Iroquois Language: Spoken & Written

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

The language of the Iroquois is more than just one culture's way of communicating. It has a long history and far reaching affect on many Native American languages and cultures. Its history and development are significant and still of anthropological interest today.

The Iroquois Language: Bigger than One Tribe

The Iroquois language has a long and proud history among several Native American tribes. While considered a language in and of itself, Iroquoian is not 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 is difficult to recognize most words due to differences in pronunciation and usage.

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

A map of the Iroquois Confederacy of Five Nations.
Iroquois 5 Nations

History of the Iroquois 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 syllables 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 sixteenth 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 eighteenth 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.

A copy of the Cherokee Syllabary. Cherokee was the only southern Iroquoian branch language and the only written language.
Cherokee Syllabary

Morphology of the Iroquois Language

The development of Iroquoian is similar in some aspects to other languages. It uses nouns and verbs, for example. However, it is 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 also 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 is 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.

Stems

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 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

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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