Potawatomi language

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Native to United States, Canada
Region Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, and southern Ontario
Native speakers
9 (2012)[1]
Latin (various alphabets),
Great Lakes Algonquian syllabics
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pot
Glottolog pota1247[2]
Linguasphere 62-ADA-dc (Potawatomi)
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Potawatomi (also spelled Pottawatomie; in Potawatomi Bodéwadmimwen or Bodéwadmi Zheshmowen or Neshnabémwen) is a Central Algonquian language and was spoken around the Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in Kansas in the United States, and in southern Ontario in Canada, by 9 Potawatomi people, all elderly. There is currently an effort underway to revive the language.

Language revitalization[edit]

One of the final surviving elderly speakers of Potawatomi, Cecilia Miksekwe Jackson, died in May 2011 at the age of 88.[3]

A master-apprentice program, in which a "language student (the language apprentice) will be paired with fluent Potawatomi speakers (the language masters)" was scheduled to begin in January 2013.[4] Classes in the Potowatomi language are available, including those at the Hannahville summer immersion camp,[5] with webcast instruction and videoconferencing.[4]


Potawatomi is a member of the Algonquian language family (itself a member of the larger Algic stock). It is usually classified as a Central Algonquian Language, with languages such as Ojibwe, Cree, Menominee, Miami-Illinois, Shawnee and Fox. The label "Central Algonquian" signifies a geographic grouping rather than the group of languages descended from a common ancestor language within the Algonquian family. Of these Central languages, Potawatomi is most similar to Ojibwe, however it also has borrowed a considerable amount of vocabulary from the Sauk.

Generally, Potawatomi is divided into Northern Potawatomi—spoken in Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin and Southern Potawatomi—spoken in Kansas and Oklahoma.[6]

Writing systems[edit]

Current writing system[edit]

Though no standard orthography has been agreed upon by the Potawatomi communities, the system most commonly used is the "Pedagogical System" developed by the Wisconsin Native American Languages Program (WNALP). As the name suggests, this writing system was designed to be used in language teaching. The system is alphabetic (based on the Roman Alphabet), and is phonemic, with each letter or digraph representing a contrastive sound. The letters used are: a b ch d e é g ' h i j k m n o p s sh t w y z zh. In Kansas, a different system called BWAKA is used. It too is alphabetic (based on the Roman Alphabet), and is phonemic, with each letter or digraph representing a contrastive sound. The letters used are: ' a b c d e e' g h i I j k m n o p s sh t u w y z zh.

Traditional system[edit]

The "Traditional System" used in writing Potawatomi is an alphabetic system. Letters are written in syllable groups. Potawatomi, Ottawa, Sac, Fox and Winnebago communities all used this form of syllabic writing. The system was derived from the Roman Alphabet, thus it resembles hand-written Roman text. However, unlike the Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics or the Cherokee alphabet, this writing system has not yet been incorporated into the Unicode standards.

Each Potawatomi Syllabic block in the Traditional System consists of at least two of the 17 alphabetic letters: 13 consonants and 4 vowels. Of the 13 phonemic consonantal letters, the /h/, written , was optional.

Consonants Consonants Consonants Vowels
l b/p (ĸA) (k) q gw/kw a a
(lA) (p) s z/s (qA) (kw) e e
t d/t (sA) s g g of "-ng" e é
(tA) (t) sH zh/sh w w i i
tt j/ch (sHA) (sh) y y o o
(ttA) (ch) m m (none) '/h
ĸ g/k n n (A) (h)


In this article, the phonology of the Northern dialect is described, which differs somewhat from that of the Southern dialect spoken in Kansas.

There are five vowel phonemes (plus four diphthongs) and nineteen consonant phonemes.

é, which is often written as e', represents an open-mid front unrounded vowel, /ɛ/. e represents the schwa, /ə/, which has several allophonic variants. Before /n/, it becomes [ɪ], before /k/, /ɡ/, and /ʔ/, and word-finally, it is [ʌ]. o is pronounced /u/ in Michigan, and /o/ elsewhere; when it is in a closed syllable, it is pronounced [ʊ]. There are also four diphthongs, /ɛj ɛw əj əw/, spelled éy éw ey ew. Phonemic /əj əw/ are realized as [ɪj ʌw].

The obstruents, as in many Algonquian languages, do not have a voicing distinction per se, but rather what is better termed a "strong"/"weak" distinction. "Strong" consonants, written as voiceless (p t k kw), are always voiceless, are often aspirated, and are longer in duration than the "weak" consonants, which are written as voiced (b d g gw) and are often voiced and are never aspirated. Nasals before another consonant become syllabic. /t/, /d/, and /n/ are dental: [t̪ d̪ n̪].


