Seri language

Cmiique Iitom
Pronunciation [kw̃ĩkˈiːtom]
Region Sonora, Mexico
Ethnicity Seri
Native speakers
720 (2006)[1] to 760 (2010 census)[2]
(possibly Hokan)
  • Seri
Language codes
ISO 639-3 sei
Glottolog seri1257[3]

Seri (Seri: cmiique iitom) is an indigenous language spoken by between 716[1] and 900[4] Seri people in Punta Chueca and El Desemboque, two villages on the coast of Sonora, Mexico.[4] The language is generally considered an isolate, however, there have been attempts to include it in the theoretical Hokan language family.[5] There is no concrete evidence for connections to other languages at this time.

Seri has been concretely recorded by Westerners as early as 1692[6] but the population has remained fairly isolated. Extensive work on Seri began in 1951 by Edward and Mary Beck Moser with the Summer Institute of Linguistics.[7] Their daughter was raised in the Seri community and later married Stephen Marlett; they have both continued work within the Seri language and community.

The language is viable within its community and is used freely in daily life. Exceptions include primary and secondary school, some parts of local church services, and communications with Spanish speakers outside of the Seri community.[8] Most members of the community, including youth, are fluent in their language. However, the population of speakers is small and cultural knowledge is dwindling as the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle becomes increasingly obsolete. For these reasons, Seri is listed as a vulnerable language by UNESCO.[9]


The term Serian family may be used to refer to a language family with Seri as its only living member; related languages have disappeared in the last couple of centuries. Attempts have been made to link it to the Yuman family, to the now-extinct Salinan language of California, and to the much larger hypothetical Hokan family.[5] These hypotheses came out of a period when attempts were being made to group all of the languages of the Americas into families. In the case of Seri, however, very little evidence has ever been produced. Until such evidence is presented and evaluated, the language is most appropriately considered an isolate.


The name Seri is an exonym for this people that has been used since the first contacts with the Spaniards (sometimes written differently, as ceres). Gilg reported in 1692 that it was a Spanish name, but surely, it was the name used by another group of the area to refer to the Seris. Nevertheless, modern claims that it is a Yaqui term that means something like "people of the sand"[10] or an Opata term that means "people who run fast".[11] They are lacking in factual basis; no evidence has been presented for the former and no credible evidence has been presented for the latter.

The name used within the Seri community itself, for the language, is Cmiique Iitom, which contrasts with Cocsar Iitom ("Spanish language") and Maricaana Iitom ("English language"). The expression is a noun phrase that is literally "(that) with which a Seri person speaks". The word Cmiique (phonetically [ˈkw̃ĩːkːɛ]) is the singular noun for "Seri person". The word iitom is the oblique nominalization of the intransitive verb caaitom ("talk"), with the prefix i- (third person possessor), and the null prefix for the nominalizer with this class of root. Another similar expression that one hears occasionally for the language is Cmiique Iimx, which is a similar construction based on the transitive verb quimx ("tell") (root = amx).

The name chosen by the Seri committee for the name of the language used in the title of the recent dictionary was Comcaac quih Yaza, the plural version of Cmiique Iitom. It was appropriate for a project of that type although it is not a commonly used term. Comcaac (phonetically [koŋˈkɑːk]) is the plural form of Cmiique and yaza is the plural nominalized form corresponding to iitom. (ooza is the plural root, y- (with an accompanying vowel ablaut) is the nominalizer; the prefix for third person possessor elides before the y. The word quih is a singular article (which combines with the plural noun to refer to the Seri community).

The language was erroneously referred to as Kunkaak as early as the beginning of the twentieth century (as in Hernández 1904), and this mistake has been repeated up to the present day by people who confuse the name of an ethnic group with the name of its language (which are often the same in Spanish and English). The lexeme Comcaac is used in the Seri language only to refer to the people.



Seri vowel phonemes
Front Back
High i o
Low ɛ ɛː ɑ ɑː

Vowel length is contrastive only in stressed syllables. The low front vowels /ɛ, ɛː/ are phonetically between open-mid and near-open and have also been transcribed as /æ, æː/.

The non-rounded vowels /i, ɛ, ɑ/ may be realized as diphthongs [iu̯, ɛo̯, ɑo̯] when followed by the labialized consonants /kʷ, xʷ, χʷ/, but this small phonetic detail is not written in the community-based writing system.


