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The number of Native American tribal languages in California might surprise you

California might be one of the most diverse states today but before Europeans arrived it was the most diverse place in North America.

Root languages of California

After contact with the Spanish through the mission period, and Gold Rush encroachment, entire cultures of Native Americans in California were nearly wiped out.

“Culturally and linguistically, (California) was the most diverse place on the planet when Juan Cabrillo first put ashore on Kumeyaay land in 1542,” former Gov. Jerry Brown wrote this year in his foreword to “When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California,” the catalog for an exhibition of the same name currently at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. “When we consider the hundreds of nations that lived here — their distinct languages, customs, and trading practices — the longevity of our native civilization takes on a new meaning. Ancient California was, in fact, the crossroads of a continent and home to a vast population.”

This map from the Library of Congress was in the Smithsonian’s’ Bureau of Ethnology Report of 1901. It shows where different Native American languages were spoken. California has the most of any region.

The map below shows where tribes were in pre-Columbian times and six distinct language families. Some of today’s tribes are trying to preserve and revitalize their sacred places and native languages.

The Penutian language was spoken in many places in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Uto-Aztecan is one of the most widely used languages in North America and was distributed from Oregon to Panama.

Before the Europeans came, some estimate that California had more than 500 tribal groups speaking about 300 dialects of at least 100 languages.

Familiar places

Many of California’s indigenous names for places were changed by the Spanish but some places such as Topanga and Cahunga that end in “nga” are indigenous.

Lake Tahoe got it’s name from the Washo, Tah-hoo-he which means big water.

Yosemite comes from the Miwok word Uzumati and means bear.

Ojai in Ventura County comes from a Chumash word, A’hwai which is the word for moon.

Aguanga, in Riverside County, has no connection with Spanish agua, but is a village name of the Shoshonean Luiseiio Indians.

Local dialects

Takic is group of dialects in the Uto-Aztecan language. Both the Gabrielino in what is Los Angeles and the Juaneño in Orange County use Takic words. Here’s an example of pronunciation from native-languages.org:

Gabrielino

  • Sun: Taamit
  • Moon: Muwaar
  • Water Paara’

Juaneño

  • Sun: Temét
  • Moon: Móyla
  • Water: Páal

However long you’ve been in California it is worth mentioning that some families have been here 12,000 years or more. Here are a few local spots and the Juaneño/Luiseño pronunciation.

  • San Onofre: qe’éespamay
  • San Pedro: masaungna
  • Saddleback Mountain: kaláwpa
  • Catalina Island: pimú
  • Santa Anita: aleupki-nga
  • Santa Ana River basin: wanáw
  • Huntington Beach area: tóonav
  • The ocean: móomat

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