March 23, 2005


The Red Lake Band of Chippewa have been in the news recently, because of the tragic killings at the Red Lake high school. The Native Languages of the Americas site has a page on the Chippewa language, from which you can learn that other anglicized versions of the name include Chippewe, Ojibwa and Ojibway (all of which come from the same Algonquian word meaning "puckered", apparently referring to a characteristic style of moccasin), and that the language is "known to its own speakers as Anishinabe or Anishinaabemowin". According to the same page, "the Ojibwe are one of the most populous and widely distributed Indian groups in North America, with 150 bands throughout the north-central United States and southern Canada", and the language of the Anishinabeg "is among the heartiest of North American languages, with many children being raised to speak it as a native language."

The Ethnologue gives "Ojibwa" the language code oji in ISO 639-2, and applies this code to seven languages listed separately as Chippewa, Central Ojibwa, Eastern Ojibwa, Northwestern Ojibwa, Severn Ojibwa, Western Ojibwa, and Ottawa. An eighth language of the same subgroup of the Algonquian family, Algonquin, is listed separately, apparently for historical rather than linguistic reasons.

The Encyclopedia of North American Indian's article on the Ojibwa Language, written by John Nichols, is also on line. It contains a fair amount of detail, presented in the form of illustrative examples:

A typical Ojibwa sentence contains a multipart verb, the core meaning of which is carried by a verb stem, itself composed of meaningful elements. In front of the stem may come prefixes, one of which can show the person (first, second, or third) of a subject or object; others show grammatical ideas such as tense or location, or modify the core meaning. In the verb ningiiani-maajii-babima'adoon, "I started following and following it (a road) along," the first four prefixes are - nin-, indicating first person; gii-, past tense; ani-, away from the speaker; and maajii-, "start to." The last prefix, ba-, which indicates that the action was extended in time or space ("following and following"), also offers an example of reduplication, a process by which a prefix takes its shape from the stem by copying its first consonant and adding a vowel: the first syllable bi of bima'adoon, "follow it along," when combined with the reduplicated prefix made from it, becomes babi in babima'adoon, "follow and follow it along."

After the stem there are more than a dozen slots for suffixes indexing grammatical ideas such as order (determining whether the verb is a main clause, subordinate clause, or command verb); the person, number, and gender of the subject and object, and their relationship; negation; and verb mode. The verb ningii-wiiganawaabamigosiinaabaniig, "they didn't want to look at us (but they did)," includes a stem—ganawaabam, "look at someone"—and the suffixes -igo, indicating that the subject of the verb is a third person and that the first person referred to by the prefix nin- is the object; -sii, negation; -naa, "us"; ban, unrealized action; and -iig, "they."

Nichols takes a Whorfian line on what this all means:

The meanings of the stem-forming elements and their patterns of combination represent a unique Anishinaabe way of viewing human experience and the natural world.

This way of thinking seems to be a natural result of time spent in analyzing such morphological systems -- it's the flip side of the revelations of polysemy that John McWhorter wrote about here back in the fall of 2003. Nichols is understandably enthusiastic about the Anishinaabe system of stem-forming elements:

Their creative use allows speakers to talk about and name new things as well as known ones. A typical stem has two or three main parts, each selected from distinct sets of hundreds of elements. The first part is an initial, often a root of shape, size, color, spatial relationship, or direction, such as azhe-, "backwards"; babaami-, "going about"; giishk-, "severed"; miskw-, "red"; and, nabag-, "flat." The last part is a final, which often carries meanings close to those of English verbs. A few of these are -aadagaa, "swim"; -aashi, "blown (by the wind)"; -batoo, "run"; and -shin, "lie or fall against something." Thus there is not just one verb stem meaning "run," as in English, but many, each blending a different initial with the final -batoo, "run," as in azhebatoo, "runs backwards"; bimibatoo, "runs along"; babaamibatoo, "runs about"; and bejibatoo, "runs slowly."

Other finals describe the means by which something comes about, among them -aakiz, "by flame"; -bood, "by back-and-forth motion (as in sawing)"; and -zh, "by blade." A look at a few stems meaning "cut" can illustrate how different the Anishinaabe analysis of events can be from that of English. The initial tells about the result of the cutting and the final about the way the cutting was done. For example, if the cutting resulted in something being cleanly cut or severed, the initial is giishk-. Adding the final -zh gives giishkizhan, "cut it (with a knife)"; the final -bood gives giishkiboodoon, "cut it (with a saw)"; the final -aakiz gives giishkaakizan, "cut it (with a flame, as with a welding torch)." If the result is that something is split, the initial daashk- is used: daashkizhan, "cut it (with a knife and have it split)"; daashkaakizan, "cut it (with a flame and have it split)." If many pieces result, the initial is biis-, as in biisizhan, "cut it (to pieces with a knife)."

An optional intervening medial element describes things connected with the verb. It can classify things affected, as in giishkaabikizhan, "cut it ([something of metal or rock] with a knife)," where the medial is -aabik-, "something of metal or rock"; or daashkaakoboodon, "cut it ([something sticklike] with a saw and have it split)," where the medial is aako-, "something sticklike." In the verb giishkinikezh, "cut off someone's arm," the medial is the more specific and nounlike -nike-, "arm."

The most nearly comparable parts of the English lexicon seem to be the combinations of verbs with prepositions ("run along", "run out", "run up", "run in", "run off", "run over", etc., and the creation of various sorts of compounds ("flame-broiled", "arc weld", "sparkplug"). Alternatively you could look at the system of English compound words made of Greek and Latin bits, like {in-|con-|per-} {-form|-spire}. English doesn't incorporate as much stuff into a typical word, but there are some similar patterns on a smaller scale. (I was going to say that you can "flame cut" something, and you can "cut off" something, but you can't "flame cut off" something; but a web search turned up the sentence "To get the old stuf off he is most likely going to flame cut it off". Go figure.)

Although I don't have any specific knowledge of Anishinaabe verbal morphology, I suspect on general principles that the system is quasi-regular: in other words, the relationship between the meaning and the combination of stem-forming elements, prefixes and suffixes is often regular and therefore predictable, but can also often be more or less opaque and "idiomatic". This sort of thing is well known in the derivational morphology of languages like English, but has been less studied in the case of richer derivational systems in languages like Ojibwa or Navaho, where the complexity of the system (and its status as a second language for most analysts) tends to emphasize analytic decomposition over lexicographic nuance.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 23, 2005 08:28 AM