The Blackfoot Language               

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1. Dialects
2. Wider Relationships
3. Estimated Number of Speakers
4. Writing Systems
5. Resources
6. Other Links


1. Dialects of Blackfoot

If a group of people, speaking a single, relatively homogeneous language, split into smaller groups, they each develop their own dialect of the language. This is due to the fact that every living language is slowly and subtly changing, and with interrupted communication between groups of speakers, the language changes may differ in kind or rate in the different groups.

Presumably, all the groups of Blackfoot speaking peoples at one time made up a homogeneous group. They must have banded into at least three, and then four, subgroups, because even before the Blackfoot speaking peoples were assigned reserves, the Blackfoot tribe was made up of four bands: Siksiká (Blackfoot), Aapátohsipikani (North Piikani), Aamsskáápipikani (South Piikani), and Kainai (Blood). The South Piikani were in U. S. territory and are now known as the Blackfeet of Montana (the name is written by some as "Pikuni"). Their reservation covers a large area east of the Rockies. The other three bands are now located on the three southern Alberta reserves (Siksika Reserve near Gleichen, east of Calgary; Piikani Reserve at Brocket, west of Fort Macleod; and the Blood Reserve north of Cardston). (Click HERE to see a map showing the location of these groups.) As separate bands, both before and during the reserve period, these groups have developed slightly different dialects of the Blackfoot language. These differences, though few and almost never causing any difficulty in communication, are sufficiently well known that speakers from one reserve can usually identify the dialect of a speaker from another reserve, much as a speaker of the Alberta dialect of English can often recognize and pinpoint Ontario speech.

The dialect divisions discussed so far are more obvious because they match up with political-geographical divisions; however, there is probably as much variation within each of these four groups as there is between them. So one could also speak of the (sub)dialects on the Blood Reserve, for example (see below).

Dialect Differences

The differences which distinguish dialects can be divided into three categories: Lexical, grammatical, and phonological.

Lexical

By far the most prevalent difference between dialects is lexical, i.e. uses of different words for the same referent, or different meanings assigned to the same word. Many of these involve words for items which were not part of the native culture, e.g. it is not surprising that the standard word for "ice cream" is different in the Blood and Siksiká dialects: sstónniki (lit: 'cold milk') and áísstoyi (lit: 'that which is cold'). Here are more examples of lexical differences:

pikkiáákssi means 'porridge' on the Blood reserve, but 'ground beef' on the Piikani reserve.

pomiáána'kimaa'tsis means 'oil lamp' on the Blood reserve, but 'candle' on the Piikani reserve.

samákinn means 'lance/spear' on the Siksiká reserve, but 'large knife' on the Blood reserve.

The Blackfeet of Montana call 'tea' áísoyoopoksiikimi, while on the Canadian reserves it is simply siksikimí.

Grammatical

The Siksiká reserve dialect has developed a unique way of forming past tense on verbs in addition to the means used on the other reserves. They prefix a syllable na-, but only if no person prefix is called for. E.g. in addition to the form iyó'kaawa 'he slept', the speakers from the Siksika reserve may also say náyo'kaawa with the same meaning. There is no such alternative to nítso'kaa 'I slept', however, for the prefix na- can occur only at the beginning of a word, and this position is taken by the person prefix nit- in this example.

The grammars of different dialects may assign the same noun to different grammatical genders. For example, iitáísapahtsimao'p 'ashtray' is of animate gender on the Blood reserve, but of inanimate gender on the Piikani reserve. Even within a single reserve we find such differences: iinán 'banana' is of inanimate gender for some speakers on the Blood reserve, but of animate gender for others.

Phonological

There are at least three subdialects (call them A, B, and C) of the Blood dialect with regard to the behaviour of the sequence [ih]. For perhaps a third of speakers (dialect A), this sequence is always replaced by [s]. For the majority of speakers (dialect B), however, [ih] is replaced by [s] only if it is preceded or followed by [s]. Finally, for a very few speakers (dialect C), [ih] will remain as such even before [s] in very careful speech, but always is replaced by [s] after [s]. These differences can be seen by comparing forms of the following words in the three dialects (the "underlying" form shows the meaningful parts of the words):

underlying A B C English
á+okihka'si+wa aokska'siwa aokihka'siwa aokihka'siwa he's misbehaving
ninihki+hsin+yi ninskssini ninihkssini ninihkihsini song
okska'si+hsin+yi okska'sssini okska'sssini okska'sssini running

