Algonquian languages

Last updated
North America
Linguistic classification Algic
  • Algonquian
Proto-language Proto-Algonquian
ISO 639-2 / 5 alg
Glottolog algo1256 [1]
Algic langs.png
Pre-contact distribution of Algic languages

The Algonquian languages ( /ælˈɡɒŋkiən/ or /ælˈɡɒŋkwiən/ ; [2] also Algonkian) are a subfamily of Native American languages which includes most of the languages in the Algic language family. The name of the Algonquian language family is distinguished from the orthographically similar Algonquin dialect of the indigenous Ojibwe language (Chippewa), which is a senior member of the Algonquian language family. The term "Algonquin" has been suggested to derive from the Maliseet word elakómkwik (pronounced  [ɛlæˈɡomoɡwik] ), "they are our relatives/allies". [3] [4] A number of Algonquian languages, like many other Native American languages, are now extinct.

Indigenous languages of the Americas languages spoken by Indigenous peoples from Alaska and Greenland to the southern tip of South America, encompassing the land masses which constitute the Americas

Indigenous languages of the Americas are spoken by indigenous peoples from Alaska, Nunavut, and Greenland to the southern tip of South America, encompassing the land masses that constitute the Americas. These indigenous languages consist of dozens of distinct language families, as well as many language isolates and unclassified languages.

Algic languages language family indigenous to North America, including the Algonquian languages

The Algic languages are an indigenous language family of North America. Most Algic languages belong to the Algonquian family, dispersed over a broad area from the Rocky Mountains to Atlantic Canada. The other Algic languages are the Yurok and Wiyot of northwestern California, which, despite their geographic proximity, are not closely related. All these languages descend from Proto-Algic, a second-order proto-language estimated to have been spoken about 7,000 years ago and reconstructed using the reconstructed Proto-Algonquian language and the Wiyot and Yurok languages.

Algonquin is either a distinct Algonquian language closely related to the Ojibwe language or a particularly divergent Ojibwe dialect. It is spoken, alongside French and to some extent English, by the Algonquin First Nations of Quebec and Ontario. As of 2006, there were 2,680 Algonquin speakers, less than 10% of whom were monolingual. Algonquin is the language for which the entire Algonquian language subgroup is named. The similarity among the names often causes considerable confusion. Like many Native American languages, it is strongly verb-based, with most meaning being incorporated into verbs instead of using separate words for prepositions, tense, etc.


Speakers of Algonquian languages stretch from the east coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains. The proto-language from which all of the languages of the family descend, Proto-Algonquian, was spoken around 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. [5] There is no scholarly consensus about where this language was spoken.

Algonquian peoples ethnic group

The Algonquian are one of the most populous and widespread North American native language groups. Today, thousands of individuals identify with various Algonquian peoples. Historically, the peoples were prominent along the Atlantic Coast and into the interior along the Saint Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. This grouping consists of the peoples who speak Algonquian languages.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere; it is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Rocky Mountains mountain range in North America

The Rocky Mountains, also known as the Rockies, are a major mountain range in western North America. The Rocky Mountains stretch more than 4,800 kilometers (3,000 mi) from the northernmost part of British Columbia, in western Canada, to New Mexico in the Southwestern United States. Located within the North American Cordillera, the Rockies are somewhat distinct from the Pacific Coast Ranges, Cascade Range, and the Sierra Nevada, which all lie farther to the west.

Family division

This subfamily of around 30 languages is divided into three groups according to geography: Plains, Central, and Eastern Algonquian. Only Eastern Algonquian constitutes a true genetic subgroup. [6]

The Plains Algonquian languages are commonly grouped together as a subgroup of the larger Algonquian family, itself a member of the Algic family. Though the grouping is often encountered in the literature, it is an areal grouping rather than a genetic one. In other words, the languages are grouped together because they were spoken near one another, not because they are more closely related to one another than to any other Algonquian language. Within the Algonquian family, only Eastern Algonquian constitutes a separate genetic subgroup.

The Central Algonquian languages are commonly grouped together as a subgroup of the larger Algonquian family, itself a member of the Algic family. Though the grouping is often encountered in the literature, it is an areal grouping, not a genetic grouping. In other words, the languages are grouped together because they were spoken near one another, not because they are more closely related to one another than to other Algonquian languages. Within the Algonquian family, only Eastern Algonquian is a valid genealogical group.

