Chickasaw language

The Chickasaw language (Chikashshanompa' , IPA [tʃikaʃːanompaʔ]) is a Native American language of the Muskogean family. It is agglutinative and follows the word order pattern of subject–object–verb (SOV).[3] The language is closely related to, though perhaps not entirely mutually intelligible with, Choctaw. It is spoken by the Chickasaw tribe, now residing in Southeast Oklahoma, centered on Ada.

Native toUnited States
RegionSouth central Oklahoma, from Byng or Happyland (near Ada) north, and from Davis or Ardmore west to Fillmore and Wapanucka in east.
Ethnicity35,000 (1999)[1]
Native speakers
75 (2017)[1]
  • Western Muskogean
    • Chickasaw
Language codes
ISO 639-3cic
Map showing the distribution of Oklahoma Indian Languages

The language is currently spoken by about 75 people.[4]


Chickasaw, Choctaw and Houma form the Western branch of the Muskogean language family. The Chickasaw and Choctaw were once one tribe who similarly spoke the Muskogean languages.[5] The Chickasaw language was spoken until 1970 but has since become an endangered language.[5] Chickasaw is also related to Alabama, Koasati, Mvskoke (Creek)-Seminole, Hitchiti and Mikasuki.[6]


Sometime prior to the first European contact, the Chickasaw migrated from western regions and moved east of the Mississippi River, where they settled mostly in present-day northeast Mississippi. Chickasaw towns and villages were structured to be densely populated as a wartime measure but encompassed larger areas when there was no conflict with enemies.[5] A main house and main meeting ground were used to gather groups from the Chickasaw community for ceremonies, celebratory affairs, and to discuss important social, cultural, and political matters.[5] There was a division and specialization in labor done by men who prepared the community for war, hunted for food, and made provisions for the defense of their communities while Chickasaw women tended the home, handled farming and agriculture, and raised the families.[5] They would eventually come into contact with Europeans as time passed on and European exploration of their lands took shape.[5] That is where they encountered European explorers and traders, having relationships with French, English and Spanish during the colonial years. The United States considered the Chickasaw one of the Five Civilized Tribes, as they adopted numerous practices of European Americans. Resisting European-American settlers encroaching on their territory, they were forced by the US to sell their country in 1832 and move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) during the era of Indian Removal in the 1830s.

Current status

Emily Johnson Dickerson, the last monolingual speaker of Chickasaw, died on December 30, 2013.[7] Ethnologue estimated in its seventeenth edition that Chickasaw retained up to 600 speakers, but noted that this figure was rapidly declining because most speakers are 50 and older.[8] Children are no longer acquiring the language,[8] indicating Chickasaw has a notably low vitality. As of 2014, there were "four to five confident conversational speakers who are under the age of 35."[9] The Chickasaw language is not much used outside of the home. In terms of conservation and language vitality, Ethnologue evaluates the current language situation as moribund,[8] and UNESCO lists Chickasaw as a "severely endangered" language, also noting that most of roughly 600 speakers are over fifty and almost all are bilingual in English.[10]

Language revitalization

The Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program, founded in 2007, uses both Munro-Willmond and Humes alphabets. Because Chickasaw is a spoken language, "there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to spell Chickasaw."[11] Chickasaw is taught through a master-apprentice program, community programs, and self-study programs.

A "Chickasaw Language Basic" app is available for iPhone, iPad, and other iOS devices.[12]

Classes and programs

The Chickasaw Nation has a department of Chickasaw Language with a 24-member Chickasaw Language Committee. In 2007, the tribe founded the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program. Four levels of Chickasaw language classes are taught at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. Joshua D. Hinson, director of the Chickasaw Language Committee developed master-apprenticeship programs with guidance from linguist Leanne Hinton.[4][9]

Chipota Chikashshanompoli is a children's language program that meets monthly. Ada, Ardmore, Norman, Purcell, Sulphur, and Tishomingo all host non-academic adult language classes. The tribe also organizes immersion camps and publishes Chickasaw language literature through the Chickasaw Press.[4]



Chickasaw has 16 consonants. In the table below, the consonants are written in the standard Chickasaw orthography. The phonetic symbolization of each consonant is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to the right of each orthographic letter when the orthography differs from the IPA symbol.

