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Shuswap language

Native to Canada
Region Central and Southern Interior of British Columbia
Ethnicity Secwepemc
Native speakers
680  (2011)[1]
Official status
Regulated by Secwepemc Cultural Education Society
Language codes
ISO 639-3 shs
Glottolog shus1248[2]

The Shuswap language (; Shuswap: Secwepemctsín [ʃəxwəpəmxˈtʃin]) is the traditional language of the Shuswap people (Shuswap: Secwépemc [ʃəˈxwɛpəmx]) of British Columbia. An endangered language, Shuswap is spoken mainly in the Central and Southern Interior of British Columbia between the Fraser River and the Rocky Mountains. According to the 2011 Canadian census, 680 people speak Shuswap as a mother tongue.[1]

Shuswap is the northernmost of the Interior Salish languages, which are spoken in Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. There are two dialects of Shuswap:

  • Eastern: Kinbasket (Kenpesq’t) and Shuswap Lake (Qw7ewt/Quaaout)
  • Western: Canim Lake (Tsq’escen), Chu Chua (Simpcw), Deadman's Creek (Skitsestn/Skeetchestn)–Kamloops (Tk'emlups), Fraser River (Splatsin, Esk’et), and Pavilion (Tsk’weylecw)–Bonaparte (St’uxtews)

The other Northern Interior Salish languages are Lillooet and Thompson.

Most of the material in this article is from Kuipers (1974).[3]


  • Language revitalization and technology 1
  • Phonology 2
    • Vowels 2.1
      • Automatic vowel darkening 2.1.1
    • Consonants 2.2
      • Obstruents 2.2.1
      • Sonorants 2.2.2
        • Consonantal-vocalic variation of sonorants
    • Syllable structure 2.3
    • Stress 2.4
    • Phonological processes 2.5
  • Morphology 3
    • Affixes 3.1
    • Morphological processes 3.2
  • Syntax 4
    • Word order 4.1
    • Case marking 4.2
    • Other forms 4.3
  • Sample lexicon 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Language revitalization and technology

An interface to Facebook is available in Secwepemctsín.[4] The First Voices website has a Secwepemctsin (Eastern Dialect) Community Portal,[5] a Secwepemc Community Portal,[6] and a Splatsin (Eastern dialect) Community Portal [7] for language learning. A November 2012 article estimated about 150 fluent speakers, mostly over 65, adding that "an estimated 400 students are learning the language, and "the majority of Secwepemctsin learners are under age 19."[8] Secwépemc language applications are available for iOS.[9] The Secwepemc Cultural Education Society released Nintendo DSi software in 2013 that teaches Secwepemctsin to young children.[8][10] A language authority of ten elder fluent speakers, from East, West, and the North, are recording pronunciation. A Language Tutor is also in preparation, exportable onto CD for use offline.[11]

A "“Cseyseten” (language nest) at Adam’s Lake is conducted entirely in the Secwepemc language.[12] On January 21, 2013, Thompson Rivers University began offering a Secwepemctsín language class taught by fluent speaker Janice Billy.[13]


The Shuswap language has many consonants which the Roman alphabet is typically not used to represent. Two systems of representing Shuswap sounds are in use. One is the system used in Kuipers’ 298 page monograph on the language. It uses some letters which are not part of the Roman alphabet. The other system is based on one devised by Randy Bouchard of the British Columbia Language Project.[14] It is based entirely on the Roman alphabet. The one exception is the symbol 7, which is used to represent a consonant.

The Bouchard style system appears to be the one in use among Shuswap people themselves. Aside from the different symbols used, other differences exist between the two systems. The Kuipers’ system makes extensive use of automatic alternations. For example, the letter n is sometimes pronounced [n], sometimes [ən], and sometimes [nə]. The choice of pronunciation is based on automatically applied rules. The reader is expected to know these rules.

The rules cover three classes of changes: (1) automatic darkening of vowels (Non-automatic darkening of vowels is covered under Phonological Processes.), (2) automatic alternation of sonorants between consonantal and vocalic pronunciation, and (3) alternation of plain velars, uvulars, and laryngeals with the corresponding rounded sounds. The Bouchard style system does not appear to require the reader to know so many alternation rules. Examples of words written in the Bouchard style can be seen on two websites.[15][16] These websites do not contain enough examples to show how all the automatic alternations are handled in the Bouchard style system. Therefore the Kuipers’ system of spelling is used in this article.


The Shuswap language has five full vowels, /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, and one reduced vowel, /ə/.

