Algonquian is a linguistic term that describes the language family belonging specifically to a large number of North American Native nations. The Algonquian linguistic family is believed to have originated from a Proto-Algonquian parent language spoken as far back as 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. The area in which it originated is thought to have been located between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario. The Proto-language has since then developed into many variations as a consequence of migration patterns, historical relationships, European contact, and environmental changes.
Algonquian languages were spoken throughout North America, across the Great Plains to the eastern seaboard and north from the Canadian Subarctic to North Carolina in the south. We categorize Algonquian languages into three geographic areas that include
- the Plains Algonquian languages spoken in central and northern Great Plains
- the Central Algonquian languages spoken around the Great Lakes, north from eastern Quebec through Manitoba and from Labrador west to Hudson Bay and Alberta, and
- the Eastern Algonquian languages spoken from the Gulf of St. Lawrence south to coastal North Carolina.
The distribution of the Algonquian languages rests as one of the largest language expansions over North America. Due to their wide geographic distribution and location along a broad swath of the eastern North American coast, the Algonquian nations were the first with which Europeans had contact. Approximately half of the Algonquian languages were spoken in the Eastern Algonquian regions, while the others were concentrated within the eastern woodlands and northern plains. The Iroquoian nations neighbored the Algonquian nations in the eastern and southern areas, as the Siouan nations bordered on the south. The Algonquian nations were surrounded on the southwest and west by the Muskhogean and Siouan nations, on the northwest by the Kitunahan and the great Athapascan language families, and on the north, the coast of Labrador, and east of Hudson Bay by the Inuit. Although we recognize early relationships among Algonquian languages, these are difficult to confirm because some Algonquian languages vanished or disappeared before they could be studied. Some suggest that, when explorers first came in contact with Native American people in North America, there might have been as many as 300 Native American languages being spoken. By 1960, only around 80 of these languages were still being spoken but mainly by older generations, individuals over 50 years of age. Historically many Algonquian speakers could converse in more than one language and often, in several. Beginning in the 17th century, Christian missionaries and travelers formulated much of the histories of the Algonquian languages. Because the accumulation of research from the earliest ages is sparse, we see gaps within the chronological picture of the Algonquian history. As a consequence, the history includes bias and misunderstanding. By the 19th century, a number of scholars began research in Algonquian comparative studies.
Micmac (Mi’kmaq) is spoken in parts of Nova Scotia; Prince Edward Island; eastern New Brunswick; Gaspe, Quebec; Labrador; and Boston. Maliseet- Passamaquoddy is spoken in western New Brunswick by the Maliseet and in eastern Maine by the Pas- samaquoddy. Etchemin was spoken between Kennebec and St. John Rivers. Some suggest that Etchemin originated from Maliseet-Passamaquoddy and Eastern Abenaki. Eastern Abenaki was primarily spoken in central and western Maine. Different from Eastern Abenaki, Western Abenaki was spoken in St. Francis, Quebec; Massachusetts; Vermont; and Sokoki, New Hampshire. The English translation of the French word loup is wolf. Given this name by the French, it is speculated that Loup A was spoken in areas of central Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley. Loup B has similar dialects to Western Abenaki and Mahican. Massachusett was spoken in southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod, the Elizabeth Islands, Martha’s Vineyard. and Nantucket. Narragansett was spoken in Rhode Island. Mohegan-Pequot-Montauk was spoken in eastern Connecticut and the eastern portion of Long Island. There is not sufficient information on Quiripi and Naugatuck-Unquachog-Shinnecock, but some suggest that these were also spoken in western Connecticut and Long Island. Mahican lived in areas from Lake Champlain along the southern Hudson River to eastern NewYork, western Massachusetts, and northwestern Connecticut. One of the Delaware languages, Munsee, was spoken on western Long Island, southern New York, and in northern New Jersey. The Munsee was later found in areas within Ontario, such as Moraviantown, Munceytown, and Six Nations. Another Delaware language, Unami, was spoken in southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Oklahoma. Nanticoke was spoken in Maryland and, more specifically, Piscataway to the west of the Chesapeake. Powhatan was spoken in Virginia, from the Potomac south to the James River. Pamlico was spoken in northeastern North Carolina.
The Shawnee frequently relocated but lived mainly in Oklahoma. Sauk-Fox was spoken in central Oklahoma and on the Kansas-Nebraska boundary. Kickapoo was spoken in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Coahuila,
A list of Algonquian languages arranged within the three general North American locations.
