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Local History Lesson: 11/15/2013

The Languages of Kenwood



For thousands of years before English or Spanish was spoken here, the Kenwood area was home to three separate native languages. Their sound still echoes in a few familiar words – sonoma, petaluma, cotati, yulupa, mayacamas, ukiah. Wappo, Coast Miwok and Pomo are the modern names for these languages. Near the headwaters of Sonoma Creek, in what is now Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, was a village of the Guiluc people, who spoke a dialect of Wappo. In the Glen Ellen area, Coast Miwok was the native tongue. In the other direction, Pomo was spoken in the Santa Rosa Creek watershed, which reaches east to Pythian Road. The boundaries probably shifted over time, but linguists believe that Kenwood was more or less the place where all three met.

Such diversity was not uncommon in California; this was one of the most linguistically rich places in the world. Before European contact more than 75 languages were spoken here, and most had several dialects. Given the extensive trade and intermarriage among groups, many native Californians were multi-lingual. All these languages were distinct – Wappo is as different from Coast Miwok as English is from Chinese. There were actually seven Pomo languages – related, but still as separate as French and Spanish.

This rich variety is believed to be the result of many groups arriving here at different times over many thousands of years. While Pomo and Miwok share roots with other California languages, many linguists believe Wappo to be unrelated to any other in the world. This suggests it could be the state’s oldest language, an ancient form (like Old English) having arrived with some of the first humans to settle California at the end of the last ice age, more than ten thousand years ago.

The Wappo used “-sonoma” at the end of village names. There was Anakotasonoma near Mt. St. Helena, Nihlekt’sonoma near Calistoga, and others. Laura Somersal, one of the last fluent speakers of Wappo, said it meant “abandoned camping place.” A rough English equivalent might be “-burg” or “-ville,” which are incomplete by themselves. A Wappo dictionary spells it “tso’noma,” from “tso” for earth and “noma” for village; a “good spot” to dwell. Sonoma could be one of the oldest continuously used words in California.

Mayacama was also a village name. Its original pronunciation was closer to “Meyahk’mah” with a glottal stop in the middle (like “uh-oh”). Today we use the name for a mountain range. Petaluma, Cotati, and Yulupa are Coast Miwok village names that have also survived. For some reason, no Southern Pomo place names are in common use. Ukiah is familiar to us, but comes from the Central Pomo language spoken in Mendocino County.

While a few words have made it into common use, what of the living languages themselves? All have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The establishment of the Sonoma Mission in 1823 accelerated the use of Spanish here. Fourteen years later, a smallpox epidemic hit. Within two years, something like 90 percent of the native people died from this Old World disease. Somehow, the survivors carried on. Violence, dislocation and slavery by Mexican and American settlers also took their toll. Later, the U.S. government worked hard to assimilate natives into the dominant culture. Children were removed from their families and sent away to boarding schools where speaking anything but English was severely punished.

Miraculously, all three languages survived, just barely. A few tribal children were still learning Southern Pomo as their first language in the early 20th century. The last fluent speaker of Coast Miwok, Sarah Ballard, passed away in 1978. Laura Somersal, the last person to learn Wappo as a first language, died in 1990. Elsie Allen, considered the last fluent speaker of Southern Pomo, also died that year. Luckily, these three women were able to pass on much of their knowledge to family and tribal members, as well as linguists and anthropologists.

Why be concerned about the loss of a language that no one speaks anymore? Because every language is a unique way of seeing and thinking about the world; an irreplaceable human creation. It’s estimated that half of the world’s 6,000 languages are at risk of becoming extinct within a generation because they are not being passed on to the next generation. Recently, a Southern Pomo alphabet was created, representing all of its thirty-four sounds. For the first time, Southern Pomo can be written as well as spoken. Members of all three tribes are working to bring their languages back from the brink. With the help of linguists and each other, they hope to once again make the languages of their ancestors a part of daily life.


Email: baseline@vom.com

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