The least you should know about the Ojibwa language

Aanii “hello” or Boozhoo (adapted from the French bonjour), reader of this article. This is an article about a language that still has thousands of speakers across Canada, from Quebec west to Alberta. In the more northern of the Ojibwa communities there are still people who are more fluent in their native language than in English. This article concerns such people as students of English.

A map showing the distribution of Anishinaabe language
Location of all Anishinaabe Reservations/Reserves in North America, with diffusion rings about communities speaking an Anishinaabe language. Cities with Anishinaabe population are also shown. (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ File:Anishinaabewaki.jpg)

Perhaps the first important point to keep in mind about the Ojibwa language is that like the names of other Aboriginal peoples and their languages, Ojibwa is the name the settlers gave them, not what they called or call themselves. The people call themselves Anishinaabe (and this includes peoples otherwise often called Chippewa, Mississauga, Odawa, Algonquin and Saulteaux). And before I forget, the language itself, a language in the Algonquian family of languages, the largest of the Aboriginal language families in Canada, is often called Anishinaabemowin by many of the people. While there is some debate as to what the first part of the word means, the –naabe– part means “man”. The opposite of –naabe– is ekweh, referring to a woman. Add the diminutive -zens to the word and you have reference to a girl. The Anishinaabemowin names of girls and women often end with -kwe.

If a woman wants to refer to her husband or male partner, she would call him ninaabem, “my man”. The –ni– is a first person pronominal marker, and the –m- at the end reinforcing that first person. That structure also tells a story about an Ojibwa word that entered the English language as a first person form: totem. It means “clan” in the language. When you introduce yourself in a ceremony or relatively formal gathering one of the things you say (if you know it) is what your clan is. The word that you use is ntotem meaning “my clan”. The noun root is –ote-. Actually, the way that most people I have heard pronounce the word is ndodem.

Phonology

Consonants & consonant clusters

Because there are many dialects, it is difficult to describe the phonology concisely. The ntotem or ndodem issue comes from lack of a voicing distinctions between /p/ and /b/, /t/ and /d/ and /k/ and /g/, in some dialects. Some dialects devoice word final /b/, /d/ and /g/, while others do not. But all dialects do distinguish between these consonant pairs in one way or another, sometimes with an aspirated/non-aspirated distinction, or sometimes with a long/short duration distinction.1 In learning new words in which voicing distinctions are important in English, a native speaker of the language may unconsciously carry over their native-language distinctions. It may be useful to help them introspect on how their dialect makes this distinction and then help them understand how voicing works in English. The consonant inventory does not include /f, v, θ, ð, r, l/, although they can appear in borrowed words, such as names. Such borrowings can involve some change, such as English Marie becoming Manii, angel becoming aanženii and Montreal becoming Mooniyaang.

Unlike English, Ojibwa permits relatively few consonant clusters, especially at the start of a word.2 The possible clusters are shown below:

medial only

medial or final

/sk/, /ʃp/, /ʃt/

/ʃk/

/mb/

/nd/, /ng/3, /ndʒ/

/nz/

/nʒ/, /ns/

On top of this, any consonant (except /w/, /h/, or /j/) and some clusters can be followed by /w/. This means that initial consonant clusters, of which English has many, could be a problem, for example, in words like strange, please, small, French, or three.

Vowels & stress

In contrast to English’s rather large number of vowels, Ojibwa has a relatively small vowel inventory, including only the short vowels /i, a, o/ and the long vowels /i:, a:, o:, e:/. As you can see, vowels have a phonemic long-short duration distinction. In other words, /a:ni:/ (“hello”) and /ani/ are as distinct as apple and opal are in English. Fortunately, the stress pattern is characteristically iambic (weak-strong), which is the same as English.

Vocabulary

You should also know that along with totem, there are some Anishinaabemowin words that you already know, such as bikaan (think pecan) for “nut”, mooz for “moose” (with a plural of moozook) and wiigwaam for “house” (with the plural wiigwaaman). The English word chipmunk, is an adaptation of the Anishinaabemowin word jidmoonh, referring to a red squirrel, and derived from a root meaning “face down”, referring to the common upside down position of a red squirrel on a tree trunk.