Seri consonant phonemes
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
plain lab. plain lab.
Nasal m n
Stop p t k ʔ
Fricative central ɸ s ʃ ɸ χ χʷ
lateral ɬ
Approximant (ɬ) j
Tap (ɾ)

/ɾ/ occurs only in loanwords.[12] /l/ occurs in loanwords and in a few native words, where it may alternate with /l/ depending on the word and the individual speaker. Other consonants may occur in recent loans, such as [ɡ] in hamiigo ("friend" from Spanish amigo), and [β] in hoova ("grape" from Spanish uva).

The labial fricative /ɸ/ may be labiodental [f] for some speakers, and the postalveolar fricative /ʃ/ may be retroflex [ʂ].

/t/ and /n/ are prototypically dental.

In unstressed syllables, /m/ assimilates to the place of articulation of the following consonant. This assimilation may take place over word boundaries in connected speech. When /m/ is preceded by /k/ or /kʷ/, it becomes a nasalized approximant [w̃] and the following vowel becomes nasalized, e.g. cmiique /kmiːkɛ/ "person; Seri" is pronounced [ˈkw̃ĩːkːɛ] or [ˈkw̃ĩːkːi]. For some speakers, word-final /m/ may become [ŋ] at the end of a phrase or sentence, or when said in isolation. It can be documented, by careful examination of word lists collected in the nineteenth century, that some of these phonetic rules have arisen fairly recently.[13]

Syllable Structure

Syllable structure in Seri is fairly complex. Simple syllable onsets are most common, however, syllables without onsets can occur at the beginning of a word. The language generally allows up to three consonants to occur together at the beginning of a syllable, although consonants cannot be repeated (i.e. "tt" or "pp"). It is like English in this respect, which allows three-consonant combinations like spray and acts. Unlike English, however, the specific combinations that may occur are much less restricted. For example, English allows spr- but disallows *ptk-, which Seri allows, as in ptcamn, ("Cortez spiny lobster", Panulirus inflatus). Rarely, clusters of four consonants can occur: /kʷsχt/ in cösxtamt, ..., "there were many, ..."; /mxkχ/ in ipoomjc x, ... "if s/he brings it, ...", (with enclitic x).

The nuclei of Seri syllables can include one, two, or three vowels. Long vowels are indicated by repetition (i.e. "aa" or "ii"). Vowel clusters may include 3 separate letters, as in the one syllable word kaoi (NOM-D-delouse).[12] Syllables with complex nuclei must be stressed; otherwise, the stress generally occurs on the first syllable of a words root. Because of this, vowel clusters often occur in the initial syllable of a root.

Simple coda do exist, however, complex coda are more common. Word-medial coda may not include more than one consonant, while word-final coda may include up to three.

Affixes, which may consist of one or more consonants with no vowels, can be added before or after existing consonant clusters, thereby complicating pronunciation and syllabification. When necessary, empty vowel positions are inserted and often filled with a syllabic nasal or an "i" to aid in pronunciation.


Stress is contrastive in Seri. Although it usually falls on the first syllable of a root, there are many words where it does not, mostly nouns, as well as a small class of common verbs whose stress may fall on a prefix rather than on the root. An alternative analysis,[14] recently proposed and with fewer exceptions, assigns stress to the penultimate syllable of the root of a word (since suffixes are never stressed and prefixes receive stress only as a result of phonological fusion with the root). This rule is also sensitive to syllable weight. A heavy final syllable in the root attracts stress. A heavy syllable is one that has a long vowel or vowel cluster or a final consonant cluster. (A single consonant in the syllable coda is typically counted as extrametrical in Seri.)

Consonants following a stressed syllable are lengthened, and vowels separated from a preceding stressed vowel by a single consonant are also lengthened so that cootaj /ˈkoːtɑx/ ("ant") is pronounced [ˈkoːtːɑːx]. Such allophonically lengthened vowels may be longer than the phonemically long vowels found in stressed syllables. The lengthening does not occur if the following consonant or vowel is part of a suffix (coo-taj, the plural of coo ("shovelnose guitarfish"), is [ˈkoːtɑx], without lengthening) if the stressed syllable consists of a long vowel and a short vowel (caaijoj, a kind of manta ray, is [ˈkɑːixox], without lengthening), or if the stressed vowel is lengthened to indicate intensity. It also does not affect most loanwords.


