LATimes: Tongva, Los Angeles first language, opens the door to a forgotten time and place

By Thomas Curwen
May 9, 2019

From the top of Signal Hill, Los Angeles disappears in the haze. Gauzy light smudges details, so that only the mountains, the sea and the land in between remain. No freeways; no homes, high-rises or palms.

Off the coast lies the broad silhouette of Catalina. To the west rises Palos Verdes; to the east, Saddleback; and to the north, a curtain of peaks from Malibu to San Bernardino.


The word is hard to pronounce, three syllables, the accent falling on the second and the ng pronounced as in “singer,” not “finger.”


Literally, it means “the world,” this hill and everything around it, as seen through the eyes of the Tongva, the first residents of the land.

This world was theirs before it belonged to anyone else, before strangers arrived and began to bend the region to their will and Tovaangar disappeared.

Smoke no longer rose from signal fires, chewee’et chaavot. The tall grass, mamaahar, vanished. Rivers, papaaxayt, changed course, and stars, shushuu’ram, faded from the sky.

The world, once identified by only their words, was unrecognizable, and the Tongva language eventually stopped being spoken. In the silence, it lived in notebooks and papers collected by museums.


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