Chickasaw Consonants[13][14]
  Labial Alveolar Post-
Velar Glottal
central lateral
Nasal m n        
Plosive p    b t   d     k   ɡ ' /ʔ/
Affricate     ch //    
Fricative f s lh /ɬ/ sh /ʃ/   h
Approximant     l y /j/ w  
  • w is labiovelar.
  • Voiceless stops /p t k/ have a small amount of aspiration [pʰ tʰ kʰ], especially at the beginning of words.[13]
  • Voiced stops /b d ɡ/ may undergo lenition to voiced fricatives [β ð ɣ] between vowels.[13]
  • All consonants except for the glottal stop may be geminated and most consonants can occur in biconsonantal clusters.[13]


Chickasaw has 9 vowels:[15]

  Front Central Back
short long short long short long
oral nasal oral nasal oral nasal
Close i [ɪ] ii [iː] [ĩː]    
Mid     o [o̟] oo [oː] [õː]
Open   a [ə] aa [ɑː] [ɑ̃ː]  

Chickasaw vowels contrast between short and long oral vowels and between long oral vowels and long nasal vowels. Short vowels are centralized (see chart): short i is phonetically [ɪ], short o is phonetically [o̟], and short a is phonetically [ə].

Short vowels are also phonetically lengthened when they occur in the second syllable of a sequence of even-numbered open syllables.[16] For example, the word pisali ('I took him') is phonetically [pɪsəˑlɪ]. The lengthened short vowel is usually intermediate in length between a short vowel and long vowel. However, the phonetic realization varies depending on the individual speaker and also on phonetic environment. The lengthening does not occur at the end of words and is further restricted by certain morphological criteria.[17]

Examples of Chickasaw Vowels[18]
IPA Example Meaning
/i/pisa'she looks at him'
/ĩ/sinti''his snake'
/aː/sahashaa'I'm angry'


', a, aa, a̠, b, ch, f, h, i, ii, i̠, k, l, lh, m, n, ng, o, oo, o̠, p, s, sh, t, w, y




Pronominal affixes

Verb arguments (i.e. subject, direct object, indirect object) are indicated with pronominal affixes (both prefixes and suffixes) which are added to verb stems. The pronominal affixes are inflected according to number (singular, plural) and person (1st, 2nd).

Chickasaw has an active–stative pronominal system with two basic series of pronominal sets: an active series (I) and a stative series (II). Additionally, Chickasaw also has dative (III), negative (N), and reciprocal (IR) series.

The active series is used for active intransitive subjects and active transitive subjects. (An active subject, simply put, is a subject that is in control of the action while a stative subject does not have control of the action. This is the difference between She fell on purpose vs. She fell accidentally where the first she controlled the falling while the second she did not control the falling.) The active series is in the table below:

singular plural
1st -li il- / ii-
2nd ish- hash-
3rd -

The third person lacks an affix and usually does not distinguish between singular and plural. The first person singular affix is a suffix while the other affixes are prefixes. The first person plural has two forms: il- which is used before vowels and ii- which is used before consonants — thus, il-iyya "we go", ii-malli "we jump". An example inflectional paradigm of the verb malli "to jump" is below (with the pronominal affixes underlined):

active affixes indicating subjects
singular plural
1st mallili "I jump" iimalli "we jump"
2nd ishmalli "you jump" hashmalli "you all jump"
3rd malli   "he/she/it/they jump"

The stative series (II) is below. This series is used to indicate stative intransitive subjects and direct objects.

singular plural
1st sa- po-
2nd chi- hachi-
3rd -

Example with stative intransitive subjects, lhinko "to be fat":

stative affixes indicating subjects
singular plural
1st salhinko "I am fat" polhinko "we are fat"
2nd chilhinko "you are fat" hachilhinko "you all are fat"
3rd lhinko   "he/she/it/they is/are fat"

Example with direct objects, pisa "to look at (someone)" (the subject in the paradigm below is unmarked because it is in the third person):

stative affixes indicating direct objects
singular plural
1st sapisa "he/she/it/they look at me" popisa "he/she/it/they look at us"
2nd chipisa "he/she/it/they look at you" hachipisa "he/she/it/they look at you all"
3rd pisa   "he/she/it/they look at him/her/it/them"

