Blackfoot language

The Blackfoot language, also called Siksiká (ᓱᖽᐧᖿ, its denomination in ISO 639-3), (English: /skˈskə/; Siksiká [siksiká], syllabics ᓱᖽᐧᖿ), often anglicised as Siksika, is an Algonquian language spoken by the Blackfoot or Niitsitapi people, who currently live in the northwestern plains of North America. There are four dialects, three of which are spoken in Alberta, Canada, and one of which is spoken in the United States: Siksiká (Blackfoot), to the southeast of Calgary, Alberta; Kainai (Blood, Many Chiefs), spoken in Alberta between Cardston and Lethbridge; Aapátohsipikani (Northern Piegan), to the west of Fort MacLeod which is Brocket (Piikani) and Aamsskáápipikani (Southern Piegan), in northwestern Montana.[3] The name Blackfoot probably comes from the blackened soles of the leather shoes that the people wore.[4]

Siksiká (ᓱᖽᐧᖿ)
Frances Densmore at a recording session with Blackfoot chief, Mountain Chief, in 1916
Native toCanada, United States
RegionPiikani Nation, Siksika Nation, and Kainai Nation in southern Alberta; Blackfeet Nation in Montana
Ethnicity51,221 Blackfoot[1]
Native speakers
4,915, 10% of ethnic population (2016)
Blackfoot Syllabics
Sometimes Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-2bla
ISO 639-3bla

There is a distinct difference between Old Blackfoot (also called High Blackfoot), the dialect spoken by many older speakers, and New Blackfoot (also called Modern Blackfoot), the dialect spoken by younger speakers.[5] Among the Algonquian languages, Blackfoot is relatively divergent in phonology and lexicon.[6] The language has a fairly small phoneme inventory; consisting of 11 basic consonants and three basic vowels that have contrastive length counterparts. Blackfoot is a pitch accent language.[7][8] Blackfoot language has been declining in the number of native speakers and is classified as either a threatened or endangered language.[9]

Like the other Algonquian languages, Blackfoot is considered to be a polysynthetic language due to its large morpheme inventory and word internal complexity.[10] A majority of Blackfoot morphemes have a one to one correspondence between form and meaning, a defining feature of agglutinative languages. However, Blackfoot does display some fusional characteristics as there are morphemes that are polysemous.[11] Both noun and verb stems cannot be used bare but must be inflected.[12] Due to its morphological complexity, Blackfoot has a flexible word order.


Blackfoot is a member of the Algonquian language belonging to the Plains areal grouping along with Arapaho, Gros Ventre, and Cheyenne. Blackfoot is spoken in Northwestern Montana and throughout Alberta, Canada, making it geographically one of the westernmost Algonquian languages.


The Blackfoot people were once one of a few Native American nations that inhabited the Great Plains west of the Mississippi river. The people were bison hunters, with settlements in the northern United States. Forced to move because of wars with neighboring tribes, the Blackfoot people settled all around the plains area and up into Canada, eventually concentrating in Montana. Blackfoot hunters would track and hunt game, while the remaining people would gather food, and other necessities for the winter. The northern plains, where the Blackfoot settled, had incredibly harsh winters, and the flat land provided little escape from the winds. The Blackfoot Nation thrived, along with many other native groups, until the European settlers arrived in the late eighteenth century. The settlers brought with them horses and technology, but also disease and weapons. Diseases like smallpox, foreign to the natives, decimated the Blackfoot population in the mid-nineteenth century. Groups of Blackfoot people rebelled against the Europeans like Mountain Chief's tribe. But in 1870 a tribe of peaceful Blackfoot were mistaken for the rebellious tribe and hundreds were slaughtered. Over the next thirty years, the settlers had eradicated the bison from the Great Plains. This took away the main element of Blackfoot life and took away the people's ability to be self-sustaining. With their main food source gone, the Blackfoot were forced to rely on government support.[4]



Blackfoot has eighteen consonants, of which all but /ʔ/, /x/, /j/ and /w/ form pairs distinguished by length.[13][14]

