Seneca language

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Native to United States, Canada
Region Western New York and the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario
Native speakers
100 (2007)[1]
  • Northern
    • Lake Iroquoian
      • Five Nations
        • Seneca–Cayuga
          • Seneca
Language codes
ISO 639-3 see
Glottolog sene1264[2]
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.

Seneca /ˈsɛnɪkə/[3] (in Seneca, Onödowá'ga: or Onötowá'ka:) is the language of the Seneca people, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois League. About 10,000 Seneca live in the United States and Canada, primarily on reservations in western New York, with others living in Oklahoma and near Brantford, Ontario. As of 2013, an active language revitalization program is underway.

Language revitalization[edit]

Bilingual stop signs, erected in 2016, on the Allegany Indian Reservation in Jimerson Town, New York. Top is in English; bottom is in Seneca.

In 1998, the Seneca Faithkeepers School was founded as a five-day-a week school to teach children the Seneca language and tradition.[4] In 2010, K-5 Seneca language teacher Anne Tahamont received recognition for her work with students at Silver Creek School and in language documentation, presenting "Documenting the Seneca Language' using a Recursive Bilingual Education Framework" at the International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC).[5]

As of summer 2012,

The fewer than 50 native speakers of the Seneca Nation of Indians' language would agree that it is in danger of becoming extinct. Fortunately, a $200,000 federal grant for the Seneca Language Revitalization Program has further solidified a partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology that will help develop a user-friendly computer catalogue allowing future generations to study and speak the language.

The revitalization program grant, awarded to RIT's Native American Future Stewards Program, is designed to enhance usability of the Seneca language.[6]

The project will develop "a user-friendly, web-based dictionary or guide to the Seneca language."[7] "Robbie Jimerson, a graduate student in RIT's computer science program and resident of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation near Buffalo," who is working on the project, commented: "My grandfather has always said that a joke is funnier in Seneca than it is in English."[8] As of January 2013, a Seneca language app was under development.[9]

As of Fall 2012, Seneca language learners are partnering with fluent mentors, and a newsletter, Gae:wanöhge′! Seneca Language Newsletter, is available online.[10]

Although Seneca-owned radio station WGWE (whose call sign derives from "gwe," a Seneca word roughly translating to "what's up?") broadcasts primarily in English, it features a daily "Seneca Word of the Day" feature before each noon newscast, broadcasts a limited amount of Seneca-language music, and makes occasional use of the Seneca language in its broadcasts in a general effort to increase awareness of the Seneca language by the general public.

In 2013, the first public sports event was held in the Seneca language, when middle school students served as announcers for a lacrosse match.[11]

Bilingual road signs, such as stop signs and speed limit signs, appear in the Seneca capital of Jimersontown; these signs were erected in 2016. Prior to this, as part of the upgrade to Interstate 86, the names of townships within the Allegany Indian Reservation were marked in Seneca along the highway in Comic Sans.


Seneca words are written with 13 letters, three of which can be umlauted, plus the colon (:) and the acute accent mark. Seneca language is generally written in all-lowercase, and capital letters are only used rarely, even then only for the first letter of a word; all-caps is never used, even on road signs. The vowels and consonants are a, ä, e, ë, i, o, ö, h, j, k, n, s, t, w, y, and ˀ, the last of which is always in superscript form.[12][13] In some transliterations, t is replaced by d, and likewise k by g; Seneca does not have a phonemic differentiation between voiced and voiceless consonants (see below in Phonology 2.1: Consonants). The letter j can also be replaced by the three-letter combination tsy. (For example, a creek in the town of Coldspring, New York, and the community near it, bears a name that can be transliterated as either jonegano:h or tsyo:nekano:h.)


Seneca consonants include the Resonants /y/, /w/, and /n/, and the Obstruents /t/, /k/, /s/, /j/, /h/, and /ˀ/.[14]

Dental and
and palatal
Velar Glottal
Nasal n
Stop t k ˀ
Affricate d͡z ⟨dz⟩ d͡ʒ ⟨j⟩
Fricative s ʃ ⟨s̈⟩ h
Approximant j ⟨y⟩ w


A sign in the Seneca language on the Cattaraugus Reservation. This is also an unorthodox example of the use of capital letters in Seneca.

/j/ is a palatal semivowel. After [s] it is voiceless and spirantized [ç]. After [h] it is voiceless [j̊], in free variation with a spirant allophone [ç]. After [t] or [k] it is voiced and optionally spirantized [j], in free variation with a spirant allophone [ʝ]. Otherwise it is voiced and not spirantized [y].

/w/ is a velar semivowel. It is weakly rounded [w].

/n/ is a released apico-alveolar nasal [n̺].[15]


The obstruents can be further subclassified into the oral obstruents /t/, /k/, /s/, and /dʒ/, and the laryngeal obstruents /h/ and /ʔ/.[16]

Oral obstruents[edit]

/t/ is an apico-alveolar stop [t̺]. It is voiceless and aspirated [t̺ʰ] before an obstruent or an open juncture (but is hardly audible between a nasalized vowel and open juncture). It is voiced and released [d̺] before a vowel and resonant.

/k/ is a dorso-velar stop [k]. It is voiceless and aspirated [kʰ] before an obstruent or open juncture. It is voiced and released [g] before a vowel or resonant.

/s/ is a spirant with blade-alveolar groove articulation [s]. It is always voiceless, and is fortis [s˰][clarification needed] everywhere except between vowels. Before [j] it is palatalized [ʃ].[clarification needed] It is lenis [s˯][clarification needed] intervocalically.[15]

/dʒ/ is a voiced alveolar affricate [dz]. Before [i] it is optionally palatalized [dz] in free variation with [dź].[clarification needed][17]

Laryngeal obstruents[edit]

/h/ is a voiceless segment [h] colored[clarification needed] by an immediately preceding and/or following vowel and/or resonant.

