Tutelo language

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Tutelo-Saponi lang.png
Native toUnited States
RegionVirginia, West Virginia, North Carolina
EthnicityTutelo, Saponi, Occaneechi, Manahoac, Monacan
Extinctafter 1982
with the death of Albert Green[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3tta

Tutelo, also known as TuteloSaponi, is a member of the Virginian branch of Siouan languages that was originally spoken in what is now Virginia and West Virginia, as well as in the later travels of the speakers through North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and finally, Ontario.

The last fluent speaker in Tutelo country, Nikonha, died in 1871 at age 106, but managed to impart about 100 words of vocabulary to the ethnologist Horatio Hale, who had visited him at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation Ontario the year before.[3][4] However, in 1753 the Tutelo had joined the Iroquois confederacy under the sponsorship of the Cayuga, and the language continued to be spoken at Grand River well into the twentieth century, when it was recorded by Hale and other scholars including J. N. B. Hewitt, James Owen Dorsey, Leo J. Frachtenberg, Edward Sapir, Frank Speck, and Marianne Mithun. The last active speakers, a mother and daughter, died in a house fire shortly before Mithun's visit in 1982, and the last native speaker, Albert Green, died some time after that.[5]


Hale published a brief grammar and vocabulary in 1883 and confirmed the language as Siouan through comparisons with Dakota and Hidatsa.[3] His excitement at finding an ancient Dakotan language that was once widespread in Virginia, to be preserved on an Iroquois reserve in Ontario, was considerable.[6] Previously, the only recorded information on the language had been a short list of words and phrases collected by Lieutenant John Fontaine at Fort Christanna in 1716 and a few assorted terms recorded by colonial sources, such as John Lederer, Abraham Wood, Hugh Jones, and William Byrd II. Hale noted the testimony of colonial historian Robert Beverley, Jr.--that the presumably-related dialect of the Occaneechi was used as a lingua franca by all the tribes in the region of whatever linguistic stock, and it was known to the chiefs, "conjurers," and priests of all tribes, who even used it in their ceremonies, just as European priests used Latin. Hale's grammar also noted further comparisons to Latin and Ancient Greek in terms of the classical nature of Tutelo's rich variety of verb tenses available to the speaker, including what he remarked as an 'aorist' perfect verb tense, ending in "-wa".[3]

James Dorsey, another Siouan linguist, collected extensive vocabulary and grammar samples around the same time as Hale, as did Hewitt a few years later. Frachtenberg and Sapir both visited in the first decade of the 1900s and found only a handful of words that were still remembered, by a very few Cayuga of Tutelo ancestry. Speck did much fieldwork in preserving their traditions in the 1930s but found little of the speech remaining. Mithun managed to collect a handful of terms still remembered in 1980.[5]

The language as preserved by the efforts is now believed to have been mutually intelligible with, if not identical to, the speech of other Virginia Siouan groups in general, including the Monacan and Manahoac and Nahyssan confederacies as well as the subdivisions of Occaneechi, Saponi, etc.

In the 21st century, there has been interest, especially among descendants of the original native groups, in contemporary language revitalization.[7]


Oliverio proposes the following analysis of the sound system of Tutelo:[8]


Labial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive plain p t k ʔ
Affricate plain
aspirated tʃʰ
Fricative s ʃ x h
Nasal m n
Lateral l
Approximant w j


Tutelo has a standard vowel inventory for a Siouan language. Proto-Siouan *ũ and *ũː is lowered to /õ/ and /õː/, respectively.

Oral vowels

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

Nasal vowels

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
High ĩ ĩː
Mid õ õː
Low ã ãː


Independent personal pronouns, as recorded by Dorsey, are:

  • 1st sing. - Mima (I)
  • 2nd sing. - Yima (you)
  • 3rd sing. - Ima (he, she, it)

The pronoun Huk "all" may be added to form the plurals Mimahuk "we" and Yimahuk "ye", and "they" is Imahese.

In verbal conjugations, the subject pronouns are represented by various prefixes, infixes, and or suffixes, usually as follows:

  • 1st sing. - Ma- or Wa- (or -ma-, -wa-)
  • 2nd sing. - Ya- (-ya-)
  • 3rd sing. - (null; no affixes, simple verb)
  • 1st plur. - Mank- or Wa'en- (prefix only)
  • 2nd plur. - Ya- (-ya-) + -pui
  • 3rd plur. - --hle, -hne.

An example as given by Hale is the verb Yandosteka "love", and the infix is between yando- and -steka:

  • Yandowasteka, I love
  • Yandoyasteka, you love
  • Yandosteka, he or she loves
  • Mankyandosteka, we love
  • Yandoyastekapui, ye love
  • Yandostekahnese, they love.

The last form includes the common additional tense suffix -se, which literally conveys the progressive tense. There are also 'stative' classes of verbs that take the 'passive' (oblique) pronoun affixes (mi- or wi-, yi- etc.) as subjects.

Additional tenses can be formed by the use of other suffixes including -ka (past), -ta (future), -wa (aorist or perfect), -kewa (past perfect), and -ma (perfect progressive). Rules for combining the suffixes with stems in final vowels are slightly complex.[5]


  1. ^ Marianne Mithun, The Languages of Native North America
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tutelo". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ a b c Horatio Hale, "Tutelo Tribe and Language", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 21, no. 114 (1883)
  4. ^ Hale, Horatio (2001). The Tutelo Language. American Language Reprints. 23. Merchantville: Evolution Publishing. ISBN 1889758213.
  5. ^ a b c Giulia Oliverio, "Tutelo Grammar and Dictionary", 1996 (PhD. thesis) pp. 6–19.
  6. ^ Robert Vest, 2006, "Letters of Chief Samuel Johns to Frank G Speck".
  7. ^ "Tutelo Language: Revitalization of the Tutelo Language, saponitown.com". External link in |title= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  8. ^ Oliverio, Giulia R.M. (1996). A Grammar and Dictionary of Tutelo. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas dissertation.

External links

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