Shawnee language

The Shawnee language is a Central Algonquian language spoken in parts of central and northeastern Oklahoma by the Shawnee people. It was originally spoken in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. It is closely related to other Algonquian languages, such as Mesquakie-Sauk (Sac and Fox) and Kickapoo.

Native toUnited States
EthnicityShawnee [1]
Native speakers
200 and decreasing (2002)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3sjw
Distribution of the Shawnee language around 1650


Shawnee is severely threatened, with speakers shifting to English. The approximately 200 remaining speakers are older adults.[1] The decline in usage of Shawnee is largely the result of reform schools for Native American children that forced an education in English, causing some Native Americans to cease teaching their languages to children.

Of the 2,000 members of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe around Shawnee town, more than 100 are speakers; of the 1,500 members of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe in Ottawa County, there are only a few elderly speakers; of the 8,000 members of the Loyal Shawnee in the Cherokee region of Oklahoma around Whiteoak there are fewer than 12 speakers.[1] All of these low figures, in addition to the fact that most speakers are older adults, make Shawnee an endangered language. Additionally, development outside of the home is limited; apart from a dictionary and portions of the Bible from 1842 to 1929,[1] it appears that there is little literature or technology support for Shawnee.

Language revitalization

Absentee-Shawnee Elder George Blanchard's Shawnee language classes were profiled on the PBS show "The American Experience" in 2009.[3] The Eastern Shawnee have also taught language classes.[4]

Conversational Shawnee booklets and CDs, and a Learn Shawnee Language website are available.[5][6]


Stress in Shawnee falls on the final syllable of a word.


Shawnee has six vowels,[7] three of which are high, and three are low.

Front Central Back
Close i iː
Middle e o
Open a aː


Shawnee consonants are shown in the chart below.

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p t k ʔ
Fricative θ ʃ h
Lateral l
Nasal m n
Semivowel w j

The Shawnee /θ/ is most often derived from Proto-Algonquian *s.[8]

Some speakers of Shawnee pronounce /ʃ/ more like an alveolar [s]. This pronunciation is especially common among Loyal Band Shawnee speakers near Vinita, Oklahoma.


Consonant length
/k/ and /kk/ contrast in the following verbal affixes

when (I) hide him

when (I) hide them

These affixes (-ki, -kki) are object markers in the transitive animate subordinate mode. The subject is understood.

Phonological rules

A word may not begin with a vowel. Instead, an on-glide [h] is added. For example:
There are two variants of the article "-oci", meaning from. It can attach to nouns to form prepositional phrases, or it can also be a preverb. When it attaches to a noun, it is "-ooci," and when attached to a preverb it is "-hoci."
from Norman

oklahooma niila hoci-lenawe
Oklahoma 1 from-live
I'm from Oklahoma


Morphophonological rules

Rule 1

[t] is inserted between two vowels at morpheme boundary.
As we know from the phonological rule stated above, a word may not begin with a vowel in Shawnee. From the morphophonological rule above, we can assume that [h]~[t].
"-eecini(i)" meaning Indian agent appears as "hina heecini" or that Indian agent, and as "ho-[t]eecinii-ma-waa-li, meaning he was their Indian agent. The [t] of "ho-[t]-" fills the open slot that would otherwise have to be filled with [h].

Rule 2

V1-V2-----> V2
A short vowel preceding another short vowel at a morpheme boundary is deleted.
hina + -ene ( > hinene)
that + -Xtimes
at that time period, then

melo'kami -eke ( > melo'kameke)
spring -LOC
in spring

Rule 3

V:V------> V:
When a long vowel and a short vowel come together at a morpheme boundary, the short vowel is deleted.
ho-staa-ekw-a -li ( > ho-staa-koo-li)
he built (him) (a house)

kaa -ki -noot-en -aa-maa-ekw-a ( > kaakinootenaamaakwa)
(he) signed by hand (to me) (repeatedly)

Grammar and syntax

Shawnee shares many grammatical features with other Algonquian languages. There are two third persons, proximate and obviative, and two noun classes (or genders), animate and inanimate. It is primarily agglutinating typologically, and is polysynthetic, resulting in a great deal of information being encoded on the verb. The most common word order is Verb-Subject.

