Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_SHI to sponsor lecture on the ancestry of the Tsimshianic language family

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Free event to be offered virtually

Feb. 1, 2021

(About the Lecturer) (Flyer)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) will sponsor a free lecture this Thursday on the ancestry of the Tsimshianic language family.

The lecture, The Tsimshianic Language Family, its Ancestry and Distant Relatives, will be given linguist Dr. Marie-Lucie Tarpent.

The Tsimshianic language family can be divided into the Maritime branch, comprising Coast Tsimshian and Southern Tsimshian, and the Interior branch, comprising Nisga’a and Gitksan, Dr. Tarpent wrote.

The four language varieties are closely related to each other and speakers of one variety can usually understand most of what is said in another variety. Numerous resemblances of vocabulary and grammar, as well as consistent patterns of correspondences between sounds, make it possible to attempt to reconstruct most features of the common ancestor, referred to as Proto-Tsimshianic.

The Tsimshianic family is an isolate in its region, being related to none of the neighboring languages and families (Tlingit, Haida, Salishan and others), but an earlier comprehensive survey and classification of North American language families (by the linguist Sapir around 1920) had tentatively included it within a larger group, the still hypothetical “Penutian phylum” covering about 15 language families of the North American Pacific area, mostly in California and Oregon. While a family of closely related languages (such as Tsimshianic or Salishan) is usually easy to recognize, a “phylum”, that is a grouping of families related to each other, can be much more difficult to identify.

For a long time, Sapir’s inclusion of the little-known Tsimshianic family in the phylum was considered unlikely (especially because of the distance), and at best undemonstrable.

“Attempting to reach a definite conclusion through comparison of Proto-Tsimshianic features with those of attested Penutian languages, I concluded that Sapir was right (1997), and further work in Proto-Tsimshianic reconstruction and systematic comparison with other Penutian languages (e.g. 2002) continues to support the validity of Sapir’s ‘phylum.’ These linguistic findings may some day provide some useful clues to the history of the coast,” Dr. Tarpent wrote.

The talk, which is scheduled at noon on Thursday, Feb. 4, is part of a lecture series this month that explores the origins and earliest presence of Indigenous populations and cultures in Southeast Alaska from traditional knowledge and various scientific perspectives.

All lectures will be livestreamed at 12 pm Alaska time on SHI’s YouTube channel, and available for viewing on YouTube any time after the livestream (no account required).

This program is provided under the Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools (PITAAS) program and funded by the Alaska Native Education Program. The series is also offered as a one-credit course through the University of Alaska Southeast. Contact for more information. 

About the Lecturer

A native of France, Dr. Tarpent came to the United States to study linguistics, earning a MA at Cornell University, before moving to Canada and pursuing additional linguistic studies at Simon Fraser University. In 1977, she had the opportunity to participate in the Nisga’a language revitalization program of School District 92. She moved to the Nass Valley and worked there full-time for a total of 8 years. Meanwhile she enrolled in the PhD program at the University of Victoria and wrote a grammar of the language as her dissertation (1989). She later taught at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax before retiring in 2007, but she continued her research work, which by then had widened into possibly related languages. In 1991, she was able to contact the last speaker of the Southern Tsimshian language, Violet Neasloss, who died in 2013, and to work with her at her home in Klemtu during several summers. This work was important both for the preservation of Southern Tsimshian and for comparative-historical work on the Tsimshianic language family and its potential relatives.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director, 907.586.9116,