Main phonetic values of the Shuswap vowels
Front Central Back(Rounded)
Close i [i ~ e] u [u ~ o]
Mid e [ɛ] ə [ə] o [ɔ]
Open a [a]

An additional vowel, /ʌ/, is rare and often replaced by /e/ or /a/. Its description is ambiguous. Kuipers gave its phonetic value as [ʌ], indicating a mid unrounded back vowel, but described it in words as a mid central vowel.

There are restrictions on the distribution of vowels. The vowel /ə/ is restricted to unstressed syllables. The vowels /a/ and /o/ also occur in unstressed syllables, but only in a few words. Vowels /i/ and /u/ are restricted to stressed syllables.

Automatic vowel darkening

The previous table shows the normal pronunciation of the vowels. Three of the full vowels, /e/, /i/, and /u/, are subject to an automatic process called darkening, which changes how these vowels are pronounced. Automatic darkening is predictable; it occurs before uvular obstruents and before or after uvularized sonorants. It is not reflected in the Kuipers spelling system.

Example: e [ɛ] in ‘he shoots it’ qemns [ˈqɛmənʃ], but e [a] in ‘I shoot it’ qeqmn [ˈqaqmən]
Vowel Normal pronunciation Darkened pronunciation
e [ɛ] [a]
i [i ~ e] [ɪ ~ ɛ]
u [u ~ o] [ɔ]


Consonants are divided into two classes, obstruents and sonorants. In the tables which follow, pronunciations are given in square brackets in IPA transcription. The notation is the same as that of Kuipers (1974).


Labial Dental Alveopalatal Velar Uvular Laryngeal (plain)
Plain Rounded Plain Rounded
Plosives Plain p [p] t [t] c [tʃ] k [k] [kʷ] q [q] [qʷ]
Glottalized p’ [pˀ] t’ [tɬˀ] c’ [tʃˀ] k’ [kˀ] k’° [kʷˀ] q’ [qˀ] q’° [qʷˀ] ʔ [ʔ]
Fricatives λ [ɬ] s [ʃ] x [x] [xʷ] [χ] x̌° [χʷ] h [h]
  • Plain plosives are usually unaspirated, and can be voiced in some environments.
  • The pronunciation of the dental-palatal obstruents c, c', and s ranges to [ts], [tsʼ] and [s].
  • Glottalized dental-lateral plosive t’ [tɬʼ] can also be pronounced as a glottalized dental plosive [tʼ].


Labial Dental Palatal–velar Laryngeal–uvular
Plain Velarized Uvularized Plain (rounded)
Plain Rounded
Plain m [m], [əm] n [n], [ən] l [l], [əl] y [j], [iː] ɣ [ɰ], [əː] ʕ [ʕ], [aː] ʕ° [ʕʷ], [ɔː] w [w], [uː]
Glottalized m’ [mˀ], [əmˀ] n’ [nˀ], [ənˀ] l’ [lˀ], [əlˀ] y’ [jˀ], [iʔ] ɣ’ [ɰˀ], [əʔ] (ʕʼ) [ʔ], [aʔ] ʕ°’ [ʕʷˀ], [ɔʔ] w’ [wˀ], [uʔ]
  • The sonorants are voiced. Since they can be consonantal or vocalic, a pair of pronunciations is given for each in the table. Vocalic variants occur only in unstressed syllables.
  • Consonantal forms of glottalized sonorants occur only after vowels.
  • The plain sonorants when vocalic have a different pronunciation at the beginning of a word: [mə], [nə], [lə], [jə], [ɰə], [ʕə], [ʕʷə], and [wə].
  • The long vowels representing plain vocalic sonorants are variable in length and may be short.
  • There is no glottalized plain uvular sonorant *ʕˀ. Where this ought to occur due to phonological processes, what occurs instead is ʔ when a consonantal form is required, and (unstressed) when a vocalic form is required.
Consonantal-vocalic variation of sonorants

The variation of sonorants between consonantal and vocalic pronunciations is automatic, and is not indicated in the Kuipers’ spelling system. The rule for determining this as follows:

  • To start, all sonorants in a word are to be considered vocalic.
  • Then, beginning from the right hand side of the word, a sonorant in any one of the following situations is changed to consonantal:
  • a vowel on its right side;
  • a vocalic sonorant on its right side; or
  • a vowel on its left side.
Example 1: l [l], m [m] and m [əm] in variants of ‘go ahead!’ x̌ílme [ˈχilmɛ] and x̌ílmxe [ˈχiləmxɛ]
Example 2: w [wə] in ‘downstream’ wtemtk [wəˈtɛmtk]
Example 3: l [l] and ɣ [əː] in ‘waterfall’ k’°əλlɣʔép [kʷʼəɬləːˈʔɛp]
Example 4: l [l], w [u], y [j] and n [ən] in ‘I catch something in a trap’ lélwyn-kn [ˈlɛlujəŋkən]

Syllable structure

A Shuswap word consists of a stem, to which can be added various affixes. Very few words contain two roots. Any stressed root can have an unstressed alternative, where the vowel is replaced by [ə].

