Tunica language

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Native to United States
Region Central Louisiana
Extinct after 1950[1]
with the death of Sesostrie Youchigant.
Revival Revitalization efforts underway as of 2010.
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tun
Glottolog tuni1252[2]
Pre-contact distribution of the Tunica language.
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The Tunica (or Tonica, or less common form Yuron[3]) language was a language isolate spoken in the Central and Lower Mississippi Valley in the United States by Native American Tunica peoples. There are no known speakers of the Tunica language remaining.[4]

When the last known fluent speaker Sesostrie Youchigant died in the mid-20th century, the language became extinct. Linguist Mary Haas worked with Youchigant to describe what he remembered of the language, and the description was published in A Grammar of the Tunica Language in 1941. This was followed by Tunica Texts in 1950 and Tunica Dictionary in 1953.

By the 17th century, the people had suffered a high rate of fatalities due to Eurasian infectious diseases, warfare and social disruption. The reduced Tunica tribe lived close to the Ofo and Avoyelles tribes in present-day Louisiana. They communicated by the Mobilian Jargon or French. Due to this circumstance of small population and use of a jargon, the linguist Haas noted that the eventual deterioration of the Tunica language was inevitable.[5]

Language revitalization efforts

As of 2010, efforts were underway to revitalize the language, with the assistance of a linguistics professor at Tulane University. Tribal members read from a new children's book in Tunica at a 2010 pow wow.[6] Only about half of the tribal members live within 75 miles of Avoyelles Parish, where the reservation is located. For this reason, as of 2014, the Tunica-Biloxi Language & Culture Revitalization Program is planning to use long-distance learning and social media.[7]



Tunica has seven vowels, all of which are usually short but may be lengthened in stressed syllables, and all of which are voiced completely - except in the situation that when a /u/ is at the end of a phrase in a word with penultimate stress, it is unvoiced after a /k/ or /hk/. The vowels of Tunica are paired with a certain melody when in ultima, or occasionally penultima, position. The melodies are high, low, rising, falling, and falling-rising.

Unrounded Rounded
Front Mid Back
High-close i u
Mid-close e o
ɛ ɔ
Low a

Vowels may only appear in positions following or preceding consonants, but never adjacent to one another. Also, /i/, /a/, and /u/ appear in any position, but the others will only appear in syllables with stress. Vowels do not typically occur at the end of a phrase, and when any vowel precedes the letter n in the same syllable, it becomes nasalized.


The transcription style (represented in bolded symbols below) is based on Mary Haas' work Tunica Language.[9] The IPA symbols are in brackets next to each consonant.

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop voiceless p [p] t [t̻] č [t͡ʃ] k [k] ʔ [ʔ]
voiced b [b] d [d] g [ɡ]
Fricative f [f] s [s] š [ʃ] h [h]
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Trill r [r]
Approximant w [w] l [l] y [j]

The consonants /p/, /t/, /k/, and /č/ are always fairly aspirated unless they occur before a /ʔ/, in which case they are completely unaspirated. Meanwhile, /b/, /d/, and /g/ do not occur frequently, as is the case with /f/. The fricatives /s/ and /š/ are pronounced with a stronger hiss than they are in English, and /ʔ/ is said to have a very strong closure. The semi-vowels /y/ and /w/ are always voiced, as is the nasal /m/. On the other hand, /n/, /l/ and /r/ can be voiced or voiceless. The /l/ and /r/ are voiced when they are intervocalic, preceding /ʔ/, or preceding continuants. However, they are voiceless before voiceless consonants, with the exception of /ʔ/, and they are voiceless when they are phrase-final. We see this in ši'lka "blackbird," or ši'hkal "stone." Similarly, /n/ is voiced intervocalically or before /ʔ/, and it is voiceless when it is phrase-final or before voiceless consonants except /ʔ/.


Tunica consists of both stressed and unstressed syllables, and the stressed syllables can have a higher pitch than other syllables might have. These certain circumstances depend on the position of the syllable in a phrase. The first stressed syllable of a phrase is typically spoken with a slightly higher pitch than the following syllables. The exception to this is when the syllable is the ultima when the high or falling melodies are used, or when the syllable is the last stressed to be stressed during the use of low or rising melodies. The phrase-final melody then determines much of the stress in the rest of the phrase.

