Ojibwe Language | Lessons
lessons »
resources »
connect »

Boozhoo!

Introduction

The Ojibwe language is an Algonquian American Indian language spoken throughout the Great Lakes region and westward onto the northern plains.

Characterized by a series of dialects, some of which differ significantly. No single dialect that is considered the most prominent.  Although they vary widely, the share some common features.  Many have the same phonological inventory of vowels and consonants with minor variations, but some differ considerably. 

No standard writing system is used to represent all dialects. A widely used Roman character-based writing system is the Double Vowel system.

Anishinaabe (a/k/a Ojibwe, Ojibwa, Anishinabe) people are located throughout the United States. You will find the various terms are used throughout this site; all meaning the same.

 

Location of Anishinaabe Reservations/Reserves and cities with an Anishinaabe population in North America,  

 

 

 

Because concepts in the Ojibwe language can’t always be translated into English, learning Ojibwe is critical to passing on our history and traditions from one generation to another. Values live on through the language and benefit everyone. Ojibwe is a descriptive language. For example, the Ojibwe word odaabaan-wigamig, which English translation is “garage”, actually means “a building where the car is kept”.  

 

Like many American languages, Ojibwe is polysynthetic, meaning it exhibits a great deal of synthesis and a very high morpheme-to-word ration (i.e. the single word for “they are Chinese” is aniibiishaabookewininiiwiwag, which contains seven morphemes: elmo-PEJORATIVE-liquid-make-man-be-PLURAL, or approximately “they are leaf-soup (tea) makers”.  It is agglutinating, and thus builds up words by stringing morpheme after morpheme together, rather than having several affixes which carry numerous different pieces of information.

Verbs constitute the most complex word class. Verbs are inflected for one of three orders (indicative -- also called the independent order, conjunct, used for participles and in subordinate clauses, and imperative, used with commands), as negative or affirmative, and for the person, number, animacy, and proximate/obviative status of both its subject and object, as well as for several different modes (including the dubitative and preterit) and tenses.  

In general, the language is notable for its relative lack of borrowing from other languages. Instead, speakers far prefer to create words for new concepts from existing vocabulary. For example in Minnesota Ojibwemowin, "airplane" is bemisemagak, literally "thing that flies" (from bimisemagad, "to fly"), and "battery" is ishkode-makakoons, literally "little fire-box" (from ishkode, "fire," and makak, "box"). These new words vary from region to region, and occasionally from community to community. For example, in Northwest Ontario Ojibwemowin, "airplane" is ombaasijigan, literally "device that gets uplifted by the wind" (from ombaasin, "to be uplifted by the wind") oppose to the Minnesota's bemisemagak. Cases like "battery" also demonstrate the often great difference between the literal meanings of the individual morphemes in a word, and the overall meaning of the entire word.

Like any language with dialects spanning vast regions, some words that may have had identical meaning at one time have evolved to have different meanings today. For example, zhooniyaans (literally "small[-amount of] money" and used to refer to coins) specifically means "dime" (10-cent piece) in the United States, but a "quarter" (25-cent piece) in Canada. 

There is no standard orthography shared by all the local varieties of Anishinaabemowin. Some speakers write in a kind of English folk phonetics. Many speakers in Northern Canada write with the special characters of Northern Algonquian syllabics. The roman orthography used in this software is only one of the many possible writing systems that have been recently developed for Anishinaabemowin. Devised by Charles Fiero, the Double Vowel writing system has won wide acceptance among language teachers in the United State and Canada. The main principles underlying it are that the letters or combinations of letters, although drawn from the same alphabet used to write English, stand for Ojibwe sounds, not English sounds, and that only the basic sounds (phonemes) of the language are written. 

As most speakers of Ojibwe familiar with this writing system are literate in English, they often adopt English capitalization and punctuation conventions. Writers of Ojibwe should feel free to follow English conventions of capitalization (and so capitalize names of nationalities, days of the week, months, spirits and deities, etc.) and punctuation if they find them helpful. 

Ojibwe distinguishes two different kinds of third person, a proximate and an obviative. The proximate is a traditional third person, while the obviative (a/k/a fourth person) marks a less important third person, if more than one third person is taking part in an action.  In the English sentence “john and bil were good friends, ever since the day he first saw him” (who saw whom?). In Ojibwe, one of the two participants would be marked as proximate (whichever one was deemed more important), and the other marked as obviative.

Rather than a gender contrast such as male/female, Ojibwe instead distinguishes between animate (living things) and inanimate (nonliving things).  Although there is not a simple rule due to the cultural understanding as to whether a noun possesses a spirit or not (generally, if it can move, it possesses a spirit).  Objects which have great spiritual importance for the Ojibwe – such as rocks – are very often animate rather than inanimate.  Some words are distinguished purely by their gender; for example, mitig can mean either “tree” or “stick”, if it is animate (plural mitigoog), it means “tree” and if it is inanimate (plural mitigoon) it means “stick”.

Numbers in Ojibwe is a simple singular/plural contrast. Nouns and pronouns can be either singular or plural, and verbs inflect for the number of their subject and object, although some nouns and verbs lack singular forms. Plural forms differ from word to word depending on the word’s gender, root, and historical stress.  By examining the plural form of the word, one can generall determine the word’s gender and root.  Animate plurals end in –g, which inanimate plural nouns (and obviative nouns) end in –n. The underlying form of a root determines the “linking vowel” – the vowel that appers before the plural suffix (-g or –n) but after the root itself.

There are seven Ojibwe inflectional categories expressing person/gender combinations for each of the two numbers (singular and plural). However, the singular and plural categories do not always exactly correspond. The total number of 14 “persons” arises from taking into consideration all the contrasts of animate/inanimate, proximate/obviative, and singular/plural.

This dictionary code sheet may help get you started.  In addition, this guide may also be useful as you try to translate Ojibwemowin to English Grammar.