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Algic Language Family 

Algic

The Algic language family is one of the largest indigenous language families of North America. It consists of 44 languages, the overwhelming majority of which (42 languages) belong to the Algonquian branch. The two Algic languages that are not Algonquian are Wiyot and Yurok of northwestern California whose relationship with the Algonquian languages was established by Edward Sapir, the first linguist to use the name Algic. The ancestral language from which all of the Algonquian languages developed, known as Proto-Algonquian, was spoken at least 3,000 years ago, but there is no consensus among scholars about its location.

The Algonquian branch was named after the Algonquin language. The terms “Algonquian”, a branch of the Algic language family, and “Algonquin”, an indigenous language spoken in Canada, need to be distinguished. The similarity in the names causes some confusion.

Today, the Algonquian branch includes 27 languages spoken in a wide region that stretches through the central part of the North American continent from the Canadian subarctic in the north to the eastern seaboard, and as far south as North Carolina.

Classification

Algonquian languages are traditionally subdivided into three groups. The table below lists the three branches and their living members (Ethnologue).

Plains Algonquian
Blackfoot Canada
Cheyenne U.S.
Arapaho U.S.
Gros Ventre U.S.
Central Algonquian
Cree (includes several varieties) Canada
Ojibwa/Potowatomi Canada, U.S.
Menominee U.S.
Kickapoo U.S.
Shawnee U.S.
Eastern Algonquian
Micmac Canada
Western Abenaki Canada
Malecite-Passamaquoddy Canada
Munsee Canada

 

map

Status


Many Algonquian languages are highly endangered. A number of them are already extinct, and many are on the verge of extinction. Most surviving languages are spoken by older adults who are not passing their language on to their children. However, a number of the communities are making an effort to turn the tide of extinction around.

Dialects

  • Classification of Algonquian languages is complicated by the absence of written records, by long periods of separation between linguistic groups, loss of possible links, and lack of reliable analyses of many of the languages. Thus, it is often difficult to decide whether two or more languages are dialects of the same language or are indeed separate languages.
  • Two Algonquian languages show significant dialectal variation: Plains Cree with 6 varieties, and Ojibwa with 5 varieties.

 

Structure

Grammar

There are many differences among the sound systems of the Algonquian languages. At the same time, there are quite a few underlying similarities. Some of them are outlined below.

Vowels

  • Most Algonquian languages have 4 to 7 vowels which can be long or short. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning.
  • Some languages, such as Ojibwa, make a distinction between oral and nasal vowels.

 

Consonants

  • Most Algonquian languages make a distinction between voiceless and voiced stopsfricatives, and affricates.
  • Some Algonquian languages distinguish between plain and aspirated stops and affricates.
  • Most Algonquian languages have few, if any, consonant clusters, especially in the middle or at the end of words.

 

Stress and Tone
There is a great deal of variation among Algonquian languages with regard to the use of stress and tone. For instance, Arapaho uses tones, whereas Ojibwa uses stress.

 

Grammar

Despite numerous differences in their structure, all Algonquian languages share certain grammatical features.

  • They are polysynthetic. Such languages have a very high ratio of morphemes per word. They often have very long words that correspond to complete sentences in languages such as English.
  • They are ergative, i.e., they  mark the subject of a transitive verb with the ergative case. They mark both the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb with the absolutive case.
  • They  use derivational and inflectional suffixes to represent grammatical relations.

 

Nouns
Algonquian nouns are marked for the following categories:

  • Animacy
    Nouns belong to two classes that roughly correspond to animate and inanimate. In some cases, these categories appear to be quite arbitrary. For instance, besides including persons and animals, animate nouns may also include spirits, trees, some fruits, some body parts, and some household utensils. Languages differ from each other in the way they assign nouns to these categories. A noun may be animate in one language and inanimate in another.
  • Number
    Nouns are marked for singular and plural.

 

Adjectives
In many Algonquian languages verbs can function as adjectives, e.g., in  Ojibwa, waabigwan, literally means ‘the flower blues’, where blues is a verb (example from Wikipedia).

Pronouns
Algonquian pronouns are marked for these categories:

  • number: singular and plural
  • person: first, second, and third
  • a distinction between an inclusive we that includes the interlocutor and an exclusive we that does not;
  • a distinction between a 3rd person who is nearer and one who is further away.

 

Verbs
Algonquian languages have a complex verb system. Below are some of their verb features:

  • subject-verb agreement in person, number, and animacy
  •  different classes, depending on whether verbs are transitive and whether their objects are animate or inanimate
  •  prefixes to mark tenses
  •  a variety of prefixes to convey additional information about an action, such as its direction
  • different orders, or classes, which more or less correspond to mood in European languages
  • Some languages, such as Ojibwa, have two imperatives: an immediate imperative (do something right away), and delayed imperative (do something later).
  • In some languages, such as Shawnee, duration of an action is indicated by partial reduplication of the verb root
  • adverbials indicating motion, such as towards, are incorporated into the verb stem, while temporal adverbials, such as today, are independent words.

 

Word order
Word order is relatively free in most Algonquian languages. Subjects and objects can either precede or follow the verb, depending on the focus (the more important information) in the sentence. The more important information generally precedes the verb, while the less important information follows it.

