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Endangered Language Watch: Salish


As a recently arrived transplant to Kalispell, Montana, I couldn’t help noticing that several of the road signs on Highway 93 are written in English and an interesting looking language that I later learned was called ‘Salish.’ Salish consists of consonant clusters (sometimes as many as 13 in a row) with few vowels. It originated with the Flathead Indians still found today in parts of Montana and Washington.

Here are a few examples of written Salish:




The town of Kalispell is named for a Salishan word meaning ‘flat land above the lake.’ During the 1700’s Salish was so prevalently spoken that settlers who spent time with the Flatheads noted that speaking solely Salish “one [could] converse from the United States to the Willamette without the necessity of an interpreter.” Father Gregory Mengarini, a Catholic missionary sent to convert the Flatheads in the Rocky Mountains, learned the language so well that he printed a Salish dictionary in 1879.

Today, several dialects of Salish still exist. Currently, there are around 50 fluent speakers of Salishan dialects working to keep this endangered language alive. If you would like to hear Salish spoken, the UCLA Phonetics Lab Archive has greatly contributed to the fight to preserve the language by recording and archiving several tribal elders and teachers speaking the language. The Salish Language Revitalization Institute is also an excellent resource for learning more about Salish grammar and vocabulary and the importance of keeping the language alive.

Stay tuned as I explore other Indian languages and cultures during my stay in Montana!

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