An Introduction to the Lakota language
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In, I am known as Jo_Bleaux. In the Spirit World, I am Mató Ob Wóglaka which means Talks With Bear, the name given to me by my uncle, Leonard Crow Dog, Medicine Man and Chief of the Sicʻaƞġu (Brule) Lakota Tribe of Rosebud, South Dakota. My focus will be on the Lakota language, since it is the one I am most familiar with. These pages are not intended to be a comprehensive language course but rather to give you an overview of the language.

Lakota, Dakota and Nakota are the names of three major groups of Plains Indians who speak mutually intelligible dialects which belong to the Siouan family of Native American languages. As with any population spread across an appreciable distance, there are differences in idioms, words, and pronunciations, but a Lakota speaker will understand a Dakota speaker even though the speech sounds "funny". Lakota and Dakota speakers will have more difficulty understanding Nakota because there is less similarity. One of the better known differences between Lakota and Dakota is the substitution of d for l, as suggested by the names. Stemming from the word kóla (meaning friend), the word Lakota (or Dakota or Nakota) means "an alliance of friends" but there is no shortage of friendly rivalry and good natured ribbing between the groups. For instance, a popular Lakota joke goes:

Q. What does a Dakota call a flat tire?
A. A bdowout!

Contrary to the primitive stereotypes once depicted by Hollywood, the Lakota language is rich with nuances of expression. Terms of kinship are very precise in description, signifying such things as whether a brother is older or younger and whether an uncle is from the mother's family or the father's. The speaker's gender is an important factor, because men and women don't speak the same. Gender within the language itself is natural, as it is in English, not grammatical as in Spanish and various other languages.

Traditionally, certain words are used only by men and others only by women, but this has changed to some extent because of the influence of European culture. For example, the word kóla was once used only a man to refer to a male friend but nowadays women sometimes use this word, too. As with any diverse group of people, there is no perfect consensus on what constitutes proper language. Some singers contend that certain ceremonial songs that were written by women should be sung unchanged; others insist that men should sing like men. It is important to be sensitive and respectful of such differences as they are encountered.

Lakota is an endangered language. Considerable effort was made by the US government in the 1800's to destroy the language and culture. Native religion was outlawed. In the 1920s, the government assigned missionaries to operate prison labor camps thinly disguised as boarding schools. The popular sentiment of the day was "Kill the Indian, save the man". Children were taken from their parents by force and placed in these "schools" to work at construction and as servants and farmhands for White families, and to learn to speak English and think like the White men of the invading culture. Dressed in school uniforms and hair cut, they were ridiculed, punished and abused for speaking their mother tongue. This continued until the 1970's when control of the schools passed to Native hands. It was in 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, a law of questionable constitutionality was passed to restore religious freedom to Native Americans, freedom which had previously been taken away by the unconstitutional laws of the 1800's. This was followed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (partially struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997) and an amendment to 1978 law permitting the use of peyote in Native American ceremonies.

Similarly, it is only in recent times that it has become "fashionable" to be Indian and to learn about the original inhabitants of the Americas. Much of this reversal can be attributed to AIM, the American Indian Movement which also arose in the 1970's. Since that time, much effort has been devoted toward revitalizing Lakota as a living, spoken language.

Structurally, Lakota bears little resemblance to English and other European languages. In English, one might say, "The boy is taller than his father". In Lakota, one would say, "Hokśíla kiƞ atkúku kiƞ isám háƞska", that is, "boy / the / his father / the / more than / is tall". It is important to realize that this not only reflects the word order in which a sentence is constructed but also the order of the very thoughts themselves which are to be expressed in words. In recognizing this, one can better appreciate differences between cultures, rooted in differences between the ways that Lakota and White men think.

Another significant difference is that English is noun based, whereas Lakota is verb based. In English, we often "verb nouns", for example, we host parties, chair meetings, power off machinery, access files, and mail letters. In Lakota, a similar phenomenon occurs; verbs can serve as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

Lakota is a polysynthetic language in which words are formed by adding affixes to stems to signal grammatical relationships. Lakota has about 500 syllables that are used to synthesize thousands of words. A single word can be an sentence; for example: Mawáśte (I am good.) In another example, the word for airplane is kiƞyék̇iyapi; a noun consisting of an entire sentence literally meaning "they make them fly". Further analysis will reveal that the root word is the verb kiƞyaƞ, to fly. The insertion of a pronoun results in a description of a relationship between the subject and object, and the addition of the suffix pi changes it from singular to plural. This type of synthesis is much more common in Lakota than is the adoption of foreign words.

