Cayuga language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Cayuga "our language".svg
Cayuga for "our language"
Native toCanada, United States
RegionOntario: Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation; New York (state): Cattaraugus Reservation
Native speakers
61 (2016 census)[1]
  • Northern
    • Lake Iroquoian
      • Five Nations
        • Seneca–Cayuga
          • Cayuga
Language codes
ISO 639-3cay
Lang Status 20-CR.png
Cayuga is classified as Critically Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Cayuga (Cayuga: Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ) is a Northern Iroquoian language of the Iroquois Proper (also known as "Five Nations Iroquois") subfamily, and is spoken on Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, by around 240 Cayuga people, and on the Cattaraugus Reservation, New York, by fewer than 10.

The Cayuga language is related to other Northern Iroquoian languages, such as Seneca. It is considered critically endangered, with only 30 people of the Indigenous population reporting Cayuga as their mother tongue in the 2016 census. However, Cayuga members are making efforts to revitalize the language. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)[2] As an example of such, Six Nations Polytechnic has developed apps on IOS and study programs in Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk and others.


There are at least two distinct dialects of Cayuga. Two are spoken at Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario. Another, called "Seneca-Cayuga", was spoken in Oklahoma until its extinction in the 1980s.

The two dialects of the Cayuga at Six Nations are often associated with the two Cayuga longhouses, Sour Springs or “Upper” Cayuga and “Lower” Cayuga. Differences between these two dialects of southern Ontario are known to include two phonological patterns. In the Lower Cayuga (LC) variety, underlying *tj sequences surface as /ky/, e.g. LC gyę:gwa’ /kjɛ̃ːkwaʔ/ vs (UC) ję:gwa’ /tjɛ̃ːkwaʔ/. Another apparent difference involves the metrical pattern of Laryngeal Spreading. In Lower Cayuga words, odd-numbered vowels preceding /h/ or /ʔ/ are pronounced with the voice quality of the following consonant. That is to say, such vowels are pronounced with whispered vowels when preceding /h/ or creaky voice before /ʔ/. An example of this occurs in the word for ‘nine,’ gyoHdo̜h [kjo̤htõh].


Modern dialects[edit]

There are two varieties of Cayuga. The Lower Cayuga dialect is spoken by those of the Lower End of the Six Nations and the Upper Cayuga are from the Upper End. The main difference between the two is that the Lower Cayuga use the sound [kj] and the Upper use the sound [tj].[3] Also, pronunciation differs between individual speakers of Cayuga and their preferences.


There are five oral vowels in Cayuga, as well as four long vowels, [iː], [aː], [oː], and [eː].[4] Cayuga also has three nasalized vowels, [ɛ̃], [õ], and [ã].[5] Both [u] and [ã] are rare sounds in Cayuga. The latter is not phonemic, but surfaces due to a phonological pattern of nasalization, where underlying /a/ becomes [ã] when following a nasal vowel. Sometimes, the sounds [u] and [o] are used interchangeably according to the speaker's preference. After long [eː] and [oː], an [n] sound can be heard, especially when before [t], [d], [k], [ɡ], [ts], and [j].[5]

Vowels can be devoiced as [V̥] allophonically, indicated in the orthography used at Six Nations by underlining them.

Front Back
Oral Long Nasal Oral Long Nasal
High /i/ /iː/ /u/
Mid /e/ /eː/ /ɛ̃/ /ɛ̃ː/ /o/ /oː/ /õ/ /õː/
Low /a/ /aː/


Long vowels[edit]

Length is important because it alone can distinguish two completely different meanings from one another. For example:
[haʔseʔ] you are going
[haʔseː] you went [7]

Devoiced vowels[edit]

Following are some words that demonstrate what some vowels sound like when they occur before [h]. In words like [ehaʔ], [ẽhaʔ], [ohaʔ], and [õha], [e] and [ẽ] devoiced as [e̥, ẽ̥], sound like a whispered [j], and [o] and [õ] devoiced as [o̥, õ̥], sound like a whispered [w]. Furthermore, the [ã] in [ẽhãʔ] and [õhã] is nasalized because of [ẽ] and [õ]. The consonant before the nasalized vowel becomes voiceless.[4] Also, odd-numbered vowels followed by [h] are devoiced, while even-numbered vowels followed by [h] are not.[5]


Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal n
Plosive t ~ d k ~ ɡ ʔ
Affricate ts
Fricative s ʃ h
Approximant ɹ j w


Allophonic variations that occur in Cayuga:
/t/ becomes voiced [d] before sonorants. The sound [d] does not exist word-finally.[9]
/k/ becomes voiced [g] before sonorants.
/s/ becomes [ʃ] before [j] or [ɹ].

/ts/ becomes [dz] and [ds] before [a] and [o], respectively. Speakers may use [dz] and [ds] interchangeably according to the speaker's preference.

/w/ can be voiceless as [w̥] (sounds like [h] followed by [w]).
/j/ can also be voiceless [j̊] (sounds like [h] followed by [j])

/h/: "A vowel devoices if the vowel and a following [h] are in an odd-numbered syllable."[9] For example:
the [õ] in [ehjátõ̥hkʰʷaʔ] [9]

The vowel is voiced when it and a following /h/ are in an even-numbered syllable and in "absolute word-initial position or in word-final position, or preceded by another [h]."[9] For example:
[ʃehóːwih] 'tell her'
[ehjáːtõh] 'she writes' [9]


Most words have accented vowels, resulting in a higher pitch.[4] Where the stress is placed is dependent on the "position of the word in the phrase."[4] The default location for stress for nouns is on final vowel. "In words that are at the end of a phrase, accent falls on the 2nd last vowel, the 3rd last vowel, or occasionally, on the 4th vowel from the end of the word."[4] For example:

[neʔ kiʔ tsõːh akaːˈtʰõːteʔ] 'I just heard it' [10]

These sounds are long, especially in an even-numbered position. When nouns and verbs are not at the end of a phrase, accent is placed on the final vowel.[4] For example:

[akaːtʰõːtéʔ tsõːh tʰeʔ niːʔ teʔtéːkẽːʔ] 'I heard it, I didn't see it' [10]


Cayuga is a polysynthetic language. As with other Iroquoian languages, the verbal template contains an optional prepronominal prefix, a pronominal prefix (indicating agreement), an optional incorporated noun, a verbal root, and an aspectual suffix. The nominal template consists of an agreement prefix (usually neuter for non-possessed nouns), the nominal root, and a suffix.


  1. ^ "Language Highlight Tables, 2016 Census - Aboriginal mother tongue, Aboriginal language spoken most often at home and Other Aboriginal language(s) spoken regularly at home for the population excluding institutional residents of Canada, provinces and territories, 2016 Census – 100% Data". Government of Canada. 2 August 2017. Retrieved 2017-11-23.
  2. ^ "Cayuga | the Canadian Encyclopedia".
  3. ^ Froman, Frances, Alfred Keye, Lottie Keye and Carrie Dyck. English-Cayuga/Cayuga-English Dictionary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002, p. xii
  4. ^ a b c d e f Froman, 2002, p. xxxii
  5. ^ a b c Froman, 2002, p. xxxi
  6. ^ Froman, 2002, p. xxx-xxxii
  7. ^ Froman, 2002, p.xxxii
  8. ^ Froman, 2002, p. xxxvi-xxxviii
  9. ^ a b c d e Froman, 2002, p. xxxvi
  10. ^ a b Froman, 2002, p. xxxiii


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]