The Alsea Language

Alsea is an extinct language that was originally spoken on the north-central Oregon coast. It is usually pronounced "AL-see", or ['ælsi].

There were two dialects: Yaquina, spoken around Yaquina Bay (present-day Newport); and Alsea proper, spoken around Alsea Bay (present-day Waldport). While the genetic classification of Alsea requires further study, it is most often considered to be a Penutian language (as part of a Yakonan or Coast Oregon Penutian subgroup).

A page on the Alsea Bay and River says that the word Alsi means "peace", and I was told the same thing at the visitors center in Waldport, but I am aware of no evidence for this claim. The linguistic literature reports that Alsí was the word for this group as named by the Kalapuya Indians, who lived to the east in the Willamette Valley. The native term is perhaps best rendered in English spelling as Wsín (where the final "in" really is a nasalized [i] vowel); I have discovered no literal meaning in a native language.

For a glimpse of conditions at Siletz Reservation in 1877, where most of the Alseas lived at the time -- and where the existing texts were collected between 1910 and 1913 -- click to view a letter written by the Indian Agent to his superiors in Washington. Another letter, from a "concerned" white settler, presents a telling contrast. See the index to this site for further relevant documents.

This page was prepared by Gene Buckley.

I began working on Alsea when I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, and have maintained an interest in the language since then. Topics that I have explored include various aspects of the morphology, clitic placement, and genetic affiliation. Specific references, and in some cases links to pdf files, can be seen on my curriculum vitae.

In the summer of 1996, a grant from the University Research Foundation at Penn made possible the scanning of texts published by Leo Frachtenberg in 1917 and 1920. Another grant in 2004 permitted the digitization of handwritten file slips by Melville Jacobs dating from 1935. The addition of morphological analysis and glosses remains to be accomplished. Scholars interested in making use of these files should contact me.