Shawnee language

Updated November 16, 2016

While the Shawnee language is now spoken by very few people, its long history still creates interest from scholars, anthropologists, historians, and those with ties to the Native American community. Originally spoken in what is now the Ohio River valley, Shawnee is now only active in a few areas in Oklahoma where some 14,000 Shawnee live after government relocation moved them from their traditional homes.

Today, the Shawnee language is in danger of becoming a dead language, as it only has an estimated 200 speakers. Fortunately, the Internet performs a valuable service by providing a forum where information on the Shawnee language, as well as other Native American languages, can be documented, shared, and researched.


The Algonquian Family of Languages

The Shawnee language is part of the Algonquian family of languages. Specifically, Shawnee is part of the Central/Plains group of the Algonquian family, a group that also includes languages such as Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Kickapoo, Miami-Illinois, Arapahoan, Cree-Montagnais, and others.

The most identifiable feature of these languages is their polysynthetic morphology. Words in Shawnee and other Algonquian languages can be comprised of a very complicated series of sounds. This complexity allows some words in Shawnee to represent an idea or a concept that would require an entire sentence to convey in English. Shawnee also differs from English in another important aspect. Shawnee is primarily a VSO (verb-subject-object) language, meaning that verbs in sentences typically come before subjects. English, on the other hand, is an SVO (subject-verb-object) language.

The Shawnee language has a relatively minimalist phonology. Four short vowel sounds, four long vowel sounds, and thirteen consonant sounds are used. No matter how long the word, or how complex the word's morphology might be, the final syllable is always stressed when pronouncing words in Shawnee.


Internet Resources

The following list of Internet resources further explores the complexity, history, and grammatical structure of the Shawnee language:

  • Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma: This excellent site briefly explains the vowel sounds and has a list of very useful words and terms. Animals, numbers, directions, and a substantial list of words are included.
  • Native Languages: A wealth of information can be found on the Native Languages site. In addition to language resources, this Web site covers Shawnee lifestyle and tradition, literature and arts, maps of Shawnee lands, genealogy, history and politics. A Shawnee Indian fact sheet is also included, with a special section just for kids. Anyone with an interest in Shawnee language could spend hours exploring this fascinating Web site.
  • Learn Shawnee: Another resourceful Web site, Learn the Shawnee Language offers several vocabulary words in the Shawnee language with pronunciation.
  • Omniglot: Omniglot, the Web site dedicated to writing systems and languages of the world, features a page on the Shawnee language. A brief history is provided as well translation of sample texts.

Books and Audio CDs

Those with a serious interest in the Shawnee language may also want to consider investing in the following books and audio CDs:

  • Say it in Shawnee: If you are interested in learning or practicing conversational Shawnee, a series of language books and audio CDs are available from this publisher. Daily speak, kitchen talk, and trader talk are how the three volumes are organized. This site also offers a free 1-1,000 numbers lesson in Shawnee.
  • Cummings' Vocabulary of Shawnee: This 47 page hardcover book from author Richard Cummings is a useful resource of the Shawnee language that you can take with you wherever you go.

Other Places to Explore for Further Information.

Universities are institutions have long been indispensable in the preservation of languages. Often, colleges and universities have Native American language scholars employed as faculty. Depending on the region of the country the institution is located, the linguistics, anthropology, or history departments may also employ scholars who specialize in Shawnee language and culture. A quick Internet search of the faculty at universities in your area may uncover an expert in the field.