Ojibwe language

Ojibwe , also known as Ojibwa , Ojibway or Otchipwe, is an indigenous language of North America of the Algonquian language family. The language 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.

Dialects of Ojibwemowin are spoken in Canada, from southwestern Quebec, through Ontario, Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan, with outlying communities in Alberta; and in the United States, from Michigan to Wisconsin and Minnesota, with a number of communities in North Dakota and Montana, as well as groups that removed to Kansas and Oklahoma during the Indian Removal period. While there is some variation in the classification of its dialects, at least the following are recognized, from east to west: Algonquin, Eastern Ojibwe, Ottawa (Odawa), Western Ojibwe (Saulteaux), Oji-Cree (Severn Ojibwe), Northwestern Ojibwe, and Southwestern Ojibwe (Chippewa). Based upon contemporary field research, J. R. Valentine also recognizes several other dialects: Berens Ojibwe in northwestern Ontario, which he distinguishes from Northwestern Ojibwe; North of (Lake) Superior; and Nipissing. The latter two cover approximately the same territory as Central Ojibwa, which he does not recognize.

The aggregated dialects of Ojibwemowin comprise the second most commonly spoken First Nations language in Canada (after Cree), and the fourth most widely spoken in the United States or Canada behind Navajo, the Inuit languages and Cree.

Ojibwemowin is a relatively healthy indigenous language. The Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School teaches all classes to children in Ojibwe only.


The Algonquian language family of which Ojibwemowin is a member is itself a member of the Algic language family, other Algic languages being Wiyot and Yurok. Ojibwe is sometimes described as a Central Algonquian language, along with Fox, Cree, Menominee, Miami-Illinois, Potawatomi, and Shawnee. Central Algonquian is a geographical term of convenience rather than a genetic subgroup, and its use does not indicate that the Central languages are more closely related to each other than to the other Algonquian languages.

Exonyms and endonyms

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 Oji-Cree (Severn Ojibwe) 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.

Relationship with Potawatomi

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 be 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."

Geographic distribution

Ojibwe communities are found in Canada from southwestern Quebec, through Ontario, southern Manitoba and parts of southern Saskatchewan; and in the United States from northern Michigan through northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota, with a number of communities in northern North Dakota and northern Montana. Groups of speakers of the Ottawa dialect migrated to Kansas and Oklahoma during the historical period, with a small amount of linguistic documentation of the language in Oklahoma. The presence of Ojibwe in British Columbia has been noted.

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.The Red Lake, White Earth, and Leech Lake reservations are known for their tradition of singing hymns in the Ojibwe language. As of 2011, Ojibwe is the official language of Red Lake.


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 isolation is the most plausible explanation for the distinctive linguistic features found in these three dialects. 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 should be analyzed as a linguistic subgroup consisting of several languages.

While there is some variation in the classification of Ojibwe dialects, at a minimum the following are recognized, proceeding west to east: Western Ojibwe (Saulteaux), Southwestern Ojibwe (Chippewa), Northwestern Ojibwe, Severn Ojibwe (Oji-Cree), Ottawa (Odawa), Eastern Ojibwe, and Algonquin. Based upon contemporary field research, Valentine also recognizes several other dialects: Berens Ojibwe in northwestern Ontario, which he distinguishes from Northwestern Ojibwe; North of (Lake) Superior; and Nipissing. The latter two cover approximately the same territory as Central Ojibwa, which he does not recognize.

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."

Lingua franca

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 the Wyandot language (also called Huron), one of the Iroquoian languages, 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, also spoke Ojibwe, but Ojibwe speakers did not speak the other languages. It is known that some speakers of Menominee also speak Ojibwe and that the 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 indicate that speakers of Menominee, another Algonquian language, used Ojibwe as a lingua franca. Other reports from the 18th century and the early 19th century indicate that speakers of the unrelated Siouan language Ho-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 farther west, speakers of non-Algonquian languages such as Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Iowa, and Pawnee spoke Ojibwe as an "acquired language."

Influence on other languages

Michif is a mixed language that primarily is based upon French and Plains Cree, with some vocabulary from Ojibwe, in addition to phonological influence in Michif-speaking communities where there is a significant Ojibwe influence. In locations such as Turtle Mountain, North Dakota individuals of Ojibwe ancestry now speak Michif and Ojibwe.

Ojibwe borrowings have been noted in Menominee, a related Algonquian language.

Bungi Creole is the name given to an English Based Creole language 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 in their inventory of consonant phonemes; Severn Ojibwe and the Algonquin dialect have in its place. Some dialects have both segments phonetically, but only one is present in phonological representations. The Ottawa and Southwestern Ojibwe (Chippewa) have in a small number of affective vocabulary items in addition to regular . Some dialects may have otherwise non-occurring sounds such as 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 followed by a single segment drawn from the set of lenis consonants: . 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 and are typically voiced intervocalically. Although they may be devoiced at the end or beginning of a word, they are less vigorously articulated than fortis consonants, and are invariably unaspirated. In the double vowel system, lenis consonants are written with voiced symbols: b, d, g, j, z, zh.

All dialects of Ojibwe have two nasal consonants and , one labialized velar approximant , one palatal approximant , and either or .

All dialects of Ojibwe have seven oral vowels. Vowel length is phonologically contrastive and so is phonemic. Although 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, which characterizes the Ottawa and Eastern Ojibwe dialects, as well as for the rules that determine word stress.

