Ojibwe language

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eo:Anisxinabeka lingvo

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Ojibwe, Ojibwa, Chippewa or Anishinaabemowin Template:Unicode in Ojibwe syllabics) is the third most commonly spoken Native language in Canada (after Cree and Inuktitut). It also has numerous speakers in the United States.

Ojibwe (ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᒧᐎᓐ - Anishinaabemowin)
Spoken in: United States, Canada
Region: Ontario, Manitoba and into Saskatchewan, with outlying groups as far west as British Columbia. In the United States, from Upper Michigan westward to North Dakota.
Total speakers: 55,000
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Algic


Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1oj
ISO 639-2oji
See also: LanguageList of languages


Ojibwe is an Algonquian language that is closely related to Cree, Potawatomi, Odawa, and Algonkin, and is spoken by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) people.

Geographic distribution

Ojibwe is spoken by around 10,000 people in the United States and by as many as 45,000 in Canada, making it one of the largest Algic languages by speakers. The various dialects are spoken from spoken in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan in the US, and north into Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec in Canada.


Ojibwe has quite a few divergent dialects. The primary ones are Nipissing, Plains Ojibwe (Saulteaux), Eastern Ojibwe, Northern Ojibwe, and Odawa (or Ottawa), Severn Ojibwe (Oji-Cree), and Southwestern Ojibwe. Algonquin id considered by some to be a particularly divergent dialect of Ojibwe, and by others to be a distinct language which is very similar to Ojibwe. This article deals primarily with the dialect spoken in the northern United States, around Minnesota and Wisconsin, Southwestern Ojibwe. Therefore, some of the descriptions given here will not necessarily hold true for other dialects of Ojibwe. A defining characteristic of many of the more northern and eastern dialects is that they exhibit a great deal of vowel syncope, the deletion of vowels in certain positions within a word.

Many dialects have separate Ethnologue entries and SIL codes: ALQ (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=alq) (Algonquin), CIW (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ciw) (Southwestern Ojibwe ("Chippewa")), OJC (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ojc) (Nipissing ("Central Ojibwe")), OJG (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ojg) (Eastern Ojibwe), OJB (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ojb) (Northern Ojibwe ("Northwestern Ojibwe")), OJS (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ojs) (Severn Ojibwe), OJW (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ojw) (Plains Ojibwe ("Western Ojibwe")), and OTW (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=otw) (Odawa).


The largest dialects of Ojibwe tend to have 29 phonemes, 11 vowels (seven oral and four nasal) and 18 consonants. The obstruents of Ojibwe have a lenis/fortis contrast, rather than a voiced/voiceless one. The fortis consonants are always voiceless, are pronounced more strongly and tend to be longer in duration. The lenis consonants are often voiced (although they are usually voiceless at the end of words), are pronounced less strongly and tend to be shorter in duration. The semivowel transcribed <w> is actually a velar approximant, with very little labial closure at all.

Ojibwe has a series of three short oral vowels and four long ones. The two series are characterized by both length and quality differences. The short vowels are , and the corresponding long vowels are ; there is also an additional long vowel which lacks a corresponding short vowel, . /o/ varies between /o/ and , and varies between and .

Ojibwe also has four nasal vowels, all of them long. They can occur both as predictable allophonic variants of the normal long vowels when followed by a nasal+fricative cluster, but also in unpredictable environments (although they are always morpheme-final, and represent underlying /n/+/j/ clusters). The nasal vowels are .

For many speakers, the nasal allophones of the long vowels appear not only before nasal+fricative clusters, but also before all fricatives. E.g., for many speakers, waabooz, "rabbit," is pronounced .

/n/ before velars becomes .

The glottal phonemes and /h/ occur in some dialects, but not in others.


Front Central back
Close ( ) ( )
Near-Close ( )
Mid o


Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
Plosive p b t d k ( )
Fricative s z ( h )
Nasal m n
Approximant j

Historical sound changes

In the evolution from Proto-Algonquian to Ojibwe, the most sweeping change was the voicing of all Proto-Algonquian voiceless obstruents except when they were in clusters with *h, , Template:Unicode, or *x (which were subsequently lost). Proto-Algonquian *l became Ojibwe n.