Verbs, nouns, and postpositions are inflected word categories in Seri.


Nouns inflect for plurality through suffixation. Compare noosi 'mourning dove' and noosi-lc 'mourning doves'. Pluralization is very complicated; for this reason, each noun is listed in the dictionary with its plural form. Some nouns ostensibly use an infix to indicate plural: caatc 'grasshopper', caatjc 'grasshoppers'. A few nouns have completely suppletive plural forms: cmiique 'Seri person', comcáac 'Seri people', ziix 'thing', xiica 'things'.

Kinship terms and body part nouns inflect for possessors through prefixes (with slightly different prefix sets). Compare ma-sáac 'your son' (of man) and mi-lít 'your head'. As they are obligatorily possessed nouns, a special prefix appears when no possessor is specified, and kinship terms sometimes have additional material at the end as well. Compare ha-sáac-at 'one's son', and ha-lít 'one's head'. Some nouns have an additional plural form to distinguish between singular and plural possessors: itoj 'his/her eye', itoj 'his/her eyes', itolcoj 'their eyes'.


Finite verbs obligatorily inflect for number of the subject, person of the subject, direct object and indirect object and tense/mood. For subject person and number, compare ihpyopánzx 'I ran', inyopánzx 'you (sg.) ran', yopanzx 'it ran, she ran, he ran', hayopáncojc 'we ran', mayopáncojc 'you (pl.) ran', yopáncojc 'they ran'.

For object person (which is written as a separate word in the orthography although it is really just a prefix), compare ma hyooho 'I saw you (sg.)', mazi hyooho 'I saw you (pl.)', and ihyóoho 'I saw him/her/it/them'.

For indirect object (also written as a separate word except in third person), compare me hyacóhot 'I showed it to you (sg. or pl.)', cohyacóhot 'I showed it to him/her/them'.

The verb "tenses" divide between medial forms and final forms, irrealis and realis: popánzx (irrealis, medial, third person) '(if) it/she/he runs', tpanzx (realis, medial, third person) '(as) it/she/he ran', yopánzx (distal realis, final, third person) 'it/she/he ran', impánzx (proximal realis, final, third person) 'it/she/he ran', spánxz aha (irrealis, final, third person) 'it/she/he will run'.

A verb may also be negative and/or passive.

A transitive verb may be detransitivized through a morphological operation, and causative verbs may be formed morphologically.


The postpositions of Seri inflect for the person of their complement: hiti 'on me', miti 'on you', iti 'on her/him/it'. Some of them have suppletive stems to indicate a plural complement; compare miihax 'with you (sg.)' and miicot 'with you (pl.)'.


The Seri language is a head-final language. The verb typically occurs at the end of a clause (after the subject and direct object, in that order), and main clauses typically follow dependent clauses. The possessor precedes the possessum. The language does not have many true adjectives; adjective-like verbs follow the head noun in the same kind of construction and with the same kind of morphology as verbs in the language. The words that correspond to prepositions in languages like English are usually constrained to appear before the verb; in noun phrases they appear following their complement.


Seri has several articles, which follow the noun.

The singular indefinite article (a, an) is zo before consonants, and z before vowels (it presumably is historically related to the word for "one", which is tazo). The plural indefinite article (roughly equivalent to some) is pac.

Cótotaj zo hant z iti poop...
boojum tree a place a in if there is
If there is a boojum tree in a place...
Comcaac pac yoozcam.
Seris some came.
Some Seris arrived.

There are several different definite articles (the), depending on the position and movement of the object:

These articles are derived historically from nominalized forms (as appear in relative clauses in Seri) of verbs: quiij ("that which sits"), caap ("that which stands"), coom ("that which lies"), quiih ("that (especially soft item like cloth) which is located"), moca ("that which comes"), contica ("that which goes"), and caahca ("that which is located"; root -ahca)


Four simple demonstrative pronouns occur, plus a large set of compound demonstrative adjectives and pronouns. The simple demonstratives are tiix ("that one"), taax ("those, that (mass)"), hipíix ("this one"), and hizáax ("these, this (mass)").

The compound demonstratives are formed by added a deictic element to an article. Examples include himcop ("that (standing far off)"), ticop ("that (standing closer)"), hipcop ("this (standing)"), himquij ("that (sitting far off)"), himcom ("that (lying far off)"), etc. These compound demonstratives may be used either as adjectives (at the end of the noun phrase) or as pronouns.

