Tonkawa language

The Tonkawa language was spoken in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico by the Tonkawa people. A language isolate, with no known related languages,[1] Tonkawa has not had L1 (first language) speakers since the mid 1900s.[2] Most Tonkawa people now only speak English.[citation needed]

Native toUnited States
RegionWestern Oklahoma, South-central Texas and into New Mexico
Extinctca. 1940
Language codes
ISO 639-3tqw
Tonkawa lang.png
Pre-contact distribution of the Tonkawa language
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.



Tonkawa has 10 vowels:

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a
  • Each vowel is distinguished by the quality of sound and the length of the vowel.
  • The vowels occur in five pairs that have differing vowel lengths (i.e. short vowels vs. long vowels).
  • In the front and the mid back vowel pairs, the short vowels are phonetically lower than their long counterparts: /i/[ɪ], /e/[ɛ], /o/[ɔ].
  • The low vowels /a, aː/ vary between central and back articulations: [a~ɑ, aː~ɑː].
  • Vowels that are followed by j and w are slightly raised in their position of articulation


Tonkawa has 15 consonants:

Bilabial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
plain labial
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k ʔ
Affricate t͡s
Fricative s x h
Approximant l j w
  • The affricate /ts/ and fricative /s/ vary freely between dental and postalveolar articulations, i.e. [ts~tʃ] and [s~ʃ]. There is a tendency for [ʃ] to occur at the end of words (but no tendency for [tʃ]).
  • The other coronals /t, n, l/ are consistently dental.
  • The dorsal obstruents are produced with a palatal place of articulation before front vowels /i, iː, e, eː/, otherwise they are velar:
    • /k, kʷ, x, xʷ/[c, cʷ, ç, çʷ]
  • The dorsal approximants /j, w/ are consistently palatal and labiovelar respectively.

Consonant clustersEdit

There are two environments in which consonant clusters occur in Tonkawa:

  • when a consonant is repeated
  • when the cluster is within the syllable

Repeated or identical consonants are treated as one unit. However, the condition that causes this repetition has not been fully analyzed.

  • Example: sʔa-ko 'he scrapes it' versus mʔe-t-no 'lightning strikes him'

There are cases where the glottal stop is not used in the cluster or combination

There are certain consonants that can either begin or end in a cluster. However, if the cluster begins the syllable, there can be no intervening vowel.

  • Initial Cluster Consonants: kʷ, m, n, s, x
  • Final Cluster Consonants: ʔ

Phonological processes and morphophonemicsEdit

Initial stem syllables that begin with h-

  • the h- is dropped when a prefix is added
  • if the syllable is C + V, then the vowel is lengthened and given the quality of the stem vowel.
  • if the syllable ends in a consonant, then the initial stem forms a new syllable with the final consonant of the prefix.

Final stem syllables

  • Forms: C V w or C V y
  • The form changes to C if followed by a suffix that starts with a consonant
  • If a long vowel occurs the suffixes change from (-we/-wesʔ/aːdew) to (- or -o/oːsʔ/-aːdo)

An interesting feature of Tonkawan phonology is that the vowels in even-numbered syllables are reduced. That is, long vowels are shortened, while short vowels disappear. Analyses of this were given by Kisseberth (1970), Phelps (1973, 1975) and Noske (1993).

Syllable structureEdit

The Tonkawa language is a syllabic language that bases its word and sentence prosody on even stressed syllables.

  • Disyllabic words are when the stress is placed on the final syllable.
  • Polysyllabic words are when the stress is moved to the next to last syllable, the penult.

There are five types of syllable arrangements: (CL consonant, CC: consonant cluster, V: vowel)

  • C + V → ka-la 'mouth'
  • C + V + C → tan-kol 'back of head'
  • CC + V → sʔa-ko 'he scrapes it'
  • CC + V + C → mʔe-t-no 'lightning strikes him'
  • C + V + ʔs or / / jam-xoʔs 'I paint his face'


The morphemes in Tonkawa can be divided as follows:

I. Themes

  • Free – the stem can stand alone
  • Bound – the stem must have a suffix or prefix attached; it cannot stand alone

In Tonkawa the theme is composed of morphologic units. The basic unit is the stem. The stem is composed of two elements (the consonant and vowel) and modified by affixes. The theme, or stem, is functional, which means it changes as more affixation is added. This leads to the fusion of the stem and affix where it becomes difficult to isolate the word into its smaller units.