Eastern Algonquian languages

The Eastern Algonquian languages constitute a subgroup of the Algonquian languages. Prior to European contact, Eastern Algonquian consisted of at least 17 languages, collectively occupying the Atlantic coast of North America and adjacent inland areas from what are now the Maritimes of Canada to North Carolina. The available information about individual languages varies widely. Some are known only from one or two documents containing words and phrases collected by missionaries, explorers or settlers, and some documents contain fragmentary evidence about more than one language or dialect. Nearly all of the Eastern Algonquian languages are extinct. Miꞌkmaq and Malecite-Passamaquoddy have appreciable numbers of speakers, but Western Abenaki and Delaware are each reported to have fewer than 10 speakers after 2000.

The languages are listed below, following the classifications of Goddard (1996) and Mithun (1999). Extinct languages are marked with †, and endangered languages are noted as such. For dialects and subdialects, consult the separate main articles for each of the three divisions.

Language death Process in which a language eventually loses its last native speaker

In linguistics, language death occurs when a language loses its last native speaker. By extension, language extinction is when the language is no longer known, including by second-language speakers. Other similar terms include linguicide, the death of a language from natural or political causes, and rarely glottophagy, the absorption or replacement of a minor language by a major language.

1. Blackfoot
Arapahoan (including Nawathinehena (†), and Besawunena (†))
2. Arapaho proper
3. Gros Ventre (†)
4. Cheyenne
5. Cree–Montagnais–Naskapi
6. Menominee (severely endangered)
7. Ojibwe
8. Potawatomi (nearly extinct)
9. Sauk–Fox–Kickapoo (severely endangered)
10. Shawnee (severely endangered)
11. Miami–Illinois (†)
12. Miꞌkmaq
13. Western Abenaki (nearly extinct)
14. Eastern Abenaki (†)
15. Malecite–Passamaquoddy
16. Massachusett
17. Narragansett (†)
18. Mohegan–Pequot (†)
19. Quiripi-Naugatuck-Unquachog (†)
20. Mahican (†)
21. Munsee (nearly extinct)
22. Unami (†)
23. Nanticoke–Piscataway (†)
24. Carolina Algonquian (†)
25. Powhatan (†)
26. Etchemin (†) (uncertain - See Eastern Algonquian languages)
27. Loup A (†) (probably Nipmuck (†), uncertain - See Eastern Algonquian languages)
28. Loup B (†) (uncertain - See Eastern Algonquian languages)
29. Shinnecock (†) (uncertain)


Eastern Algonquian is a true genetic subgrouping. The Plains Algonquian and the Central Algonquian groups are not genetic groupings but rather areal groupings. However, these areal groups often do share linguistic features, but the sharing is attributed to language contact. [7] Paul Proulx has argued that this traditional view is incorrect, [8] [ page needed ] and that Central Algonquian (in which he includes the Plains Algonquian languages) is a genetic subgroup, with Eastern Algonquian consisting of several different subgroups. However, this classification scheme has failed to gain acceptance from other specialists in the Algonquian languages. [9]

In linguistics, areal features are elements shared by languages or dialects in a geographic area, particularly when the languages are not descended from a common ancestor language.

Language contact occurs when speakers of two or more languages or varieties interact and influence each other. The study of language contact is called contact linguistics.

Instead, the commonly accepted subgrouping scheme is that proposed by Ives Goddard (1994). The essence of this proposal is that Proto-Algonquian originated with people to the west, perhaps in the Plateau region of Idaho and Oregon or the Rocky Mountain-Great Plains boundary of Montana, and then moved east, dropping off subgroups as people migrated. By this scenario, Blackfoot was the first language to branch off, which coincides well with its being the most divergent language of Algonquian. In west-to-east order, the subsequent branchings were:

Robert Hale Ives Goddard III (1941–) is a linguist and a curator emeritus in the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. He is widely considered the leading expert on the Algonquian languages and the larger Algic language family.

Proto-Algonquian is the proto-language from which the various Algonquian languages are descended. It is generally estimated to have been spoken around 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, but on the question of where it was spoken, there is less agreement. The Algonquian family, which is a branch of the larger Algic language family, is usually divided into three subgroups: Eastern Algonquian, which is a genetic subgroup, and Central Algonquian and Plains Algonquian, both of which are areal groupings. In the historical linguistics of North America, Proto-Algonquian is one of the best studied, most thoroughly reconstructed proto-languages. It is descended from Proto-Algic.