Both active and stative affixes can occur together in which case the active affix indicates the active subject and the stative affix indicates the direct object. Active prefixes occur before stative prefixes. When ish- "active second person singular" occurs before sa- "stative first person singular", it results in issa- (the sh assimilates to s). Likewise, hash- "active second person plural" + sa- is realized as hassa-. The full paradigm of pisa "to look at" is below:

active & stative affixes together
verb form translation morpheme segmentation
hachipisali "I look at you all" hachi-pisa-li
pisali "I look at her" pisa-li
iichipisa "we look at you" ii-chi-pisa
iihachipisa "we look at you all" ii-hachi-pisa
iipisa "we look at her" ii-pisa
issapisa "you look at me" ish-sa-pisa
ishpopisa "you look at us" ish-po-pisa
ishpisa "you look at her" ish-pisa
hassapisa "you all look at me" hash-sa-pisa
hashpopisa "you all look at us" hash-po-pisa
hashpisa "you all look at her" hash-pisa
sapisa "she looks at me" sa-pisa
popisa "she looks at us" po-pisa
chipisa "she looks at you" chi-pisa
hachipisa "she looks at you all" hachi-pisa
pisa "she looks at her" pisa

Verb grades

      foyopa 'to breathe'
      fóyyo'pa 'to give a sigh of relief'
      foyohómpa 'to be breathing'
      foyámpa 'breathing' (at same time as another action)


English Chickasaw
Hello (general greeting) Chokma
how are you? (literally: are you well?)
  • Chi chukma?
  • Chin chukma?
  • Chukma
  • booski
  • booska
  • bookse
reply to Chi chukma and Chin chukma Achukma akinni
reply to Chukma Homi, ishno ako
reply to Homi, ishno ako Homi, achukma akinni


  1. Chickasaw at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Chickasaw". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Munro, Pamela, and Catherine Willmond (2008). Chikashshanompa' Kilanompoli'. University of Oklahoma Press.
  4. "Chickasaws Are On the Move." Archived July 16, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Linguistics Society of America Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  5. "The Chickasaw People". Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  6. "The Official Site of the Chickasaw Nation | Language". Retrieved 2015-08-29.
  7. "Last Monolingual Language Chickasaw Speaker Dies at 93", Native News Online. Retrieved 4 Jan 2014.
  9. Russon, Mary-Ann (2014-05-08). "Chickasaw Nation: The Fight to Save a Dying Native American Language". International Business Times. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  11. "Language". The Official Site of the Chickasaw Nation. Archived from the original on 2012-09-19. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  12. "App Shopper: Chickasaw Language Basic for iPhone/iPod Touch (Education)". Retrieved 2012-09-12.
  13. Gordon, Munro & Ladefoged (2001:287)
  14. Munro (2005:121)
  15. Gordon, Munro, Ladefoged. "Chickasaw" (PDF). maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. Gordon, Munro & Ladefoged (2001:288)
  17. See Gordon, Munro & Ladefoged (2000)
  18. Gordon, Munro & Ladefoged (2001:288–289)


  • Gordon, Matthew. (2004). "A phonological and phonetic study of word-level stress in Chickasaw". International Journal of American Linguistics, 70 (1), 1-32.
  • Gordon, Matthew; Munro, Pamela; Ladefoged, Peter (2000), "Some phonetic structures of Chickasaw", Anthropological Linguistics, 42: 366–400
  • Gordon, Matthew; Munro, Pamela; Ladefoged, Peter (2001), "Illustrations of the IPA: Chickasaw", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 31 (2): 287–290, doi:10.1017/s0025100301002110
  • Munro, Pamela (2005), "Chickasaw", in Hardy, Heather K.; Scancarelli, Janine (eds.), Native Languages of the Southeastern United States, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 114–156
  • Munro, Pamela; Willmond, Catherine (1994). Chickasaw: An analytical dictionary. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Munro, Pamela; Willmond, Catherine (2008) Let's Speak Chickasaw = Chikashshanompa' Kilanompoli'. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • "The Chickasaw People." 2017.
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