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The Lakota Language



Lakota Phonological Key


Language Tree Model for Siouian Dialects


The Oglala speak Lakota, a Siouan dialect which they share with the Sicangus, Hunkpapas, Mnikowojus, Sihasapas, Oohenunpas, and Itazipcos, collectively known as Tetons. The dialect is similar to and mutually intelligible with the Nakota (Yankton) and Dakota (Santee) dialects. The relationship between the discrete political units and their respective dialects is discussed in Lakota Society.

Most words in Lakota are accented on the second syllable (See Lakota Grammar).

Phonemes and their equivilent letters appear as follows:
(Click on the vowel to hear the pronunciation !)

Vowels. Lakota has eight vowels, five oral and three nasal:

a....Low, oral, approximately as in father.

Written a.
a'....Low, nasal, approximately as in calm. Written an.
e....Mid, front, oral, approximately as in they. Written e.
i....High, front, oral, approximately as in machine. Written i.
i'....High, front, nasal, approximately as in seen. Written in.
o....Mid, back, oral, approximately as in open. Written o.
u....High, back, oral, approximately as in boot. Written u.
u'....High, back, nasal, approximately as in boom. Written u.


In formal Lakota, sentences end in vowels with the exception of ske?, 'it is said'; nacece?, 'I suppose'; sece?, 'I think.' The glottal stop, however, is not written (ske, nacece, sece). One word ends in w (haw, 'greetings', 'yes'), but it is traditionally written hau or occasionally how.

Consonants. Lakota has twenty-eight consonants, of which twenty-one represent seven consonantal triads (p, t, k, c, z, z', and x), each of which is comprised of a voiced, aspirated, and glottalized member. The remaining seven consonants are w, y, l, m, n, h, and ?.

p....Bilabial, voiced as in boy.

Written p when word initial,
b when first position in consonant cluster.
p`....Bilabial, aspirated as in pin. Written p.
p'....Bilabial, glottalized, No English equivalent. Written p'.
t....Alveolar, voiced, as in dim. Written t.
t`....Alveolar, aspirated, as in tin. Written t.
t'....Alveolar, glottalized. No English equivalent. Written t'.
k....Velar, voiced as in got. Written k when word initial,
g when first position in consonant cluster.
k`....Velar, aspirated, as in kick. Written k.
k'....Velar, glottalized. No English equivalent. Written k'.
c....Alveopalatal, voiced, as in jaw. Written c.
c`....Alveopalatal, aspirated, as in church. Written c.
c'....Alveopalatal, glottalized. No English equivalent. Written c'.
z....Alveolar, voiced, grooved, as in zip. Written z.
s....Alveolar, aspirated, grooved, as in sip. Written s.
s`....Alveloar, glottalized, grooved. No English equivalent. Written s'.
z^....Alveopalatal, voiced, grooved, as in azure. Written j.
š....Alveopalatal, aspirated, grooved, as in shake. Written š.
š'....Alveopalatal, glottalized, grooved. No English equivalent. Written š'.
V....Velar, voiced, as in Spanish cigaro. Written g.
x....Velar, aspirated, as in German nach. Written ĥ.
x'....Velar, glottalized. No English equivalent. Written ĥ'.
w....Bilabial, voiced, as in water. Written w.
y....Alveopalatal, voiced, as in yes. Written y.
l....Alveolar, voiced, as in link. Written l.
m....Bilabial, voiced, as in mink. Written m.
n....Alveolar, voiced, as in not. Written n.
h....Glottal, voiceless, as in hat. Written h.
?....Glottal, voiceless. Written as '.



Excerpt from Reading and Writing the Lakota Language = Lakota Iyapi un Wowapi nahan Yawapi by Albert White Hat Sr.

History of the Written Language

The Lakota language, like most languages, was not originally a written language.

Dakota, the most eastern division, was the first Sioux tribal group encountered by missionaries and anthropologists. Consequently, Dakota was the earliest dialect to be transcribed into a written format. In 1834 the Episcopal missionaries Samuel W Pond, Gideon H Pond, Stephen R Riggs, and Dr Thomas S Williamson created a Dakota alphabet. This alphabet system was modified for the "L" dialect by Rev. Eugene Buechel, S.J. . . . and further adapted and extended by Franz Boaz and Ella Deloria ....

For many years, missionaries, depending on whether they were Episcopalian or Catholic, would teach Rigg's or Buechel's orthography. Then, in 1976, yet another alphabet system for the Lakota language was introduced. Two linguists, Dr. Allen Taylor and Dr. David Rood of the University of Colorado at Boulder present their orthography in Beginning Lakhota.

History of a Lakota Developed Orthography

With the establishment of Oglala Lakota College in 1970 and Sinte Gleska College in 1971, Lakota people became more actively concerned with various written forms of our language. Instructors from Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud reservations exchanged classroom language materials. However, each group presented a different spelling system, depending upon which missionaries had had the strongest influence in that region. By 1973, many instructors wanted a standardized Lakota alphabet.

In response to these issues, Ben Black Bear, Jr., chairman of the Lakota Studies Department at then Sinte Gleska College, and Ed Fills the Pipe, a Lakota language instructor at Oglala Lakota College, organized a meeting of language instructors for Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud reservations, and Rapid City. For three days, we compared early writings by missionaries, trappers, and government agents and presented our own individual alphabet systems. We studied these various systems and agreed that Lakota must be written based on sound. We decided to continue using the English alphabet system in conjunction with diacritics because that system was most familiar to Lakota speakers. Yet, when we discussed the specific diacritics for sounds unique to Lakota, we could not arrive at a consensus. At the end of the meeting, Ben and Ed suggested that each of us continue working with the system we were most comfortable with and to consider the possibility of changing our systems when we discovered weaknesses.

