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The Kumeyaay Languages


By Magaret Langdon

The native languages of San Diego County
There are four native languages of San Diego County, belonging to two distinct language families:
  • Luiseño
  • Cupeno
  • Chuilla (belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family) - spoken in the northern part of the County
Kumeyaay (belonging to the Yuman language family) - spoken in the more southern part of the County and in the northernmost part of Baja California, Mexico

There are 18 Indian reservations in San Diego County, 14 of which are in Kumeyaay territory. In addition there are several Kumeyaay-speaking villages in Northern Baja California, Mexico. These localities each have their own dialect features. This complex linguistic situation is typical of California as a whole; where over 100 distinct native languages were once spoken, belonging to 22 language families.

The Kumeyaay Language

The Kumeyaay language used to be called Diegueño because it was the language of the people in the neighborhood of Mission San Diego de Alcala. The language has survived to this day in spite of strong pressure to suppress it. Now spoken mostly by elders, though serious efforts are being made to teach it to younger people. All speakers of Kumeyaay are also fluent speakers of either English or Spanish, and sometimes other American Indian languages as well.

I have studied and analyzed the Kumeyaay language for over 30 years; my results have been presented in technical linguistic books and articles as well as in non-technical publications. There is still a lot I don't understand and my views have changed in the course of time and will probably change again in the future. The facts outlined here are my best effort at the moment.

I now believe that Kumeyaay (Diegueño) consists of possibly three very closely related languages, spoken in a great variety of dialects (Langdon 1990). Speakers of these languages understand each other without too much difficulty, but there are important differences between them, all of which have not been completely described. The terms I use to talk about the three languages are:
  • Iipaiz
  • Kumeyaay
  • Tiipai

I will use the "Kumeyaay (Diegueño)" for the whole group of three languages (often shortened to just Kumeyaay).

The facts about Kumeyaay described below are specifically about the variety of languages spoken on the Mesa Grande reservation, because that is the dialect for which the most information is available in print: Langdon (1970), Couro and Hutcheson (1973), Couro and Langdon (1975) among others.

The sounds and spelling of KUMEYAAY
Each of the letters or combination of letters listed below represents one sound. Many of the conventions should be familiar, such as:
sh and ch, (which stand for approximately the same sounds as the English equivalents)

Other letter combinations, like double letters, e.g.:
  • tt
  • ll
  • lly

These have special definitions but should not look too peculiar. The sounds represented by ll and lly are strange, at least for those who do not speak Kumeyaay. These sounds are, in fact, quite rare in languages of the world and represent one of the many special features of KUMEYAAY.

Only the basic description of the sounds is given below. For each sound, a Kumeyaay word containing that sound is given.

The reader interested in more details is referred to Langdon (1970) for a full phonetic description. Proper names and place names begin with capital letters as in English. Most words in the dictionary have the accent on the last syllable, which is therefore pronounced loudest. No accent mark is necessary on these words, since they regularly have the accent on the last syllable. For example, the word Kumeyaay is pronounced:

KumeYAAY, and not Kumeyaay

In a few cases, an accent mark is used to indicate an unusually accented word or phrase.

For example, the word for 'hello' is háawak, pronounced:

HAAWka, and not haawka.

The examples used to illustrate each sound are, as much as possible - words which in some form are common to all three Kumeyaay languages.

A word of caution:
The names of languages, like those of nationalities or ethnic groups, can evoke strong feelings, both positive and negative. In the case of American Indian languages, where most of the literature on the subject is written by non-natives, the names by which they are known in the literature often are not those used by the people themselves, and may not be appropriate from the point of view of native speakers, who may in addition disagree among themselves depending on their affiliation with particular localities and families. It is therefore possible that you may be told by others that the position taken here is not right. If this is confusing, I apologize.
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