Most roots have the form CVC or CC (the latter only if unstressed). Other roots are CVCC or CCVC.

Suffixes begin either with a stressed vowel (dropped in forms where the root is stressed) or a consonant. Prefixes generally have the form C- or CC-.


Stress in Shuswap is not very prominent, and occurs only in longer words. Since [u] and [i] are always stressed and [ə] never is, stress is usually fairly simple to predict.

Phonological processes

Although Kiupers (1974) does not specify, in many cases the glottalized or rounded version of a consonant seems to represent an allophonic variation. For example, consonants which have a rounded form are rounded before and after [u]. However, glottalization can be contrastive (the root q’ey-, "set up a structure," versus q’ey’-, "write") or allophonic (the root q’ey- appears with a glottalized final consonant in s-t-q‘ey’-qn, "shed"). Consonant reduplication can also have an effect on glottalization.

There are a number of ways in which sounds are affected by their environments. Resonants in the vocalic position are preceded by an automatic schwa, for example the word /stʼmkelt/ ("daughter"), pronounced [stɬʼəmkelt]. The darkening of vowels, as described below, is another case.

The distribution of vowels is quite complex. The vowels have the following main variants:

  • i = [i~e]
  • u = [u~o]
  • o = [ɔ]
  • e = [ɛ].

/a/ and /ʌ/ are unchanged. The environment around uvulars and velars produces a different set of variants, including occasional slight diphthongs. Additionally, some roots cause darkened vowels to appear in suffixes; one example is the prefix -ekst ("hand, arm"), which is darkened in x°əl’-akst. The darkened vowels are as follows:

  • e = [a]
  • u = [o]
  • i = [e].



Shuswap's affixation system is robust. A nominalizing prefix s- is used to derive nouns from verbs, and prefixes to indicate a resulting state are added to verbs. A sample of Shuswap's small number of prefixes is below:

  • /t’l’-/: during a period in the past
  • /c-/ or /s-/: hither
  • /t-/ or /tk-/: on top of, on the outside
  • /wλ-/: group of people
  • /ʔ-/: second person singular possessive

Most nouns contain suffixes. Suffixes are also used to indicate transitive, intransitive, and imperative verbs. Below are a few examples taken from the extensive collection of Shuswap suffixes:

  • /-eps/: back of neck
  • /-tem’/: bottom, canyon, lowland
  • /-icÆeʔ/: surface, hide
  • /-esq’t/: day
  • /-eλq/: berries
  • /-el’tx°/: a sheet-like object, skin, bark

Morphological processes

Shuswap makes extensive use of reduplication. Some examples of simple reduplication are:

  • Initial reduplication: [s-tíq’m] (bitterroot) to [tətíq’m] (prepare bitterroots)
  • Final reduplication: [pux°-m] (blow) to [pəx°úx°] (swell up)
  • Total reduplication: [piq] (white) to [pəq-píq] (flour)
  • Consonant reduplication

In addition, there are several types of complex reduplication, involving patterns such as 11V12, 112V23, and 1123V34 (where 1 represents C1, etc.).

Not all types of reduplication are productive and functional. Total reduplication indicates plurality and consonant reduplication is diminutive, but most other reduplications are difficult to explain.

In addition to reduplication, root morphemes can be modified by interior glottalization, such that a root CVC appears as CʔVC. Although the process is not productive, many recorded forms refer to a state, for example [pʔeɣ] (cooled off) from [peɣns] (he cools it off). Consonant reduplication can proceed as usual with interior glottalization.


Word order

Word order in Shuswap is relatively free; syntactical relationships are easily conveyed by the case marking system. However, it is common but not necessary for the predicate to head the sentence.

Sentences with predicate first:

  • wist ɣ-citx the house is high
  • cut l-nx̌peʔe my grandfather said

Sentences with subject first (rare):

  • ɣ-sq°yic m-cunsəs ɣx̌°ʕ°elmx Rabbit was told by fox

Case marking

Shuswap uses two cases: the absolutive, for the subject of an intransitive verb, the subject of a transitive verb, and the object of a transitive verb; and the relative, for all other cases (for example, the actor of a passive verb, or an adverb).

Relative Case:

  • wist ɣ-citx the house is high
  • m-tʔeyns ɣ-x̌°ʕ°elmx ɣ-sk’lep Fox met Coyote

Relative Case:

  • wist t-citx° a high house
  • m-cuntməs ɣ-sq°yic t-x̌°ʕ°elmx Rabbit was told by Fox (the subject is in the Absolutive)

Other forms

Nouns and verbs appear in for different forms, depending on their syntactic surroundings.

