pitch. All utterances with more than one syllable also must have at least one low pitch as well. Bright (1964) gives several (near-) minimal word pairs that differ in accent placement, such as teenéh 'trail' vs. tšéeneh 'base (of tree or rock)'.

Selected archival materials at Berkeley

Further reading

  • Bright, Jane O. 1964. The phonology of Smith River Athapaskan (Tolowa). International Journal of American Linguistics 30:101-107.
  • Collins, James. 1985. Pronouns, markedness, and stem change in Tolowa. International Journal of American Linguistics 51:358-372.
  • Collins, James. 1989. Nasalization, lengthening, and phonological rhyme in Tolowa. International Journal of American Linguistics 55:326-340.
  • Drucker, Philip. 1937. The Tolowa and their southwest Oregon kin. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography 36:221-300. [PDF]
  • Golla, Victor. 2011. California Indian languages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gould, Richard A. 1978. Tolowa. In Robert F. Heizer, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 8: California, 128-136. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

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