Ojibwe/oʊˈdʒiːbweɪ/ (Ojibwa, Ojibway), also known as Chippewa or Otchipwe, is a North Americanindigenous language of the Algonquian languages family. Ojibwe is characterized by a series of dialects that have local names and frequently local writing systems. There is no single dialect that is considered the most prestigious or most prominent, and no standard writing system that covers all dialects. The relative autonomy of the regional dialects of Ojibwe is associated with an absence of linguistic or political unity among Ojibwe-speaking groups.
The most general indigenous designation for the language is Anishinaabemowin 'speaking the native language' (Anishinaabe 'native person,' verb suffix –mo ‘speak a language,’ suffix –win ‘nominalizer’), with varying spellings and pronunciations depending upon dialect. Some speakers use the term Ojibwemowin. The general term in the Severn Ojibwe dialect is Anihshininiimowin, although Anishinaabemowin is widely recognized by Severn speakers. Some speakers of Saulteaux Ojibwe refer to their language as Nakawemowin. The Ottawa dialect is sometimes referred to as Daawaamwin, although the general designation is Nishnaabemwin, with the latter term also applied to Jibwemwin or Eastern Ojibwe. Other local terms are listed in Ojibwe dialects. English terms include Ojibwe, with variants including Ojibwa and Ojibway. The related term Chippewa is more commonly employed in the United States and in southwestern Ontario among descendants of Ojibwe migrants from the United States.
Ojibwe and Potawatomi are frequently viewed as being more closely related to each other than to other Algonquian languages. Ojibwe and Potawatomi have been proposed as likely candidates for forming a genetic subgroup within Proto-Algonquian, although the required research to ascertain the linguistic history and status of a hypothetical “Ojibwe–Potawatomi” subgroup has not yet been undertaken. A discussion of Algonquian family subgroups indicates that "Ojibwe–Potawatomi is another possibility that awaits investigation." In a proposed consensus classification of Algonquian languages, Goddard (1996) classifies Ojibwa and Potawatomi as "Ojibwayan," although no supporting evidence is adduced.
The Central languages share a significant number of common features. These features can generally attributed to diffusion of features through borrowing: “Extensive lexical, phonological, and perhaps grammatical borrowing—the diffusion of elements and features across language boundaries—appears to have been the major factor in giving the languages in the area of the Upper Great Lakes their generally similar cast, and it has not been possible to find any shared innovations substantial enough to require the postulation of a genetically distinct Central Algonquian subgroup.”
The possibility that the proposed genetic subgrouping of Ojibwa and Potawatomi can also be accounted for as diffusion has also been raised: “The putative Ojibwa–Potawatomi subgroup is similarly open to question, but cannot be evaluated without more information on Potawatomi dialects.”
Current census data indicate that all varieties of Ojibwe are spoken by approximately 56,531 people. This figure reflects census data from the 2000 United States census and the 2006 Canadian census. The Ojibwe language is reported as spoken by a total of 8,791 people in the United States of which 7,355 are Native Americans and by as many as 47,740 in Canada, making it one of the largest Algic languages by numbers of speakers.
Because the dialects of Ojibwe are at least partly mutually intelligible, Ojibwe is usually considered to be a single language with a number of dialects, i.e. Ojibwe is "...conventionally regarded as a single language consisting of a continuum of dialectal varieties since … every dialect is at least partly intelligible to the speakers of the neighboring dialects." The degree of mutually intelligibility between nonadjacent dialects varies considerably; recent research has shown that there is strong differentiation between the Ottawa dialect spoken in southern Ontario and northern Michigan; the Severn Ojibwa dialect spoken in northern Ontario and Manitoba; and the Algonquin dialect spoken in southwestern Quebec. Valentine notes that these three dialects “...show many distinct features, which suggest periods of relative isolation from other varieties of Ojibwe.” Many communities adjacent to these relatively sharply differentiated dialects show a mix of transitional features, reflecting overlap with other nearby dialects. While each of these dialects has undergone innovations that make them distinctive, their status as part of the Ojibwe language complex is not in dispute. The relatively low degrees of mutual intelligibility between some nonadjacent Ojibwe dialects led Rhodes and Todd to suggest that Ojibwe “...could be said to consist of several languages...," suggesting analysis of Ojibwe as a linguistic subgroup.