When there is use of the high melody, the ultima is about a minor third higher pitch than the penultima. The first syllable with stress is usually a major second higher than the following syllables are, with the exception of the ultima. All other syllables may not be spoken with any kind of pitch, and other unstressed syllables will be the same. For example, ta'čiyak ʔura'pʔikʔahčá "You will kill the squirrel", shows this melody. ta'- is a major second higher than the syllables that follow it, except for -ča, which is a minor third higher than any syllable that comes before it besides ta'-.

The falling melody causes the ultima to start at a minor third higher than the penultima, and then it goes down quickly. The sentence ʔa'hkiš ma'rʔikî "Go back!" demonstrates this.

The low melody that occurs as the ultima is lower than the last stressed syllable, which is a little higher than the syllables that it immediately follows. All unstressed syllables in between the last stressed syllable and the ultima take on the same stress as the ultima. Unless it is also the last stressed syllable, the first stressed syllable is pitched higher than any following syllable except that last stressed syllable. For example, ʔu'riš ma'rʔuwa'nì "He went back home, they say" shows this occurrence.

When the riding melody occurs, the ultima starts lower than the last stressed syllable and goes upward quickly by about a minor third. Elsewhere in the phrase, the tone is like having a low melody. An example sentence for this is lɔ'ta wiwa'nǎn "Do you want to run?"

The falling-rising melody is a fast drop by a fourth, followed by a fast rise by a minor third. However, this melody is only heard in one word, hőn "Yes".

Phonological processes

Every syllable in Tunica begins with a single consonant. Sometimes double or triple consonants may occur in the middle of words or phrases, and no more than two consonants in a row occur in a phrase-final position. The smallest phonetic group in Tunica is a phrase, but one can differentiate between a word and a phrase based on the observation of certain processes. Those that affect grammatical elements that merge to form words are vocalic contraction, vocalic assimilation, vocalic syncope, consonantic syncope, haplology, and patterns in stress. Those that affect words that combine into phrases are vocalic apocope, consonantic apocope, amalgamation, and stress losses. More specific information and basic examples are detailed below:

  • /a/ assimilates after /i/ or /e/ > /ɛ/, and /a/ assimilates after /o/ or /u/ > /ɔ/: mi'lʔɛhɛ "not red" < mi'li "red" + -ʔaha "not"
  • When the first vowel of aha or ehe contracts or assimilates with the preceding vowel, the second vowel takes on the same quality as the first: ka'šʔɛhɛ "not true" < ka'ši "true" + -ʔaha "not"
  • When combining grammatical elements into words, a vowel preceding /ʔ/ is syncopated (lost) unless at the end of a monosyllabic stem or prefix: la'pʔɔhɔ "not good" < la'pu "good" + -ʔaha "not"
  • /h/ between a continuant and a voiceless stop is dropped in consonantic syncope; /k/ between /h/ and a voiceless stop is dropped; /hk/ before a continuant aside from /h/ is dropped; /š/ before another/š/ makes one of them drop; the prefix ta'- becomes t- before the stems beginning with /ʔ/, and /ʔ/ is syncopated
  • Haplology occurs when the last syllable of the preceding noun stem takes the form /k/ plus a vowel - in this case, this last syllable drops if the second noun member starts with /k/: ha'hkiri "cornmeal" < ha'hka "corn" + ki'ri "ground"
  • All stems have an intrinsic stress, and some affixes have intrinsic stress on the first syllable. When possible during combination of elements to form words and phrases, the stresses are retained, but two stressed syllables do not occur consecutively, causing the need for certain accommodations. For example, monosyllabic or syncopated disyllabic stems followed by another element with intrinsic stress causes the latter to lose its stress. Also, a stem combined with a stressed monosyllabic prefix loses its stress.
  • Vocalic apocope occurs before another word starting with /ʔ/ as long as the prior word does not have a stressed penult: tu'wak(u) ʔu'wakɔ'ni "the owl hooted;" or, if it does, the following word does not contain a stressed first syllable: ʔu'w(i) ʔonɛni "he was a person."
  • When a word is vocalically apocopated (sound lost at the end of the word) and ends in a consonant group of a continuant plus a voiceless stop, it then goes through consonantic apocope, so the word-final consonant is lost. A voiceless stop between /h/ and another voiceless stop is dropped; a voiceless stop after any continuant except /h/ is dropped; a consonant group of /h/ plus a voiceless stop is dropped when followed by a continuant.
  • Amalgamations occur when words beginning with /h/ lose the /h/ when preceded by a word that is vocalically apocopated: ta'hala'yiht "on the ground" < ta'hal(i) "the ground" + (h)a'yihta
  • If an irregularly apocopated word with a stressed penult is placed before a word with stress on the first syllable, the first word loses the penultimate stress. If the second word does not have stress on the first syllable, the first word keeps the stressed penult.



