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Updated: 6-28-2011 7:20 AM

Nouns name things, beings, and abstractions.

waaka’igan  =  house

animosh  =  dog

zaagi’iwewin  =  love

Nouns are inflected; that is, they take on affixes – prefixes and/or suffixes – that give grammatical information about them. For example, affixes can indicate whether a noun is animate or inanimate (gender), whether it is plural (number), and how it is related to other parts of a phrase or sentence (e.g., obviative or locative form).

Every noun contains a noun stem – a core part that carries the basic meaning of the word. To this stem can be added prefixes and/or suffixes, known as inflections. The overall pattern of an inflected noun is shown in the following word diagram: inflectional prefixes + NOUN STEM + inflectional suffixes (noun ending)

Words that share a common stem, but have different inflections are considered different forms of the same noun. To illustrate the principle, a few of the many forms that the noun boat can take are given below.







in your boat


our boat


The singular form of a noun is considered to be its stem (see Noun Stem page).

Noun Gender: Animate & Inanimate

Nouns have gender. In Ojibwe, all nouns belong to one of two classes of gender – animate and inanimate. Nouns referring to people, animals, trees, and spirits belong to the animate class of nouns. Some non-living things are also included in the animate class, although most nouns referring to non-living things are classified as inanimate.

From the learner’s point of view, the gender of a noun is often unpredictable and puzzling. For example, while it is easy enough to understand why such words are dog and birch tree are animate, it is difficult to understand why star, mitten, and net are animate, and earth, shoe, water, and boat are inanimate.

A noun and any demonstrative that accompanies it must agree in gender. Thus a demonstrative used with an animate noun must be in the animate gender; a demonstrative used with an inanimate noun must be in the inanimate gender. This means that the gender of a noun is shown by the form of the words that are in agreement with it. Once students are familiar with the forms of demonstrative, they will be able to determine the gender of unfamiliar nouns by looking at the demonstratives that modify them.


Animate Nouns

Inanimate Nouns

a’aw inini

i’iw makizin

that man

that shoe


Verbs also take on different inflections to show agreement with nouns. In the examples below, the form of "I see" varies in accordance with the gender (animate or inanimate) of the noun involved.

Ikwezens niwaabamaa  =  I see a girl.

Jiimaan niwaabandaan  =  I see a boat.

Noun Number: Singular & Plural

Nouns have number; that is, they can be either singular or plural. The plural is formed by the addition of a suffix to the stem. The singular form of a noun is considered its stem.


Animate Singular

Animate Plural



Inanimate Singular

Inanimate Plural



The plural form of a noun shows not only number, but also gender; different suffixes are used to indicate the plural of animate and inanimate nouns. In Ojibwe, the animate plural suffix ends in –g and the inanimate plural suffix ends in –n. The actual forms of each plural suffix varies from noun stem to noun stem. Most stems require a connective between the stem and the last sound of the suffix. The form of these connectives also varies from noun stem to noun stem; for example, each of the Ojibwe noun stems below – except the first noun stem, which requires no connective – has its distinctive connective: a, wa, o, ii, oo.


Animate Singular

Animate Plural





















The form of a demonstrative and a verb will also indicate the number of the noun to which they refer. In the following sentences, all the words are tied together by number agreement as well as gender agreement.

Inanimate singular

Onizhishin o’o mazina’igan  =  The book is nice.

Inanimate plural

Onizhishinoon onow mazina’iganan  =  These books are nice.

Mass Nouns

Some nouns, called mass nouns, represent things that are usually undifferentiated in number. Mass nouns usually occur without demonstratives.

nibi  =  water

Noun Focus: Obviation

Ojibwe distinguishes between two third persons in a sentence or a narrative by means of a mechanism called obviation. In the sentence John saw Fred, for example, there are two third persons – John and Fred. When a sentence contains two third persons in this kind of grammatical relationship, one of them is seen as the main one and is called proximate (as if it were somehow closer to the interest of the speaker), and the other one is seen as secondary and is called obviative. The obviative noun takes on an obviated inflectional suffix that distinguishes it from the unmarked proximate third person. In the sentences below, the obviative ending on the noun is marked in bold.

John ogii-waabamaan Fredan  = John saw Fred.

Since the grammatical relationship between the two nouns is indicated by their inflections and by the inflections on the verb, the word order can be varied without changing the essential meaning of the sentence, as is shown in this variation of the same sentence.

John Fredan ogii-waabamaan =  John saw Fred.

When two third persons perform the same grammatical function – for example, when they are jointly the subject or the object of a verb – they are both proximate or obviative, depending on their relationship to the other animate third person in the sentence. In the examples below, the two third persons are both subjects of the verb and proximate.

John miinawaa Fred gii-bimosewag miikanaang. =  John and Fred were walking on the road.

Once a particular third person has been marked as obviative, it can be referred to without being named or being confused with the proximate third person, as all the words that agree with it have an obviative inflection. Similarly, all the words that agree with the proximate noun have a proximate inflection. Thus, while the sentence John saw Fred as he was walking on the road is ambiguous in English (it is not clear whether it was John or Fred who was doing the walking), it could not be unclear in Ojibwe because the suffix on the verb was walking would indicate which of the two third persons was performing the action. If the verb was walking referred to John, it would have a proximate suffix; if it referred to Fred, it would have an obviative suffix. In he examples below, the obviative suffixes are bold.

John ogii-waabamaan Fredan bimosed miikanaang.  =  John saw Fred as he (John) was walking on the road.