Personal Pronouns

Two personal nonreflexive pronouns are in common use: he (first person, "I", "we") and me (second person, "you" (singular or plural). These pronouns may have singular or plural referents; the difference in number is indicated in the verb stem. The reflexive pronouns are hisoj "myself", misoj "yourself", isoj "herself, himself, itself", hisolca "ourselves", misolca "yourselves" and isolca "themselves".


The Seri language has a rich basic lexicon. The usefulness of the lexicon is multiplied many times over by the use of idiomatic expressions. The expression for 'I am angry' is hiisax cheemt iha, literally 'my.spirit stinks (Declarative)', for example. (The kinship terminology is among the most extensive and complicated that has been documented in the world.)[15] Seri has a small number of loanwords, most ultimately from Spanish, but via other languages such as O'odham.[16]

Many ideas are expressed not with single words, but with fixed expressions consisting of several words. For example, "newspaper" is hapaspoj cmatsj (literally, "paper that tells lies"), "compass" is ziix hant iic iihca quiya (literally, "thing that knows where places are"), and "radio" is ziix haa tiij coos (literally, "thing that sitting there sings"). This kind of phrase formation is deeply ingrained in the lexicon; it has been used in the past to create new terms for lexical items that became taboo due to the death of a person whose nickname was based on that word.

Writing system

Seri is written in the Latin script.

A a C c Cö cö E e F f H h I i J j Jö jö L l M m
/ɑ/ /k/ /kʷ/ /ɛ/ /ɸ/ /ʔ/ /i/ /ɸ/ /xʷ/ /l/ /m/
N n O o P p Qu qu R r S s T t X x Xö xö Y y Z z
/n/ /o/ /p/ /k/ /ɾ/ /s/ /t/ /χ/ /χʷ/ /j/ /ʃ/

Qu represents /k/ before the vowels e and i, while c is used elsewhere, as in Spanish. Long vowels are indicated by doubling the vowel letter. The voiced lateral /l/ is indicated by placing an underline under l, i.e. Ḻ ḻ. Stress is generally not indicated, but can be marked by placing an acute accent ´ over the stressed vowel. The representation of the rounded back consonants using a digraph which includes o-dieresis serves to visually unite morphemes that have allomorphs containing the full vowel o, the historical source of the rounded consonants. Example: xeecoj /χɛːkox/ ("wolf"), xeecöl /χɛːkʷɬ/ ("wolves").

The letters B, D, G, Gü, and V occur in some loanwords.

The Seri alphabet was developed in the 1950s by Edward W. and Mary B. Moser, and later revised by a committee of Seri men and women working with Stephen Marlett.[17] In particular:


A growing body of Seri literature is being published. Some of the stories that were recorded, transcribed and published earlier [18] are now being re-edited and published.[19] New material is also being prepared by several writers.[20] Essays by three Seri writers appear in the new anthology of Native American literature published by the University of Nebraska Press.[21]


The Seri word for "shark", which is hacat, was chosen by ichthyologist Juan Carlos Pérez Jiménez to name a newly discovered species of smooth-hound shark in the Gulf of California (Mustelus hacat).