Labial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k ʔ
Affricate t͡s t͡sː
Fricative s x
Approximant w j



Blackfoot has a vowel system with three monophthongs, /i o a/.[13][14][15]

Front Central Back
High i o
Low a

The short monophthongs exhibit allophonic changes as well. The vowels /a/ and /o/ are raised to [ʌ] and [ʊ] respectively when followed by a long consonant. The vowel /i/ becomes [ɪ] in closed syllables.[15]


There are three additional diphthongs in Blackfoot. The first diphthong ai is pronounced [ɛ] before a long consonant, [ei] (or [ai], in the dialect of the Blackfoot Reserve) before /i/ or /ʔ/, and elsewhere is pronounced [æ] in the Blood Reserve dialect or [ei] in the Blackfoot Reserve dialect. The second diphthong ao is pronounced [au] before /ʔ/ and [ɔ] elsewhere. The third diphthong oi may be pronounced [y] before a long consonant and as /oi/ elsewhere.[16]


Length is contrastive in Blackfoot for both vowels and consonants. Vowel length refers to the duration of a vowel and not a change in quality. The vowel /oo/ is therefore the same sound as /o/ only differing in the length of time over which it is produced.[8]

áakokaawa 'he will rope'
áakookaawa 'she will sponsor a Sundance'

Consonants can also be lengthened with the exception of /ʔ/, /x/, /j/ and /w/.

kiipíppo 'one hundred'
nna 'my father'
soká'pssiwa 'he is good'

Pitch accent

Blackfoot is a pitch accent language and it is a contrastive feature in the language. Every word will have at least one high pitched vowel or diphthong but may have more than one. Note that high pitch here is used relative to the contiguous syllables. Blackfoot utterances experience a gradual drop in pitch therefore if an utterance contains a set of accented vowels the first will be higher in pitch than the second but the second will be higher in pitch than the syllables directly surrounding it. Pitch is illustrated in the Latin-based orthography with an acute accent.[8]

ápssiwa 'it's an arrow'
apssíwa 'it's a fig'
máátaissikópiiwa 's/he's not resting'

Phonological rules

Blackfoot is rich with morpho-phonological changes. Below is a limited sample of phonological rules.

Semi-vowel loss

Glides are deleted after another consonant, except a glottal stop, or word initially but kept in other conditions.[17]

/w/ loss
poos-wa póósa
cat-AN.SG 'cat'
/y/ loss
óóhkotok-yi óóhkotoki
stone-IN.SG 'stone'
word initial
w-óko'si óko'si
3.SG.POSS-child 'his/her child'

Accent spread

Accent will spread from an accented vowel to the following vowel across morpheme boundaries.[18]

á-okska'siwa áókska'siwa 's/he runs'
atsikí-istsi atsikíístsi 'shoes'

Vowel devoicing

At the end of a word, non-high pitched vowels are devoiced, regardless of length.[19]

Grammar – general

Lexical categories

Lexical categories in Blackfoot are a matter of debate in the literature, with the exception of nouns and verbs. Additional proposed categories, proposed by Uhlenbeck, are adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, and particles.[20] Taylor classifies the Blackfoot language as having two major classes, substantives (nouns and pronouns) and verbs, with one minor class consisting of particles.[21] Frantz classifies adjectives and adverbs as affixes but not independent classes.[22]


Agreement morphology is extensive in Blackfoot and agreement morphemes are often polysemous, i.e. animacy and number (nouns) or person and number (verbs) are indicated within the same affix.


All nouns are required to be inflected for animacy and are classified as either animate or inanimate. Verbs are inflected to match the animacy of its arguments. Animacy in Blackfoot is a grammatical construct for noun classification. Therefore, some semantically inherently inanimate objects, such as drums and knives are grammatically animate.[23]

Verbs are marked with a transitivity marker which must agree with the animacy of its arguments. Even in stories in which a grammatically inanimate object are markedly anthropomorphized, such as talking flowers, speakers will not use animate agreement markers with them.


