Esselen was the language of the Esselen (or self-designated Huelel) Nation, which aboriginally occupied the mountainous Central Coast of California, immediately south of Monterey (Shaul 1995). It was probably a language isolate, though has been included as a part of the hypothetical Hokan proposal.
|Native to||United States|
|Region||Big Sur (California)|
The name Esselen was derived from a village name. The Esselen people referred to their own language as Huelel. The name was recorded by Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta on May 18, 1832 at Soledad Mission from his informant Eusebio (native name Sutasis) (cf. villel 'tongue' as recorded by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano) (Shaul 1995).
The country of the Ecclemachs [Esselen] extends above 20 leagues to the [south]eastward of Monterey. Their language is totally different from all those of their neighbors, and has even more resemblance to the languages of Europe than to those of the Americas. This grammatical phenomenon, the most curious in this respect ever observed on the continent, will, perhaps, be interesting to those of the learned, who seek, in the analogy of languages, the history and genealogy of transplanted nations.
Esselen may have been the first Californian language to become extinct. Although it was spoken by many of the early converts at Mission Carmel, its use rapidly declined during the Hispanic period. Very little information on the vocabulary and grammar of Esselen was preserved. About 350 words and phrases and a few complete sentences have been preserved in literature, including a short bilingual catechism (for a summary see Mithun 1999:411–413 and Golla 2011:114). By the beginning of the 20th century the only data on Esselen that investigators such as Kroeber and Harrington could collect were a few words remembered by speakers of other Indian languages in the area.
H. W. Henshaw thought that Esselen represented a monotypic linguistic family. Others, such as Shaul (2019), have assigned the language to the proposed Hokan family. While it is likely that much of Dixon & Kroeber's Hokan-Penutian model will stand the test of time, the subject matter is both complex and poorly understood, and is thus subject to revision.
The Esselen language consisted of the Western and Eastern dialects. Documentation of Western Esselen was based on data collected at Mission Carmel. It was spoken by the Excelen local tribe, and likely also the Ecgeajan local tribes to the south along the Big Sur coast, although the Ecgeajan subdialect is unattested. Eastern Esselen was documented by Arroyo, and was based on data collected at Mission Soledad, which hosted Arroyo Seco local tribes. Eastern Esselen was spoken by the Eslenajan local tribe, and probably also by the Aspasniajan and Imunajan local tribes.
The Esselen language was spoken by five local tribes. Each of the five local tribes spoke a separate subdialect.
The Santa Lucia Mountains formed the heart of the Esselen homeland.
Each Esselen district consisted of a local tribe with their own patrilineal clans. Members of the clans were exogamous, marrying members of other clans but within the local tribe.
Esselen local tribes and their demographics are surveyed in Milliken (1990: 59).
Breschini and Haversat (1994: 82-88) give the following numbers of villages and population estimates for each of the five Esselen tribes. Population estimates are calculated by multiplying the number of villages by either 30 or 40 (i.e., the presumed number of individuals per village).
|District||Villages||Population (with 30 persons
|Population (with 40 persons|
Phonological and lexical differencesEdit
|č ~ ts||ṭ|
|father||aya ~ a'ay||m-a'aṭ|
|it is finished||*amomuč||amo-muṭ|
|completive||-mutsu ~ -musu||-muṭ|
Lexical differences between the Western and Eastern dialects:
|mouth||iši ~ iš:e||katus-nex|
/p/ has allophones of [f] and [pf]. /t/ has an allophone of [tʃ].
Subject pronouns in Western Esselen (Shaul 2019: 89):
sg pl 1 ene ~ eni leč-s; lex 2 nemi ~ nimi nemič; nemux 3 lal lač; lax
Subject pronouns in Eastern Esselen (Shaul 2019: 89):
sg pl 1 ene ~ ne leṭ; lex 2 name nomeṭ; nomux 3 huiniki laṭ; lax
Word order is primarily SOV (Shaul 2019).
|rabbit (cottontail)||čiši, čis-|
- "DCQ Fall Equinox 1999 -- The Caves Ranch". www.ventanawild.org. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
- Shaul, David (2019). Esselen studies: language, culture, and prehistory. Muenchen: Lincom Europa. ISBN 978-3-86288-986-0. OCLC 1132875180.
- Millikan, Randal. 1990. Ethnography and Ethnohistory of the Big Sur District, California State Park System, During the 1770-1780 Time Period. Submitted to Department of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento.
- Breschini, Gary and Trudy Haversat. 1994. An Overview of the Esselen Indians of Central Monterey County, California. Salinas, CA: Coyote Press.
- Shaul, David L. 1995. "The Huelel (Esselen) Language." International Journal of American Linguistics 61:191-239.
|Wiktionary has a word list at Appendix:Esselen word list|