The Nisenan: Dialects and districts of a speech community

Sheri Jean Tatsch
Native American Studies, University of California, Davis
July, 2006


Nisenan is a California indigenous language within the Maiduan language family. The language is considered moribund with no known fluent speakers. The traditional land base of the Nisenan people consisted of the greater portions of Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado, Yuba, and portions of Butte counties---an estimated 3,4017,600 acres of northern California.

This work is intended as a resource to facilitate language revitalization efforts for Nisenan people and their communities. Language revitalization among Indigenous peoples will not be successful if limited to linguistic knowledge alone. It is language placed within the context of culture, within the landscape, generated from the hypothesis that from the land emerged the people, the language, and the culture. This cosmology, their collective worldview---it is this, which ultimately guides a community towards language renewal. It also carries with it the relationships between language, culture, and an indigenous identity.

Accessibility of materials of past language documentation is all-essential to a population with no known or few fluent speakers. This text lists over seventy ethnohistorical Nisenan records of the Nisenan language available both as written resources and sound recordings. It also describes language loss through a historical lens.

The matter of dialect or internal variation within the Nisenan language is examined. Dialectical differences have been mentioned as a side note in most writings. These differences among the Nisenan speaking population are examined through an understanding of political alliances. A set of maps provides a visual demonstration of Nisenan lands and individual districts that draw a parallel to variations in speech. It remains undetermined whether Nisenan is an example of a dialect continuum or represents several distinguishable dialects.

The work also includes a Proto-Maiduan lexicon and a full transcription of J. P. Harrington's Nisenan field notes with Nisenan to English, and English to Nisenan.

The revitalization of language, and subsequently culture, is enhanced by a thorough examination of all the knowledge left by the ancestors. It is hoped that this work will aid in those efforts.