Ojibwe LanguageThis is a featured page

Ojibwe Language
By Jenna Yoder

Until the late 1980’s, almost all Ojibwe people referred to themselves in English as Crees and to their language as a variety of Cree. To most people in the United States, the Ojibwe is referred to as Chippewa and their languages still lingers in the U.S. today. Some of the main components when talking about language would be background/history, evolution, the different sounds, written language, communication patterns and grammar.
Although the Ojibwe language is still a living language, between the different places that it is spoken, there are different dialects that people must listen to in order to understand each other. The Ojibwe language is a language that is part of the Algonquian language family. It is known as Anishinaabemowin or Ojibwemowin. It is spoken by about 40,000 to 50,000 people in the north-central part of the continent. Fred K. Blessing, Jr. tells us in his book, “The Ojibwe Indians Observed” that the language has evolved to the point where the younger generation cannot understand many of the words and phrases spoken by older timers. As one travels northward among the Ojibwe, the sounds gradually become harsher, and by the time one reaches Lac La Croix or Grand Portage, among other changes, the sound of “g” is largely replaced by that of “k.” Ojibwe and the other languages grouped together in the Algonquian language family resembles each other so closely in sound patterns, grammar, and vocabulary that at one time they must have been a single language.
Some notable features about the written language would be each sign can be written facing four different directions which indicate the vowel attached to it. There are considerable variations in the way the symbols are written.
Like other languages, the Ojibwe language separates grammar according to the different genders. Every Algonquian noun is assigned to one of two grammatical genders, Animate or Inanimate, hereafter A or I. As Gerald Vizenor says in his books “The People Named the Chippewa,” individuals were given special names, dream names, at birth. These names were sacred and were not revealed to strangers. Dream names were received from the name giver, or from a dream event. An individual was known in the traditional tribal world by a personal nickname; several nicknames were given in some families, and with each nickname there were stories to be told. The nicknames were short and frequently contained an element of humor.
This language is not similar to the English language at all. Although there are many languages out there that are derived from English and sometimes even uses some words right out of the English dictionary, Anishinaabemowin is not one of them. Some examples would be: boozhoo means hello, zaagai'igan means lake, and the longest word in their language is miin-aan baash kimini-sij-i-gan bitooyin sij-i-gan-i bukwayszhiigan which means blueberry pie in English. Unlike most of our words, I noticed that a lot of the words in the Anishinaabemowin language use more “Z’s” than most of the words that we use every day. When looking at a dictionary for this incomparable language, one would notice that the many words are very different than ours and that they have singular. There are 17 words in the Ojibwe language that are derived from other languages and vice versa. Some examples of those would be Michigan, Mississippi, chipmunk, and even Ottawa.
This ancient language is one of the few Indian languages still around today. It is still being taught to Indian descendants along the United States and Canadian border. Although it is very different from the language that we speak, it is very unique and still prevalent in the United States today.
One big thing in the Ojibwe culture was that tobacco was used as a meaning of thanks. If a man brought home food to his family, in a sign of thanks the wife would present him with tobacco and he would take it while she prepared dinner and washed his clothes. Although research doesn’t show any special kind of handshakes or special greetings, one thing mentioned in Lisa Philips Valentine’s Volume 33 “Making It Their Own” book, she talks about “code-switching” communicative practices among the Severn people. One specific type would be situational code-switching where the presence of particularly salient aspects of the situations provides motivation for the shifts from Severn Ojibwe to English.
Many situational elements may trigger a switch to English. A couple examples would be if the conversation was prompted by English or if a message if being written down in English. Valentine also mentions that nouns are marked for person, number, obviation, and gender with all categories cross-referenced on the verb. The two genders are animate and inanimate, classifications that are roughly logical: people animals and many plants are categorized as animate whereas things such as moccasins, blankets, and sticks are considered inanimate. There are also four verb classes, differentiated on the basis of transitivity and gender. The first two classes include intransitive verbs, which are further categorized on the basis of the animacy of the subject inanimate intransitive verbs have inanimate subjects and animate intransitive verbs have animate subjects. The next two categories are called transitive inanimate and transitive animate verbs. People, number and obviation of subjects and objects are also marked on the verb. The vowel lengths are distinctive, though short “E” neutralizes with the short “I” at some late stage in the phonology and thus never appears on the surface.
Some studies have shown that even though this language is still apparent and living, there are some differences in the different places it is spoken. Fred K. Blessing, Jr. mentions in his book, “The Ojibwe Indians Observed” that he asked several different members in a family to give their translation of the words “ancestors.” Four variations were given as follows: “Ah nish ah nay bay,” “uh nish ah nah bay,” “ni sheh nah bay,” “ni shuh nah bay.” All of these forms are similar enough to identify the word, but the group shows a lack of conformity. This language and the communication of this language must be referred to in generalities because of all the different communication practices of different words.
Some southern Ojibwe will be found speaking harsh sounds and using their mouth and lips in a very different manner, which imparts a forceful quality to their speech. Although research does not allude to any handshakes or important gestures, the Ojibwe speech and communication was much different than that of ours in Kansas. The words spoken by the tribe people are a much harsher sound where as the people of Kansas have harder vowels and almost a southern sound to their dialect.

Nichols, John. Nyholm, Earl. "An Ojibwe Word Resource Book." St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Archeological Society, 1979. Book.
Vixenor, Gerald. "The People Named the Chippewa." Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Book.
Blessing, Jr., Fred K. "The Ojibwe Indians Observed." St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Archeological Society, Building No. 27, 1977. Book.

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