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Iroquoian Language Family 

iroquoian

The Iroquoian language family is one of the important language families of North America. It is named after the Iroquois Confederacy that included the MohawkOnondagaOneida,Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. The Confederacy, founded in the latter part of the 16th century in what is now central New York State, came to be known as the League of Five Nations. In the early part of the 18th century the Tuscarora, an Iroquoian people of present-day North Carolina, migrated to New York State and became part of the Iroquois Confederacy which then came to be known as Six Nations. The term Iroquois is thought to be derived from a derogatory Algonquian word which means ‘rattle snakes’. The Iroquois call themselves the Ho-de’-no-sau-nee ‘people of the longhouse’, because they traditionally lived in large longhouses which housed a social unit consisting of several families.

Status
According to Ethnologue, the Iroquoian language family consists of 11 languages spoken in Canada and in the U.S. Today, the Iroquoian languages cling to life. The only language with a viable population is Cherokee. Except for Cherokee, speakers of the other Iroquoian languages are mostly older adults. A number of the languages have already become extinct. Among them are WyandotLaurentianNottoway, and Susquehannock. The surviving languages along with the number of people who speak them are listed below.

Northern Iroquoian
Six Nations
3,350 Quebec, Ontario, New York State
250 Ontario, Wisconsin
50-100 Ontario, New York State
40-60 Ontario
175 New York State, Canada
Tuscarora-Nottoway
Tuscarora 11-13 Canada, U.S.
Southern Iroquoian
Cherokee (Tsalagi)
15,000-22,500 North Carolina, Oklahoma

 

Dialects

There are dialectal differences due to geographic separation of tribes from each other, as well as differences in orthographies adopted by different groups. Cherokee has two well documented dialects.

Structure

Sound system
Iroquois languages tend to have small inventories of phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning.

Vowels

  • Most Iroquois languages have 5 vowel phonemes /i, e, a, u, o/.
  • Vowels can be long or short. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. Vowel length can be designated by a column or by a double vowel letter in the orthography.
  • Some vowels can be oral or nasal, for instance, in Tuscarora. Cherokee has a nasalized schwa /ə̃/.

 

Consonants

  • Iroquois languages usually have 10-15 consonant phonemes.
  • They usually lack bilabial and labio-dental stops and, fricatives /p/, /b/, /f/, /v/. However, these sounds can occur in words borrowed from other languages, such as English.
  • There are few, if any, consonant clusters.

 

Pitch accent
Iroquois languages are characterized by a pitch accent. Pitch accent means that the languages mark each word with a specific tonal melody and changing the melody can change the meaning of the word. Syllables may be marked by low, mid, high, rising, or falling pitch.

Grammar
Words in Iroquoian languages can be long because they consist of many morphemes, or meaningful parts. These words may correspond to whole sentences in a language such as English.

Nouns
Nouns in most Iroquoian languages usually begin with a prefix indicating gender and number (if animate). For instance, in the Mohawk word o’ta:ra’, ‘clay’ the prefix o- indicates neuter singular; in raksa:’a ‘boy’, the prefix ra- indicates masculine singular; in e-ksa:’a ‘girl’, the prefix e- indicates feminine singular.

Pronouns
The pronominal system of Iroquoian languages has some interesting features, as illustrated by Mohawk.

  • There are two pronouns corresponding to the English we. The inclusive pronoun we includes the listener, meaning ‘you and I’, whereas the exclusive pronoun we excludes the listener.
  • Pronouns have a dual form when referring to two persons, and a plural form when referring to three or more persons, as in Cherokee ini– ‘you and I’, sdi– ‘you two’, osdi– ‘he/she and I’. .
  • There are two sets of pronouns. One set is used with inalienable possessions (those that cannot be acquired, given away, or lost), such as body parts. The other set is used with alienable possessions such as objects that can be acquired, given away, or lost.

 

Verbs
Because all verbs contain pronominal prefixes (ra-, ‘he’; io-, ‘it’; honwati-, ‘she/them’), they may stand alone as full sentences. For instance, the Mohawk word entsakwanenhstaron:ko’ is a verb meaning ‘We will take the corn back off the cob.’ In this word, the pronoun akwa ‘exclusive plural we’, the noun stem nenhst ‘corn,’ and verb stem ron ‘put’ are strung together along with grammatical prefixes and suffixes indicating tense and aspect. The noun nenhst ‘corn’ which would have been a direct object in English is incorporated into the verb phrase.

Vocabulary
Iroquois languages tend not to borrow words from other languages. Instead, they use native roots and affixes to create new words. However, there are loanwords from English and Spanish.

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

1
2
3
4
5
man
woman
sun
moon
water
Cherokee
saqwu
ta’li
tso’i
nvgi
hi:sgi
a-s-ga-yv a-ge-yv i-ga-e-hi-nv-do u-do-sv-no-e-hi ama
Seneca ska:t tekhni:h sëh ke:ih wis hökwe yakökwe kä:hkwa:’ e:ni’ta:’ o:ne:ka’
Cayuga sga:t dekni: ahsenh gei: wihs ho:nhgweh ago:nhgweh ga:gwa:’ enhni’da:’ ohneganohs
Mohawk Enhskat tekeni ahsen kayeri wisk ronkwe yakonkwe karahkwa ehnita ohneka
Oneida óskah tékni áhse kayé wisk lukwé yakukwé ohni:ta’ ohne:kánus

Writing

Cherokee is the only Iroquoian language with a writing system developed especially for it. All other Iroquoian languages are written with adapted versions of the Roman alphabet developed by European missionaries. All sample texts are from LanguageGeek.