Instrumental and transitivizing affixes

stem-(instrumental affix)-transitivizing affix-object affix
The instrumental affix is not obligatory, but if it is present, it determines the type of transitivizing affix that can follow it, (see numbering scheme below) or by the last stem in the theme.
Instrumental affixes are as follows

Instrumental suffix
pw 'by mouth'
n 'by hand'
h(0) 'by heat'
hh 'by mechanical instrument'
l 'by projectile'
(h)t 'by vocal noise'
šk 'by feet in locomotion'
hšk 'by feet as agent'
lhk 'by legs'

Possessive paradigm: animate nouns

Possessor Singular noun Plural noun
1s ni- + ROOT ni- + ROOT + ki
2s ki- + ROOT ki- + ROOT + ki
3s ho- + ROOT ho- + ROOT + ki
4s ho- + ROOT + li ho- + ROOT + waa + li
1p (excl) ni- + ROOT + na ni- + ROOT + naa + ki
2+1 (incl) ki- + ROOT + na ki- + ROOT + naa + ki
2p ki- + ROOT + wa ki- + ROOT + waa + ki
4p ho- + ROOT + hi ho- + ROOT + waa + hi

Possessive paradigm: inanimate nouns

-tθani (w)- 'bed'

Possessor Singular noun Plural noun
1s ni- + t0ani ni- + t0aniw+ali
2s ki- + t0ani ki- + t0aniw+ali
3s ho- + t0ani ho- + t0aniw+ali
1p (excl) ni- + t0ane+na ni- + t0ane+na
2+1 (incl) ki- + t0ane+na ki- + t0ane+na
2p ki- + t0ani+wa ki- + t0ani+wa
3p ho- + t0ani+wa ho- + t0ani+wa
Locative t0an + eki (unattested)
Diminutive t0an + ehi


The independent and imperative orders are used in independent clauses. The imperative order involves an understood second person affecting first or third persons.

teke ki-e' -memekw-i
'you mustn't run'

NEG run.from-IMPER-AO
'you mustn't run away from him'

teke-wi'θen-i kola'-waapaki
NEG eat -IMPER early-morning
'you mustn't eat early in the morning'

Independent Mode:
Inanimate Intransitive (II):
3s---> /-i/ ---> skwaaw-i 'it is red'
3p---> /-a/ ---> kinwaaw-a 'those are long'

Demonstrative pronouns

Refer to the examples below. 'Yaama' meaning 'this' in examples 1 and 2 refers to someone in front of the speaker. The repetition of 'yaama' in example 1 emphasizes the location of the referent in the immediate presence of the speaker.

(1) yaama-kookwe-nee -θa -yaama
'this stranger (the one right in front of me)'

(2) mata-yaama-ha' -pa-skoolii-wi
not this TIME-go-school- AI
ni-oosθe' -0a
'this grandchild of mine does not go to school'

Refer to the examples below. 'Hina' functions as a third-person singular pronoun.

hina-ha'θepati ni-[t]e-si-naa-pe
3 racoon 1 -call-thus-IN.OBJ-1p
'we called him (the Indian Agent) racoon'

we ha'θepati -si -θo -hina
now raccoon name-PASSIVE 3
'then he (the Indian Agent) was named raccoon'

howe-si taakteli -hina
good-AI doctor 3
'he was a good doctor'

Refer to the examples below. 'Hini' fulfills the same functions as above for inanimate nouns. Locational and third-person singular pronominal uses are found in the following examples.

na'θaapi ni-[t]aay-a hini
even 1-REDUP-go that
'I would even go there'

that [h]-say-thus-3-now
'(when) he said that (to me)'

Word order

Shawnee has a fairly free word order, with VSO being the most common:
teki koos -i -ma
NEG run.from-IMPER-AO
'run you from him' (in the negative)
'you mustn't run away from him'

SOV, SVO, VOS, and OVS are also plausible.