The relatively symmetrical Proto-Algonquian vowel system, *i, *i:, *e, *e:, *a, *a:, *o, *o: remained fairly intact in Ojibwe, although *e and *i merged as i, and the short vowels, as described above, underwent a quality change as well.

As an example of the changes at work, take the Proto-Algonquian word *wexpwa:kana, which became the Ojibwe word opwaagan, "pipe."


Ojibwe, like many American languages, is polysynthetic, meaning it exibits a great deal of synthesis and a very high morpheme-to-word ratio. Ojibwe is an agglutinative language, and thus builds up words by stringing morpheme after morpheme together, rather than having several affixes which carry numerous different pieces of information.

Like most Algonquian languages, Ojibwe distinguishes two different kinds of third person, a proximate and an obviate. The proximate is a traditional third person, while the obviate (also frequently called "fourth person") marks a less important third person if more than one third person is taking part in an action. In other words, Ojibwe uses the obviate to avoid the confusion that could be created by English sentences such as "John and Bill were good friends, ever since the day he first saw him" (who saw whom?). In Ojibwe, one of the two participants would be marked as proximate (whichever one was deemed more important), and the other marked as obviate.

Rather than a gender contrast such as masculine/feminine, Ojibwe instead distinguishes between animate and inanimate. Animate nouns are generally living things, and inanimate ones generally nonliving things, although this is not a fast rule. Objects which have great spiritual importance for the Ojibwe are very often animate rather than inanimate, for example.

Ojibwe verbs mark not only information on the subject (their animacy, person, and plurality), but also on the object. There are several different classes of verbs in the language, which differ based on whether they are transitive or intransitive, and whether they take animate or inanimate subjects. The main classes of verbs are abbreviated VAI (intransitive with animate subject), VII (intransitive with inanimate subject), VTA (transitive with animate subject), and VTI (transitive with inanimate subject). Verbs mark tenses with prefixes, but also can take a myriad of suffixes known as "preverbs", which convey a great amount of additional information about an action (for example, the preverb izhi- means "in such a way," and so its addition to the verb ayaa, "to be," makes the verb izhi-ayaa, "to be a certain way"). Furthermore, there are three "orders" Ojibwe verbs can be in. The basic one is called Independent Order, and is simply the indicative mood. There is also a Conjunct Order, which is most often used with verbs in subordinate clauses and with participles (verbal nouns). The final order is the Imperative Order, used with commands and corresponding to the imperative mood.

Ojibwe pronouns, along with distinguishing singular and plural number and first, second, third, and fourth (obviate) persons, also carry a distinction between inclusive and exclusive first person plural. An inclusive first person plural indicates that the pronoun includes the addressee, i.e., "we including you" (giinawind). An exclusive first person plural indicates that the addressee is not included, i.e., "we excluding you" (niinawind).

Ojibwe has no adjectives per se, but rather verbs which function as adjectives. Thus, instead of saying "the flower is blue," you would say something which is actually closer to "the flower blues" (waabigwan ozhaawashkwaa). Ojibwe does have a copula in some situations, in that it has a verb (several, in fact) that can be translated as "to be" and used in situations to equate one thing with another; however, a copula is not always used in Ojibwe—for example, when using demonstrative pronouns (jiimaan o'ow, "this is a canoe").

As Ojibwe is highly synthetic, word order and sentence structure is relatively free, since a great deal of information is already encoded onto the verb. A sentence is usually of the order NV, VN, or NVN (where N="noun" and V="verb"). The subject can go before or after the verb, as can the object. In general, whichever participant is deemed more important or in-focus by the speaker is placed first, before the verb, and the less important participant follows the verb.

Writing system

Ojibwe is written using a syllabary, which was developed by missionary James Evans around 1840 and based on Pitman's shorthand. In the United States, the language is most often written phonemically with Roman characters. Syllabics are primarily used in Canada. The newest Roman character-based writing system is the Double Vowel System, devised by Charles Fiero. Although there is no standard orthography, the Double Vowel System is quickly gaining popularity among language teachers in the United States and Canada because of its ease of use.

