Powhatan language

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Region Eastern Virginia
Southern Maryland
Extinct Late 18th century
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pim

Powhatan or Virginia Algonquian is an extinct language belonging to the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian languages. It was spoken by the Powhatan people of tidewater Virginia. It became extinct around the 1790s after speakers switched to English.[1][2] The sole documentary evidence for this language is two short wordlists recorded around the time of first European contact. William Strachey recorded about 500 words and Captain John Smith recorded only about 50 words.[3][4] Smith also reported the existence of a pidgin form of Powhatan, but virtually nothing is known of it.[5]

Strachey’s material was collected sometime between 1610 and 1611, and probably written up from his notes in 1612 and 1613, after he had returned to England. It was never published in his lifetime, although he made a second copy in 1618. The second copy was published in 1849, and the first in 1955.[4] Smith’s material was collected between 1607 and 1609 and published in 1612 and again in 1624. There is no indication of the location where he collected his material. In 1975, Frank Siebert, a linguist specializing in Algonquian languages, published a book-length study claiming the "reconstitution" of the phonology of the language.



This table is based on the reconstruction that was done by Frank T. Siebert in his reconstruction of the language. He used the notes of John Smith but mostly the work of William Strachey in the 1600s. Siebert also used his knowledge of the patterns of other Algonquian languages in determining the meaning of Strachey's notes. This table not only used the practical symbols, but also the IPA symbols, which are in parenthesis.

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
Stop p [p] t [t] k [k]
Affricate č [tʃ]
Fricative s [s] h [h]
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Tap r [ɾ]
Glide w [w] y [j]


Siebert gives a very simplified table in his work with very little indication of whether a tone is high or low, but based on standard IPA, we can assume that "i" is high, "e" and "o" is mid and "a" is Low. He also mentions that the short "a" and "e" are weak vowels. As seen in the Constant chart, Sibert's original lettering and the IPA symbols are both represented in this chart wit the IPA symbols in parenthesis.

Front Central Back
High [iː], i [ɪ]
Mid [ɛː],e [ɛ] [oː], o [ʊ]
Low a [ʌ] [aː]

Syllable Structure[edit]

Siebert does not specifically go over the structure of syllables, but using the lexicon and examples that he does provide, the patterns can be determined. There is a wide use of the CVC pattern as well as the CVːC. There is also allowance to have two CVC patterns together.


The Powhatan language uses syncope to determine the stressed syllable in words, more specifically the syncopation of weak vowels, /a/ and /e/. Syllable weight is determined based on whether or not the first syllable contains a weak vowel. If it does, then even numbered syllables are heavy and odd numbered syllables are light. If the word starts with a strong vowel, then it is the opposite, with the even numbered syllables being light and the odd numbered syllables being heavy.

There are two kinds of syncope: major and minor. Major syncopation happens in morphemes that are three or more syllables in the middle of the word. This especially happens in light syllables ending in /s/ or /h/. Some examples of this are in the words spoon and broom. "Spoon" would be pronounced /eː | meh | koːn/, but with major syncopation, it is pronounced /eːm | koːn/. For "broom", it would pronounced /čiː | keh | kahi | kan/, but with the syncopation, it ends up /čiːk | kahi | kan/. Minor syncopation tends to be optionally and only seen is specific dialects. Syllable weight is not a factor and instead it depends on if the word begins with /m/ or /n/ and ends with /s/ or a cluster including /s/ such as /sk/. An example of this is in the word "five" which would be pronounced /pa | reːn | eskw / and is instead pronounced as /pa | reːn| esk/ or /pa|reːn| sk/.




In Powhatan, nouns take inflective affixes depending on their class. There seems affixes only added to 3rd person noun. These nouns are not only categorized as singular and plural, but also animate and inanimate. For the animate group there are the Proximate and Obviative classes. This is quite common for Algonquian languages. The singular proximate class receives no affix, while the plural receives an /-ak/ suffix. For the obviative class, there is no distinction between singular and plural, both receiving an /-ah/ suffix. Finally, for inanimate nouns, singulars receive no suffix and plurals receive an /-as/ suffix.


Powhatan has 6 affixes for naming items diminutively. These affixes function by a rule of internal sandhi. The last ending in the list is the most commonly seen diminutive. The following are the affixes themselves:

  • /-ins/ ex: /mehekwins/ "little stick"
  • /-eːns/ ex: /piːmenahkwaːneːns/ "small cord"
  • /-es/ or /-is/ ex: /mahkateːs/ "small coal"
  • /iss/ ex: /metemsiss/"old woman"
  • /eːss/ ex: /mossaskweːss/ "muskrat"
  • /ess/ ex: /eːrikwess/ "ant"


There are 3 types of verb affixes of the Powhatan language, all of which are inflective. Powhatan is a language that follows an an agglutinative pattern. Although it might have lost some of its strict rule, there is a clear pattern where the indication of person is pretty consistent regardless of the type or class of verb.

Animate Intransitive Independent (AI) Verbs[edit]

The chart below presents the affixes taken by Animate Intransitive Verbs. The first and second singular persons usually take the /ne-/ prefix, unless the verb end with a long "a", /aː/, in which it takes a /ne-m/ circumfix. In the plural, 1st person has 2 forms, 'we' inclusive and 'we' exclusive.

Animate Intransitive Indicative
1 /ne-/ /ne-m/
2 /ke-/ /ke-m/
3 /-w/
1p ( 'we' exclusive) /ne-men/
1 ('we' inclusive) /ke-men/
2p /ke-moːw/
3p /-wak/

Transitive Inanimate Independent Indicative[edit]

The second group of verbs is for Inanimate Transitive Verbs. These verbs only have singular subjects, but that does not prevent them from having a singular and plural form. These verbs also fall into 3 different classes of their own and well as two negative forms.