Grammatical categories

Parts of speech in the Algonquian languages, Shawnee included, show a basic division between inflecting forms (nouns, verbs and pronouns), and non-inflecting invariant forms (also known as particles). Directional particles ("piyeci" meaning "towards") incorporate into the verb itself. Although particles are invariant in form, they have different distributions and meanings that correspond to adverbs ("[hi]noki" meaning "now", "waapaki" meaning "today", "lakokwe" meaning "so, certainly", "mata" meaning "not") postpositions ("heta'koθaki wayeeci" meaning "towards the east") and interjections ("ce" meaning "so!").


Examples (1) and (2) below show the grammatical interaction of obviation and inverse. The narrative begins in (1) in which grandfather is the grammatical subject [+AGENT] in discourse-focus [+PROXIMATE]. In (2), grandfather remains in discourse-focus [+PROXIMATE], but he is now the grammatical object [+OBJECT]. To align grammatical relations properly in (2), the inverse marker /-ekw-/ is used in the verb stem to signal that the governor is affecting grandfather. (The prefix /ho-/ on 'ho-stakooli' refers to grandfather).

(1) he-meci -naat-aw'ky-aa-ci hina ni-me'soom' -θa
SUB-COMPLETED-much-land -TA-3SUB that 1-grandfather-PERSON
'afterwards my grandfather received land'

(2) wiikiwa ho-staa -ekw-a -li kapenalee-li
house 3-build-INV-DIR-3sOBV governor -3sOBV
'the governor built (him) a house'
(/-li/ is the obviative marker)

Since the person building the house (the governor) is disjoint from the person who the house is being built for (the grandfather), this disjunction is marked by placing one participant in the obviative. Since grandfather is the focus in this narrative, the governor is assigned the obviative marking. Grammatically, 'kapenal-ee' (-ee- < -ile- < -ileni- 'person') is the subject who is not in discourse-focus (marked by /-li/ 3sOBVIATIVE), showing that grammatical relations and obviation are independent categories.

Similar interactions of inverse and obviation are found below. In Shawnee, third person animate beings participate in obviation, including grammatically animate nouns that are semantically inanimate.

we ni-cis-h -ekw-a hina weepikwa
then 1-fear-CAUSE-INV-DIR- that spider
'then that spider scared me'

ho-waap-am-aa-li kisa'θwa-li
3-look -TA-DIR-3sOBV- sun -3sOBV
'he looked at the sun'

Locative affix /-eki/

The Shawnee /-eki/ meaning "in" can be used with either gender. This locative affix cliticizes onto the preceding noun, and thus it appears to be a case ending.

box -in
'in a box'

big-house -in
'in a big house'

tθene melo'kami-eki
every spring -in
'every spring'

Person, number, and gender


The basic distinction for gender in Shawnee is between animate actors and inanimate objects.

Nouns are in two gender classes, inanimate and animate; the latter includes all persons, animals, spirits, and large trees, and some other objects such as tobacco, maize, apple, raspberry (but not strawberry), calf of leg (but not thigh), stomach, spittle, feather, bird's tail, horn, kettle, pipe for smoking, snowshoe.[9]

Grammatical gender in Shawnee is more accurately signaled by the phonology, not the semantics.
Nouns ending in /-a/ are animate, while nouns ending in /-i/ are inanimate.[10] This phonological criterion is not absolute. Modification by a demonstrative ("hina" being animate and "hini" being inanimate, meaning that) and pluralization are conclusive tests.

