Tanoan languages

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central North America
Linguistic classification: One of the world's primary language families
Glottolog: kiow1265[1]
Distribution of Tanoan languages before European contact. The pueblo languages are at the left; the nomadic Kiowa at right.

Tanoan /təˈn.ən/, also Kiowa–Tanoan or Tanoan–Kiowa, is a family of languages spoken in New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Most of the languages – Tiwa (Taos, Picuris, Southern Tiwa), Tewa, and Towa – are spoken in the Pueblos of New Mexico (with one outlier in Arizona) and were the ones first given the collective name Tanoan, while Kiowa is spoken mostly in southwestern Oklahoma.


The Tanoan language family has seven languages in four branches:


Kiowa, (Cáuijògà / cáuijò:gyà): 1,000 speakers

Jemez (or Towa): 1,301 speakers (1990 census)


Taos: 803 speakers (1980 census)

Picuris: 101 speakers (1990 census)

Southern Tiwa: 1,732 speakers

? Piro (extinct)

Tewa: 1,298 speakers (1980 census)

Kiowa–Towa might form an intermediate branch, as might Tiwa–Tewa.


Tanoan has long been recognized as a major family of Pueblo languages, consisting of Tiwa, Tewa and Towa. The inclusion of Kiowa into the family was at first controversial; the once-nomadic Kiowa people of the Plains are culturally quite distinct from the Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa pueblos. However, it is now accepted that a Tanoan family without Kiowa would be paraphyletic, as any ancestor of the pueblo languages would be ancestral to Kiowa as well. Indeed, Kiowa may be closer to Towa than Towa is to Tiwa–Tewa. Thus technically Tanoan and Kiowa–Tanoan are synonyms. However, because of the cultural use of the name Tanoan, the more explicit term Kiowa–Tanoan is still commonly used for the language family.

The prehistory of the Kiowa people is little known, and the history behind the separation of the members of this language family into two groups ('Puebloan' and 'Plains') with radically distinct lifestyles is obscure. There is apparently no tradition of any ancient connection. The linguistic connection is the more mysterious as the earliest traditions and historical notices of the Kiowa record them as migrating, not from nearer to their linguistic 'brethren', but from much further to the north and west, to the territory now associated with the nation (more or less the modern states of Texas and Oklahoma), which they occupied from the late 18th century.

Genealogical relations

The Tanoan family has been connected to the Uto-Aztecan family in a hypothetical Aztec–Tanoan proposal. Although undemonstrated, many linguists find this hypothesis to be promising.

Historical phonology

The chart below[2] contains the reconstructed consonants of the Tanoan proto-language as reconstructed by Hale (1967) based on consonant correspondences in stem-initial position.

Labial Apical Apical
Velar Velar
Plosive voiced *b *d *dz (*ɡ) *ɡʷ
plain *p *t *ts *k *kʷ
glottalized *pʼ *tʼ *tsʼ *kʼ *kʷʼ
aspirated *pʰ *tʰ *tsʰ *kʰ *kʷʰ
Nasal *m *n
Fricative *s *h
Glide *w

The evidence for comes from prefixes; has not been found in stem-initial position and thus is in parentheses above. Hale also reconstructs the nasalization feature for nasal vowels. Vowel quality and prosodic features like vowel length, tone, and stress have not yet been reconstructed for the Tanoan family. However, Hale (1967) does give certain sets of vowel quality correspondences.

The following table illustrates the reconstructed initial consonants in Proto-Tanoan and its reflexes in the daughter languages.

Initial consonants in proto-language and daughter languages
Proto-Tanoan Tiwa Tewa Towa Kiowa Proto-Tanoan Tiwa Tewa Towa Kiowa
consonant environment
*h h h [3] h *dz j j, dʒ z d
ʔ ʔ ʔ *d before oral vowel l d d
*p p p p p before nasal vowel n n n
*pʼ *n n
*pʰ f ɸ *w w w w j
*b m m m b *ɡʷ ɡ
*m m (*ɡ) k ɡ k
*t t t t t *k k k
*ts [4] ts s *kʷ ɡ
*tʰ θ ʃ *kʷʼ kʷʼ kʷʼ
*tsʰ s s *kʼ
*s ɬ c [5] s *kʰ x x h
*tʼ *kʷʰ
*tsʼ tʃʼ [6] tsʼ

As can be seen in the above table, a number of phonological mergers have occurred in the different languages. Cognate sets supporting the above are listed below:

Cognate sets demonstrating initial consonant correspondences[7]
 Tiwa   Tewa   Towa   Kiowa  meaning(s)
*b mɑ̃ mãʔ mĩ́ː "to bring"
*m mæ̃̀n- mãn mãté mɔ̃ː-dɔ "hand"
*d (+ V) līlū- diː délʔɨː "fowl"
*d (+ Ṽ) ˈnæ̃̄m- nãn nṍː dɔ̃-m "sand" (in Taos), "ground" (in Tewa, Kiowa), "space" (in Jemez)
*n næ̃̄ nãː nĩ́ː nɔ̃ː first person singular
*ts ˈtʃī tsíː ta "eye"
*t tũ̀ tṹ tɨ̃́ tõ- "to say"
*tsʰ sũ̀ sũwẽ sɨ̃́ tʰõ-m "to drink"
*tʰ ˈtʰɤ̄ θáː ʃó tʰa- "to break" (in Taos, Tewa, Jemez), "to sever several" (in Kiowa)
*ts’ ˈtʃʼɑ̄- tʼɔ-l "liver"
*t’ tʼɑ́- tʼon tʼaː tʼɔː "antelope"
*dz jɑ̄- zǽː "song" (in Taos, Jemez), "to sing" (in Kiowa)


  1. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kiowa–Tanoan". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. The original Americanist phonetic symbols differ from the IPA: Amer. ⟨c⟩ = IPA ⟨ts⟩, Amer ⟨ʒ⟩ = IPA ⟨dz⟩.
  3. The null set symbol ∅ represents the lack of a consonant, i.e. the reconstructed proto-sound was deleted in the daughter language.
  4. Taos (and also Picuris) /tʃ/ varies between post-alveolar [tʃ] and alveolar [ts].
  5. This consonant is transcribed as a palatalized [tʸ] in Hale (1967) and palatalized [kʸ] in Hale (1962).
  6. Taos (and also Picuris) /tʃʼ/ varies between post-alveolar [tʃʼ] and alveolar [tsʼ].
  7. The data here is from Hale (1967), which in turn is gathered from G. Trager's publications (for Taos), Harrington's publications (for Kiowa), Dozier in personal communication to Hale (for Tewa), and Hale's own fieldwork on Jemez.


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