Nouns can be divided into the categories of indeterminative and determinative. The indeterminative nouns have a stem without any affixes, while the determinative nouns are distinguished by either the articular prefix or the pronominal prefix. The determinative nouns can also fall into one of three categories: definitive, non-definitive, and locative, which may be distinguished by different prefixes or suffixes.

The articular prefix is similar to the definite article in English and appears as ta'- preceding all stems except the ones that begin with /ʔ/ or /t/. The prefix appears as t- before stems that start with /ʔ/, and it is omitted through haplology before stems that also start with /t/. The prefix can look like this: te'tiha'yihta "on the road"; te'ti "the road" < te'ti "road"

All proper nouns, unless their stems begin with /t/, must begin with the articular prefix. For instance, ta'wišmi'li, meaning "Red River", is ta'- + wi'š(i)mi'li "red water".

The pronominal prefixes signify possession when attached to a noun, and they preclude the need for articular prefixes with the same stem. Some stems, called inalienably possessed noun stems, cannot be used without a pronominal prefix. These kinds of stems include those of kinship, body parts, and miscellaneous terms. Kinship terms are those such as -e'si "father," or '-gači "mother". Body part terms are those such as -e'sini "head," or -e'neri "horns." Finally, miscellaneous terms can be nouns like -e'htiwa'hkuni "breechcloth," or -e'tisa "name".

Gender-number suffixes can only be used in the definitive case of the determinative category, so whenever one is used, there must also be a determining prefix attached to the stem. Below is a table showing the gender-number suffixes:

Singular Dual Dual and Plural Plural
Masculine -ku, -ku'hu ʔu'nima -sɛ'ma, -sɛm
Feminine -hči, -hči'hi -si'nima, -sin

Sometimes, gender-number suffixes are put on an inflected verb form to convert it to a relative clause. It could be that a noun has the appropriate suffix, and the verb of the clause will then take the same one. Other times, just the verb will take the suffix. Examples of the use of the gender-number suffixes follow:

  • ta'čɔhǎku, "the chief" < ta'- + čɔ'hǎ + -ku
  • ti'sasi'nimǎn, "her dogs" < tihk + sa' + -si'nima
  • to'nišisɛ'mǎn, "the men" < ta'- + ʔo'niši + sɛ'ma

Finally, there are three possible locative suffixes that are used to put nouns in the locative case. These nouns will also have a determining prefix attached. Gender-number suffixes and locative suffixes are mutually exclusive, although a locative noun may have a number. Also, locative suffixes can take stems and convert them into adverbs and postpositions. -ši is the most commonly used locative suffix, and its meaning is comparable to the English "in, into" or "on, over," although in Tunica it is used as "at, to." This can be seen in the sentence "He stayed at home", which breaks down into: ʔu'riš ʔunanì < "at his house" ʔu'riš(i) < ʔuhk- + ri- "house" + ši. -štihki "toward, in the direction of" is the second suffix.

Usually, it is used with the names of directions, as in: ta'sapʔaraštihk "to the west" < ta- +sa'pʔara "west" + -štihki. The final locative suffix is -hat "on, onto." It is typically only used with ta'hali "the ground." It can be seen in the sentence "He spat on the ground", as ta'haltǎn, ču'hʔuhkɛ'nì; ta'halta < ta'- + ha'l(i) "ground, land" + -hat.


Parts of a sentence

The possible word classes that are found in Tunica include independent personal pronouns, nouns, interrogative-indefinite pronouns, quantificatives, postpositions, adjectives, comparatives, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, active verbs, static verbs, sentence connectives, and exclamatives and imitatives. Syntactic elements of a sentence are made up of words, phrases, or clauses acting in one of the following: predicative words, independent subjects, independent objects, subject or object modifiers, predicate modifiers, predicate complements, or sentence connectives. The syntactic elements can all be made into clauses that are either main or subordinate, and subordinate clauses can be dependent, complementary, relative, or adverbial.

