In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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
Karin Michelson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0023


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. Michelson 2016 and Mithun 2017 are the most recent overviews of the Iroquoian languages and are intended for the non-specialist. 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 historical names and locations of the Iroquois nations.

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

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110804669

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • Michelson, Karin. 2016. Iroquoian languages. In Oxford research encyclopedia of linguistics. Oxford Univ. Press online.

    Sections on phonology, pronominal prefixes, constraints and dependencies within the verb, parts of speech and reference, the syntax of negation and questions, and examples illustrating discourse.

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

    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.

  • Mithun, Marianne. 2017. The Iroquoian language family. In The Cambridge handbook of linguistic typology. Edited by Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald and Robert M. W. Dixon, 747–781. Cambridge Handbooks in Language and Linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781316135716.024

    Sections on phonology, morphology (including pronominal prefixes and grammatical roles, noun incorporation, verb functions, and adjectives), and syntax (including word and constituent order, and complex sentences). Includes verb paradigms from Oklahoma Cherokee, Tuscarora, and Mohawk.

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

    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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