In the singular, Shawnee animate nouns end in /-a/, and the obviative singular morpheme is /-li/.
Shawnee inanimate nouns are usually pluralized with stem +/-ali/.
This causes animate obviative singular and inanimate plural to look alike on the surface.

animate obviative singular

inanimate plural
my teeth


Shawnee nouns can be singular or plural. Inflectional affixes in the verb stem that cross-reference objects are often omitted if inanimate objects are involved. Even if an inflectional affix for the inanimate object is present, it usually does not distinguish number. For example, in the TI paradigm (animate›inanimate) when there is a second or third person plural subject, object markers are present in the verb stem, but they are number-indifferent. Overt object markers are omitted for most other subjects. In the inverse situation, (animate‹inanimate) the inanimate participants are not cross-referenced morphologically.[11]


The choice of person affix may depend on the relative position of agent and object on the animacy hierarchy. According to Dixon [12] the animacy hierarchy extends from first person pronoun, second person pronoun, third person pronoun, proper nouns, human common nouns, animate common nouns, and inanimate common nouns.

The affixes in the verb will reflect whether an animate agent is acting on someone or something lower in the animacy scale, or whether he is being acted upon by someone or something lower in the animacy scale.


During the 19th century a short-lived Roman-based alphabet was designed for Shawnee by the missionary Jotham Meeker. It was never widely used.[8] Later, native Shawnee speaker Thomas 'Wildcat' Alford devised a highly phonemic and accurate orthography for his 1929 Shawnee translation of the four gospels of the New Testament, but it, too, never attained wide usage.


English Shawnee
beard Kwenaloonaroll
general greeting (in the northeastern dialect) Hatito
general greeting (in the southern dialect) Ho
greetings Bezon (general greeting)

Bezon nikanaki (general greeting spoken to a friend)

Howisakisiki (daytime greeting)

Howisiwapani (morning greeting)

Wasekiseki (morning greeting)

how are you? Hakiwisilaasamamo Waswasimamo
reply to Hakiwisilaasamamo and Waswasimamo Niwisilasimamo


  1. Shawnee at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Shawnee". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. "Shawnee: A Matter of Funding". PBS. 2009-04-13. Retrieved 2013-04-26. Missing or empty |series= (help)
  4. "Shawnee Language Classes". Eastern Shawnee of Oklahoma. Archived from the original on 2016-05-20. Retrieved 2013-04-26.
  5. "Say it in Shawnee!". Retrieved 2013-04-26.
  6. "Learn Shawnee - Learn Shawnee Language". Retrieved 2013-04-26.
  7. Andrew, Kenneth Ralph. Shawnee Grammar. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 1994
  8. Mithun, Marianne (2001). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-521-29875-9.
  9. Bloomfield 1946:449-50; punctuation as in the original
  10. Chrisley 1992:9
  11. Andrew, Kenneth Ralph. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 1994.
  12. Dixon 1979:85-6

Further reading

  • Alford, Thomas Wildcat. 1929. The Four Gospels of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Shawnee Indian Language. Xenia, Ohio: Dr. W. A. Galloway.
  • Andrews, Kenneth. 1994. Shawnee Grammar. Unpublished Dissertation, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
  • Costa, David J. 2001. Shawnee Noun Plurals. Anthropological Linguistics 43: 255-287.
  • Costa, David J. 2002. Preverb Usage in Shawnee Narratives. In H. C. Wolfart, ed., Papers of the 33rd Algonquian Conference, 120-161. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
  • Gatschet, Albert S. "Shawnee words, phrases, sentences and texts 1890-1892". Retrieved 2013-04-26.
  • Voegelin, Carl F. 1935. Shawnee Phonemes. Language 11: 23-37.
  • Voegelin, Carl F. 1936. Productive Paradigms in Shawnee. Robert H. Lowie, ed., Essays in Anthropology presented to A. L. Kroeber 391-403. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Voegelin, Carl F. 1938-40. Shawnee Stems and the Jacob P. Dunn Miami Dictionary. Indiana Historical Society Prehistory Research Series 1: 63-108, 135-167, 289-323, 345-406, 409-478 (1938–1940). Indianapolis.
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