There are three short vowels and three corresponding long vowels in addition to a fourth long vowel , which lacks a corresponding short vowel. The short vowel typically has phonetic values centring on ; typically has values centring on ; and typically has values centring on . Long is pronounced for many speakers, and is often .Ojibwe has nasal vowels. Some arising predictably by rule in all analyses, and other long nasal vowels are of uncertain phonological status. The latter have been analysed as underlying phonemes and/or as predictable and derived by the operation of phonological rules from sequences of a long vowel and /n/ and another segment, typically /j/.Placement of word stress is determined by metrical rules that define a characteristic iambic metrical 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 · mse · mgak ] in the singular but as [be · mse · mga · kin ] 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 [na · m'e · gii · zhgad ] (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.

Word classes include nouns, verbs, grammatical particles, pronouns, preverbs, and prenouns. Preferred word orders in a simple transitive sentence are verb-initial, such as verb–object–subject and verb–subject–object. While verb-final orders are dispreferred, all logically possible orders are attested.

Complex inflectional and derivational morphology 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: #gender, divided into animate and inanimate categories #extensive head-marking on verbs of inflectional information concerning person #number #tense #modality #evidentiality #negation #a distinction between obviative and proximate third-person, marked on both verbs and nouns.

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 in number and either animate or inanimate in gender. Separate personal pronouns exist but are used mainly for emphasis; they distinguish inclusive and exclusive first-person plurals.

Verbs, the most complex word class, 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.


Loanwords and neologisms

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.

Dialect variation

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.

Sample vocabulary

Below are some examples of common Ojibwe words.Short List of VAIs:
onjibaa = he/she comes
izhaa = he/she goes
maajaa = he/she departs
bakade = he/she is hungry
mino'endamo = he/she is glad
zhaaganaashimo = he/she speaks English
biindige = he/she comes in
ojibwemo = he/she speaks Ojibwe
boogidi = he/she flatulates
boogide = he/she has flatulence
aadizooke = he/she tells a story
wiisini = he/she is eating
minikwe = he/she drinks
bimose = he/she walks
bangishin = he/she falls
dagoshin = he/she is arriving
giiwe = he/she goes home
jiibaakwe = he/she cooks
zagaswe = he/she smokes
nibaa = he/she sleeps
giigoonyike = he/she is fishing (lit. he/she makes fish)
gashkendamo = he/she is sad
bimaadizi = he/she lives
gaasikanaabaagawe = he/she is thirsty
Short List of Nouns:
naboob = soup
ikwe = woman
inini = man
ikwezens = girl
gwiiwizens = boy
mitig = tree
asemaa = tobacco
opwaagan = pipe
mandaamin = corn
miskwi = blood
doodoosh = breast
doodooshaaboo = milk
doodooshaaboo-bimide = butter
doodooshaaboowi-miijim = cheese
manoomin = wild rice
omanoominiig = Menomonee peoples
giigoonh = fish
miskwimin = raspberry
gekek = hawk
gookooko'oo = owl
migizi = bald eagle
giniw = golden eagle
bemaadizid = person
bemaadizijig = people
makizin = moccasin, shoe
wiigiwaam = wigwam, house

Writing system

There is no standard writing system used for all Ojibwe dialects. Local alphabets have been developed by adapting the Latin script, usually based on English or French orthography. A syllabic writing system, not related to English or French writing, is used by some Ojibwe speakers in northern Ontario and Manitoba. Great Lakes Algonquian syllabics are based on the French alphabet with letters organized into syllables. It was used primarily by speakers of Fox, Potawatomi, and Winnebago, but there is some 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 the 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's shorthand and his prior experience developing a distinctive alphabetic writing system for Ojibwe in southern Ontario.

Double vowel system

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 or (the orthographic in most versions) but rarely both. This system is called "double vowel" because the long vowel correspondences to the short vowels , and are written with a doubled value. In this system, the nasal ny as a final element is instead written . The allowable consonant clusters are , , , , , , , , , , , and .

Sample text and analysis

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.


# Aabiding gii-ayaawag niizh ikwewag: mindimooyenh, odaanisan bezhig. # Iwidi Chi-achaabaaning akeyaa gii-onjibaawag. # Inashke naa mewinzha gii-aawan, mii eta go imaa sa wiigiwaaming gaa-taawaad igo. # Mii dash iwapii, aabiding igo gii-awi-bagida'waawaad, giigoonyan wii-amwaawaad.


# Once there were two women: an old lady, and one of her daughters. # They were from over there towards Inger. # See now, it was long ago; they just lived there in a wigwam. # And at that time, once they went net-fishing; they intended to eat fish.



Notable speakers

Notable speakers of Anishinaabemowin include:
  • Frederic Baraga (19th century missionary bishop who wrote A theoretical and practical grammar of the Otchipwe language)
  • George Copway (chief, missionary, writer, cultural ambassador)
  • Basil H. Johnston (educator, curator, essayist, cultural ambassador)
  • Peter Jones (missionary, reverend, chief)
  • Maude "Naawakamigookwe" Kegg (narrator, artist, cultural ambassador)
  • Margaret Noodin (educator, writer)
  • Jim Northrup (writer)

    Mobile learning apps

    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.

    Language revitalization

    Recently, there has been more of a push toward bringing the Ojibwe language back into more common use, through language classes and programs sponsored by universities, sometimes available to non-students, which are essential to passing on the Ojibwe language. These courses mainly target adults and young adults, however there are many resources for all age groups, including online games which provide domains for online language use. There has also been an increase in published children's literature. The increase in materials published in Ojibwe is essential to increasing the number of speakers. Language revitalization through Ojibwe frameworks also allows for cultural concepts to be conveyed through language.