All nouns are required to be inflected as either singular or plural. Verbal inflection matches the plurality of its arguments.[23]

Person marking

Blackfoot has five grammatical persons – first, second, third (proximate), fourth (obviative), and fifth (sub-obviative).[24]

Word order

Word order is flexible in Blackfoot. Subjects are not required to precede the verb.[25] Independent noun phrases may be included but these are typically dropped in Blackfoot due to the extensive person inflection on the verb they aren't necessary to interpret the meaning of the utterance. However, if first or second person pronouns are present it yields an emphatic reading.[26] There is an ordering restriction if the Distinct Third Person (DTP) attached pronoun /-aawa/ is used in which the subject independent noun phrase must occur before the verb. If the independent noun phrase occurs after the verb then the DTP may not be used.[27]


Blackfoot nouns must be grammatically particular in order to be a subject of a verb.[26] In transitive constructions the subject must be volitional to be interpreted as subject.[28]

Person hierarchy

It has been asserted that Blackfoot, along with other Algonquian languages violates the Universal Person Hierarchy in verb complexes by ranking second person over first person. The hierarchy has traditionally been published as 2nd person > 1st person > 3rd person (proximate) > 4th person (obviative).[29] However, alternative analyses of Blackfoot person hierarchy has been published that suggest the Universal Person Hierarchy is applicable to Blackfoot.[30]

Verbal structure

The Blackfoot verbal template contains a stem with several prefixes and suffixes. The structure of the verb stem in Blackfoot can be roughly broken down into the pre-verb, the root, the medial, and the final. The root and final are required elements.

Generally, information encoded in the pre-verb can include adverbs, most pronouns, locatives, manners, aspect, mood, and tense. Incorporated objects appear in the medial. The final includes transitivity and animacy markers, and valency markers.

Grammar – nouns

Agreement morphology

Noun classes are split based on grammatical gender into two categories: animate and inanimate.[31] Additionally, all nouns must be marked for plurality. Plurality agreement are suffixes that attach to noun stems and take four forms, as shown in the table below.[23]

Inanimate Animate
Singular Plural Singular Plural
-yi -istsi -wa -iksi
í'ksisako (inanimate stem) 'meat'
í'ksisako-yi í'ksisakoyi 'meat'
í'ksisako-istsi í'ksisakoistsi ''meats'

Proximate and obviative

When a sentence contains two or more particular animate gender nouns as arguments proximate (major third person/3rd) and obviative (minor third person/4th) markings are used to disambiguate. There may only be one proximate argument in any given sentence but multiple obviates are permissible. Proximate arguments are more prominent in discourse. Redirectional markers, referred to as inverse and direct theme in the literature, can be applied to indicate that the fourth person is the subject argument.[32]


Blackfoot nouns must be grammatically particular, according to Frantz (2009), in order to be a subject of a verb. To be the subject of any verb in Blackfoot the noun must point to a specific referent in the world. In transitive constructions the subject must also be volitional to be interpreted as subject. If subject of a transitive verb is non-specific or non-volitional then verb must be inflected as having an unspecified subject.[33]

Oma isttoána iihtsíkahksinii'pi annistsi ikkstsíksiistsi.
om-wa isttoan-wa iiht-íkahksinii-'p-yi ann-istsi ikkstsíksi-istsi
that-AN.SG knife-AN.SG that-IN.PL branch-IN.PL
`The knife cut off those branches.'
`By means of the knife, the branches were cut off.'