This historical reconstruction accords best with the observed levels of divergence within the family, whereby the most divergent languages are found furthest west (since they constitute the earliest branchings during eastern migration), and the shallowest subgroupings are found furthest to the east (Eastern Algonquian, and arguably Core Central). Goddard also points out that there is clear evidence for pre-historical contact between Eastern Algonquian and Cree-Montagnais, as well as between Cheyenne and Arapaho-Gros Ventre. There has long been especially extensive back-and-forth influence between Cree and Ojibwe. [10]

It has been suggested that the "Eastern Great Lakes" languages – what Goddard has called "Core Central", e.g., Ojibwe–Potawatomi, Shawnee, Sauk–Fox–Kickapoo, and Miami-Illinois (but not Cree–Montagnais or Menominee) – may also constitute their own genetic grouping within Algonquian. They share certain intriguing lexical and phonological innovations. However, this theory has not yet been fully fleshed out and is still considered conjectural.

Algonquian is sometimes said to have included the extinct Beothuk language of Newfoundland, whose speakers were both in geographic proximity to Algonquian speakers and who share DNA in common with the Algonquian-speaking Miꞌkmaq. [11] [12] Linguistic evidence is scarce and poorly recorded however, and it is unlikely that reliable evidence of a connection can be found. [13]

Grammatical features

The Algonquian language family is known for its complex polysynthetic morphology and sophisticated verb system. [14] Statements that take many words to say in English can be expressed with a single word. Ex: (Menominee) paehtāwāēwesew "He is heard by higher powers" (paeht- 'hear', -āwāē- 'spirit', -wese- passivizer, -w third-person subject) or (Plains Cree) kāstāhikoyahk "it frightens us". These languages have been extensively studied by Leonard Bloomfield, Ives Goddard, and others.

Algonquian nouns have an animate/inanimate contrast: some nouns are classed as animate, while all other nouns are inanimate. [14] There is ongoing debate over whether there is a semantic significance to the categorization of nouns as animate or inanimate, with scholars arguing for it as either a clearly semantic issue, or a purely syntactic issue, along with a variety of arguments in between. More structurally inclined linguistic scholars have argued that since there is no consistent semantic system for determining the animacy of a noun, that it must be a purely linguistic characterization. Anthropological linguists have conversely argued the strong connection between animacy and items viewed as having spiritual importance.

Another important distinction involves the contrast between nouns marked as proximate and those marked as obviative . Proximate nouns are those deemed most central or important to the discourse, while obviative nouns are those less important to the discourse. [15]

There are personal pronouns which distinguish three persons, two numbers (singular and plural), inclusive and exclusive first person plural, and proximate and obviative third persons. Verbs are divided into four classes: transitive verbs with an animate object (abbreviated "TA"), transitive verbs with an inanimate object ("TI"), intransitive verbs with an animate subject ("AI"), and intransitive verbs with an inanimate subject ("II"). [15]


See the lists of words in the Algonquian languages and the list of words of Algonquian origin at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project.

Loan words

Because Algonquian languages were some of the first with which Europeans came into contact in North America, the language family has given many words to English. Many eastern and midwestern U.S. states have names of Algonquian origin (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.), as do many cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, et al. Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is named after an Algonquian nation, the Odawa people.

For a more detailed treatment of geographical names in three Algonquian languages see the external link to the book by Trumbull.

See also

The word 'woman' in the different Algonquian languages Femme algoquien.png
The word 'woman' in the different Algonquian languages

Related Research Articles

Cree language Algonquian language spoken by people across Canada, from the Northwest Territories and Alberta to Labrador, making it the aboriginal language with the highest number of speakers in Canada

Cree is a dialect continuum of Algonquian languages spoken by approximately 117,000 people across Canada, from the Northwest Territories to Alberta to Labrador. If classified as one language, it is the aboriginal language with the highest number of speakers in Canada. The only region where Cree has any official status is in the Northwest Territories, alongside eight other aboriginal languages. There, Cree is spoken mainly in Fort Smith and Hay River.

Ojibwe language language

Ojibwe, also known as Ojibwa, Ojibway or Otchipwe, is an indigenous language of North America of the Algonquian language family. The language is characterized by a series of dialects that have local names and frequently local writing systems. There is no single dialect that is considered the most prestigious or most prominent, and no standard writing system that covers all dialects.

Menominee is an Algonquian language spoken by the historic Menominee people of what is now northern Wisconsin in the United States. The federally recognized tribe has been working to encourage revival of use of the language by intensive classes locally and partnerships with universities. Most of the fluent speakers are elderly. Many of the people use English as their first language.

