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Potawatomi language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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)
Potawatomi 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.

Potawatomi (/ˌpɒtəˈwɒtəmi/, also spelled Pottawatomie; in Potawatomi Bodwéwadmimwen, 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]

Cecelia 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 Potawatomi language are available, including those at the Hannahville summer immersion camp,[4] with webcast instruction and videoconferencing.[3]

There are also free online language courses on Mango Languages from the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi,[5] released in October 2022.[6] and on Memrise from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma.[7]


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.[8]

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 two of the seventeen alphabetic letters, which consist of thirteen consonants and four vowels. Of the thirteen phonemic consonantal letters, the /h/, written A, is optional.


Here, 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, 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 /kː/, /k/, /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 /tː/, /t/, and /n/ are dental: [t̪ː 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 ɡ ɡʷ] for plosives and affricates, and [z ʒ] for fricatives.[9]


Potawatomi has six parts of speech: noun, verb, pronoun, prenoun, preverb, and particle.[10]


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 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


Conjugation sample of majit 'to leave'
Independent Conjunct
1sg nmaji majiyan
2sg gmaji majiyen
3sg maji(wak) majit
3sg.obv majin majinet
1sg.excl nmajimen majiyak
1pl.incl gmajimen majiygo
2pl gmajim majiyék
3pl majik majiwat

Correspondences to Ojibwe[edit]

The relatively-recent split from Ojibwe makes Potawatomi still exhibit strong correspondences, especially 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 (secondary stress) e (secondary stress) e (ė) e ə
e (primary stress) e (primary stress) 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". Topeka Capital-Journal. May 31, 2011.
  2. ^ "About Neaseno". Neaseno. May 31, 2019. 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. ^ "Potawatomi". Mango Languages.
  6. ^ Utykanski, Lauren (October 26, 2022). "Start the Conversation in Potawatomi". Mango Languages. Archived from the original on January 28, 2023.
  7. ^ Neely (December 16, 2023). "Language update: February 2023" (Press release). Shawnee, Oklahoma. Archived from the original on September 24, 2023. Retrieved March 29, 2024. We also have two courses at memrise.com. One called "A Day in the Life" and the other "Conversational Potawatomi." They can be found after signing up on Memrise then searching for Potawatomi.
  8. ^ Native Languages of the Americas: Potawatomi Pronunciation and Spelling Guide
  9. ^ Hockett, 1948
  10. ^ 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 (1939a). The Potawatomi Language: A Descriptive Grammar (Thesis). Yale University. OCLC 46436906.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis (1939b). "Potawatomi Syntax". Language. 15 (4): 235–248. doi:10.2307/409107. JSTOR 409107.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis (1948a). "Potawatomi I: Phonemics, Morphophonemics, and Morphological Survey". International Journal of American Linguistics. 14 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1086/463970. S2CID 144356302.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis (1948b). "Potawatomi II: Derivations". International Journal of American Linguistics. 14 (2): 63–73. doi:10.1086/463984.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis (1948c). "Potawatomi III: The Verb Complex". International Journal of American Linguistics. 14 (3): 139–149. doi:10.1086/463995. S2CID 143596538.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis (1948d). "Potawatomi IV: Particles and Sample Texts". International Journal of American Linguistics. 14 (4): 213–225. doi:10.1086/464008. S2CID 143465585.
  • Hockett, Charles Francis (1950). "The Conjunct Modes in Ojibwa and Potawatomi". Language. 26 (2): 278–282. doi:10.2307/410064. JSTOR 410064.
  • Quimby, George Irving (1939). "Some Notes on Kinship and Kinship Terminology Among the Potawatomi of the Huron". Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters. 25: 553–563.
  • Wisconsin Native American Languages Project; Nichols, John (1975). Potawatomi Traditional Writing. Milwaukee, WI: Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council.

External links[edit]