Grammar – verbs

Verbal morphology template

There are four verb categories in Blackfoot: intransitive inanimate, intransitive animate, transitive inanimate, and transitive animate. The parameters of transitivity and animacy for verb selection are typically referred to as stem agreement in order to delineate it from person agreement. The animacy for intransitive verbs is determined by the subject of the verb whereas the transitive verbs are defined by the animacy of their primary object.[34]

The only required component of a clause in Blackfoot is the verb, referred to as a verbal complex in the Algonquian literature, that must be appropriately inflected according to the standard template:

preverb – root – medial – final

Preverbs are prefixes which encode adverbs, most pronouns, locatives, manners, aspect, mood, and tense. Medials are suffixes which primarily encode manner and incorporated objects. Finals are suffixes which encode transitivity, animacy, and valency. Roots and finals are always required in a verbal complex whereas preverb and medials are not.[35]

Inverse and direct theme

When there are two animate arguments acting in a transitive animate verb stem one of the arguments must be acting on the other. Which argument is the actor (subject) and which is the acted upon (object) is indicated by the use of direct or inverse theme marking. If a subject argument is higher than the object argument on the person hierarchy then the direct suffix is used. Conversely, when an object outranks the sentences subject then the inverse suffix is used.[36]

Nitsikákomimmayi nitániksi.
nit-ikákomimm-aa-yi ni-táni-iksi
1.SG-love-DIR-3.PL 1.POSS-daughter-AN.PL
'I love my daughters.'
Nitsikákomimmoki nitániksi.
nit-ikákomimm-ok-yi ni-táni-iksi
1.SG-love-INV-3.PL 1.POSS-daughter-AN.PL
'My daughters love me.'

Voice and valency

Blackfoot voice alterations occur as suffixes on the verb and fall into the category of finals. Finals can include causative, benefactive, reciprocal, and reflexive affixes that either decrease or increase the valency of the stem they are attached too. Below is an example of the reflexive final suffix. It can only be added to a transitive animate stem and results in an animate intranstive stem. This is then interpreted as being a reflexive verb, where the subject of the AI stem is understood to be the both the underlying subject and object of the original verb stem.[37]

oma imitááwa siiksípohsiwa
om-wa imitáá-wa siiksip-o:hsi-wa
that-AN.SG dog-AN.SG PST:bite(TA)-REFL(AI)-3.SG
‘That dog bit itself.’

Relative clauses

Relative clauses are rare in Blackfoot but they do occur. In order to embed a clause you first need to nominalize the clause. The reclassification strategy for nominalization is displayed here followed by a relative clause that uses a nominal formed by this strategy. Reclassification is done by adding nominal inflection to the verb stem instead of person inflection. This derived form then refers to the underlying subject and agrees in both number and animacy.[38]

omiksi áyo'kaiksi/
om-iksi á-yo'kaa-iksi
that-AN.PL DUR-sleep-AN.PL
'those sleeping ones'

Examples below show how a reclassifation nominalized clause is used in a relative clause. Note the nominal agreement morphology on the verb matches the subject, singular and plural, respectively.

oma nínaawa áyo'kaawa nóoma.
om-wa ninaa-wa á-yo'kaa-wa n-oom-wa
that-AN.SG man-AN.SG DUR-sleep-AN.SG 1.POSS-husband-AN.SG
'That man who is sleeping is my husband.'
Omiksi aakííkoaiksi áínihkiiksi áyaakahkayiyaawa.
om-iks aakííkoaN-iksi á-Inihki-iksi áyaak-wa:hkayi-yi-aawa
that-AN.PL girl-AN.PL DUR-sing-AN.PL FUT-go.home-3.PL-PRO
`Those girls who are singing are on their way home.'


Latin-based orthography

The Siksiká, Kainai, and Aapátohsipikani reserves adopted a standardized roman-based orthography in 1975. The Blackfoot alphabet consists of 13 letters.[39]

Orthography IPA Orthography IPA
m m ' ʔ
n n y j
p p w w
t t a a
k k i i
ts t͡s o o
ks k͡s ai æ
s s ao ɔ
h x oi y

Vowels can be marked with an acute accent or underlined to illustrate pitch accent. Vowels and consonants that are long are written with a double letter (aa = a:).[39]

Syllabic Writing System

A syllabics script, ᑯᖾᖹ ᖿᐟᖻ ᓱᖽᐧᖿ pikoni kayna siksika, was created by Anglican missionary John William Tims around 1888, for his Bible translation work. Although conceptually nearly identical to Western Cree syllabics, the letter forms are innovative. Two series (s, y) were taken from Cree but given different vowel values; three more (p, t, m) were changed in consonant values as well, according to the Latin letter they resembled; and the others (k, n, w) were created from asymmetrical parts of Latin and Greek letters; or in the case of the zero consonant, possibly from the musical notation for quarter note. The Latin orientation of the letters is used for the e series, after the names of the Latin letters, pe, te, etc.