Delaware languages

The Delaware languages, also known as the Lenape languages, are Munsee and Unami, two closely related languages of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian language family. Munsee and Unami, spoken aboriginally by the Lenape people in the vicinity of the modern New York City area in the United States, including western Long Island, Manhattan Island, Staten Island, as well as adjacent areas on the mainland: southeastern New York State, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and coastal Delaware.

Atikamekw, which the endonym is Atikamekw Nehiromowin, literally the "Atikamekw Native language", is an Algonquian language, Cree, is the language of the Atikamekw people of southwestern Quebec. It is spoken by nearly all the Atikamekw, and therefore it is among the indigenous languages least threatened with extinction according to some studies. The Atikamekw reflex of Proto-Algonquian liquid *l is. The corresponding sound in other Cree dialects is, ,, or. Another way in which Atikamekw is distinctive among dialects of Cree is in having many loanwords from the Anishinaabe language.

The Arapaho (Arapahoe) language is one of the Plains Algonquian languages, closely related to Gros Ventre and other Arapahoan languages. It is spoken by the Arapaho of Wyoming and Oklahoma. Speakers of Arapaho primarily live on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, though some have affiliation with the Cheyenne living in western Oklahoma.

Munsee language Algonquian language

Munsee is an endangered language of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian language family, itself a branch of the Algic language family. Munsee is one of the two Delaware languages. It is very closely related to the extinct Unami Delaware, but the two are sufficiently different that they are considered separate languages. Munsee was spoken aboriginally in the vicinity of the modern New York City area in the United States, including western Long Island, Manhattan Island, Staten Island, as well as adjacent areas on the mainland: southeastern New York State, the northern third of New Jersey, and northeastern Pennsylvania.

Potawatomi 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.

Ottawa dialect Native American dialect

Ottawa is a dialect of the Ojibwe language, spoken by the Ottawa people in southern Ontario in Canada, and northern Michigan in the United States. Descendants of migrant Ottawa speakers live in Kansas and Oklahoma. The first recorded meeting of Ottawa speakers and Europeans occurred in 1615 when a party of Ottawas encountered explorer Samuel de Champlain on the north shore of Georgian Bay. Ottawa is written in an alphabetic system using Latin letters, and is known to its speakers as Nishnaabemwin "speaking the native language" or Daawaamwin "speaking Ottawa".

Mahican is an extinct language of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian language family, itself a member of the Algic language family. It was spoken in the territory of present-day eastern New York state and Vermont, by the Mahican people.

Western Ojibwa is a dialect of the Ojibwe language, a member of the Algonquian language family. It is spoken by the Saulteaux, a sub-Nation of the Ojibwe people, in southern Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan, Canada, westward from Lake Winnipeg. Saulteaux is the generally used term by its speakers while Nakawēmowin is the general term in the language itself.

The Arapahoan languages are a subgroup of the Plains group of Algonquian languages: Nawathinehena, Arapaho, and Gros Ventre.

Proto-Algic is the proto-language from which the Algic languages are descended. It is estimated to have been spoken about 7,000 years ago somewhere in the American Northwest, possibly around the Columbia Plateau. It is an example of a second-level proto-language which is widely agreed to have existed. Its chief researcher was Paul Proulx.

Proto-Algonquian is one of the best-reconstructed proto-languages of the Americas. As it broke up, its daughters, such as Cree, Menominee, Ojibwe and Arapaho, changed the original phonology of Proto-Algonquian and gave rise to new languages. Notable changes include the merger of *θ and *r in most descendant languages, the merger of short *i and *e in Cree and Ojibwe, the far-reaching and unexpected sound shifts of Arapaho and Cheyenne, and the simplification of original clusters in the Algonquian languages.


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Algonquian". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. "Algonquian". . Retrieved 2008-07-07.
  3. Campbell 1997, p. 401, notes 133, 136.
  4. Bright 2004, p. 32.
  5. Goddard 1978, p. 587.
  6. Mithun 1999, pp. 328, 333-335.
  7. Goddard 1994, p. 187.
  8. Proulx 2003.
  9. Goddard 1994, p. 199.
  10. Goddard 1994.
  11. Goddard 1979, pp. 106-7.
  12. Kuch et al. 2007.
  13. Mithun 1999, p. 368.
  14. 1 2 Pentland 2006, p. 163.
  15. 1 2 Pentland 2006, p. 164.