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.''
Iroquoian includes three types of verbs: eventive, motion, and stative. Eventive verbs describe an event that is occurring, motion verbs indicate the actual motion, and stative verbs describe the state of being of the verb.
There are three inflections used for eventive verbs: habitual, punctual, and stative. The habitual inflection describes the way in which the event is happening or the habit of the occurrence. Punctual refers to the tense of the occurrence (past, present, future). Stative deals with the state of the event (was, has, is). For example, ''He was standing there'' describes the habit (standing), punctuality (past tense ''was''), and state (state of being ''was'').
Motion verbs use inflections only in the habitual and punctual. Since action is a state of its own, only the habit of the action and tense of the action are necessarily communicated.
Stative verbs occur only in the stative aspect as event and motion do not apply to the state in which the verb exists (for example, ''was,'' ''has,'' ''is''). The stative verb form is simply a way of describing the nature of the verb in its state of being.
All right, that was a lot, so let's take a few moments to review the important information that we've learned. The Iroquoian language is a multi-millennia-old language that has changed and grown through the ages along with many people groups, cultural changes, and political upheavals.
Iroquoian is a language represented by at least ten dialects, all of which have a proud heritage and many similarities, even so that some people cannot speak several fluently. The language was recorded by early European explorers.
Iroquoian is a complex, sophisticated language, including various inflective prefixes and suffixes that are commonly used for the modification of the four parts of speech in Iroquoian: nouns, verbs, particles, and kinship terms. All of these inflections, which are said in a particular way or with certain emphasis, 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. Iroquoian also includes three types of verbs: eventive, motion, and stative. Eventive verbs describe an event that's occurring, motion verbs indicate the actual motion, and stative verbs describe the state of being of the verb.
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