Grammar

Nouns

Gender is quite different from what we have in English. First of all, there is no grammatical distinction made between he and she. That gender distinction in pronouns is ultimately a “foreign concept” to an Anishinaabemowin speaker. This is something that the language shares with a great majority of Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada. Don’t take for granted in your Anishinaabe students an awareness of the importance of that distinction in English. Instead, of major importance in Anishinaabemowin is the gender distinction between animate and inanimate. This is thoroughgoing in the language, reflected in a number of ways in the verb, as well as in noun plurals. Animate typically refers to something being alive, and inanimate to that which is not alive. But don’t let that lead you astray.

I was first taught Anishinaabemowin by an Elder named Fred Wheatley in 1971–2. In an early lesson he gave, he told his students that “raspberries are animate but strawberries are not.” The word for raspberry is miskomin, literally meaning “red berry”. The –misko– means “red”, while –min means berry. By itself, -min- refers to a blueberry. As raspberries are animate, the plural is miskominak, with the animate plural –ak (sometimes written –ag).

Strawberries are called dehmin “heart berry”. When you say ndeh, you are saying “my heart.” As strawberries are grammatically inanimate, you use the plural dehminaan, with –aan being the inanimate plural marker.

Raspberries are the odd ones out here, as the vast majority of nouns using min are inanimate, such as min by itself (“blueberry”), wiikwaasmin (lit. “birch berry”) which refers to a cherry, and minoomin (lit. “good –min” referring to wild rice) are all grammatically inanimate. Also animate are beads, which are called manitoomin, literally “spirit berries”.

So there are a few words non-Anishinaabemowin speakers would think of as animate being inanimate. The opposite happens too. Included among the animate are stones (asin & asinaak plural), nets (sab & sabiik), and baseball mitts (mijikaawan & mijikaawaanak).

Verbs

Anishinaabemowin is polysynthetic, which means that there are often a lot of morphemes in a single word, and often verbs are at the heart of a word. At short example is the word for “at the hospital” in the language: aakziiwigamigong. It can be broken down as follows;

aakzii

be sick, sore

house

wigamig

ong

at (the –ng– locative is found in a great number of Canadian placenames that owe their origin to Anishinaabemowin).

And it is agglutinating, in that those morphemes that are strung together are very stable, and not significantly affected by the surrounding phonology (cf. the English –ed past-tense, which is pronounced three different ways).

When adding noun morphemes to verbs, there is a particular way that first and second person are marked. This is described by linguists as hierarchy of person, which functions under the principle that “you come first”. It works like this. The second person always comes first in a verb in which it appears. It is at the top of the hierarchy. Observe the following pronominal forms that appear with the verb stem -waabam- “see a person” (it is an animate form of the verb root –waab-). The bolded forms indicate the pronominal prefixes and suffixes that indicate the person involved.

Word

Translation

Pronominal Affixes

Niwaabamaa

I see him/her

ni- (1st person) + verb root

Giwaabaamin

I see you (lit. You-to see-I )

gi- (2nd person) + verb root + -in (1st person)

Hierarchy of person also occurs in first person plurals. As with Aboriginal languages in a number of different language families, Anishinaabemowin makes a distinction between we (including the listener; known as the first person inclusive) and “we” (excluding the listener; known as the first person exclusive). If I said to you, “We live in Bolton,” and the we included you then I would use the first person inclusive form. If I said, “We live in Bolton”, and you live in Toronto, then I would use the first person exclusive form. The following examples demonstrate how the first person plural forms also demonstrate hierarchy of person, with “you the listener” being given priority. The verb root used is -gindaas, “read”:

Word

Translation

Pronominal Affix

Ndoogindaas

I am reading

ndoo (1st person) + verb root

Gdoogindaas

You (s) are reading

gdoo (2nd person) + verb root

Ndoogindaasmi

We (exclusive) are reading

ndoo (1st person) + verb root + –mi (1st person plural)

Gdoogindaasmi

We (inclusive) are reading

gdoo(2nd person) + verb root + mi (1st person plural)

Gdoogiindaasam

You (plural) are reading

gdoo (2nd person) + verb root + am (2nd person plural)

So those are a few key aspects of Anishinaabemowin that should be known. Miigwech (“thank you”) for reading this article. There is no term for “you’re welcome.”

1. This made for some interesting choices by different English-speaking writers when the language was first being recorded on paper.

2. In some dialects, the traditional word-initial vowel has been deleted, thus allowing some clusters to start a word.

3. Note that this is /n/ + /g/, not the voice velar nasal /ŋ/ at the end of English words like sing.

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