As previously illustrated, nouns more closely resemble clauses in English than single words. Common nouns can be singular or plural such as wood, rocks, etc. They can also be singular in form but plural in meaning, such as people, family, etc., or abstract such as goodness, power, etc. Proper nouns can be a single noun or adjective such as Bear or Six, a noun plus another noun, verb or adjective such as Crow Dog, Black Elk or Standing Rock, or an entire sentence. For example, the proper noun "Śuƞkmánitu Ob Waci" (Dances With Wolves) is a single, unique name for an individual, yet it consists of several words; literally, wolves / with / he dances.

Pronouns can be separate words or inseparable words inserted into verbs to clarify "who is doing what to whom".

Verbs are categorized as impersonal (no participants), stative (one object), active intransitive (one subject), transitive (subject and object), and ditransitive (subject, object, and indirect object). Verb inflection determines whether the subject or object is 1st person, 2nd, or 3rd and whether it is singular or plural. The addition of the suffix kte changes the verb’s tense to indicate the possibility or intention of a future occurance. Lakota also features double verb combinations; for example, wahínawajiƞ which means "I arrived and stood still". The verb "to be" as used to describe the subject does not exist in Lakota but there is an equivalent for use in identifying the subject. Verbs are further divided in usage according to whether they refer to the animate or inanimate.

A separate preposition follows the word it governs; for example, wakpála aglágla (creek / at the edge of). As the preceding statement implies, a preposition can also be an inseparable word that is part of another word.

Word order is typically subject / object / verb. A noun is modified by an adjective following the noun, which is then often followed by a definite article (kiƞ - the) or an indefinite article (waƞ - a / an), again, with the verb at the end. The adverb śni (not) also follows the verb it modifies. Other adverbs are placed according to more complex syntax rules.

Various enclitics may terminate a sentence, such as yelo / welo / lo (men) and kśto (women) for a simple assertion, wo or yo (men) and we or ye (women) for imperative singular and po (men) and pe (women) for imperative plural, ye (singular) and pe (plural) for requests (men and women), and he for a question. The use of yelo / ye / yo, lo or welo / we / wo is determined by the ending of the verb that precedes it. Verbs ending in o, u, or are followed by welo / we / wo. Verbs ending in a or are followed by yelo / ye / yo. In all other cases, lo is used.

The plural modifier pi followed by lo is contracted to pelo. When pi is followed by yo, the resulting contraction is po. When pi would be followed by ye or we (as spoken by a woman), the ye or we is simply dropped and the pi remains unchanged. Women occasionaly use yele instead of kśto when making a statement. Afterward, a man may respond Yelo which is equivalent to saying "that is so".

Like English, many syllables can have multiple meanings, depending on how they are used. For instance, consider the word he:

Function Meaning
noun horn
demonstrative pronoun that
verb suffix expresses duration
particle at the end of a sentence indicates a question

Alone, a syllable can be a part of speech, that is, a noun, verb, adjective, etc. As part of a compound word, a syllable can be a prime word, a stem, a prefix, or a suffix. If a particular syllable has only one meaning, it is because it has only one function. Lakota’s grammatical rules are what determine a syllable’s function. Because of this, it takes more than a dictionary to translate from one language to the other. Without some knowledge of how words are inflected and the order in which they should occur, a sentence translated from English to Lakota may end up meaning something far different than what was intended. Similarly, a dictionary search for the English translation of a Lakota word may be fruitless if one doesn't know how to determine the root word amidst prefixes, suffixes, and other constructs.

Negative questions are not answered as in English. For instance, "Le yacʻíƞ śni, séce" translates as "I think you do not want this" (literally, "this / you want / not, / seemingly"). Proper responses would be "To wacʻiƞ śni" (Yes, I do not want it), or "Hiya, wacʻiƞ" (No, I want it).

I have arbitrarily separated the rest of the subject materials into two sections to make things a little more manageable. These two sections are actually interdependent, but I recommend viewing them in the order listed:

Written Lakota
Spoken Lakota

Some additional links of interest (external):

Wikipedia Article on the Lakota language

Sketch of Lakhota, a Siouan Language - table of contents
Sketch of Lakhota, a Siouan Language, part 1 - pronunciation and grammar
Sketch of Lakhota, a Siouan Language, part 2 - grammar and vocabulary

Yahoo Club Lakhota Iyapi - Talking/Learning/Teaching Lakota/Dakota/Nakoda
Yahoo Club Lakhota Language and Culture - Online Lakhota Language and Culture
Yahoo Club Dakota-Lakhota-Nakota Language - D/L/N languages discussion only. Cultural topics are off-limits.
Yahoo Club Lakotiya - free live online Lakota language classes

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