Person Classes
1 EX. /taːhteːh/ "to extinguish it" 2 EX. /peːt/ "to bring it " 3 EX. /nam/ "to see it"
1st singularː /ne-amen/ /netaːhteːhamen/ "I extinguish it" /ne-aːn/ /nepeːtaːn/ "I bring" /ne-en/ /nenamen/ "I see it"
2nd singular /ke-amen/ /ketaːhteːhamen/ "you extinguish it" /ke-aːn/ /kepeːtaːn/ "you bring" ke-en/ /kenamen/ you see it"
3 singular /o-amen/ /otaːhteːhamen/ "he extinguishes it" /-oːw/ /peːtoːw/ he brings" o-men/ /onammen/ "he sees it"
1st plural /-amena/ /taːhteːhamena/ "we extinguish it" /-aːna/ /peːtaːna/ "we bring" /-ena/ / namena/ "we see it"
2 plural /-amena/ /taːhteːhamena/ "you all extinguish it" /-aːna/ /peːtaːna/ "you all bring" /-ena/ / namena/ "you all see it"
3rd plural /-amena/ /taːhteːhamena/ "they extinguish it" - /-ena / namena/ "they see it"
Transitve Inanimate Negatives
Person Class 1 Class 3
1st /ne-amoːwen/ /ne-oːwen/
2nd /ke-amoːmen/ /ke-oːwen/
3rd /o-amoːwen/ /o-oːwen/

Transitive Animate[edit]

This class of verb is used to express action done to other people and things. Notice the hierarchy that occurs, especially in the 1st singular form with a 2nd singular object.

Person Relationship Affix
1st sing. - 3rd sing /ne-aːw/ /nemeraːmaːw/ "I smell him"
2nd sing - 3rd sing /ke-aːw/ /kemoːnasːw/ "you cut his hair"
1st sing - 2nd sing /ke-es/ /koːwamaːnes/ "I love you"
Negative 1st sing - 2nd sing /ke-eroːw/


Dialect variation[edit]

Siebert's 1975 study also examined evidence for dialect variation. He found insufficient justification for assigning any apparent dialects to particular areas.[6][7] Strachey’s material reflects considerable lexical variation and minor phonological variation, suggesting the existence of dialect differentiation. A speculative connection to the Chickahominy and Pamunkey Virginia Algonquian tribes has been suggested, but there is no evidence to support this link.[4]

The table below gives a sample of words reflecting lexical variation. Each word is given as written by Smith or Strachey, followed by a proposed phonemic representation.[8]

Powhatan Words Representing Two Dialects
English Dialect A Orthographic Dialect A Transcription Dialect B Orthographic Dialect B Transcription
sun <keshowghes>, <keshowse> /ki·so·ss/ <nepausche> /nepass/
roe <woock> /wa·hk/ <vsecān> /osi·ka·n/
copper <osawas> /osa·wa·ss/ <matassun>, <matassin> /matassen/
he is asleep <nuppawv̄>, <nepauū> /nepe·w/ <kawwiu> /kawi·w/
(his) thigh <apome> /opo·m/ <wÿkgwaus> /wi·kkway/
arrow <attonce> /ato·ns/ <asgweowan> /askwiwa·n/
muskrat <osasqaws> /ossaskwe·ss/ <mosskwacus> /mossaskwe·ss/
raccoon <aroughcan> /a·re·hkan/ <esepannauk> (plural) /e·sepan/

Loan words from Powhatan in English[edit]

Siebert credited Powhatan with being the source of more English loans than any other indigenous language.[2] Most such words were likely borrowed very early, probably before Powhatan—English conflict arose in 1622. Among these words are: chinquapin (Castanea pumila), chum (as in chumming), hickory, hominy, matchcoat, moccasin, muskrat, opposum, persimmon, pokeweed, pone (as in corn pone), raccoon, terrapin, tomahawk, and wicopy.[2]

Reconstruction for the The New World[edit]

For the film The New World (2005), which tells the story of the English colonization of Virginia and encounter with the Powhatan, Blair Rudes made a tentative reconstruction of the language "as it might have been." A specialist in the American Indian languages of North Carolina and Virginia, he used the Strachey and Smith wordlists, as well as the vocabularies and grammars of other Algonquian languages and the sound correspondences that appear to obtain between them and Powhatan.[3][9]

See also[edit]

Distribution of Carolina Algonquian speaking peoples


  1. ^ Mithun 1999, p. 332.
  2. ^ a b c Siebert 1975, p. 290.
  3. ^ a b Lovgren 2006.
  4. ^ a b c Siebert 1975, p. 291.
  5. ^ Campbell 2000, p. 20.
  6. ^ Siebert 1975, pp. 295–296.
  7. ^ Feest 1978, p. 253.
  8. ^ Siebert 1975.
  9. ^ Rudes, Blair A. 2011. "In the Words of Powhatan: Translation across Space and Time for 'The New World'", In Born in the Blood: On Native American Translation, edited by Brian Swann.


  • Campbell, Lyle (2000). American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514050-8. 
  • Feest, Christian. 1978. "Virginia Algonquin." Bruce Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 15. Northeast, pp. 253–271. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Lovgren, Stefan. 2006. "'New World' Film Revives Extinct Native American Tongue", National Geographic News, January 20, 2006
  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge Language Family Surveys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Siebert, Frank. 1975. "Resurrecting Virginia Algonquian from the dead: The reconstituted and historical phonology of Powhatan," Studies in Southeastern Indian Languages. Ed. James Crawford. Athens: University of Georgia Press, pp. 285-453.

External links[edit]