A phenomenon which can be said to determine a subdialect on the Siksiká Reserve involves replacement of a surprisingly large number of long vowels by vowel plus glottal stop ('). Compare the following words in what I will temporarily call Siksika subdialects A and B:

A B English
aakííwa a'kííwa woman
nitsináána nitsiná'na it's mine
nitsspommooka nitsspommo'ka he helped me
áyaapiiwa áya'piiwa he sees

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2. Wider Relationships

In the pre-reserve period, the Blackfoot Confederacy was an umbrella of protection for the three Blackfoot-speaking groups, but also for the linguistically unrelated Tsuu t'inaa (aka Sarcee), who belong linguistically to the Dene family, and the Stoney bands, who belong to the Siouan language family. The confederacy was also allied with the Atsina (aka Gros Ventre).

 But linguistically, the Blackfoot speak a language that can be shown to belong to the Algonquian family (see "notes on Blackfoot Linguistic History"), along with other north American indigenous languages such as Cree, Micmac, Ojibwa, Algonquin, Fox, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Menominee, Massachusett, Delaware, Shawnee, and others. There are two languages of California, Wiyot and Yurok, which are related to the Algonquian family at a much higher level; i.e., these two languages are the descendents of groups which separated from the presumed parent language of the Algonquian family.

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3. Estimated Number of Speakers

In the mid 1990's, Martin HeavyHead (a knowledgeable Blood speaker who was at the time on staff at UofL) and I came up with the following estimate of number of speakers:

under 100 in Montana, mainly elderly
1/3 to 1/2 of the 6000 Siksika 
1/3 to 1/2 of the 7500 Kainai
1/4 to 1/2 of the 4500 Piikani

 This points to between 5000 and 8000 speakers.

At the time, a few children were learning Blackfoot as a first language in one community [Laverne] on the Blood reserve.

 I'm sure the percentages have dropped some since then. It is very unusual to find a fluent speaker under the age of 40. I don't know if any children are still learning the language as a first language. There are some who are learning it pretty well (along with English) because they are being raised by grandparents who are fluent speakers. And I understand that some are learning the language in preschool and early elementary school immersion programs.

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4. Writing Systems

The orthography in most use for writing Blackfoot on the three Southern Alberta reserves was approved as the official writing system by education committees from those three reserves in 1975. The same orthography is used in the Blackfoot Dictionary and the Blackfoot Grammar, and is used for the Blackfoot words above. It is based on an analysis of the sound system of Blackfoot.

(For a description of the sounds of Blackfoot, click HERE.)

 Of course there are other ways of writing Blackfoot.

[The remainder of this section is a paper I wrote in 1970, entitled "Blackfoot Writing Systems"]

 There have been several attempts, with varying levels of success, to develop a usable writing system for Blackfoot, from first attempts by early missionaries, to the current system. The most successful of the early attempts was a syllabic system; this will be described and compared with the alphabetic system.

Before contact with Europeans, the plains Indian culture had little need for writing. Most plains tribes did use pictographs to record war deeds and other important events on skins and stones, but these do not qualify as representations of the spoken languages; rather, they are symbols of tangible participants and objects, intended to aid human memory of events.

The earliest known attempts to represent Blackfoot speech on paper were made by explorers, traders, and early missionaries; most of these tried to write Blackfoot using the orthography of their own native language, usually French or English. (As an example of the ineffectiveness of this approach, notice the spelling of the respected chief Crowfoot's Blackfoot name on the treaty of 1877: "CHAPO-MEXICO" was recorded as an attempt to transcribe Issapóómahksika, literally "Crow-big-foot" (where "Crow" refers to the Crow tribe, not the bird). Because people tend to distinguish only those sounds which are distinctive in their own language, these early recordings share two common shortcomings:

(1) the writers tended to miss Blackfoot distinctions that are not important in English or French, e.g., glottal stop, vowel and consonant length (quantity), and the "gutteral" or velar fricative (though French speakers often identified the last of these with the uvular r of many French dialects);

(2) they attempted to represent nondistinctive variations of the Blackfoot vowels, because these variants often resembled vowels that are distinct in French or English.

Some of the earliest attempts to represent Blackfoot speech so that it could be read by Blackfoot speakers were probably made by missionaries. Copies of prayers and creeds produced by Roman Catholic priests are still in existence. While an occasional individual may have learned to read the Lord's Prayer or other of these short portions, there is no evidence that any greater measure of success was ever attained. The major factors here were most likely the shortcomings noted in the previous paragraph, but perhaps no serious effort was actually made by the Roman Catholic missionaries to teach Blackfoot speakers to read.