BlackfootLatin source
wedigamma Ϝ

The direction for each vowel is different from Cree, reflecting Latin alphabetic order. The e orientation is used for the diphthong /ai/. Symbols for consonants are taken from the consonant symbol minus the stem, except for diphthongs (Ca plus for Cau, and Ca plus for Coi, though there are also cases of writing subphonemic [ai, ei, eu] with these finals).


There are additional finals: allophones [h] and [x], and three medials: ᖿᐧ ksa, ᒣᐧ tsa, ᖿᑉ kya, ᖿᙾ kwa.

is used for a period.

Also sometimes it is written in Latin letters but with different spelling on computers because not all computers support the letters used in the Blackfoot language.


John Tims was an Anglican clergyman with the Church Missionary Society.He was at Blackfoot reserve from 1883 to 1895. Tims translated parts of the Bible into the Blackfoot. Selections from Matthew were published by the Church Missionary Society Mission Press in 1887. The Gospel of Matthew was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1890, and other portions of Scripture were published as Readings from the Holy Scriptures by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1890. He used both Roman script and a Canadian Aboriginal syllabics script. The Gospel of Mark was translated by Donald G. and Patricia Frantz, and published by Scriptures Unlimited, a joint venture of the New York Bible Society (later called Biblica) and the World Home Bible League (later called the Bible League) in 1972. The Gospel of John was Translated by Wycliffe Bible Translators and Blackfoot people and published by the Canadian Bible Society in 1979.

Revitalization efforts

In the late 1900s, many tribes began a surge of revitalization efforts to encourage cultural awareness of indigenous customs and traditions. Of these, the Blackfoot revitalization effort has proven to be quite successful, producing various institutions, including a college dedicated to preserving and promoting Blackfoot traditions. Today, there are head-start programs in primary and secondary schools on the reservation to teach even infants and toddlers about the history of the tribe from an early age.

The Piegan Institute

In 1987, Dorothy Still Smoking and Darrell Robes Kipp founded the Piegan Institute,[40] a private 501 c 3 non-profit foundation in Montana dedicated to researching, promoting, and preserving the Native American Languages, particularly the Blackfoot language. Piegan Institute founded Nizipuhwahsin (also Nizi Puh Wah Sin or Niitsípuwahsin or Cuts Wood) School in 1995 as a Blackfoot language K–8 immersion school. Since its inception the school has grown and relocated to the center of Browning, Montana in a custom built school house. Recently, some of the school's first graduates have returned to teach the newest generation the Blackfeet language.[41]

Blackfeet Community College

Blackfeet Community College (BCC), founded in 1974, is a two-year, nationally accredited college that was made possible by the Indian Education Act of 1972 and the 1964 Act enacted by the Office of Economic Opportunity. BCC is a member of both the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). It allows teenagers and adults alike to take classes in a wide range of subjects, from classes in Psychology and Digital Photography to classes on Blackfoot language and tradition. They have beginning Blackfoot language classes with labs for members and non-members of the community to learn the language.[42]

Chief Mountain Technologies

In order to create jobs for the Blackfoot people with real-world applications, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council launched a company called Chief Mountain Technologies in 2009. This company gives tribal members the opportunity to work in the fields of computer science and business in Browning, Montana on behalf of various government organizations. The establishment of this company in the Blackfoot community allows the people to use their culture and their language in the modern world while maintaining their traditions.[43]