/ʔ/ is a glottal stop [ʔ].[17]


The vowels can be subclassified into the Oral Vowels /i/, /e/, /æ/, /a/, and /o/, and the Nasalized Vowels /ɛ/ and /ɔ/.[15]

  Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ̃ ɔ̃
(Near)Open æ[18] ɑ

The orthography described here is the one used by the Seneca Bilingual Education Project. The nasal vowels, /ɛ̃/ and /ɔ̃/, are transcribed with tremas on top: ⟨ë ö⟩. Depending on the phonetic environment, the nasal vowel ⟨ë⟩ may vary between [ɛ̃] and [œ̃], whereas ⟨ö⟩ may vary from [ɔ̃] to [ɑ̃].[18] Long vowels are indicated with a following ⟨:⟩, while stress is indicated with an acute accent over the top. æ is transcribed as ä.[19]

Oral vowels[edit]

/i/ is a high front vowel [i].

/e/ is a high-mid front vowel. Its high allophone [ɪ] occurs in postconsonantal position before [i] or an oral obstruent. Its low allophone [e] occurs in all other environments.

/æ/ is a low front vowel [æ].

/a/ is a low central vowel. Its high allophone [ʌ] occurs in postconsonantal position before [i], [w], [j], or an oral obstruent. Its low allophone [ɑ] occurs in all other environments. Before [ɛ] or [ɔ] it is nasalized [ã].[clarification needed]

/o/ is a mid back vowel. It is weakly rounded. Its high allophone [ʊ] occurs in postconsonantal position before [i] or an oral obstruent. Its low allophone [o] occurs in all other environments.[15]

Nasal vowels[edit]

/ɛ/ is a low-mid front vowel. It is nasalized [ɛ̃].

/ɔ/ is a low back vowel. It is weakly rounded and nasalized [ɔ̃].[15]


The following diphthongs are oral: ae, ai, ao, ea, ei, eo, oa, oe, and oi.

The nasal diphthongs are aë, aö, eö, and oë.[clarification needed][20]

Prosodic phonemes[edit]

Stress is either strong, marked with an acute accent mark, or weak, which is unmarked.

Vowel length is marked with a colon ⟨:⟩.

Open Juncture is marked by word space.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Seneca at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Seneca". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ Dan Herbeck (2004-06-05). "Seneca Faithkeepers School Tries to Keep Alive the Tribe's Traditional Ways, Language". Canku Ota (Many Paths) An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America (114). Retrieved 2012-09-27. 
  5. ^ Nicole Gugino. "Teacher feted for work with language of the Senecas". The Observer, Retrieved 2012-09-27. 
  6. ^ "RIT Partners with Seneca Nation to Preserve 'Endangered' Language". Retrieved 2012-09-27. 
  7. ^ Tim Louis Macaluso (2012-07-04). "New life for Seneca language". City Newspaper. Retrieved 2012-09-27. 
  8. ^ "RIT Partners with Seneca Indian Nation to Preserve 'Endangered' Native Language". RIT News. Retrieved 2012-09-27. 
  9. ^ Diana Louise Carter (2013-01-07). "Want to speak Seneca? There's an app for that". Press & Sun-Bulletin. Retrieved 2013-01-12. 
  10. ^ "Gae:wanöhge′! Seneca Language Newsletter" (PDF). Volume Gë:ih (Issue Johdö:h). 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-27. 
  11. ^ "Students announce lacrosse games in Seneca language". The Observer, Dunkirk, NY. 2013-05-10. Retrieved 2013-05-13. 
  12. ^ Chafe, 2007, p.4
  13. ^ Preston, 1949, p.23
  14. ^ Chafe, 1960. p. 12
  15. ^ a b c d e Chafe, 1967, p. 5
  16. ^ a b Chafe, 1960, p. 12
  17. ^ a b Chafe, 1967, p. 6
  18. ^ a b Campbell, George L. (2004). Compendium of the World's Languages. Taylor & Francis. p. 1474. ISBN 0-415-20297-3. 
  19. ^ Harvey, Christopher (February 22, 2008). "Onödowága – Seneca". The LinguaSphere Online. Retrieved 2008-06-27. 
  20. ^ Holmer, 1952, p. 217


  • Chafe, Wallace L. 1960. Seneca Morphology I: Introduction. International Journal of American Linguistics 26.11–22.
  • Chafe, Wallace L. Chafe, Wallace L. (1967). Seneca Morphology and Dictionary. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  • Chafe, Wallace L. 2007. Handbook of the Seneca Language. Albany, New York: Global Language Press.
  • Holmer, Nils M. 1952. Seneca II. International Journal of American Linguistics 15.217–222.
  • Preston, W.D., Voegelin, C. F. . 1949. Seneca I. International Journal of American Linguistics 15.23–44.
  • Chafe, Wallace. "Publications on the Seneca Language". Retrieved 2013-01-12. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Chafe, Wallace L. 1963. Handbook of the Seneca Language. New York State Museum and Science Service. (Bulletin No. 388). Albany, N.Y. Reprinted 2007, Toronto: Global Language Press, ISBN 978-1-897367-13-1.
  • Chafe, Wallace L. 1997, "Sketch of Seneca, an Iroquoian Language", in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 17: Languages, pp. 551–579, Goddard, Ives and Sturtevant, William C. (Editors), Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 0-16-048774-9.

External links[edit]