John ogii-waabamaan Fredan bimosenid miikanaang.  =  John saw Fred as he (Fred) was walking on the road.

Demonstratives and verbs also indicate obviation; when they relate to a noun or pronoun that is obviative, they take on the obviative inflection.


Proximate Form

Obviative Form

a’aw mooz

iniw moozoon

that moose

that moose

In the first set of examples below, older brother is obviative because of its relationship to another animate noun or third person in the sentence: Mary. The verb has an obviative suffix to match the obviative suffix of older brother, the noun to which it refers. In the second set of examples, older brother has the function of the principal noun, that is, it is not secondary to another third person, but is possessed by a first person – and is therefore not in the obviative form.

Nibaawan Mary osayenhyan.  =  Mary’s older brother is sleeping.

Nibaa nisayenh.  =  My older brother is sleeping.

In some dialects of Ojibwe, a obviative noun does not show number; the singular and the plural forms are the same.

osayenhyan  =  his/her older brother(s)

In some dialects of Ojibwe, the distinction is made between the singular and the plural of obviative nouns; animate nouns can take on either a singular or plural obviative suffix.

osayenhyan  =  his/her older brother

osayenya  =  his/her older brothers

As is the case with plural suffixes, the actual form of the obviative suffix varies with each noun stem. The connective used for each stem is the same as that used for the plural form of that stem.

Noun Locative Form

The locative form of a noun is used to express ideas of location. The locative form is indicated by a suffix.


Noun Stem

Locative Form


to/at/in the hospital

As in the case with the other basic suffixes, the actual form of the locative suffix varies from noun stem to noun stem. Each stem requires a particular connective sound between the stem and the last part of the suffix. For example, in the word used above, the proper connective sound is o between the stem and the last part of the suffix, which is –ng.

Possessed Nouns

Nouns can also be inflected with one or more affixes to indicate a grammatical relationship of possession. The inflected noun, which can be a person or thing, is referred to as the possessed noun; the person or being reflected in the possessed noun's inflectional affixes is referred to as the possessor. The possessor is shown by a personal prefix or a personal suffix added to the possessed noun. In the example below, the possessed noun boat has been formed by adding a personal prefix, which indicates that the possessor is the speaker.

ninjiimaan  =  my boat

The prefix, which always appears on a possessed noun, identifies the person of the possessor. In addition to the personal prefix, a possessed noun may have a basic suffix showing its gender, number, and if applicable, obviative or locative form. In the following example, the basic suffix of the possessed noun is inanimate and plural.

gimazina'iganan  =  your books

A personal suffix may appear between the stem and the basic suffix to show that the possessor is plural or, if third person, obviative. In the example below, the noun ending has both a personal suffix and a basic suffix:


gijiimaaniwaan =


+ jiimaan

+ iwaa

+ n

= your boats



+ boat

+ more than one of you

+ more than one thing


Some possessed nouns take on the possessive suffix -(i)m immediately after the stem, but before any inflectional suffixes.

nindishkodem =  my fire

The pattern of a possessed noun is given in the following diagram. Only the personal prefix will appear on every possessed noun.

personal prefix + NOUN STEM + possessive suffix + personal suffix + basic suffix


 Dependent Nouns

In many varieties of Ojibwe, a group of nouns, which include the names of body parts and relatives, always appear in possessed form with a personal prefix. These nouns are known as dependent nouns because their stems cannot appear alone, but only with a personal prefix or some other element.

ginik  =  your arm

omiseyan  =  his/her older sister

When looking up a dependent noun, the noun stem will be listed with first person singular possession.

Noun Cases


A diminutive suffix can be added to a noun stem to indicate that the thing referred to is of small size relative to other items of its kind. (In some contexts, this suffix is treated as a derivational suffix.)


Noun Stem




table knife

small table knife



A pejorative suffix can be added to a noun stem to indicate that the thing or the person named is in some way unsatisfactory or in disfavor. The pejorative suffix may also indicate affection.


Noun Stem




table knife

useless table knife


A preterit suffix can be added to a noun stem to indicate past state or absence. For example, a preterit suffix added to a noun that refers to a person indicates that the person is deceased. In some varieties of Ojibwe, a preterit suffix added to a noun that refers to a thing indicates that the thing is missing or no longer usable.

nimishoomisiban  =  my late grandfather

odaabaaniban =  the vehicle that used to be, the thing that used to be a vehicle

nimashkimodiban  =  the bag I used to have, the thing that used to be a bag


In formal speech, a vocative plural suffix may be added to the noun stem designating the group addressed. A basic suffix does not appear.

nindanishinaabedog  =  O, my fellow Natives

There are special vocative forms used in addressing people by name or, in some cases, by designations indicating kinship. These often involve shortening the full word.

nimishoomis  =  my grandfather

shoomis  =  grandpa (in address)

Vocative forms are rare in some varieties of Ojibwe.

Preterit Dubitative

The preterit dubitative case for nouns is used to indicate a person who is deceased, whom the speaker never met. It is a rare form, and is not used anymore in some varieties of Ojibwe. It is formed by adding go before the preterit -ban ending.

Nimishoomisigoban  =  my late grandfather, whom I never saw

 Noun Inflectional Order

The typical order of the inflectional affixes on an inflected noun is indicated in the following word diagram. For a non-dependent noun, only the noun stem need appear; for a dependent noun, at least a personal prefix must occur with the stem.

personal prefix + NOUN STEM + diminutive suffix + possessive suffix + pejorative suffix + personal suffix + preterit suffix + basic suffix or vocative plural suffix