Front Central Back
Close i
Close-mid o
Mid e
Open-mid é
Open a


Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Labiovelar Glottal
Plosive p b t d k g kw gw
Affricate ch j
Fricative s z sh zh h
Nasal m n
Semivowel y w


Potawatomi speech has six parts which are: noun, verb, pronoun, prenoun, preverb, and particle.[7]


There are two main types of pronoun, personal pronouns and demonstrative pronouns. As nouns and verbs use inflection to describe anaphoric reference the main use of the free pronouns is for emphasis.

Personal pronouns[edit]

Potawatomi Gloss
nin I
gin you
win he, she
ninan we (exclusive)
ginan we (inclusive)
ginwa you (plural)
winwa they

Word Order[edit]

Correspondence to the Ojibwe language[edit]

Due to the relatively recent diversion from the Ojibwe language, the Potawatomi language still exhibits strong correspondences to the Ojibwe language, and more specifically with the Odaawaa (Ottawa) dialect.

Double Vowel
Double Vowel
WNALP System
BWAKA System
IPA Value
a (unstressed) (none) (none) (none)/u
a (stressed) a (stressed) e e/u ə
aa aa a a/o a~ʌ
b b b b/p b
ch ch ch c
d d d d/t d
e (unstressed) e (unstressed) e e ə
e (stressed) e (stressed) é/e' e' ɛ
g g g g/k ɡ
gi (unstressed) g j j/ch
g g j (from gy*) j/c (from gy*)
-g -g -k -k k
h h h h h
' h ' ' ʔ
i (unstressed) (none) (none) (none)/I
i (stressed) i (stressed) e e/I ə
ii ii i i ɪ
j j j j/ch
k k k k k
ki (unstressed) k ch c
k k ch (from ky*) c (from ky*)
m m m m m
mb mb mb mb mb
(not from PA *n)
n/(none) n/y n/y n~j
(from PA *n)
n n n n
nd nd nd/d nd/d nd~d
ng ng ng/g ng/g ŋɡ~ɡ
nj nj nj/j nj/j ndʒ~dʒ
ns ns s s s
nz nz z z z
ny/-nh ny/-nh (none) (none)
nzh nzh zh zh ʒ
o (unstressed) (none)/w/o (unstressed) (none)/w/o/e (none)/w/o/e ∅~w~o~ʊ~ə
o (stressed) o (stressed) o o o~ʊ
oo oo o o o
p p p p p
s s s s s
sh sh sh sh ʃ
shk shk shk shk ʃk
shp shp shp shp ʃp
sht sht sht sht ʃt
sk sk sk sk sk
t t t t t
w w/(none) w/(none) w/(none) w~∅
wa (unstressed) wa (unstressed)/o w/o w/o w~o~ʊ
waa (unstressed) waa (unstressed)/oo wa/o wa/o wa~o~ʊ
wi (unstressed) wi (unstressed)/o w/o w/o w~o~ʊ
y y y (initial glide) y (initial glide) j
(none) (none) y (medial glide) y (medial glide) j
z z z z/s z
zh zh zh zh/sh ʒ


  1. ^ Mumford, Lou (2012-02-18). "Nearly Obsolete Language". South Bend Tribune. Retrieved 2012-12-13. 
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Potawatomi". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ "Tribal elder dies at 88: Woman was dedicated to Potawatomi language preservation". 31 May 2011. 
  4. ^ a b "Potawatomi Language". Pokégnek Bodéwadmik Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  5. ^ "Potawatomi Language". Hannahville Culture Language and History Website. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  6. ^ Native Languages of the Americas: Potawatomi Pronunciation and Spelling Guide
  7. ^ Buszard-Welcher, L. (2003) "Constructional Polysemy and Mental Spaces in Potawatomi Discourse". PhD Thesis, U.C. Berkeley

Further reading[edit]

  • Gailland, Maurice. (1840). English-Potawatomi Dictionary.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis.(1987). The Potawatomi Language: A Descriptive Grammar. Ann Arbor, Mich: University Microfilms International.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis. (1939). Potawatomi Syntax. Language, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 235–248
  • Hockett, Charles Francis. (1948a). Potawatomi I: Phonemics, Morphophonemics, and Morphological Survey. International Journal of American Linguistics. Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 1–10
  • Hockett, Charles Francis. (1948b). Potawatomi II: Derivations. International Journal of American Linguistics. Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 63–73
  • Hockett, Charles Francis. (1948c). Potawatomi III: The Verb Complex. International Journal of American Linguistics. Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 139–149
  • Hockett, Charles Francis. (1948d). Potawatomi IV: Particles and Sample Texts. International Journal of American Linguistics. Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 213–225
  • Hockett, Charles Francis. (1950). The Conjunct Modes in Ojibwa and Potawatomi. Language, Vol. 26, No. 2,pp. 278–282
  • Quimby, George Irving. (1940). Some Notes on Kinship and Kinship Terminology Among the Potawatomi of the Huron. S.l: s.n.
  • Wisconsin Native American Languages Project and John Nichols. (1975). Potawatomi Traditional Writing. Milwaukee WI: Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council.

External links[edit]