Radio programming in Blackfoot

Radio station KBWG in Browning, Montana, broadcasts a one-hour show for Blackfoot language learners four times a week.[44] The Voice of Browning, Thunder Radio, FM 107.5, or "Ksistsikam ayikinaan" (literally "voice from nowhere") went live in 2010, and focuses on positive programming. In 2011, John Davis, a 21-year-old Blackfeet Community College student explained "I was the first Blackfeet to ever talk on this radio", Davis said. "This is my coup story." A story in the Great Falls Tribune noted, "When the station was replaying programming that originated elsewhere, the radio was all 'tear in my beer' and 'your cheatin' heart.' They called it the suicide station for its depressing old country themes ..." The station's offerings have now expanded beyond country to include AC/DC and Marvin Gaye, and "on-the-air jokes they would never hear on a Clear Channel radio station, such as: 'The captain is as cool as commodity cheese.'"[45]

"So far we have broadcasting Monday through Friday from around 6:30, Indian time", quipped station manager Lona Burns, "to around 11, Indian time." ... "It's Indian radio", agreed Running Crane. "Where else can you hear today's hits with traditional music?"[46]

Canadian government support

The Canadian government has provided support for the languages through funds and other financial resources. According to James Moore, the former Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, "the Government of Canada is committed to the revitalization and preservation of Aboriginal languages." The funding was put to use in the form of digital libraries containing interviews with native speakers, online courses, and various other resources in the hopes of promoting Blackfoot language and passing it down to subsequent generations. On top of both of these government efforts, the Canadian Government has also provided over $40,000 through the Aboriginal Languages Initiative Fund to promote the use of Aboriginal languages in community and family settings.[47]


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  13. "Blackfoot Pronunciation and Spelling Guide". Retrieved 2007-04-10
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  16. Frantz 2017, p. 2
  17. Frantz 2017, p. 155
  18. Frantz 2017, p. 157
  19. Frantz 2017, p. 5
  20. Uhlenbeck (1938)
  21. Taylor (1953)
  22. Frantz 2017, p. 23
  23. Frantz 2017, pp. 7–10
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  25. Frantz 2017, p. 20
  26. Frantz 2017, p. 22
  27. Frantz 2017, pp. 48–49
  28. Frantz 2017, pp. 45–46
  29. Russell, Lena; Genee, Inge; Lier, Eva van; Zúñiga, Fernando (2012). "Referential Hierarchies in Three-Participant Constructions in Blackfoot: The Effects of Animacy, Person, and Specificity". Linguistic Discovery. 10 (3). doi:10.1349/ps1.1537-0852.a.416.
  30. Bliss, Heather; Jesney, Karen (May 2005). "Resolving hierarchy conflict: local obviation in Blackfoot*". Calgary Working Papers in Linguistics. 26: 92–116.
  31. Frantz 2017, p. 8
  32. Frantz 2017, pp. 13–14
  33. Frantz 2017, p. 12
  34. Frantz 2017, p. 40
  35. Armoskaite 2011, p. 22
  36. Frantz 2017, p. 56
  37. Frantz 2017, pp. 100–107
  38. Frantz 2017, pp. 114–129
  39. Frantz 2017, p. 163
  40. "The Piegan Institute".
  41. "Cuts Wood Academy – Blackfoot Immersion School in Browning, Montana". The Piegan Institute. Archived from the original on 2014-04-13. Retrieved 2014-04-09.
  42. Hungry-wolf, Adolf (2006). The Blackfoot Papers. Good Medicine Cultural Foundation. p. 195.
  43. Stout, Mary (2012). Blackfoot history and culture. Gareth Stevens Pub. ISBN 9781433959561. OCLC 698361313.
  44. Stephanie Tyrpak (2011-04-14). "KBWG Brings Blackfoot Language Lessons to the Airwaves". Archived from the original on 2011-04-19. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  45. "KBWG, the 'Voice of Browning Montana' can be heard at 107.5 FM". 2011-06-11. Archived from the original on 2012-04-01. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  46. John McGill (2011-01-19). "'Voice of Browning' radio station KBWG expanding". Glacier Reporter. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  47. Market Wired


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  • Uhlenbeck, Christianus Cornelius. 1938. A Concise Blackfoot Grammar. Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers-Maatschappij. Retrieved from

Further reading

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