  • The plain form: nouns and intransitive verbs, conjugated for person. Additionally, a distinction is made between object-centered and subject-centered words; compare [l-m-wiwktn] "the one I saw" with [l-m-wiwkcms] "the one that saw me."
  • The suffixal form: for intransitive verbs, and also transitive verbs and nouns (third person singular only). This form is sometimes optional and sometimes obligatory. Examples of use include as an imperative substitute ([xwislxəx° wl meʔ kicx-k], "run till you get there") and in "if" and "when" sentences ([l-twiwtwn], "when I grew up").
  • The nominalized form: for nouns and intransitive verbs. A nominalized intransitive verb refers to the goal object of the action, as in [yʔen t’-sq°iʔq°e l-nstix°C’e l-pəxyewtəs] "this is the groundhog I shot yesterday." Nominalization is also used in questions, either yes-or-no or introduced with "what".
  • The ʔs- form: refers to a fact, with overtones of goal-directedness. For example: [cuct-kn ʔnsʔiʔλn] "I want to eat."

Sample lexicon

The following is a list of roots (listed separately or as their simplest derivatives), and a selection of words derived from these roots by affixes.

A stop sign in both English and Secwepemctsín (Shuswwap) on the Bonaparte/Stuctwesemc Reserve.
Root Derivative Meaning
c-pet spread out
x-pət-min’ covering around something
x-pət-cin’-tn skin door-covering
ptek pass by
x-ptetk-tn finish line
x-ptək-ew’s to cross a road
tʔik° fire
tətʔiʔk°-m to glow / be red hot
tik°-n’k-tn a fungus that was used in making fire
ciq° red
cəq°-cin-tn lipstick
cəq°-cq°eq°sxn’ penny
q°el to speak, talk
c-q°l-nt-es to call, summon
q°l-t-əmiʔ talkative
yew scoop up
x-yew-m to fetch water
x-yew’-mn fishing spot, bucket
s-q°ex-t wild man, bugbear
t-q°əx-q°əx-n’t-es to frighten people by spooky behavior
q°ex-s-n-s to tell somebody about mysterious sight or experience


  1. ^ a b 2011 Census of Canada: Topic-based tabulations | Detailed Mother Tongue (192), Single and Multiple Language Responses (3), Age Groups (7) and Sex (3) for the Population Excluding Institutional Residents of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Divisions and Census Subdivisions, 2011 Census
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Shuswap". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Kuipers, Aert H. (1974). The Shuswap Language. The Hague: Mouton.
  4. ^ Scannell, Kevin (2012-10-16). "Facebook in Your Indigenous or Endangered Language". Rising Voices. Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  5. ^ "FirstVoices: Secwepemctsin (Eastern Dialect) Community Portal". Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  6. ^ "Secwepemc Community Portal". FirstVoices. Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  7. ^ "Splatsin (Eastern dialect) Community Portal". FirstVoices. Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  8. ^ a b Mike Youds (2012-11-29). "Nintendo scores for native language". Kamloops Daily News. Retrieved 2013-01-13. 
  9. ^ Catherine Litt (2013-02-04). "Native language learns to talk tech : Language of Shuswap Nation has promising future thanks to modern technology".  
  10. ^ Wood, Stephanie (2014-01-22). "Despite limited resources, indigenous-language programs persevere in B.C.". Georgia Straight, Vancouver's News & Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2014-02-27. 
  11. ^ Jackey Sharkey. "Tablet tools teach endangered aboriginal language". CBC Kamloops. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  12. ^ McIvor, Onowa. Language Nest Programs in BC. Early childhood immersion programs in two First Nations Communities. Practical questions answered and guidelines offered. Retrieved 2013-06-02. 
  13. ^ Devan Tasa (2013-01-20). "First Aboriginal language course teaches Secwepemctsín". The Omega. Retrieved 2013-01-20. 
  14. ^ Ellis, David W. and Luke Swan. 1981. Teachings of the tides : uses of marine invertebrates by the Manhousat people. Nanaimo, B.C. : Theytus Books
  15. ^ Land of the Shuswap, Secwepemcúl’ecx
  16. ^ Connecting Traditions

External links

  • First Nations Languages of British Columbia entry
  • Map of British Columbia indigenous language-areas
  • Ubuntu Secwepemc Localization Team
  • Shuswap Nation Tribal Council
  • Secwepemc Cultural Education Society
  • Bibliography of Materials on the Shuswap Language
  • Secwepemctsín
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