There are three types of sentences that the Tunica language produces: simple, compound, and complex. Simple sentences must contain one and only one predicative word. Compound sentences have two or more main clauses, and complex sentences have a main clause and one or more of the different types of subordinate clauses mentioned above.

The following are brief descriptions of possible syntactic elements of a clause:

  • The predicative word: may be an independent personal pronoun, a noun, an interrogative-indefinite pronoun, and quantificative, an adjective, or a verb.
  • The independent subject: may be an independent personal pronoun, a noun, an interrogative-indefinite pronoun, or a quantificative.
  • The independent object: may be an independent personal pronoun, a noun, an interrogative-indefinite pronoun, or a quantificative.
  • The subject or object modifiers: may be quantificatives or relative clauses.
  • The predicate modifier: may be words when used as adjectives, comparatives, adverbs, and locatives, and may be phrases and clauses when adverbial.
  • The predicate complement: may be either words or clauses.
  • The sentence connective: make a basic conjunctive or contrastive relation between a sentence and the one that comes before it.

There are other special constructions that also take place in certain specific environments. For example, quantificatives and nouns can be in apposition to other nouns when those latter nouns are independent subjects or objects. This occurs in ʔuhkʔo'nisɛ'mǎn, ho't ʔaku'hpanʔuhkɛ'nì "He assembled all (of) his people, it is sad" < "he assembled, it is said, his people, all". Additionally, a possessive nexus can serve in the same syntactical functions that a noun can. For example, ta'čɔhak ʔu'rǐhč, hi'yuhɔ'nì "The chief's house was (made of) grass". (ta'čɔhaku "the chief", possessor noun, + ʔu'rihči "his house", alienably possessed noun, the combination serving as independent subject)

Syntactic order

There are certain rules that are observed when forming sentences and maintaining the correct order:

  • When a sentence connective is in a sentence, it precedes the other elements in that sentence.
  • The predicative word of any type of clause is in the clause-final position.
  • An independent subject precedes the other syntactic elements except the sentence connective.
  • An independent object comes right before the predicative word
  • An adjective always comes right after the noun that it modifies without any kind of separation between them.
  • Comparatives always come right after the word that they modify without any kind of separation between them.
  • A postposition always comes right after the substantive that it controls without any kind of separation between them.
  • Predicate modifiers that describe spatial location come either right before or right after the verb that they modify.
  • Non-locative predicate modifiers have freedom as to where they are placed.
  • A predicate complement comes right before the predicative word that it complements.

There are also certain rules that are observed when maintaining correct order of clauses:

  • Main clauses always fall in the sentence-final position. An exception occurs when the clause is complementary or adverbial and that clause complements or modifies the predicative word of the main clause.
  • Dependent clauses must come before the main clause.
  • Complementary clauses take the form of a clause within a clause, and the larger clause is either a main or dependent clause.
  • Relative clauses always come after the substantive that they modify.
  • Adverbial clauses may either come directly before or after the verb that they modify.

Noun classification

A noun can belong to one of the following gender-number classes: masculine singular, feminine singular, masculine dual, feminine dual, masculine plural, or feminine plural. Every noun belongs to one of these classes. There are rules that help to determine classification of nouns:

  • Nouns that refer to human or non-human male animate objects/people in any number are masculine in gender, while those that refer to human or non-human female animate objects/people in any number are feminine in gender.
  • Nouns that refer specifically to human male and female animates in any number take the masculine.
  • Nouns that refer to non-human male and female animates are masculine when dual in number but feminine in collective and plural numbers.
  • Nouns that refer to human animates with an unknown sex seem to always take the masculine gender.

Nouns in Tunica are also classified according to what position they take. There are three positions that are available and that encompass every noun in the Tunica language: horizontal, squatting, and vertical. Humans and four-legged non-humans can take any of these positions, while elongated non-human animates (like fish or snakes) will always take the horizontal position. Smaller non-human animates like frogs and birds always take the squatting position.

Inanimates are always either horizontal or vertical, abstract nouns are always horizontal, and inanimate objects that take an erect position (like trees) take the vertical position.

Preverbs and postfixes

Preverbs are often used with active verb predicative words. Below are the preverbs with their meanings.