Vocabulary

Algonquian languages are polysynthetic, which means that words can consist of many elements that would constitute whole sentences in languages such as English. In addition, Algonquian languages use word-stem modifications, such as reduplication, to create new words. With a few exceptions, Algonquian languages have not borrowed many words from other languages.

Take a look at some basic words in five Algonquian languages.

One
Ni’t
Na’estse
Bezhig
Casey
Nekoti
Ne’wt
Two
Náátsi
Neshe
Niizh
Niis
Niiswi
Ta’pu
Three
Nioókska
Na’he
Niswi
Naso
Nethwihi
Si’st or Ne’siskl
Four
Niisó
Neve
Niiwin
Yein
Niewi
Ne’w
Five
Niisito
Nóho
Naanan
Yaathan
Niananwi
Na’n
Man
Ninaa
Hetane
Inini
Hinen
Inenia
Ji’nim
Woman
Aakíí
Hé’e
Ikwe
Hisei
Ihkweea
E’pit
Sun
Ki’sómm
Eshe’he
Giizis
Hiisiis
Kiisethwa
Na’gu’set
Moon
Ko’komiki’somm
Taa’e-éshe’he
Dibik-Giizis
Biikosiis
Tepehkiiha
Tepgunu’set
Water
Aohkíí
Mahpe
Nibi
Nech
Nepihi
Samqwan

Writing

Algonquian languages did not have writing systems prior to coming in contact with European missionaries in the 17th century. Since then, missionaries attempted to devise writing systems for these languages, mostly in order to translate the Bible. The earliest Bible was printed in North America in 1663 in the Massachusett language. The writing of Algonquian languages by missionaries, explorers, Indian agents, and travelers, has sometimes resulted in different spellings for place names, tribes, and individuals.

Today, all currently spoken, and some extinct Algonquian languages, have writing systems. All are written with the Roman alphabet, but there are some that are still written with specially devised syllabaries, called Canadian Aboriginal syllabic writing, or simply syllabics. Among the languages written in syllabics are BlackfootCheyenneCreeNaskapi, and Ojibwa (in Canada). Syllabics have occasionally been used in the United States by communities that straddle the border, but are principally a Canadian phenomenon. Several Algonquian languages have active literacy programs.

Canadian syllabics were developed for writing Ojibwa in the 1830s by the missionary James Evans. Each symbol corresponds to a consonant. The script is unique among consonant-based (abugida) scripts in that vowels are indicated by the orientation of a symbol, rather than by modifications of its shape or by diacritics. It is written from left to right, with each new line directly under the previous one.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Micmac written in the Roman alphabet, and Swampy Cree written in syllabics.

Micmac
Article 1
Msit mimajulnu’k weskwijinu’ltijik alsumsultijik aqq newte’ tett wkpimte’tmut aqq koqwajo’taqnn wejkul’aqmititl.
Swampy Cree 
ᐯᔭᐠ ᐱᐢᑭᑕᓯᓇᐃᑲᐣ
ᒥᓯᐌ ᐃᓂᓂᐤ ᑎᐯᓂᒥᑎᓱᐎᓂᐠ ᐁᔑ ᓂᑕᐎᑭᐟ ᓀᐢᑕ ᐯᔭᑾᐣ ᑭᒋ ᐃᔑ ᑲᓇᐗᐸᒥᑯᐎᓯᐟ ᑭᐢᑌᓂᒥᑎᓱᐎᓂᐠ ᓀᐢᑕ ᒥᓂᑯᐎᓯᐎᓇ᙮ ᐁ ᐸᑭᑎᓇᒪᒋᐠ ᑲᑫᑕᐌᓂᑕᒧᐎᓂᓂᐤ ᓀᐢᑕ ᒥᑐᓀᓂᒋᑲᓂᓂᐤ ᓀᐢᑕ ᐎᒋᑴᓯᑐᐎᓂᐠ ᑭᒋ ᐃᔑ ᑲᓇᐗᐸᒥᑐᒋᐠ᙮
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did you know?

Algonquian words in American Place Names

Algonquian languages were among the first Indian languages encountered by European settlers. As a result, many names of U.S. states and cities are of Algonquian origin. Among them are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Incidentally, the name Chicago comes from an Algonquian word meaning ‘place of the onion,’ or ‘place of the bad smell.’ Besides place names, there are many everyday words of Algonquian origin. Below are just a few of them.

caribou Mikmaqalipu, ‘snow-shoveler’ (from qalipi, ‘shovel snow’)
hickory Powhatan pocohiquara, ‘milky drink made with hickory nuts’
hominy Algonquian (probably Powhatan) appuminneonash ‘parched corn’
moccasin an Algonquian language of Virginia (probably Powhatan) makasin ‘shoe’
moose Eastern Abenaki moz
pecan Illinois pakani
powwow Narragansett powwaw, ‘shaman, medicine man,’ from a verb meaning ‘to use divination, to dream’
papoose Narragansett papoos, ‘child, literally, ‘very young’
squaw Massachusett squa ‘woman’
toboggan Mikmaq topaqan ‘sled’
tomahawk Powhatan tamahaac ‘what is used in cutting
totem Ojibwa odoodem, ‘his totem’ referring to a kin group
wampum Massachusett wampumpeag ‘white strings (of beads)’
wigwam Algonquian (probably Abenaki) wigwam ‘a dwelling’

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Algonquian languages?
There is no data on the difficulty of Algonquian languages for speakers of English.

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