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Nez Perce

The Nez Perce are a tribe of Native Americans who inhabited the Pacific Northwest region of North America and adjoining regions at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Nez Perce is a misnomer given by the interpreter of the Lewis and Clark expedition at the time they first encountered the tribe in 1805. It is from the French, "pierced nose." This is an inaccurate description of the tribe. They did not practice nose piercing or wearing ornaments. The "pierced nose" tribe, though related to the Nez Perce, actually lived on and around the lower Columbia River, and in other areas of the Pacific Northwest.

Not surprisingly, the Nez Perce's name for themselves was Nee-me-poo, or "the People." This is perhaps the most common self-designation of aboriginal peoples the world over.

The Nez Perce territory at the time of Lewis and Clark was approximately 17 million acres. It covered parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, in an area surrounding the Snake River and the Clearwater River. The Nez Perce, like many western Native American tribes, were migratory and would travel with the seasons, according to where the most abundant food was to be found at a given time of year. They were known go as far east as the Great Plains, hunting buffalo and fishing for salmon at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River.

Probably the best known leader of the Nez Perce was Chief Joseph, who led his people in their struggle to retain their identity in the face of American encroachments on their land.

The Nez Perce language

The Nez Perce language is a branch of the Sahaptian (spelled -ian) family, which also includes several dialects of Sahaptin (spelled -in). Together, these languages are grouped into the larger Penutian family, which also includes languages such as Cayuse, Klamath, and Chinookan. The organization of this linguistic family can be compared to often more familiar examples such as the Indo-European or Romance families, though presumably Penutian is in no way historically related to Indo-European languages.

A map of American languages is provided by the TITUS project at " class="external">

The grammar of Nez Perce has been described in the dissertations of Noel Rude (University of Oregon, 1985) and Harold David Crook (UCLA, 1999), in a grammar by Haruo Aoki (University of California Press, 1975) and a dictionary by Haruo Aoki (University of California Press, 1999).

What follows is a brief non-technical overview of Nez Perce grammar.

In Nez Perce, the subject of a sentence and the object can each be marked with a morpheme called a case-marker. This tells whether the word in question is the subject or the object. (This strategy of differentiating subject from object is found in most languages; consider English 'I', a subject only, versus 'me', an object.) Nez Perce employs a strategy called three-way case-marking; this means that a transitive subject, transitive object, and intransitive subject are all marked differently.

Because Nez Perce subjects and objects carry morphemes revealing their function in the sentence, the word order can be quite free. For example, in English one says "I saw him" but not "I him saw," "him I saw," "him saw I," "saw I him," or "saw him I"; in Nez Perce, one may say the equivalent of any of these. The word order tells what is new information (focus) versus old information (topic), but it does not tell which noun is subject and which is object, unlike in English.

A Nez Perce verb can have the meaning of an entire sentence in English. (This manner of providing a great deal of information in one word is called 'polysynthesis'.) Verbal morphemes provide information about the person and number of the subject and object, as well as tense and aspect (whether or not an action has been completed, e.g.). In fact, so much information is provided by the verb that nouns can often be left out of sentences. The example "I saw him" would probably be translated as one word, a verb, whose morphemes would be the equivalent of I-him-see-past.

The phonology of Nez Perce includes a phenomenon known as vowel harmony, as well as a complex stress system described by Crook (1999).

Nez Perce is a highly endangered language. While sources differ on the exact number of fluent speakers, it is almost definitely under 100. The Nez Perce tribe is endeavoring to reintroduce the language into native usage through a revitalization program, though at present the future of the Nez Perce language is far from assured.

You can hear Nez Perce being spoken here: