Sometime prior to the first European contact, the Chickasaw migrated from western regions and moved east of the Mississippi River, where they settled mostly in present-day northeast Mississippi. That is where they encountered European explorers and traders, having relationships with French, English and Spanish during the colonial years. The United States considered the Chickasaw one of the Five Civilized Tribes, as they adopted numerous practices of European Americans. Resisting European-American settlers encroaching on their territory, they were forced by the US to sell their country in 1832 and move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) during the era of Indian Removal in the 1830s.
The language is still spoken by about 75 people. Emily Johnson Dickerson, the last monolingual speaker of Chickasaw, died on December 30, 2013.Ethnologue estimates in its thirteenth edition that Chickasaw retains up to 600 speakers, but it is noted that this figure is rapidly declining because most speakers are 50 and older. Children are no longer acquiring the language, indicating Chickasaw has a notably low vitality. As of 2014, there were "four to five confident conversational speakers who are under the age of 35." Besides a language dictionary, the Chickasaw language is not well developed outside of the home. In terms of conservation and language vitality, Ethnologue evaluates the current language situation as moribund, and UNESCO lists Chickasaw as a "severely endangered" language, also noting that most of roughly 600 speakers are over fifty and almost all are bilingual in English.
The Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program, founded in 2007, uses both Munro-Willmond and Humes alphabets. Because Chickasaw is a spoken language, "there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to spell Chickasaw." Chickasaw is taught through a master-apprentice program, community programs, and self-study programs.
A "Chickasaw Language Basic" app is available for iPhone, iPad, and other iOS devices.
Chipota Chikashshanompoli is a children's language program that meets monthly. Ada, Ardmore, Norman, Purcell, Sulphur, and Tishomingo all host non-academic adult language classes. The tribe also organizes immersion camps and publishes Chickasaw language literature through the Chickasaw Press.
Chickasaw has 16 consonants. In the table below, the consonants are written in the standard Chickasaw orthography. The phonetic symbolization of each consonant is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to the right of each orthographic letter when the orthography differs from the IPA symbol.
Chickasaw vowels contrast between short and long oral vowels and between long oral vowels and long nasal vowels. Short vowels are centralized (see chart): short i is phonetically [ɪ], short o is phonetically [o̟], and short a is phonetically [ə].
Short vowels are also phonetically lengthened when they occur in the second syllable of a sequence of even-numbered open syllables. For example, the word pisali ('I took him') is phonetically [pɪsəˑlɪ]. The lengthened short vowel is usually intermediate in length between a short vowel and long vowel. However, the phonetic realization varies depending on the individual speaker and also on phonetic environment. The lengthening does not occur at the end of words and is further restricted by certain morphological criteria.
Chickasaw has an active–stative pronominal system with two basic series of pronominal sets: an active series (I) and a stative series (II). Additionally, Chickasaw also has dative (III), negative (N), and reciprocal (IR) series.
The active series is used for active intransitive subjects and active transitive subjects. (An active subject, simply put, is a subject that is in control of the action while a stative subject does not have control of the action. This is the difference between She fell on purpose vs. She fell accidentally where the first she controlled the falling while the second she did not control the falling.) The active series is in the table below:
il- / ii-
The third person lacks an affix and usually does not distinguish between singular and plural. The first person singular affix is a suffix while the other affixes are prefixes. The first person plural has two forms: il- which is used before vowels and ii- which is used before consonants — thus, il-iyya "we go", ii-malli "we jump". An example inflectional paradigm of the verb malli "to jump" is below (with the pronominal affixes underlined):
active affixes indicating subjects
"you all jump"
malli "he/she/it/they jump"
The stative series (II) is below. This series is used to indicate stative intransitive subjects and direct objects.
Example with stative intransitive subjects, lhinko "to be fat":
stative affixes indicating subjects
"I am fat"
"we are fat"
"you are fat"
"you all are fat"
lhinko "he/she/it/they is/are fat"
Example with direct objects, pisa "to look at (someone)" (the subject in the paradigm below is unmarked because it is in the third person):
stative affixes indicating direct objects
"he/she/it/they look at me"
"he/she/it/they look at us"
"he/she/it/they look at you"
"he/she/it/they look at you all"
pisa "he/she/it/they look at him/her/it/them"
Both active and stative affixes can occur together in which case the active affix indicates the active subject and the stative affix indicates the direct object. Active prefixes occur before stative prefixes. When ish- "active second person singular" occurs before sa- "stative first person singular", it results in issa- (the shassimilates to s). Likewise, hash- "active second person plural" + sa- is realized as hassa-. The full paradigm of pisa "to look at" is below: