The Algonquian Language Family

In North America, linguists generally recognize 58 language families and isolates. Understanding language families is one of the keys to understanding the historical relationships between the Indian groups. The Algonquian language family is a large American Indian language which is found in the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains, and California.

With regard to the history of the Algonquian languages and their spread across North America, some linguists postulate that the Algonquian homeland is on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the home to the Algonquian-speaking Blackfoot. In his book The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue, linguist Merritt Ruhlen writes:

“The initial division in the family left the Proto-Algonquians in place to become the Blackfoot, while the other group spread eastward, initially differentiating into the Algonquian languages found in the Great Plains. These languages then spread farther eastward, with the occupation of the East Coast representing the final movement in the dispersal.”

On the other hand, linguist Ives Goddard, in his chapter on the Algonquian languages of the Plains in the Handbook of North American Indians, writes:

“the linguistic evidence supports the hypothesis that the Plains Algonquian languages moved westward onto the Plains with their speakers, separating from other Algonquian speakers who remained in the woodlands about the Upper Great Lakes.”

Some of the divisions within the Algonquian language family are briefly described below.

Plains Algonquian

The Plains Algonquian sub-family includes Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Gros Ventre (Atsina), Besawunena, Nawathinehena, and Ha’anahawunena. The last five languages are considered to belong to an Arapahoan sub-group which is distinguished by certain innovations not found in other Algonquian languages. Arapaho, Gros Ventre, and Besawunena are similar enough that their speakers could understand each other with a little practice.

Among the Plains Algonquian languages, there is a great deal of difference between Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Blackfoot which suggests that these languages have had a separate existence for a very long time.

On the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, my study found that of the tribal members 42% understand the Cheyenne language well; 42% understand it a little; and 16% don’t understand it at all. Among people over 55 years of age, 69% understand the language well. Among teenagers, on the other hand, only 4% understand the language well and 67% understand it a little.

California Algonquian

California Algonquian includes Wiyot and Yurok. While these two languages are found in northwestern California, they are only distantly related to each other. Some linguists refer to this division as Algic.

With regard to the California Algonquian languages, it appears that these two languages branched off from Proto-Algonquian in the Blackfoot homeland and the groups migrated to California. The presence of Algonquian-speaking people in California is the result an early migration from Southern Alberta (Canada). The migration may have moved down the Columbia River, then up the Willamette, across the Umpqua and Rogue River areas, and then down the Klamath River. It is estimated that Wiyot arrived in northwestern California about 900 AD and that Yurok arrived in California about 1100 AD. Glottochronology indicates that Wiyot and Yurok diverged from a common parent Algonquian language 5,100 to 6,100 years ago and that the two languages diverged from each other about 2,300 years ago.

Central Algonquian

The Central Algonquian sub-family includes Miami, Illinois, Shawnee, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Cree, Montegnais, and Naskapi.

At one point in time, some linguists regarded Potawatomi as a dialect of Ojibwa, but presently it is classified as a separate language. In his entry on the Potawatomi in the Handbook of North American Indians, James Clifton reports:

“In sound and structure, it shows many parallels with Southern Ojibwa and Ottawa, although it shares much vocabulary and many phonetic features with Fox, Sauk, and Kickapoo.”

Writing about the difficulties facing an Ojibwa-speaker in learning English, historian Donald Smith, in his book Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and the Mississauga Indians, reports:

“In Ojibwa, almost four-fifths of all words are verbs, whereas in English nouns, adjectives, and adverbs predominate. The better Ojibwa orators put the verb first in a sentence, before the noun, so in English the Anishinabeg had, in effect, to talk backward, placing the noun first.”

Eastern Algonquian

The Eastern Algonquian sub-family includes Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Etchemin,  Potawatomi, Wampanoag, Lenape (Delaware), Abenaki, Micmac, Massachusett, Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot, Montauk, Quiripi, Unquachog, Mahican, Munsee, Unami, Nanticoke, and Powhatan.

Linguistic evidence shows the Eastern Algonquians have a very long history in the northeastern area. Anthropologists William Haviland and Marjory Power, in their book The Original Vermonters: Native Inhabitants Past and Present, report that

“…there is nothing in any of the Eastern Algonquian languages to suggest that the region was ever inhabited by speakers of any non-Algonquian language, from whom Algonquian intruders would be expected to have borrowed some words.”

While there are some historians who have suggested that the Pequot invaded New England in fairly recent times, the linguistic evidence strongly supports the notion that the Pequot language developed in New England. Pequot is most closely related to its neighboring languages, Massachusett and Narragansett.

Glottochronology suggests that Eastern Algonquian separated from the other Algonquian languages about 3,000 years ago.

Writing about the archaeological sequence of the Atlantic coastal region, anthropologist Dean Snow, in a chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:

“The relatively deep split between the Micmac and the other Eastern Algonquians to the southwest suggests that the Micmac prehistoric sequence will show significant independence from other Eastern Algonquian sequences.”

With regard to the Eastern Algonquian languages, linguist Ives Goddard, in his chapter on the Eastern Algonquian languages in the Handbook of North American Indians, writes:

“Each Eastern Algonquian language shares features with each of its immediate neighbors, and the resulting continuum is of a sort that is likely to have resulted from the spread of linguistic innovations among forms of speech that were already differentiated but still similar enough to make partial bilingualism easy.”

In Wampanoag, an Eastern Algonquian language, nouns are either animate or inanimate. In an article in Cultural Survival Quarterly, Ellen Lutz reports:

“An animate object is defined by several different characteristics, including moving independently of another object. In Wampanoag, the Sun is inanimate, while the Earth, which moves independently of it, is animate.”