  1. 1 2 La situación sociolingüística de la lengua seri en 2006.
  2. INALI (2012) México: Lenguas indígenas nacionales
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Seri". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. 1 2 Ethnologue report for Seri
  5. 1 2 For discussion of the Hokan question, see Campbell (1997), Marlett (2007) and Marlett (2011). For discussion of the relationship with Salinan, see Marlett (2008).
  6. "The Seri Indians in 1692 as Described by Adamo Gilg". Arizona and the West. 7.
  7. "Seri Texts".
  8. Marlett, Stephen A (2006). "La situación sociolingüística de la lengua seri en 2006" (PDF).
  9. "UNESCO".
  10. Apparently this claim first appeared in 1981, in a small publication written by a non-academic, published in Mexico. It has been commonly repeated since then.
  11. Peñafiel (1898:225) is the first known reference to a "probable" origin for the word "Seri" but this claim was creatively elaborated in McGee (1898:95, 124); McGee was making wild speculations as one untrained in such matters.
  12. 1 2 Marlett (1988)
  13. Marlett (2010).
  14. Marlett (2008b).
  15. Mary B. Moser and Stephen A. Marlett (1999) Seri kinship terminology. SIL Electronic Working Papers (1999-005). . See Moser and Marlett (2005) for corrections.
  16. Stephen A. Marlett (2007) Loanwords in Seri: the data
  17. Stephen A. Marlett. (2006) La evolución del alfabeto seri. Octavo Encuentro Internacional de Lingüística en el Noroeste, tomo 3, pp. 311–329. Hermosillo, Sonora: Universidad de Sonora.
  18. For example Chico Romero y otros. (1975) Zix ctám barríil hapáh cuitzaxö, zix quihmáa táax mos czáxöiha (El hombre llamado barril y otras historias). México: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano. and Roberto Herrera T., Jesús Morales y Juan Topete. (1976) Zix anxö cóohhiit hapáh quih czáxö zix quihmáa táax mos czaxöiha (El gigante llamado comelón y otras historias). México: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.
  19. Stephen A. Marlett, compiler. (2007) Ziix haptc iiha comcaac quih ocoaaj quih ano yaii.
  20. René Montaño Herrera, Francisco Xavier Moreno Herrera and Stephen A. Marlett, editors. Comcaac quih ziix quih ocoaaj hac. (Enciclopedia seri.)
  21. David L. Kozak (ed.) (2012) Inside Dazzling Mountains: Southwest Native Verbal Arts. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press


  • Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-585-37161-X. 
  • Hernández, Fortunato. (1904). Lengua seri o kunkáak. In Las razas indígenas de Sonora y la guerra del Yaqui, 237–294. Mexico City: J. de Elizalde.
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (1981). The Structure of Seri. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of California, San Diego. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (July 1988). "The Syllable Structure of Seri". International Journal of American Linguistics. 54 (3): 245–278. doi:10.1086/466086. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (1994). "One Less Crazy Rule". Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session. 38: 57–58. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2002). "Reanalysis of Passive and Negative Prefixes in Seri". Linguistic Discovery. 1 (1). doi:10.1349/PS1.1537-0852.A.1. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2005). "A Typological Overview of the Seri Language". Linguistic Discovery. 3 (1). doi:10.1349/PS1.1537-0852.A.282. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2006). "El acento, la extrametricalidad y la palabra mínima en seri". Encuentro de Lenguas Indígenas Americanas, Santa Rosa, La Pampa, Argentina. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2006). "La situación sociolingüística de la lengua seri en 2006". In Marlett, Stephen A. Situaciones sociolingüísticas de lenguas amerindias. Lima: SIL International y Universidad Ricardo Palma. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2007). "Las relaciones entre las lenguas hokanas en México: ¿cuál es la evidencia?". In Cristina Buenrostro; et al. Memorias del III Coloquio Internacional de Lingüística Mauricio Swadesh,. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas. pp. 165–192. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2008a). "The Seri and Salinan Connection Revisited". International Journal of American Linguistics. 74 (3): 393–99. doi:10.1086/590087. 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2008b). "Stress, Extrametricality and the Minimal Word in Seri". Linguistic Discovery 6.1.
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2010). "19th Century Seri Wordlists: Comparison and Analysis.". SIL-Mexico Electronic Working Papers. #8.: 1–61 . 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2010). "A Place for Writing: Language Cultivation and Literacy in the Seri Community". Revue Roumaine de Linguistique. #55(2): 183–94 . 
  • Marlett, Stephen A. (2011). "The Seris and the Comcaac: Sifting fact from fiction about the names and relationships". Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session. #51: 1–20 . 
  • Marlett, Stephen A.; Herrera, F. Xavier Moreno and Astorga, Genaro G. Herrera (2005). "Illustrations of the IPA: Seri" (PDF). Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 35 (1): 117–121. doi:10.1017/S0025100305001933.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  • Moser, Mary B. (1978). "Articles in Seri". Occasional Papers on Linguistics. 2: 67–89. 
  • Moser, Mary B.; Marlett, Stephen A. (2005). Comcáac quih yaza quih hant ihíip hac: Diccionario seri-español-inglés (PDF) (in Spanish and English). Hermosillo, Sonora: Universidad de Sonora and Plaza y Valdés Editores. 
  • Moser, Mary B.; Marlett, Stephen A. (2010). Comcaac quih yaza quih hant ihiip hac: Diccionario seri-español-inglés (second edition) (in Spanish and English). Hermosillo, Sonora: Universidad de Sonora and Plaza y Valdés Editores. 
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