Language Writing system Sample text
Cayuga Roman alphabet, containing 20 letters. There are several different ways of representing long and nasal vowels Né:’ ne’ nę:gyęh ne’ gwa’yǫ́’ gę:s agwa:dó:wa:s tshige:ksá:’ah. Ne:’ gyę́:’ e:’ gado:gę́: nę̱hsye:’ ęhsa:dó:wa:t to:gyę́h ne’ i:só’ wagyés’ageh. Ne:’ ga:o’ ni:yǫ: tę̱hsátahahk. Gwahs ’ǫ́: gíhni’ wa’né:’ gę:s a:yę:’ toh ní:yoht tę’ tę̱hshadiyę́:di: wa’né:’ hęnǫ:gwe’dase’shǫ́:’ǫh. Ne:’ gi’ hǫ:ni’ ahí:’ gyę́:gwa’ hné:hwa’ a:gatró:wi’ gyę́:gwa’ hné:hwa’ sǫ:gá:’ah ęhodi’nikwáęda’ nę:gyę́h hwa’ shęh niga:yę:.
Cherokee syllabary devised in the early 1800s ᏂᎦᏓ ᎠᏂᏴᏫ ᏂᎨᎫᏓᎸᎾ ᎠᎴ ᎤᏂᏠᏱ ᎤᎾᏕᎿ ᏚᏳᎦᏛ ᎨᏒᎢ.ᎨᏥᏁᎳ ᎤᎾᏓᏅᏖᏗ ᎠᎴ ᎤᏃᏟᏍᏗ ᎠᎴ ᏌᏊ ᎨᏒ ᏧᏂᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᏗ ᎠᎾᏟᏅᏢ ᎠᏓᏅᏙ ᎬᏗ.
Mohawk First written by French missionaries in the early 1800s. A standard form of written Mohawk was adopted in 1993. Teiohonwa:ka ne’ni akhonwe:ia
Kon’tatieshon iohnekotatie
Wakkawehatie wakkawehatie.
Oneida adapted version of the Roman alphabet, containing 17 letters Úska utlátste’ lʌtahsesú:ne’ ohkwá:li̲, kwah ki’ tsi’ ná’ nihʌtahsó:tʌ skʌhnáksʌ̲. Tsi’ kwí: niya:wʌ́: ka’ikʌ́ kohsla’ké:ne kwí: nok tsi’ wʌhnisli:yo̲, yotáhalote̲. Tahonatutáhkwʌ’ kati’ wí:ka’ikʌ́ ohkwalí khale’ skʌhnáksʌ’ tahyatawʌlyéhsa̲. Nok tsi’ elakwi né: na’kawhyúhati’ nukwá: lotukohtuháti’ skʌhnáksʌ̲.
Onondaga several versions of Roman alphabet Nę́gę tshaʼ nigagaeʼdę́h, ǫkhiya:tho:yę́:nik tshaʼ gáyeʼ, hodiksdęʼshǫʼagę́hä:ʼ shonadǫ:góhdi ó:nę. Węda:déhgwaʼ tshaʼ nǫ́ nę nǫ́ nihadina:gé:hgwaʼ, nę nǫ́ tshaʼ nǫ́ ha:yę:nadę́hda:ʼ néʼ iwá:dǫk, shǫgwa:de:ęnóʼkdaʼ gaęhya:gǫ́wa tho:yę́hdi.
Seneca adapted Roman alphabet

So’t ëgegeodë’ gwá: nö:h, ha:nyö́’ö negë’ dó:döëdzo:ní ’éothö:dé:k, nigagéo’dë́:s nónëhji:kha:’. Ne:’ gyö’ö nónëhji waonöhwáge:eya’s. Da: onë ’o:ya’ sa:onyá:k, hoksá’dayë́’ gyö’ö́ gwa’hoh. Da: onë nä́: gyö’ö gahadagö́: hwa:ne:’. Da onë nä́: gyö’ö gë:s hadówäthé’s negë’ né haöhwö’. Da: onë nä́ gyö’ö, wáë́’. Gyö’ö né sa:ayö’.

Tuscarora two versions of the Roman alphabet: contemporary standard (as in the sample on the right); and an older system used by the Tuscarora Nation in New York State Haʔ Kunęhrayę́hnęʔ kwè·niʔ utáʔreh, tíhsnęʔ héʔthu kwè·niʔ neyúhsę·t íhskah haʔ ukyérheh à·rę ukę́ʔ urę́hseh aryuyę́·ʔna·k, kayá·θę utaʔrúhskęʔ hè·nęʔ yuhsęʔnà·węʔ uhčíhręʔ haʔ néči tiwahsuʔnęháʔnęʔ; tikačihskęhkareθę́huʔy tíhsnęʔ haʔ tikakyéʔwe·θ hà·neʔ kwè·niʔ yuhkwá·θę. Kwę, yawętaʔrataʔkwáʔrhuʔy haʔ awéʔręʔ.

Difficulty

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

4 Responses to Iroquoian Language Family

  1. Elizabeth

    Thanks for the information, it was very useful.

     
  2. Nobody knows

    Me too, it was a lot useful to me

     
  3. BERNIE BISCHOFF

    When did the Cherokee/Iroquis language become a written language?

     

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