II. Affixes

  • Transformative – the affix changes the meaning and/or function of the word
  • Verbal – the affix changes a certain aspect of the verb
  • Noun and Pronoun – the affix changes a certain aspect of the noun or pronoun

III. Enclitics


In English, pronouns, nouns, verbs, etc., are individual words; Tonkawa forms the parts of speech differently, and the most important grammatical function is affixation. This process shows the subjects, objects, and pronouns of words and/or verbs. Within affixations, the suffix has more importance than the prefix.

The differentiation between subject and object is shown in the suffix. While the word order tends to be subject-object-verb (SOV), compounding words is very common in Tonkawa. Reduplication is very common in Tonkawa and affects only the verb themes. Usually, only one syllable undergoes reduplication, and it notes a repeated action, vigorous action, or a plural subject.


Nouns function as free themes, or stems, in Tonkawa. There is a limit of only two or three affixes that can compound with a noun. However, there are cases of a bound theme occurring in noun compounds, which occurs with the suffix -an is added. In English, pronouns and nouns are usually grouped together, but because pronouns in Tonkawa are bound themes, they will be discussed with the verb section.

Noun endings
Case Indefinite (singular/plural) Definite (singular/plural)
Nominative -la/ -ka -ʔaːla/ -ʔaːka
Accusative -lak/ -kak -ʔaːlak/ -ʔaːkak
Genitive -ʔan -ʔaːlʔan
Dative (Arrival) -ʔaːyik
Dative (Approach) -ʔaːwʔan
Instrumental -es / -kas -aːlas/ -ʔaːkay
Conjunctive -ʔen -ʔaːlʔen
Vocative (bare stem) (bare stem)


Verbs are bound morphemes that have a limit of only two themes, the second theme being the modifying theme and usually serving as an adverbial theme. However, if the suffix -ʔe/-wa is added the verb functions as a free theme.


Pronouns are not used except for emphasis on the subject and are affixated as prefixes. Person and number are usually indicated by the affixation of the verb. Most pronouns are bound themes, especially the demonstrative pronouns.

Tonkawa Personal Pronouns
singular plural
1st person saː-
2nd person naː-
you pl./them
3rd person ʔa-

Demonstrative pronounsEdit

Demonstrative adverbs can be formed by adding -ca 'place', -l 'direction', -c 'manner' to the demonstrative pronouns below.

Example: waː 'that one aforementioned' + ca 'place = 'waː-ca 'that place aforementioned'

Interrogative pronouns can be formed by adding the prefix he- to the demonstrative pronouns as well by using the same format for the demonstrative adverbs.

Example: he 'interrogative' + teː 'this' + l 'direction' = he-teː-l 'where'

Indefinite pronouns can also be formed with affixation. (Interrogative + ʔax)

Example: hecuː 'what' + ʔax = hecuː-ʔax 'anything, something, anyone, someone'
Tonkawa Demonstrative English Demonstrative
waː- the one aforementioned
teː- this
heʔe/ heʔeː/ heː that
weː (that) one yonder

Also within the verbal-prefix category are the causatives ya- and nec-, where ya- is the older form.

Verb suffixesEdit

Verb suffixes are important in Tonkawa because they usually indicate the tense, negativity, and manner (outside of what is conveyed in the aforementioned prefixes) of the action performed.

Suffix Function Placement
-ape/-ap Negation suffix follows the theme but follows a second-person plural object pronoun, if present
-nesʔe/ -nesʔ Dual subject suffix follows the negation suffix, future tense suffix, and second-person plural object pronoun
-wesʔe/ -weʔ Plural subject suffix same position as the dual subject; occurs in the first and second persons in all modes
-aːtew/ -aːto Future tense suffix after the stem/theme (present tense: -ʔe or just -ʔ; past tense: -ʔej or -ʔeːje)
-no/ -n Continuative suffix after the stem
-we/ -/ -o declarative mode suffix after the present or past tense
-kʷa Exclamatory suffix after the 3rd person singular or at the end of the word
-w Imperative mode only in the singular, dual, or second-person plural


Enclitics are bound morphemes that are suffixed to verbs, nouns, and demonstratives that end with -k. Enclitics often express modal concepts in Tonkawa, which occur in the declarative, interrogative, and quotative/narrative clauses or statements.

