Notes on

The Linguistic History of Blackfoot

Copyright © 1999
Donald G. Frantz

 Blackfoot is a member of the Algonquian family of languages. This means that there is clear evidence that Blackfoot and other members of the Algonquian family are all descendants of a single language spoken perhaps thousands of years ago (see "Algonquian features of Blackfoot"). Though there is no record of that parent language, its existence is posited to explain the regular correspondences of sounds and grammar when Algonquian languages are compared to one another. Some of the other languages in the family are Cheyenne, Micmac, Cree, Arapaho, Delaware, Ojibwa, Kickapoo, Algonquin, and Shawnee.

One current hypothesis about the distribution of these languages is that as speakers of the parent language ("proto-Algonquian") moved eastward across Canada, a portion remained behind near the Rockies and are the progenitors of the Blackfoot tribes. (See Denny, Peter J. 1990. “The Algonquian Migration from Plateau to Midwest: Linguistics And Archaeology.” In William Cowan, ed., Papers of the Twenty-Second Algonquian Conference, 103-124. Ottawa: Carleton University.) The rest of the Algonquians moved to an area near the Great Lakes, then broke up into smaller groups which fanned out from there, the Crees spreading all the way back to the Rockies. This would account for the fact that Blackfoot shows much greater diversity when compared to other languages of the family than one finds when comparing the other members of the family to one another. 

The divergence of Blackfoot vocabulary when compared to that of other Algonquian languages (as mentioned in Algonquian features of Blackfoot) could be explained if there was mixing with another language at some time in the history of Blackfoot, similar to that in the history of Michif, which basically has French nouns and Cree verbs. However, no one has yet been able to recognize any existing language as a source for the Blackfoot nouns which are apparently not Algonquian in origin

This is not to say that there are not plenty of lexical items in Blackfoot that can be shown to be of Algonquian origin.

 [to be continued]

Some recently observed changes in Blackfoot grammar

 Some of the rules described in Blackfoot Grammar , which are based primarily on the language spoken by elders in the 1960s and 1970s, are no longer observable in the speech of many of today's Blackfoot speakers. One that is typical of Algonquian languages involves the grammatical category which is called "minor third person" in Blackfoot Grammar (Chapter 2, section D.). This category is assigned to nouns belonging to the animate grammatical gender category in a context in which there is another animate gender noun. For example, if there are animate gender nouns as both subject and object of a sentence, only one of them can be major third person; the other must be demoted to minor third person. The marking for a singular major third person is the suffix -[wa] (though many speakers either reduce it to -[w] or drop it altogether). The marker for a singular minor third person is the suffix -[yi]. The same endings appear on demonstratives which modify the nouns. Note those endings in the following sentence ([y] and [w] are always dropped after consonants):

 Oma imitááwa innísskoyiiwa omi póósi.     "That dog chased off that cat."

 This is the form such a sentence would have according to the rules based on the speech of elders. But many current speakers would pronounce that sentence with some or all of the suffixes dropped, and with the [i] on the end of poos replaced by [a] (or nothing), indicating that they do not observe the rule regarding minor third person:

 Om imitáá innísskoyii(w) oma póós(a).     "That dog chased off that cat."

 Similarly, many speakers fail to use minor third person suffix -[yi] on animate nouns marked as being possessed by third person. For example, "that man's son" should end in -[yi] because "son" is possessed by "man":

oma nínaawa ohkóyi         "that man's son"

 Furthermore, if the "son" is subject of a verb, that verb should be marked as having a minor third person subject, with the suffix -[yináyi], as follows:

 Oma nínaawa ohkóyi áóoyiyináyi. "That man's son is eating."

 However, I have heard speakers pronounce such sentences without any evidence that they make a difference between major third person and minor third person:

 Oma nínaa(wa) ohkó(w) áóoyi(wa). "That man's son is eating."

[more to come]