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Iroquois Language: Spoken & Written

Instructor: Joelle Mumley
The Iroquois language, used by several Native American tribes, has many sub-languages or dialects. Learn about the different spoken and written variations of the Iroquois language, explore its history, and understand its morphology over the centuries. Updated: 06/28/2022

The Iroquois Language

The Iroquois language has a long and proud history among several Native American tribes. While considered a language in and of itself, Iroquoian isn't merely one language, but a family of languages, including at least ten other sub-languages or dialects.

The dialects most recognized as part of the Iroquoian language family are Cayuga, Cherokee, Huron, Mingo, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora, and Wyandot. While not all of these languages are as recognizable among other members of the language family group, all of them are considered to be descended from Iroquoian.

While most of the language spoken today is among the Cherokee tribes of Oklahoma, the Iroquois language is still spoken among people ranging from Canada all the way to North and South Carolina. This covers about the same area as ancient speakers, however with a much sparser coverage.

Iroquoian is also related to other Native American language families including Siouan and Caddoan; however, these language families are different enough that it's difficult to recognize most words due to differences in pronunciation and usage.

In this lesson, we'll explore the history of the Iroquois language and how it has developed throughout the centuries.

History of the Language

The language called Iroquois has a long history beginning as early as 4,000 years ago when it split into its northern and southern branches. The northern branch includes the following dialects: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. However, the southern branch includes only Cherokee, still spoken widely among the Cherokee people today. Cherokee is also the only written form of Iroquoian. The Cherokee syllabary consists of characters specific to the Cherokee people that represent symbols used to construct the written and spoken forms of language.

Iroquoian has a more recent history in relation to the European explorers who came to the North American continent in the 16th century. The Spanish explorers of the time were able to document the language and some of its subsets and even learn enough to communicate with the tribal leaders in order to establish trade deals and treaties.

Around the same time, the language became more centralized in the north due to the establishment of the Confederacy of Five Nations (later, Six Nations) that brought together the Iroquois people from five separate tribes in New York and later, North Carolina in the 18th century.

The aforementioned explorers wrote down several of the cultural language conventions including those associated with religious ceremonies, politics, and the Iroquoian view of the universe as a whole. These writings also delved into the Iroquoian cultural customs, how they lived from day to day, and their overarching views on morality, honor, and justice.

Iroquois Language Morphology

The development of Iroquoian is similar in some aspects to other languages. It uses nouns and verbs, for example. However, it's in the details that the language really takes shape. The other two parts of speech in Iroquoian are particles and kinship terms. Of these parts of speech, the nouns, verbs, and kinship terms are inflected, or said in a particular way or with certain emphasis.

Nouns, verbs, and kinship terms are also modified in certain ways. For instance, nouns and kinship terms must have an inflection at the beginning called a pronominal prefix. Verbs also can have one or more of these prefixes. Verbs have an inflection called an aspect suffix, which comes at the end of the verb and modifies its sound and how it is used. The aspect suffix seems to work like an adverb, adding or diminishing emphasis or form. It's in these subtle modifications of the parts of speech that meaning is conveyed. All of these inflections are used to build an Iroquoian grammatical scaffold called a stem, which is a type of phrase onto which other parts of speech may be added to construct a complete thought.

Some stems are simple, using only a root, but most are complicated because they use verb stems, which describe the way something happened. For example, if you were to use a root stem, you might say ''I walked.'' However, a verb stem would be more complex, such as, ''I felt cold as I walked into the funeral parlor.'' Verb stems can incorporate multiple nouns and verbs, all of which must be inflected. While this provides the speaker and hearer with a more precise description of a situation, it also makes for difficulty for non-native speakers, since so many words must be slightly modified.

Pronominal prefixes are mostly used to show who is performing a task. For instance, ''he,'' ''she,'' ''it,'' ''they,'' ''we,'' and other pronouns are included in this category. By adding a certain inflection to the beginning of the stem, the gender and number of participants in the action being performed is identified. For instance, ''He rode the bicycle'' or ''They rode bicycles.''

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