A debut dictionary of all known words in Nootka, the 5,000-year-old tongue of North American tribes in an island outpost of the Rockies, has been published by a team in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Years of interviews with some 300 surviving speakers of the language, almost all now aged over 60, have led to 537 pages of unique and remarkably versatile terms. Entire sentences of meaning can be crammed into very short words.
“There are only three basic vowels but 40 consonants and a very complex sound structure when they are spoken,” said John Stonham, of Newcastle University, who started collecting Nootka words 20 years ago. His dictionary also draws on the fieldwork of the linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir, who investigated the tribes’ homeland on Vancouver Island between 1910 and 1924.