Abenaki language

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Native to Canada, United States
Region Quebec, Maine
Ethnicity 1,800 Abnaki and Penobscot (1982)
Native speakers
5  (2006)[1]
Nearly extinct. [2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
aaq – Eastern Abenaki
abe – Western Abenaki
Glottolog east2544  (Eastern Abenaki)[3]
west2630  (Western Abenaki)[4]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Abenaki, or Abnaki, is a nearly extinct Algonquian language of Quebec and Maine. There were two varieties, Eastern and Western, which differ in vocabulary and phonology, and are sometimes considered distinct languages.

Eastern Abenaki was spoken by several peoples, of which the last were the Penobscot of coastal Maine. The last known speaker died in the 1990s in Penobscot, Maine.[5][6] Other dialects of Eastern Abenaki, such as Caniba and Aroosagunticook, are documented in French-language materials from the colonial period.

In 1991, Western Abenaki was spoken by 20 individuals along the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City, mostly at Odanak, the site of the former mission village of St. Francis, and by about 50 individuals living throughout New York state and Connecticut.[citation needed] By 2006 five speakers were recorded.[1]

Language-revitalization efforts[edit]

A new generation is actively preserving and revitalizing the language.[7] Fluent speakers Joseph Elie Joubert from the Odanak reservation and Jesse Bowman Bruchac lead partial immersion classes in the language across the Northeast. They have created several books in and about the language as well as audio, video and web-based media to help others learn the language.[8] In July 2013, the Penobscot Nation, the University of Maine and the American Philosophical Society received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand and publish the first Penobscot Dictionary.[9]

The English word skunk, attested in New England in the 1630s, is probably borrowed from the Abenaki seganku.[10] About 500 Penobscot words are "still being used in the community in everyday language," such as "Muhmum" for "grandpa", and "nolke" for "deer."[9]


Eastern Abenaki dialects: Penobscot, Norrigewock/Caniba, Androscoggin, and Pequawket.

Western Abenaki dialects: Arsigantegok, Missisquoi, Sokoki, Pennacook, St. Francis Abenaki/Odanak


The following description is for Western Abenaki.


Front Central Back
Near-Close [ɪ] [ʊ]
Mid [ə]
Open mid nasal [ɔ̃]
Open [a]


  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive [p]  [b] [t]  [d]   [k]  [ɡ]  
Affricate [ts]  [dz]
Fricative   [s]  [z]     [h]
Nasal [m] [n]      
Lateral approximant   [l]      
Semivowel [w] [j]

Writing systems[edit]

Several different writing systems have been developed by various authors for writing the sounds of Abenaki: Pial Pol Wzokihlain, Sozap Lolô, Henry Lorne Masta, and Gordon Day (author of the Western Abenaki Dictionary) each use a slightly different system.[11] Common to all four are the characters A, B, D, E, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, S, T, U, W, and Z. Wzokihlain, Lolô, and Masta all have an additional digraph CH, which corresponds to Day's C.[11] Lolô writes I for /j/ and /i/; where confusion could result, he writes Ï for /i/.[11]

Lolô and Masta use both W and U for the semivowel /w/. Day consistently writes lax stops using voiced symbols: B, D, G, J, Z; the other three write lax consonants using P, T, K, Ch, S word-initially and word-finally.[11] Day also consistently writes the schwa /ə/ with E, while the others leave it unwritten when not stressed.[11] Lolô and Day write the nasal vowel /ɔ̃/ as Ô, while Wzokihlain writes O and Masta writes ȣ.[11]

IPA Wzokihlain Lolô Masta Day
[p] p p p p
[b] b/p b/p b/p b
[t] t t t t
[d] d/t d/t d/t d
[k] k k k k
[ɡ] g/k g/k g/k g
[ts] ch ch ch c
[dz] j/ch j/ch j/ch j
[s] s s s s
[z] z/s z/s z/s z
[h] h h h h
[m] m m m m
[n] n n n n
[l] l l l l
[w] w w/u w/u w
[j] y i y y
[ɪ] i i/ï i i
[ʊ] o o o o
[ə] e/∅ e/∅ e/∅ e
[ɔ̃] o ô ȣ ô
[a] a a a a


bazegw = one
niz = two
nas = three
yaw = four
n[ô]lan * = five
ngued[ô]z * = six
tôbawôz = seven
nsôzek = eight
noliwi = nine
mdala = ten

Other words[edit]

sanôba = man
p[e]hanem * = woman
miguen = feather

* letters in square brackets often lost in vowel syncope.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Eastern Abenaki reference at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
    Western Abenaki reference at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
  2. ^ https://www.ethnologue.com/language/abe/***EDITION***
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Eastern Abenaki". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Western Abenaki". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ "Penobscot". Native Languages of the Americas. Retrieved October 25, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Eastern Abnaki language". Ethnologue. Retrieved October 25, 2011. 
  7. ^ "Native Languages of the Americas: Penobscot (Eastern Abnaki, Penawahpskewi, Penobscott)". native-languages.org. Retrieved 2012-11-11. 
  8. ^ "Western Abenaki Dictionary and Radio Online: Home of the Abenaki Language". Retrieved 2012-11-11. 
  9. ^ a b McCrea, Nick (July 11, 2013). "Penobscot Nation, UMaine win grants to help revive tribe’s language". Bangor Daily News. Retrieved 23 July 2013. 
  10. ^ A concise etymological dictionary of the English language, Walter William Skeat, Harper & Brothers, 1882, p. 440
  11. ^ a b c d e f Harvey


  • Day, Gordon M. 1994a. Western Abenaki Dictionary. Volume 1: Abenaki to English. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service Paper 128.
  • Day, Gordon M. 1994b. Western Abenaki Dictionary. Volume 2: English to Abenaki. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service Paper 128.
  • Harvey, Chris. "Abenaki". Language Geek. Retrieved 2007-03-12. 
  • Laurent, Joseph. 1884. New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. Quebec: Joseph Laurent. Reprinted 2006: Vancouver: Global Language Press, ISBN 0-9738924-7-1
  • Masta, Henry Lorne. 1932. Abenaki Legends, Grammar and Place Names. Victoriaville, PQ: La Voix Des Bois-Franes. Reprinted 2008: Toronto: Global Language Press, ISBN 978-1-897367-18-6

External links[edit]