Double Vowel System

In the Double Vowel System, short vowels are written as expected, where <a>, <i>, and <o> represent , , and . To write long vowels, the short vowels are doubled (hence the name "Double Vowel System"), so that <aa>, <ii>, and <oo> represent , , and . The remaining long vowel, , is just written <e>, since it has no corresponding short vowel. To indicate that a long vowel at the end of a word is nasal, <nh> is written after it (e.g., <-aanh> at the end of a word represents ). Word-internally, nasal long vowels are indicated with a following <ny> (e.g., in the middle of a word, <-aany-> represents ). The nasalized allophones of the long vowels, which occur preceding nasal+fricative clusters, are not indicated in writing.

The postalveolar affricates and are written <ch> and <j>, and the postalveolar fricatives and are written <sh> and <zh>. The postalveolar semivowel /j/ is written <y>, and the velar semivowel is written <w>. In the Double Vowel System, lenis obstruents are written using voiced characters (e.g. <b>, <d>, <g>, etc.), and fortis ones using voiceless characters (e.g., <p>, <t>, <k>, etc.). The glottal stop, , is transcribed <'>.


See Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics for a more in-depth discussion of the Ojibwe syllabary and related scripts

Missing image
The Ojibwe Syllabary (Adapted from the charts of Rand Valentine (http://imp.lss.wisc.edu/~jrvalent/ais301/Grammar/Phonology/Writing004.html) and Language Geek (http://www.languagegeek.com/algon/ojibway/anb_syllabarium.html))

The Ojibwe syllabary is primarily used by northern (i.e., Canadian) Ojibwe; speakers of more southern dialects (i.e., American speakers) tend to use the Double Vowel System more often. The syllabary involves twelve basic symbols, <p t k ch s sh h m n w y>, as well as one representing the lack of a consonant; these are the "initials," which indicate the initial consonant of the syllable. These symbols can be rotated into one of four directions, each direction representing one of the four primary vowels, <a e i o>. The vowels (except e) can be lengthened by adding a dot above the character. For example, the character for the syllable taa would be written by taking the t initial and rotating it in the a direction, then adding a dot above the symbol.

There were also "finals," smaller symbols which follow the main syllable character and indicate what, if any, final consonants the syllable has. For example, for the syllable taan, the taa character would be written, and then the n final placed to the right. Not all speakers indicate all finals in writing.

The lenis consonants are not distinguished in writing from the fortis ones, and thus both /t/ and /d/ are written <t>, etc. However, some speakers will place the <h> initial before another initial to indicate that that initial is fortis rather than lenis.

The <h> initial and final are also used to represent the glottal stop.


Ojibwe is an Algonquian language, of the Algic Family of languages, and is descended from Proto-Algonquian. Among her sister languages are Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Cree, Fox, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Shawnee.

See Also


  • Nichols, John D. and Earl Nyholm. A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

External links

Ethnologue report for Ojibwe (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=91082)
Ojibwe Language Society (http://www.ojibwemowin.com/)
Rand Valentine's introduction to Ojibwe (http://imp.lss.wisc.edu/~jrvalent/ais301/index.html)
Grammar, lessons, and dictionaries (http://www.first-ojibwe.net/translations/weshki-ayaad/index.html)
Language Museum report for Ojibwe (http://www.language-museum.com/o/ojibwa.htm)
Aboriginal Languages of Canada (http://www.fp.ucalgary.ca/howed/abor_lang.htm) - With data on speaker populations
Language Geek Page on Ojibwe (http://www.languagegeek.com/algon/ojibway/anishinaabemowin.html)
Ojibwe Toponyms (http://cal.bemidjistate.edu/english/donovan/placenames.html)
Niizh Ikwewag (http://cal.bemidji.msus.edu/english/donovan/Two_Women.html) - A short story in Ojibwe, originally told by Earl Nyholm, emeritus professor of Ojibwe at Bimidji State University.


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