Somewhat more successful in this regard were the efforts of Church of England missionaries. In 1890 a translation of the Gospel of Matthew by Archdeacon Tims was published. Unfortunately, the spelling of words in this book displays all of the shortcomings mentioned above that result from most attempts of non-native speakers to write a language without special training in such a task. For example, Tims distinguished 10 vowel sounds, while only three basic vowels are necessary to unambiguously spell Blackfoot words. Nevertheless, I am told that several persons learned to read from this gospel, and that for a short time it contributed to the vitality of the Christian community on the Siksiká reserve. There have been no readers of this writing system for many years.

A short time later (I presume, not being able to date it exactly), another writing system was devised in a joint effort by Archdeacon Tims, Reverend Joshua Hinchliffe, and Canon H.W.G. Stocken. After unsuccessful attempts to apply the Cree syllabic writing system devised in about 1840 by Wesleyan Missionary James Evans [See "How the Bible came to the Cree", Alberta Historical Review Vol. 6 No. 2, 1958], they decided to devise a "new" syllabic system for Blackfoot. In doing so, they kept the best and most ingenious feature of the Evans system: that of placing the same symbol in four different positions to represent the same consonant with four different vowels. To see how the syllabic symbols relate to the alphabetic system, go HERE.

 The only serious flaw in the Blackfoot syllabic system is that it had no way to represent the glottal stop, which distinguishes word pairs such as moksís 'awl' and mo'ksís 'arm pit' (the alphabetic system uses an apostrophe to indicate the glottal stop). [When attention was called to the glottal stop in na'a, Matthew Manyguns (mentioned below) suggested using the raised x which the designers of the syllabary used for "full stop", equivalent to the period in English writing.] Other less serious flaws are: the unneeded fourth vowel; distinguishing two predictable variants of the same distinctive sound (the gutteral fricative has two variants, depending on the quality of the preceding vowel); and no way to indicate accent, which also can distinguish word pairs: compare ákaohkiimiiwa 'he's married', and akáóhkiimiiwa 'he has more than one wife' (accented vowels are marked with an acute accent in the alphabetic system).

 An additional infelicity (given the system as originally designed), is that it provides no way to write long (double) vowels. (This problem could be rectified by addition of a marker, e.g. a colon (:), for syllables with long vowels.) [Note: It is unlikely that the designers of the syllabary realized the significance of vowel length in Blackfoot.]

 The only material printed in this system that I have seen is a small booklet of hymns, prayers, and Scripture verses. I know of no proficient readers of this writing system at the present time. (The late, highly respected and brilliant elder Matthew Manyguns was the only person of the Siksiká Nation considered to be an expert in this writing system in recent times. He informed me that he was taught by an uncle, with whom he sometimes communicated in correspondence using the syllabary.)
 

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5.  Resources

Frantz: Blackfoot Grammar. (1991). Univ. of Toronto Press. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (The second edition of the Grammar is in press, and is scheduled to be published by the end of 2009.)

Frantz and Russell: Blackfoot Dictionary. 2nd edit. (1997). Univ. of Toronto Press.

Duval House Publishing, 18228 - 102  Ave., Edmonton, Alberta T5S 1S7 Canada, has materials for Blackfoot high school courses. Write for their catalogue. 

Old Sun Community College, Siksika, Alberta T0J 3W0, Canada, has language teaching materials also. Try writing to them.

Finally, I have three tapes (now also available on CD) which I recorded years ago for use in Blackfoot courses, along with printed scripts. Here is the script for the first conversation:

CONVERSATION 1

A.  Óki.					(greeting)
B. Óki. Tsá niitá'piiwa? "How's things?"
A. Íkssoka'piwa. / íksstoyiiwa. good / it's cold
B. Áa. yes
A. Tsá kitánikkoo(wa)? What's your name?
B. Nitánikkoo(wa) 'Keith'. I'm called 'K'.
B. Kiistówa, tsá kitánikkoo(wa)? You, what's your name?
A. Nitánikkoo(wa) 'Narcisse'.
B. Ókki, nitáakahkayi. Well, I'm going home.
A. Áa, kakó. Yes, go ahead.
Listen to the conversation.

Contact me for price and additional information about the CDs: frantzATuleth.ca (replace "AT" with "@")

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6. Other Links

A short, analyzed Blackfoot text.

Some Blackfoot audio samples can be accessed from this site: Siksika language

The Piegan Institute in Browning, MT has language materials, using a somewhat different orthography.

For an extensive set of links re. Blackfoot  history, culture, and language go here.

[more to come]