Potawatomi language

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Native toUnited States, Canada
RegionMichigan, Oklahoma, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, and southern Ontario, formerly Northeastern Illinois
Latin (various alphabets),
Great Lakes Algonquian syllabics
Language codes
ISO 639-3pot
Linguasphere62-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. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Potawatomi (/ˌpɒtəˈwɒtəmi/, also spelled Pottawatomie; in Potawatomi Bodwéwadmimwen, or Bodwéwadmi Zheshmowen, or Neshnabémwen) is a Central Algonquian language. It was historically spoken by the Pottawatomi people who lived around the Great Lakes in what are now Michigan and Wisconsin in the United States, and in southern Ontario in Canada. Federally recognized tribes in Michigan and Oklahoma are working to revive the language.

Language revitalization[edit]

Cecilia Miksekwe Jackson, one of the last surviving native speakers of Potawatomi, died in May 2011, at the age of 88. She was known for working to preserve and teach the language.[1]

Donald Neaseno Perrot, a native speaker who grew up in the Powers Bluff, Wisconsin area, has a series of Potawatomi videos, a website, and books available to preserve the language [2]

The federally recognized Pokégnek Bodéwadmik Pokagon Band of Potawatomi started a master-apprentice program in which a "language student (the language apprentice) will be paired with fluent Potawatomi speakers (the language masters)" in January 2013.[3] In addition, classes in the Potowatomi language are available, including those at the Hannahville summer immersion camp,[4] with webcast instruction and videoconferencing.[3]

There is also a free online language course for Potawatomi from the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians on Mango Languages.[5]


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 the Central languages, Potawatomi is most similar to Ojibwe, but it also has borrowed a considerable amount of vocabulary from the Sauk.

Generally, in developments since Indian Removal in the 19th century, Potawatomi has become differentiated in North America among separated populations. It is divided between Northern Potawatomi, spoken in Ontario, Canada; and Michigan and Wisconsin of the United States; and Southern Potawatomi, which is spoken in Kansas and Oklahoma, where certain Pottawatomi ancestors were removed who had formerly lived in Illinois and other areas east of the Mississippi River.[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, it was designed to be used in language teaching. The system is 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 both based on the Roman alphabet and 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 a form of syllabic writing. Potawatomi, Ottawa, Sac, Fox and Winnebago communities all used it. Derived from the Roman alphabet, it resembles handwritten Roman text. However, unlike the Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics or the Cherokee alphabet, it has not yet been incorporated into the Unicode standards.

Each Potawatomi syllabic block in the system has at least 2 of the 17 alphabetic letters, which consist of 13 consonants and 4 vowels. Of the 13 phonemic consonantal letters, the /h/, written ⟨A⟩, is optional.

Consonants Consonants Consonants Vowels
l b/p (ĸA) (k) q gw/kw a a
(lA) (p) s z/s (qA) (kw) e e (ë) (ê)
t d/t (sA) s g g of "-ng" e é (ė)
(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)


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

There are 5 vowel phonemes, 4 diphthongs, and 19 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/, /ʔ/ and word-finally, it becomes [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].

Obstruents, as in many other Algonquian languages, do not have a voicing distinction per se but what is better termed a "strong"/"weak" distinction. "Strong" consonants, written as voiceless (⟨p t k kw⟩), are always voiceless, often aspirated, and longer in duration than the "weak" consonants, which are written as voiced (⟨b d g gw⟩) and are often voiced and are not aspirated. Nasals before another consonant become syllabic, and /t/, /d/, and /n/ are dental: [t̪ d̪ n̪].


Front Back
High i o
Mid ə
Low ɛ a


Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
plain labial
Occlusive p t k ʔ
tʃː kːʷ
Fricative s ʃ h
Sonorant m n j w

Lenis type consonants can frequently be voiced in various surroundings as [b d dʒ ɡ ɡʷ] for plosives and affricates, and [z ʒ] for fricatives.[7]


Potawatomi has six parts of speech: noun, verb, pronoun, prenoun, preverb, and particle.[8]


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]

Personal pronouns, because of vowel syncope, resemble those of Odaawaa but structurally resemble more to those in the Swampy Cree language:

Swampy Cree Ojibwe Odaawaa Potawatomi
1st person singular nîn niin nii nin
plural exclusive nînanân niinawind niinwi ninan
inclusive gînanân giinawind giinwi ginan
2nd person singular gîn giin gii gin
plural gînawâ giinawaa giinwaa ginwa
3rd person singular wîn wiin wii win
plural wînawâ wiinawaa wiinwaa winwa

Correspondences to Ojibwe[edit]

The relatively-recent split from Ojibwe makes Potawatomi still exhibit strong correspondences, especifically 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 (ë) 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 (ė) 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 (ê) 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. ^ "Tribal elder dies at 88: Woman was dedicated to Potawatomi language preservation". May 31, 2011.
  2. ^ "Neaseno - Potawatomi Language and Culture". www.neaseno.org. Retrieved September 8, 2020.
  3. ^ a b "Potawatomi Language". Pokégnek Bodéwadmik Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. 2012. Archived from the original on November 25, 2011. Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  4. ^ "Potawatomi Language". Hannahville Culture Language and History Website. Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  5. ^ "Start Learning Potawatomi".
  6. ^ Native Languages of the Americas: Potawatomi Pronunciation and Spelling Guide
  7. ^ Hockett, 1948
  8. ^ 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]