Clause Suffix Special Circumstances
Declarative -aw or -aːwe
Interrogative -je or -jelkʷa both take the ʔ suffix unless there is an interrogative pronoun
Quotative/ Narrative -noʔo/ -laknoʔo only added to verb forms with –k suffix and if the verb is used in telling a mythical story

Writing systemEdit

The orthography used on the Tonkawa Tribe's website is similar to Americanist phonetic notation.

Alphabet Pronunciation Alphabet Pronunciation
c /ts/ a /a/
h /h/ /aː/
k /k/ e /e/
/kʷ/ /eː/
l /l/ i /i/
m /m/ /iː/
n /n/ o /o/
p /p/ /oː/
s /s/ u /u/
t /t/ /uː/
w /w/    
x /x/    
y /j/    
'  or  ? /ʔ/    

Long vowels are indicated with a following middle dot ⟨·⟩. The affricate /ts/ is written ⟨c⟩. The glottal stop /ʔ/ is written as either an apostrophe ⟨'⟩ or as a superscript question mark ?. The palatal glide /j/ is written ⟨y⟩.

The phonemic orthography used in Hoijer's Tonkawa Texts is a later version of Americanist transcription. It uses a colon for long vowels ⟨:⟩ and the traditional glottal stop symbol ʔ. Examples are mummun 'salt' and mummunchicew 'pepper'.


The following text is the first four sentences of Coyote and Jackrabbit, from Hoijer's Tonkawa Texts.

ha·csokonayla ha·nanoklaknoˀo xamˀalˀa·yˀik. ˀe·kʷa tanmaslakʷa·low hecne·laklaknoˀo lak. ha·csokonayla "ˀo·c!" noklaknoˀo. "ˀekʷanesxaw sa·ken nenxales!" noklaknoˀo. ˀe·ta tanmaslakʷa·lowa·ˀa·lak hewleklaknoˀo.


Coyote / he was going along, S / on the prairie. When he did so / Jackrabbit / he was lying, S / (accus.). Coyote / "Oho!" / he said, S. "Horse /my / I have found it!" / he said, S. And then / that Jackrabbit afm / he caught him, S.

In this gloss, S is an abbreviation for "it is said", and afm for "the aforementioned".


English Tonkawa
One We:'ispax
Two Ketay
Three Metis
Four Sikit
Five Kaskwa
Man Ha:'ako:n
Woman Kwa:nla
Dog 'Ekwan
Sun Taxas
Water A:x


  1. ^ Campbell, Lyle (2000). American Indian Languages The Historical Linguistics Of Native America. Oxford University Press. pp. 143. ISBN 9780195140507.
  2. ^ International encyclopedia of linguistics. Frawley, William, 1953- (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2003. ISBN 9780195307450. OCLC 66910002.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  3. ^ "Tonkawa Words".


  • Hoijer, Harry. (1933). Tonkawa: An Indian language of Texas. New York: Columbia University. (Extract from Handbook of American Indian languages, Vol. 3).
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1946). Tonkawa. in Harry Hoijer et al., Linguistic Structures of Native America, 289–311.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1949). An Analytical Dictionary of the Tonkawa Language. Berkeley, CA: University of California Publications in Linguistics 5.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1972). Tonkawa Texts. Berkeley, CA: University of California Publications in Linguistics 73.
  • Gatschet, Albert Samuel (1876). Zwölf Sprachen aus dem südwesten Nordamerikas (Pueblos- und Apache-mundarten; Tonto, Tonkawa, Digger, Utah.) Wortverzeichnisse herausgegeben, erläutert und mit einer Einleitung über Bau, Begriffsbildung und locale Gruppierung der amerikanischen Sprachen (in German). Weimar, Germany: H. Bohlau. Retrieved 2012-09-23.
  • Kisseberth, Charles. (1970). Vowel Elision in Tonkawa and Derivational Constraints. In: Sadock, J.L., & A.L. Vanek (Eds), Studies Presentend to Robert B. Lees by his students. Champaign, IL: Linguistic Research, 109–137.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Noske, Roland. (1993). A Theory of Syllabification and Segmental Alternation. With studies on the phonology of French, German, Tonkawa and Yawelmani. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Phelps, Elaine F. (1973). Tonkawa, Sundanese and Kasem. Some problems in Generative Phonology. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Phelps, Elaine F. (1975). Iteration and Disjunctive Domains in Phonology. Linguistic Analysis 1, 137–172.
  • "The Tonkawa Language: Pronunciation Key". Retrieved October 12, 2005.

External linksEdit