In This Article Iroquoian Languages

  • Introduction
  • Overview and Bibliographies
  • Grammars
  • Dictionaries
  • Student Materials and Speaker-Related Works
  • Texts about Iroquois Traditions
  • Text Collections
  • Early Sources
  • Subgrouping and Relations Outside Iroquoian
  • Grammatical Sketches of Specific Languages
  • Historical Reconstruction

Linguistics Iroquoian Languages
by
Karin Michelson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0023

Introduction

The Iroquoian languages include Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora (the languages spoken by the People of the Longhouse or Haudenosaunee, and the nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy or League of the Five [Six] Nations), Huron-Wyandot, and a few lesser-known languages (e.g., Laurentian and Susquehannock or Andaste). These languages form the northern branch of the Iroquoian family, Cherokee being the sole member of the southern branch. They were among the first nations encountered by European explorers and voyagers to North America, who left some early records of the languages. Attempts to convert the Iroquois to Christianity were made by various religious orders, and some of the missionary works are outstanding in terms of their linguistic description. The languages have intriguing metrical systems, elaborate verbal morphology, large pronominal paradigms (in the order of about 60–70 pronominal prefixes), robust noun incorporation, sparse nominal morphology (and a significant number of nominals are lexicalized morphological verbs), and complex kinship terminology. Intensive work on the languages still spoken has been done by a relatively small cohort of scholars, many of whom are actively involved in programs designed to teach the languages. Some languages have a fair number of linguistic, as well as teaching, resources (e.g., Oneida) and some fewer (e.g., Cayuga). While much linguistic research in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s focused on relationships within the family and on reconstruction of Proto-Northern-Iroquoian and Proto-Iroquoian, more recent research has concentrated on explanations of structures with reference to historical developments and grammaticalization, discourse phenomena, syntax-semantics interface, and formal (universal) structures.

Overview and Bibliographies

As an introduction to the Iroquoian languages, it is useful to know which languages, both extant and extinct, belong to the family, as well as the diverse names for particular languages and references to documented sources on each language. Chafe 1976 includes a brief overview of the early documentation and scholarship on the Iroquoian languages. Lounsbury 1978 and Mithun 1999 both give information on subgrouping within Iroquoian and outline the most salient grammatical features of the languages. Mithun 1999 also contains exhaustive references. Pilling 1888 is remarkable for its coverage of early materials, whether published or in manuscript form, including such varied items as word lists, versions of the Lord’s Prayer, primers, and religious materials. Fenton 1940 contains almost no linguistic material but is the most detailed source on the historic names and locations of the Iroquois nations.

  • Chafe, Wallace L. 1976. The Caddoan, Iroquoian, and Siouan languages. The Hague: Mouton.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110804669E-mail Citation »

    Very readable overview of earlier sources on the Iroquoian languages, and possible linguistic evidence for a remote relationship between Iroquoian and Caddoan.

  • Fenton, William N. 1940. Problems arising from the historic northeastern position of the Iroquois. In Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 100. Edited by Julian H. Steward, 159–251. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by a great scholar of Iroquoian culture and history. Provides details on the names, locations and movements of the Iroquois people since the arrival of Europeans.

  • Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1978. Iroquoian languages. In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 334–343. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short overview of subgrouping within Iroquoian, characteristic grammatical features, a summary of phonetic changes, and the numbers ‘one’ through ‘ten’ in twelve Iroquoian languages.

  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The languages of Native North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The chapter on the Iroquoian family is a concise yet extremely informative overview of documentary sources on each of the Iroquoian languages with exhaustive references to linguistic research, a brief description of the sound system and word structure, and an excerpt from a Cayuga conversation to exemplify discourse structure.

  • Pilling, James Constantine. 1888. Bibliography of the Iroquoian languages. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    E-mail Citation »

    Just one of several bibliographies compiled by Pilling on language families of North America. Gives 949 titles, most with some annotation. Of the works represented by these titles, Pilling saw 856 himself.

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