Eastern Algonquian Micmac (Mi’kmaq)
Eastern Abenaki (Penobscot)
Caniba, Aroosagunticook, Pigwacket Western Abenaki (Abnaki) (St.Francis)
Loup A (Nipmuck)
North Shore, Natick, Wampanoag Narragansett Mohegan-Pequot
Mohegan, Pequot, Ni antic, Montauk Montauk
Quiripi (Quinnipak) (Connecticut)
Stockbridge, Moravian Munsee (Delaware)
Munsee,Wappinger Unami (Delaware) (Lenape)
Northern, Southern, Unalachtigo Nanticoke
Nanticoke, Choptank, Piscataway (Conoy)
Powhatan (Virginia Algonquian)
Pamlico (Carolina Algonquian) (Pamtico) (Pampticough)
Central Algonquian Cree
Eastern Cree dialects
East Cree, Naskapi, Montagnais Western Cree dialects
Plains Cree, Woods Cree,Western Cree, Swampy Cree, Eastern Swampy Cree, Moose Cree, Mithchif, Atikamek Ojibwa (Ojibway) (Ojibwe) (Chippeway)
Saulteaux, Northwestern Ojibwa, Southwestern Ojibwa, Severn Ojibwa, Central Ojibwa, Ottawa (Odawa), Eastern Ojibwa, Algonquin Potawatomi
Sauk-Fox-Kickapoo Miami-Illinois (Peoria)
Plains Algonquian Blackfoot Cheyenne
Cheyenne, Sutaio Arapaho-Atsina-Nawathinehena
Arapaho, Atsina (Gros Ventre), Nawathinehena Eastern Algonquian
Mexico. Miami-Illinois was spoken in Indiana, Illinois, and in eastern Oklahoma. Potawatomi was spoken around Lake Michigan, and later spoken in Wisconsin, Kansas, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, and possibly Ontario. Ojibwa languages are spoken from southwestern Quebec through Ontario, Michigan, northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, southern Manitoba, and southern Saskatchewan. Algonquin language is spoken in Western Quebec and adjoining areas in Ontario. Cree is spoken across Canada, from Labrador westbound to Alberta. Menominee is spoken in northeastern Wisconsin.
Blackfoot is spoken on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana as well as on various reserves in Alberta. Cheyenne is spoken in southeastern Montana and western Oklahoma. Arapaho is spoken on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and in western Oklahoma. Atsina, also known as Gros Ventre, was spoken on the Fort Belknap reservation in northern Montana. Nawathinehena was last spoken in the early 20th century and is only known by a short wordlist.
Linguistics of the Algonquian Language
From the study and reconstruction of languages, linguists are able to theorize about the relationships among groups of individuals that use similar terminology within their language systems. One technique used to assist in discovering which Aboriginal nations were associated with a shared mother tongue within a certain area is the reconstruction of languages. This technique involves the reconstruction of words used to describe flora and fauna. The next step involves the search for a region in which all of these terms are associated. All Algonquian languages are different but they share similar features that enable them to be placed together within the same language family. Algonquian languages are moderately simple in association to features of tones, accent, and voicing. The Proto- Algonquian language consists of four vowels and a that have both long and short qualities. Semivowels include y and w. The Algonquian word is characterized as being overall slightly complex in reference to syntactics. Algonquian words are considered to have themes. These themes include a root and a suffix called a final. The final plays an important role in determining the part of speech. Themes also include verbs, nouns, pronouns, or particles. Grammatical categories belonging to Algonquian languages are not distinguishable by gender-based terms. Instead, distinctions correspond on the basis of living and nonliving entities. These living and nonliving entities are defined as inanimate and animate categories. Edward Sapir, a linguist, characterizes Algonquian words as “tiny imagist poems.” This may be a reflection of the use of grammatical categories corresponding with that of nature instead of being gender-based, as with many other languages. Examples of animate nouns include persons, animals, spirits, large trees, various fruit, and body parts.
There has been a constant concern over the possibility of losing more Native languages in North America. In the past, language loss has been primarily due to death and disease in which entire nations were extinguished. Beginning in the late 1800s, assimilations policies resulted in the prohibition of Native languages use in residential schools and the removal of Native American children from their families. This resulted in the erosion and loss of language by a break in the oral transmission of language to future generations. In the past, Native American communities were forced out of their traditional territories by encroachment of French and European settlers. One of the consequences of these relocations was, indeed, language loss, with the coastal languages as prime examples. The factors associated with the loss of Aboriginal languages in Canada today is migration, marriage, education, and employment. In a 1996 survey from Statistics Canada, only 26% of 800,000 Aboriginal people had an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue and even fewer claimed to speak it within their homes. Within the Algonquian language family, the languages that continue to remain in use include Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Cree-Montagnais- Naskapi, Ojibwa, Algonquin, Potawatomi, Menominee, Sauk-Fox-Kickapoo, Maliseet-Passamaquodda and Mi’kmaq. Many of these languages are on the verge of extinction, such as the Tuscarora language. In Canada, for example, only 3 of the 51 Aboriginal languages that exist today are thought to survive. Aboriginal and Native American communities are, however, struggling to revive and strengthen the use of their languages and cultures. Postsecondary schools throughout North America offer classes that concentrate on cultures and languages within their Native Studies programs. For example, Trent University in Ontario, Canada offers courses in Ojibwa. There has been an increase in Aboriginal media coverage, networks, and programming. Traditional stories, songs, and histories are being recorded and transmitted to Aboriginal and nonAboriginal communities. The internet is also being used to teach languages, for example, the Kitigan Zibi Anishenabeg community teaches Algonquin on its website. There has been an increase in the number of conferences and events that are held to celebrate, teach, and express Native American culture, language, and art, all of which aids in strengthening a variety of Aboriginal cultures and languages.
Although Algonquian speakers vary in customs, beliefs, and environments, there are many shared qualities. For example, the Algonquian peoples share the belief in a Great Spirit, frequently referred to as Manitou, and other teachings and ceremonies common to their history and culture. Although these ceremonies have regional variations, ones common among the Algonquian peoples include the sweat lodge, healing circles, medicine wheels, and shaking tent. Some ceremonies are no longer practiced by some Algonquian speakers. North of the Great Lakes, wild rice was harvested, where it was plentiful. Members of most nations hunted bison, but they were most abundant within the Great Plains. Hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants, seeds, and fruit were primary food sources, especially when agriculture was not a main focus. Throughout Algonquian-speaking territories, there is a renewal and revitalization of traditional language and culture to aid in healing the present generation from the scars of colonization and past assimilation policies.
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