  • te- "about, all about"
  • ki- "in, into"
  • ho- "out, out of"
  • ha- "up, down"

There are many postfixes, which express different meanings like certain tenses, negation, and other notions. Sometimes, more than one postfix may be attached to one word, and each postfix has its own governing rules. Below are the postfixes, along with their meanings.

  • -man "and"; coordinates clauses
  • -ʔama "and, together with"; coordinates nouns
  • -škan "although"; similar to the English conjunction "but"
  • -hč "when, after, as, while"
  • -hčika'ši: similar to the English "so...that" but may be more like "because so..."
  • -a'ni: quotative
  • -n: interrogative, imperative, or exhortative
  • -ki: imperative
  • -hčan: imperative, but with force; similar to "must..."
  • -tan: imperative
  • -kʔahča: indicates the future
  • -kʔi: sometimes seen as -ʔi; can be defined as "if"
  • -pan "even if, even though, though"
  • -k: future subjunctive
  • -aha "not"
  • -kʔaha "not," but builds habitual negation
  • -ʔaha "not," but used with non-inchoative forms of static verbs and also with independent personal pronouns, nouns, and adjectives when they are predicative
  • -pʔaha "no, not any"
  • -štukʔɔhɔ "can't"
  • -hat "on...-'s part"
  • -pa "too, also, even"
  • -nahku "like, resembling..."
  • -tahki "only, nothing but.."; can also be "...alone; by...-self"
  • -štahahki "only..."; used with numbers
  • -tɛ'pan "every..."; used with nouns that imply a length of time
  • -ša "...-ish; almost, not quite, somewhat"
  • -štʔɛ "very much"
  • -što'hku "fairly, quite, a little bit"
  • -le'he "right, precisely"

Other word classes

There are two possible noun categories, the determinative and the indeterminative. The determinative category can be divided among definitive, non-definitive, and locative. Indeterminative nouns can be predicative words, subjects of predications, objects of transitive and transimpersonal active verbs and of static verbs, and complements of impersonal and transimpersonal active verbs and of static verbs.

Personal pronouns are inflected depending on person, number, and gender, but they do not have special forms that indicate whether they fall into the determinative or indeterminative categories. They substitute for nouns, and they can be used in the way that nouns are, except in the locative case.

The interrogative-indefinite pronouns are ka'ku "who, someone, anyone" and ka'nahku "what, something, anything". They can substitute for nouns when they do not occur in the locative case. Also, ka'nahku does not appear as an independent subject.

Quantificatives include numerals and others like ho'tu "all, everything", na'mu "many, much", ka'šku "a few, a little bit", ka'škuto'hku "several, quite a few", and ʔa'mari "enough". These can be used as minimal clauses, substitutes for nouns, modifiers of nouns, and modifiers of active verbs.

Postpositions are used to modify locatives and predicates.

Adjectives can be used as predicate words, as noun modifiers used as predicative words, and as modifiers of the interrogative-indefinite pronoun ka'nahku.

Comparatives can be used as modifiers of adjectives, as modifiers of static verbs, as modifiers of adverbs, as modifiers of nouns, and as modifiers of the quantificative na'mu.

Adverbs can be used to modify auxiliary and active verbs.

Auxiliary verbs are always in a predicative word position. Active verbs are either finite or infinitive in form. Finite verbs take subjective pronominal referentials and are predicative words. Infinitives are taken as predicate complements. Sometimes they are inflected for an objective referential. Static verbs are always inflected for an objective referential and are always predicative words.

Sentence connectives connect or contrast two sentences. Sometimes they can also connect two words.

Exclamatives and imitatives always appear as minimal clauses. The most predominant exclamatives are hõn "yes", ʔahâ "no", and "now; ready."


  1. Tunica at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tunica". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Language names:T". Retrieved 2010-02-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Tunica", Ethnologue
  5. Haas, Mary R., Tunica, New York: J.J. Augustin Publisher, 1940.
  6. Richard Kazandjian (2011-08-10). "Tunica Language Is Resurrected". Retrieved 2013-03-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Marksville tribe seeks rebirth of Tunica-Biloxi language". The Town Talk. 2014-04-12. Retrieved 2014-04-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Haas, Mary R., Tunica, New York: J.J. Augustin Publisher, 1940.
  9. Haas, Mary R. Tunica. New York: J.J. Augustin Publisher, 1940.

External links