Esselen language

Native toUnited States
RegionBig Sur (California)
Extinct19th century
Hokan ?
  • Esselen
Language codes
ISO 639-3esq
Esselen lang.png

Esselen was the language of the Esselen (or self-designated Huelel) Nation, which aboriginally occupied the mountainous Central Coast of California, immediately south of Monterey (Shaul 1995). It was probably a language isolate, though has been included as a part of the hypothetical Hokan proposal.


The name Esselen was derived from a village name. The Esselen people referred to their own language as Huelel. The name was recorded by Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta on May 18, 1832 at Soledad Mission from his informant Eusebio (native name Sutasis) (cf. villel 'tongue' as recorded by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano) (Shaul 1995).

Historical background

French explorer Jean La Perouse, who visited Monterey in 1786, reported:[2]

The country of the Ecclemachs [Esselen] extends above 20 leagues to the [south]eastward of Monterey. Their language is totally different from all those of their neighbors, and has even more resemblance to the languages of Europe than to those of the Americas. This grammatical phenomenon, the most curious in this respect ever observed on the continent, will, perhaps, be interesting to those of the learned, who seek, in the analogy of languages, the history and genealogy of transplanted nations.

Esselen may have been the first Californian language to become extinct. Although it was spoken by many of the early converts at Mission Carmel, its use rapidly declined during the Hispanic period. Very little information on the vocabulary and grammar of Esselen was preserved. About 350 words and phrases and a few complete sentences have been preserved in literature,[2] including a short bilingual catechism (for a summary see Mithun 1999:411–413 and Golla 2011:114). By the beginning of the 20th century the only data on Esselen that investigators such as Kroeber and Harrington could collect were a few words remembered by speakers of other Indian languages in the area.[citation needed]


H. W. Henshaw thought that Esselen represented a monotypic linguistic family. Others have assigned the language to the Hokan family. While it is likely that much of Dixon & Kroeber's Hokan-Penutian model will stand the test of time, the subject matter is both complex and poorly understood, and is thus subject to revision.


Labial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p t ʈ k ʔ
Affricate ts kx
Fricative s ʃ x h
Nasal m n
Rhotic r
Approximant w l j

/p/ has allophones of [f] and [pf]. /t/ has an allophone of [tʃ].[3]

Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open a


Subject pronouns in Esselen (Shaul 1995):

sg pl
1 eni leṭ
2 neme nomeṭ
3 laṭ, lawis


Word order is primarily SVO, although SOV and VSO also occur (Shaul 1995).


Shaul (1995) reconstitutes Esselen vocabulary, synthesized from various historical sources, as follows.[3] Forms from Alfred L. Kroeber are marked by (Kr).

gloss Esselen
adult -nVč
all komVnam
arrow lóto-s
bear koltála
bow paxu-nax
child/son pana
cry siawa
dance mepV, mef-
dark tumas (Kr)
day asátsa
die moho
dog šošo
drink etse, eše
ear tus-usp (Kr)
earth maṭa, matsa
eyes -ikxpa
father haya
female ta-
foot kxéle
friend -efe
girl soléta
give toxésa
good/well sale-
grandfather meči
ground squirrel mexe
hair haka
head kxáta-sVx
large putú-ki; yakí-s-ki
man exe-
mother atsia
mountain polomo
mountain lion xeke-s
mouth iši
nails uluxV
night tomani-s
nose xoši
person efexe
pinole amúxe
plain yala-x
quail kumul (Kr)
rabbit (cottontail) čiši, čis-
salmon kilí-
seal opopa-pas
sky imi-
small ukxu-s-ki
speak al-pa
sun aši
teeth awur
water asa-nax
where kéya-
who kíni
wildcat toloma
wood i'i
yes íke


gloss Esselen
one pek
two kxulax
three kxulep
four kxamakxu-s
five pemakxa-la
six pek-walanai
seven kxula-walanai
eight kxulef-walanai
ten tomóila


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Esselen". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ a b "DCQ Fall Equinox 1999 -- The Caves Ranch". www.ventanawild.org. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  3. ^ a b Shaul, David L. 1995. "The Huelel (Esselen) Language." International Journal of American Linguistics 61:191-239.


  • Golla, Victor. 2011. California Indian Languages. University of California Press.
  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge University Press.
  • Shaul, David L. 1995. "The Huelel (Esselen) Language." International Journal of American Linguistics 61:191-239.

External links

This page was last updated at 2020-12-18 12:31, update this pageView original page

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