Two recent analyses of the relationships between the Ojibwe dialects are in agreement on the assignment of the strongly differentiated Ottawa dialect to a separate subgroup, and the assignment of Severn Ojibwe and Algonquin to another subgroup, and differ primarily with respect to the relationships between the less strongly differentiated dialects. Rhodes and Todd recognize several different dialectal subgroupings within Ojibwe: (a) Ottawa; (b) Severn and Algonquian; (c) a third subgroup which is further divided into (i) a subgrouping of Northwestern Ojibwe and Saulteaux, and a subgrouping consisting of Eastern Ojibwe and a further subgrouping comprising Southwestern Ojibwe and Central Ojibwe. Valentine has proposed that Ojibwe dialects are divided into three groups: a northern tier consisting of Severn Ojibwe and Algonquin; a southern tier consisting of “Odawa, Chippewa, Eastern Ojibwe, the Ojibwe of the Border Lakes region between Minnesota and Ontario, and Saulteaux; and third, a transitional zone between these two polar groups, in which there is a mixture of northern and southern features.”
Several different Ojibwe dialects have functioned as lingua franca or trade languages in the circum-Great Lakes area, particularly in interactions with speakers of other Algonquian languages. Documentation of such usage dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, but earlier use is likely, with reports as early as 1703 suggesting that Ojibwe was used by different groups from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to Lake Winnipeg, and from as far south as Ohio to Hudson Bay.
A trade language is “…a language customarily used for communication between speakers of different languages, even though it may be that neither speaker has the trade language as his dominant language…” although “…there is a relatively high degree of bilingualism involving the trade language.”
Documentation from the 17th century indicates that Huron (also called Wyandot), an Iroquoian language, was also used as a trade language east of the Great Lakes by speakers of the Nipissing and Algonquin dialects of Ojibwe, and also by other groups south of the Great Lakes, including the Winnebago and by a group of unknown affiliation identified only as “Assistaeronon.” The political decline of the Hurons in the 18th century and the ascendancy of Ojibwe-speaking groups including the Ottawa led to the replacement of Huron as a lingua franca.
In the area east of Georgian Bay, the Nipissing dialect was a trade language. In the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, the area between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, and along the north shore of Georgian Bay, the Ottawa dialect served as a trade language. In the area south of Lake Superior and west of Lake Michigan Southwestern Ojibwe was the trade language. A widespread pattern of asymmetrical bilingualism is found in the area south of the Great Lakes, in which speakers of Potawatomi or Menominee, both Algonquian languages, could also speak Ojibwe, but Ojibwe speakers did not speak the other languages. It is known that some speakers of Menominee also speak Ojibwe, and that this pattern persisted into the 20th century. Similarly bilingualism in Ojibwe is still common among Potawatomis who speak Potawatomi.
Reports from traders and travellers as early as 1744 indicated that speakers of Menominee, another Algonquian language, used Ojibwe as a lingua franca. Other reports from the 18th century and early 19th century indicate that speakers of the unrelated Siouan languageHo-Chunk (Winnebago) also used Ojibwe when dealing with Europeans and others. Other reports indicate that agents of the American government at Green Bay, Wisconsin spoke Ojibwe in their interactions with Menominee, with other reports indicating that “…the Chippewa, Menominee, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sac, and Fox tribes used Ojibwe in intertribal communication…” Some reports indicate that further to the west speakers of non-Algonquian languages such as Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Iowa, and Pawnee spoke Ojibwe as an ‘acquired language.’
Bungee is the name given to a dialect of English spoken in Manitoba by the descendants of "English, Scottish, and Orkney fur traders and their Cree or Saulteaux wives...". Bungee incorporates elements of Cree; the name may be from the Ojibwe word bangii 'a little bit' or the Cree equivalent but whether there is any other Ojibwe component in Bungee is not documented.
All dialects of Ojibwe generally have an inventory of seventeen consonants. Most dialects have the segment glottal stop/ʔ/ in their inventory of consonant phonemes; Severn Ojibwe and the Algonquin dialect have /h/ in its place. Some dialects have both segments phonetically, but only one is present in phonological representations. The Ottawa and Southwestern Ojibwe (Chippewa) have /h/ in a small number of affective vocabulary items in addition to regular /ʔ/. Some dialects may have otherwise non-occurring sounds such as /f, l, r/ in loanwords.
