Northeastern Pomo Project

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The Northeastern Pomo people called themselves the čʰeʔe: foka: ‘Salt People’ because of their control of a precious salt deposit near present-day Stonyford, CA.

Northeastern Pomo is the most enigmatic of the seven Pomoan languages of Northern California, all of which were mutually unintelligible. It was the only Pomoan language with territory that was not contiguous with any other Pomoan language. Its speakers were surrounded by speakers of Yuki, Nomlaki, and Patwin (the latter two part of the Wintuan family). Northeastern Pomo was not identified until the first decade of the twentieth century and was the last Pomoan language to be discovered by academia (Barrett 1904). It was also the first Pomoan language to become extinct, with the last fluent speakers passing away within 70 years of their discovery by science (McLendon 1973:5).

Three prominent Pomoan scholars collected Northeastern Pomo data from fluent speakers during the short period of time between the discovery and death of the language: Samuel Barrett, Abraham M. Halpern, and Sally McLendon. There are also some data collected by Merriam, who eschewed advances in phonetic transcription, and word lists and later forms collected by Robert Oswalt from partial speakers of Northeastern Pomo. Barrett’s (1908) published data include hundreds of examples, though the work predates competent phonetic transcription practices and therefore omits much phonetic detail; Halpern’s data come from a single speaker from whom he gathered a great deal of vocabulary and some connected discourse during a one-week fieldwork trip in 1940 (1984:38). McLendon carried out fieldwork for a month shortly before the death of the last speaker (1973:6).

McLendon collected the only known audio recordings of Northeastern Pomo speech in the late 1950s, which are available for scholars to study, though her transcriptions and other notes, if any exist, are not publicly available. There are also some recordings of songs housed at Berkeley which are labeled as Northeastern Pomo, which were variously recorded by Peter Abraham, S. A. Barrett, and an anonymous collector. In addition to these Pomoan scholars, Whistler, a Wintuan scholar, collected many Northeastern Pomo words from a Patwin speaker whose family spoke both languages, all of which are now publicly available in his archived field notes.

The late discovery, physical isolation, and early extinction of Northeastern Pomo have resulted in its being largely ignored by academia. Not a single published work of any length or type has been devoted solely to the language to date. Other scholars have nonetheless attempted to identify the place of Northeastern Pomo among the seven Pomoan languages for more than a century. However, these efforts have not borne real fruit: there is still no consensus on the place of Northeastern Pomo within Pomoan, which is not surprising when the almost complete lack of careful analysis of the extant data is considered. Trees (or tree-like diagrams) which seek to clarify the relationships among the Pomoan languages, including the place of Northeastern Pomo within the family, are put forth by four scholars: Barrett (1908:100), Kroeber (1925:227), Halpern (1964:90, 1984:34), and Oswalt (1964:412). In these works there is vacillation between placing Northeastern Pomo together with its nearest Pomoan neighbors (especially Northern Pomo) and its more far-flung congeners among the Russian River Pomoan languages with which it shares many phonological features.

WIELD’s Northeastern Pomo project makes use of all of the aforementioned data sources and seeks to do the following: (1) create a database with all known lexical items in the language from all sources; (2) determine the place of Northeastern Pomo within the Pomoan family and the degree to which its uniqueness is due to contact-induced changes and language-internal innovations versus Proto Pomo retentions.

Northeastern Pomo retentions include the preservation of laryngeal augments /h/ and /ʔ/. Language-internal innovations include the use of an animate (case-marking?) suffix –ka: in the citation forms of all human, animal, and personified weather terms (e.g. čʰeʔe: fo-ka: salt people-NOM ‘Salt Pomo’) and possibly the unusual (for California) change of Proto Pomo *pʰ > f (compare Southern Pomo nopʰ:o ‘village’ with Northeastern Pomo fo- ‘people/village’). Contact-induced phenomena include nominative/accusative case marking, as found in neighboring Patwin, rather than the agent/patient case marking found in Pomoan and Yuki. The merger of Proto Pomo *s and *x as š and the unique (within Pomoan) change of Proto Pomo *k > t̯ are also possibly the result of contact with Patwin.

A working draft of a lexical database for Northeastern Pomo is available here. For a detailed description of extant Northeastern Pomo sources, please consult Walker (2016). A comprehensive table of all attested Northeastern Pomo numerals can be accessed here. (Note that cells in red are forms which are mistakes made by speakers who were confused or otherwise did not recall the numbers correctly. Cells in yellow highlight forms which differ from the forms in the column on the far right, and these forms, though they differ, appear to be legitimate variants rather than speaker errors.)

This page will be updated frequently over the coming months. We hope to create an online database of Northeastern Pomo data for interested scholars and any heritage learners to use.

Walker, Neil Alexander. 2016. Assessing the effects of language contact on Northeastern Pomo. In Contact and Change in the Americas. Studies in honor of Marianne Mithun, Andrea Berez-Kroeker, eds. Diane M. Hintz, and Carmen Jany [SLCS 173].