At that point I was teaching at St. Francis Indian School, St. Francis, South Dakota, and developing an alphabet system with Lloyd One Star. As time passed, I began to see weaknesses in our work. We used letters with diacritics to express sounds unique to Lakota. However, some of the marks were interpreted as stress symbols, causing students to incorrectly accent words. For example, the letter k with a slash mark (k') used to represent the guttural k confused students causing them to accent the syllable instead of articulating a guttural k. Encounters such as this caused us to question our orthography and to become more ready to compromise on an alphabet that would be less confusing.

In February 1982, the South Dakota Association of Bilingual and Bicultural Education sponsored a language workshop conducted by Dr. Allan Taylor and Dr. David Rood on grammar and sentence structure. At this conference the issue of the alphabet system resurfaced. In response to this concern, a group of instructors from Rosebud, Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations, and Rapid City organized the Committee of the Preservation of the Lakota Language, the Lakotiyapi Okolakiciye. Serving as chair, I updated other instructors on the meetings held during the 1970s addressing the orthography. We agreed to focus on the "L" dialect, the dialect spoken on all the Sioux reservations south and west of the Missouri River. We would not work on the "D" dialect or the "N" dialect, until progress was first achieved with the "L" dialect.

Before we could continue pursuing a written language we wanted to consult our Elders. Therefore, at the second meeting, held a month later on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we invited Elders to tell us about the Lakota language. We wanted to benefit from their knowledge and experience with both the oral and written language. For three days, we listened to Elders representing different districts on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

During the following two months we repeated the procedure on the Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations. Again we invited Elders and asked them the same questions posed at Pine Ridge. We let our Elders talk about our language.

In May, the committee met to discuss the concerns voiced by our tribal Elders. We decided on two central ideas to emphasize when teaching the language. First, Elders reminded us that the language is wakan, "very powerful". We use it to communicate with the other nations: the Deer Nation, the Eagle Nation, the Buffalo Nation, and so forth. We talk to the wamakaskan, "living beings of the earth", through spiritual communications. Language must be taught with this in mind. Second, when teaching the language to younger people, both its good and evil powers must be taught. If you teach only the good, children will be ruined when they become adults. They need to understand that language contains great power. It can be used to injure a person's feelings or to compliment their achievements. It can be used with evil intent or to honor and bless. Young people need to understand that language contains the power to give life or to take it away. As a result, it must be used respectfully.

Aware of the spiritual aspect of our work, we then met in June for three days to develop an orthography. We went through the language sound by sound, searching for the best letter to represent each sound. We wrote one word over and over, each time replacing the same letter with its equivalent from a different alphabet system. In this way we could visually compare the differences in each system. After discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each letter, we then voted on the one letter we most wanted to represent that particular sound. Once a consensus was reached, we then moved on to the next letter.

At the end of three days, the committee had created a recommended alphabet system that we believed combined the best elements of the existing systems. At one point during the meeting, Tillie Black Bear for the Rosebud Reservation pointed out the need for simplicity so that our children could easily write the letters. Throughout the meeting, we kept her words in mind.

The alphabet system presented in this text was created during these 1982 meetings. I use it as a pronunciation guide. Eighteen letters represent sounds also found in English. Twenty-two letters represent sounds unique to the Lakota language. Thus, there are a total of forty letters in this recommended alphabet system. By memorizing the letter with its respective sound, a person can accurately pronounce spoken and written Lakota.

As Lakota educators, we have continued to work with this 1982 orthography. Most recently, in February 1995 in Rapid City, South Dakota, the South Dakota Association of Bilingual and Bicultural Education (SDABBE) had its annual conference. Educators for Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Lower Brule reservations, Rapid City Schools and other urban schools in the state were in attendance. The association set aside a day and a half for Lakota language teachers to discuss our language. Younger teachers trying to develop language curriculum were encountering the same frustrations we experienced during the early 1970s. They wanted to compare alphabets and create an orthography that would reflect the needs of Lakota people. They were unaware that had been accomplished in 1982. I was given the opportunity to present the history of the Lakotiyapi Okolakiciye to this younger generation of teachers. There was a motion to retain this title for a statewide association to continue to safeguard the Lakota language in both its oral and written forms. An Elder suggested that we should make a change. Instead of Lakotaiyapi it should be two words: Lakota Iyapi. If we wanted to advocate and use the original form of speech, we needed to correct phrases like this that had been shortened. We voted unanimously to retain the title and incorporate his suggested change.

The next motion was to keep the alphabet system approved in 1982 along with a written history of its development. We again voted unanimously in favor of it. A person may challenge the use of a specific letter or diacritic, but the entire alphabet would no longer be called into question.

This decision is a landmark for Lakota educators. During the 1970s and 1980s, we, as educators, were competitive and protective of our materials. We were new to the education field, where resources were scarce or nonexistent. Consequently, we rarely reached consensus or acknowledged achievement. By maintaining the alphabet system created in 1982, we demonstrated that Lakota educators can collaborate and be active agents pursuing our own scholastic research.

In its last significant action for 1995, the association voted to create a Lakota dictionary organized thematically, utilizing the new orthography. We started the discussion by remembering our ancestors' concerns that were listed in treaties: housing, food, clothing, education, and health. In addition to these five areas, there were eight other categories we wanted to address in a dictionary. We also decided that if teachers wanted this particular alphabet system to become the official alphabet of their reservations, they would need to pursue its acceptance with their own tribal governments. These decisions mark the new directions of Lakota Iyapi Okolakiciye.




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