Obstruent consonants are divided into lenis and fortis sets, with these features having varying phonological analyses and phonetic realizations cross-dialectally. In some dialects, such as Severn Ojibwe, members of the fortis set are realized as a sequence of /h/ followed by a single segment drawn from the set of lenis consonants: /p t k tʃ s ʃ/. Algonquin Ojibwe is reported as distinguishing fortis and lenis consonants on the basis of voicing, with fortis being voiceless and lenis being voiced. In other dialects fortis consonants are realized as having greater duration than the corresponding lenis consonant, invariably voiceless, ‘vigorously articulated,’ and aspirated in certain environments. In some practical orthographies such as the widely used Double Vowel system, fortis consonants are written with voiceless symbols: p, t, k, ch, s, sh.
Lenis consonants have normal duration; are typically voiced intervocalically, although they may be devoiced at the end or beginning of a word; are less vigorously articulated than fortis consonants; and are invariably unaspirated. In the Double Vowel practical orthography, lenis consonants are written with voiced symbols: b, d, g, j, z, zh.
All dialects of Ojibwe have seven oral vowels. Vowel length is phonologically contrastive, hence phonemic. Although the long and short vowels are phonetically distinguished by vowel quality, recognition of vowel length in phonological representations is required, as the distinction between long and short vowels is essential for the operation of the metrical rule of vowel syncope that characterizes the Ottawa and Eastern Ojibwe dialects, as well as for the rules that determine word stress. There are three short vowels, /i a o/; and three corresponding long vowels, /iː aː oː/, in addition to a fourth long vowel /eː/, which lacks a corresponding short vowel. The short vowel /i/ typically has phonetic values centring on [ɪ]; /a/ typically has values centring on [ə]~[ʌ]; and /o/ typically has values centring on [o]~[ʊ]. Long /oː/ is pronounced [uː] for many speakers, and /eː/ is for many [ɛː].
Ojibwe has nasal vowels; some arise predictably by rule in all analyses, and other long nasal vowels are of uncertain phonological status. The latter have been analysed both as underlying phonemes, and also as predictable, that is derived by the operation of phonological rules from sequences of a long vowel followed by /n/ and another segment, typically /j/.
Placement of word stress is determined by metrical rules that define a characteristic iambicmetrical Foot, in which a Weak syllable is followed by a Strong syllable. A Foot consists of a minimum of one syllable, and a maximum of two syllables, with each Foot containing a maximum of one Strong syllable. The structure of the metrical Foot defines the domain for relative prominence, in which a Strong syllable is assigned stress because it is more prominent than the weak member of the Foot. Typically, the Strong syllable in the antepenultimate Foot is assigned the primary stress. Strong syllables that do not receive main stress are assigned at least secondary stress. In some dialects, metrically Weak (unstressed) vowels at the beginning of a word are frequently lost; in the Ottawa and Eastern Ojibwe dialects all metrically Weak vowels are deleted. For example, bemisemagak(in) (airplane(s), in the Southwestern Ojibwe dialect) is stressed as [be · mise · magak /ˈbɛːmɪˌseːmʌˌgak/] in the singular but as [be · mise · maga · kin /ˌbeːmɪˈsɛːmʌˌgaˌkin/] in the plural. In some other dialects, metrically Weak (unstressed) vowels, especially "a" and "i", are reduced to a schwa and depending on the writer, may be transcribed as "i", "e" or "a". For example, anami'egiizhigad [ana · mi'e · gii · zhigad /əˌnaməˈʔɛːˌgiːʒəˌgad/] (Sunday, literally "prayer day") may be transcribed as anama'egiizhigad in those dialects.
The general grammatical characteristics of Ojibwe are shared across its dialects. The Ojibwe language is polysynthetic, exhibits characteristics of synthesis and a high morpheme-to-word ratio. Ojibwe is a head-marking language in which inflectional morphology on nouns and particularly verbs carries significant amounts of grammatical information.
Complex inflectional and derivationalmorphology play a central role in Ojibwe grammar. Noun inflection and particularly verb inflection indicate a wide variety of grammatical information, realized through the use of prefixes and suffixes added to word stems. Grammatical characteristics include the following:
There is a distinction between two different types of third person, the proximate (the third person deemed more important or in-focus) and the obviative (the third person deemed less important or out-of-focus). Nouns can be singular or plural, and one of two genders, animate or inanimate. Separate personal pronouns exist, but are usually used for emphasis; they distinguish inclusive and exclusive first person plurals.
