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Makah Cultural and Research Center Online Museum

Makah Language

Makah Alphabet
Pronunciation Key
20 Useful Phrases
Whaling Text in Makah language
(audio + transcript)

The Makah language is the ancestral tongue of the Makah Indian Nation. Called speaking Makah (Speaking the language of People Who Live Amongst the Seagulls Along the Cape), the Makah language belongs to the Southern Nootkan branch of the Wakashan language family; it is the only representative of these respective classifications in the United States. All other languages related to Makah are spoken in British Columbia, Canada.

Traders, explorers, and other early visitors to the Makah territory often believed that the Makah language was related to the languages in the neighboring Salish and Chimakuan families, because all these languages use similar sounds. In fact, the name Makah is a derivative of a Salish word, inappropriately assigned to the Tribe during Treaty times. The Tribe's correct name in the ancestral language is Makah (people who live by the rocks and seagulls) a reference to the rocky coast.

Modern linguistic techniques indicate that speaking Makah became a language distinct from its closest relative, Nitinaht, about 1,000 years ago. speaking Makah and Nitinaht have a relationship that is similar to the relationship between Spanish and Italian today.

Like other Tribal languages in North America, speaking Makah did not have a written component prior to contact with non-Indians. There are 5 unique sounds, or phonetic units, in speaking Makah. Many of these sounds are not found in English or any Indo-European language, so we use a variation of the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent speaking Makah in written form. The Makah Alphabet was formally adopted by the tribe in 1978.

The creation of the Makah Alphabet, and the centralization of language preservation efforts through the Makah Language Program of the Makah Cultural and Research Center, demonstrated the Makah Tribe's dedication to the restoration of speaking Makah. These efforts were necessary because American federal policy deliberately sought to eradicate Tribal languages during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.

In order to preserve and restore speaking Makah, the Makah Language Program works with Elders who speak Makah as their first language. We record oral histories, conduct linguistic research, prepare entries for the speaking Makah-English dictionary and develop curricular materials for use in the public school on the reservation, and in Makah Cultural and Research Center exhibits and projects.

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All content for this exhibit is © Makah Cultural and Research Center.

The Community Museum is a project of community organizations and Tribes across the Olympic Peninsula, and the University of Washington.
Support for the project comes from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Preston, Gates and Ellis, LLP.