Here is a list of the native languages of British Columbia, classified by language family. In order to show the relationships of the languages more fully, languages spoken outside of British Columbia are listed as well. The names of languages spoken or formerly spoken in British Columbia are printed in red. For information about a language, click on its name.
Languages spoken only outside of British Columbia are printed in blue. Headings in capitals are the names of groupings of languages. For example, Central Salish is the name for a group of languages, not a particular language.
The Athabaskan language family as a whole is fairly closely related to Eyak, a language once spoken in the Cook inlet area of southern Alaska. Eyak is no more closely related to the neighboring Alaskan Athabaskan languages than it is to Navajo; it evidently split off long ago from the rest of Athabaskan.
Tlingit is a more distant relative of Athabaskan-Eyak. The relationship of Tlingit to Athabaskan-Eyak was unclear for many years. As a result, Tlingit is listed in many sources as an isolate. However, improved knowledge of Tlingit has made it clear that Tlingit is related to Athabaskan-Eyak.
The homeland of the Athabaskan languages is northwestern Canada and southern/eastern Alaska. There are, however, two offshoots in the United States. The Apachean languages are spoken in the American Southwest, while the Pacific Coast languages are spoken in various places along the Pacific coast from the far north of California to southern Washington.
The languages other than the Apachean and Pacific Coast languages are often referred to as a group as the Northern Athabaskan languages. However, they arguably do not form a subgroup within the language family.
Salishan languages are spoken in much of the southern half of British Columbia. They are also spoken in the United States, in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. For a comprehensive bibliography see A Bibliography of Salish Linguistics
Two of the Salishan languages, Bella Coola (Nuxalk) and Tillamook, differ considerably from the others and are considered to form subgroups by themselves. The remainder of the languages are divided into three subgroups.
The Tsimshianic languages are spoken on the northwest coast and in adjacent areas of the interior. Gitksan and Nisga'a are so similiar that they are considered to be dialects of the same language by most linguists. As a result, in the literature they are often referred to together as Nass-Gitksan. However, the Nisga'a and Gitksan people are politically quite separate and for political reasons prefer to refer to Nisga'a and Gitksan as separate languages. (A comparable situation in Europe would be Dutch and Flemish, which are the same language. Flemish is simply the variety of Dutch spoken in Belgium.)
South Tsimshian is spoken at Klemtu and may represent the original language of Klemtu. It has been almost completely replaced by Heiltsuk, and increasingly, English.
The name of the language family is not entirely uncontroversial. Gitksan and, especially, Nisga'a people do not care for the name "Tsimshianic" because it seems to give priority to Coast Tsimshian. Nisga'a people sometimes refer to "Nisga'a and the related languages". However, we seem to be stuck with "Tsimshianic" since there is no generally accepted replacement that does not favor one language over the others.
The Tsimshianic languages are spoken almost entirely in British Columbia, but Coast Tsimshian is also spoken at New Metlakatla in Alaska. New Metlakatla was established in the nineteenth century by Christians who moved away in order to create a community in which they could live according to their new beliefs without conflicting influences.
The Tsimshianic languages are not generally considered to be related to any other languages, but there is a long-standing proposal that they belong to a large group of languages spoken along the Pacific Coast from California northward known as the Penutian language family. The status of the Penutian family and whether Tsimshianic is part of it is a matter research and debate.
The Wakashan languages are all spoken in the same general area, namely parts of Vancouver Island, nearby parts of the mainland coast, and the Olympic penninsula. The family is divided into two branches. The Northern branch is spoken entirely in British Columbia. Haisla is spoken in Kitimat and in the Kitlope valley. Heiltsuk is spoken in Bella Bella and Klemtu. Owik'ala is spoken at Rivers Inlet. Heiltsuk and Owik'ala are generally considered by linguists to be dialects of the same, un-named, language. Kwak'wala is spoken on northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland.
Ditidaht is spoken in southwestern Vancouver Island. In the past it has often been called Nitinat. Nuuchanulth is spoken on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is known as Nootka in much of the literature. Makah is spoken on the Olympic Penninsula in Washington state.
A useful source of information is the Wakashan Linguistics Page.
Algonquian is one of the most widespread language families in North America, ranging from the East Coast of both Canada and the United States far to the west. However, Algonquian languages only marginally belong in British Columbia. The only Algonquian language with a significant number of speakers in British Columbia is Cree, which is a recent arrival. The movement of Cree speakers into north-eastern British Columbia represents the farthest expansion of Cree across the prairies.
The other Algonquian language spoken in British Columbia is Saulteau. The Saulteau homeland is far to the East of British Columbia. In the 1870s one band of Saulteau migrated westward, following their leader's vision. They ended up around Moberly, where they gradually merged with the Cree and Beaver people already there. Today only a few elders speak Saulteau.
Two languages of Northwestern California, Wiyot and Yurok, are distantly related to Algonquian. The family as a whole is known as the Algic language family. Wiyot and Yurok are sometimes grouped together into a subgroup known as Ritwan, but it is controversial whether they in fact form a subgroup. Wiyot is extinct; Yurok is still spoken by a small number of people.
Two languages, Haida and Kootenai, are considered to be isolates. This means that neither is demonstrably related to any other language.
Haida is spoken in the Haida Gwa'ai, the Queen Charlotte Islands, and on the adjacent coast of Alaska. There are two surviving dialects, associated with Masset and Skidegate. Tradition has it that a distinct dialect was spoken at Ninstints, but no record of this dialect survives.
It has been proposed that Haida is related to the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit family. This language family is called Na-Déné. The current opinion of the majority of specialists is that there is no convincing reason to believe that Haida is related to the AET languages.
Kootenai is spoken in southeastern British Columbia, northwestern Montana, and northeastern Idaho. The Montana Kootenai live together with the Salishan speaking Flathead (also "Montana Salish") in what is now called the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes. This association between the Montana Kootenai and Flatheads apparently dates back before European contact.
It has been proposed that Kootenai is related to the Salishan languages. The current opinion of the majority of specialists is that this hypothesis is promising but that the evidence is not yet convincing. If this relationship is real, it is distant. (See Morgan (1980) for discussion.)