Verbs constitute the most complex word class. Verbs are inflected for one of three orders (indicative, the default; conjunct, used for participles and in subordinate clauses; and imperative, used with commands), as negative or affirmative, and for the person, number, animacy, and proximate/obviative status of both the subject and object, as well as for several different modes (including the dubitative and preterit) and tenses.
Although it does contain a few loans from English (e.g. gaapii, "coffee," ) and French (e.g. mooshwe, "handkerchief" (from mouchoir),ni-tii, "tea" (from le thé, "the tea")), in general, the Ojibwe language is notable for its relative lack of borrowing from other languages. Instead, speakers far prefer to create words for new concepts from existing vocabulary. For example in Minnesota Ojibwemowin, "airplane" is bemisemagak, literally "thing that flies" (from bimisemagad, "to fly"), and "battery" is ishkode-makakoons, literally "little fire-box" (from ishkode, "fire," and makak, "box"). Even "coffee" is called makade-mashkikiwaaboo ("black liquid-medicine") by many speakers, rather than gaapii. These new words vary from region to region, and occasionally from community to community. For example, in Northwest Ontario Ojibwemowin, "airplane" is ombaasijigan, literally "device that gets uplifted by the wind" (from ombaasin, "to be uplifted by the wind") as opposed to the Minnesota's bemisemagak.
Like any language dialects spanning vast regions, some words that may have had identical meaning at one time have evolved to have different meanings today. For example, zhooniyaans (literally "small[-amount of] money" and used to refer to coins) specifically means "dime" (10-cent piece) in the United States, but a "quarter" (25-cent piece) in Canada, or desabiwin (literally "thing to sit upon") means "couch" or "chair" in Canada, but is used to specifically mean a "saddle" in the United States.
Cases like "battery" and "coffee" also demonstrate the often great difference between the literal meanings of the individual morphemes in a word, and the overall meaning of the entire word.
There is no standard writing system used for all Ojibwe dialects. Local alphabets have been developed by adapting the Latin script, usually the English or French alphabets. A syllabic writing system not related to English or French writing is used by some Ojibwe speakers in northern Ontario and Manitoba. The Great Lakes Algonquian syllabary is based upon the French alphabet, with letters organized into syllables. It was primarily used by speakers of Fox, Potawatomi, and Winnebago, but there is indirect evidence of use by speakers of Southwestern Ojibwe.
A widely used 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 used by many Ojibwe language teachers because of its ease of use. A wide range of materials have been published in this system, including a grammar, dictionaries, collections of texts, and pedagogical grammars. In northern Ontario and Manitoba, Ojibwe is most commonly written using the Cree syllabary, a syllabary originally developed by Methodist missionary James Evans around 1840 in order to write Cree. The syllabic system is based in part on Evans' knowledge of Pitman shorthand and his prior experience developing a distinctive alphabetic writing system for Ojibwe in southern Ontario.
The Double Vowel System uses three short vowels, four long vowels, and eighteen consonants, represented with the following Roman letters:
a aa b ch d e g ' h i ii j k m n o oo p s sh t w y z zh
Dialects typically either have /h/ or /ʔ/ (the orthographic ⟨'⟩ in most versions) but rarely both. This system is called "Double Vowel" because the long vowel correspondences to the short vowels ⟨a⟩, ⟨i⟩ and ⟨o⟩ are written with a doubled value. In this system, the nasal ny as a final element is instead written ⟨nh⟩. The allowable consonant clusters are ⟨mb⟩, ⟨nd⟩, ⟨ng⟩, ⟨n'⟩, ⟨nj⟩, ⟨nz⟩, ⟨ns⟩, ⟨nzh⟩, ⟨sk⟩, ⟨shp⟩, ⟨sht⟩, and ⟨shk⟩.
The sample text, from the Southwestern Ojibwe dialect, is taken, with permission, from the first four lines of Niizh Ikwewag (Two Women), a story told by Earl Nyholm, on Professor Brian Donovan of Bemidji State University's webpage.
An "Ojibway Language and People" app is available for iPhone, iPad, and other iOS devices. The source code is available for others interested in developing their own application for learning a native language.
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Freelang Ojibwe Dictionary — Freeware off-line dictionary for Windows-based systems (with instructions on how to load on a Macintosh), updated with additional entries every 6–10 weeks. On-line searches are also available.