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Mohawk language

This article is about the language spoken by the Mohawk people; for other uses, see Mohawk.
Eastern / Central Dialect : Kanien’kéha'
Western Dialect : Kanyen'kéha'
Pronunciation [ɡɑ.njʌ̃ʔ.ˈɡɛ.haʔ]
Native to United States, Canada
Region Ontario, Quebec and northern New York
Ethnicity Mohawk people
Native speakers
3,500  (2007–2011)[1]
  • Northern
    • Lake Iroquoian
      • Five Nations
        • Mohawk–Oneida
          • Mohawk
Language codes
ISO 639-2 moh
ISO 639-3 moh
Glottolog moha1258[2]

Mohawk [3] (Mohawk: Kanien’kéha [ɡa.njʌ̃ʔ.ˈɡe.ha] "[language] of the Flint Place") is an Iroquoian language currently spoken by around 3,000 people of the Mohawk nation in the United States (mainly western and northern New York) and Canada (southern Ontario and Quebec). The Mohawks comprised the largest and most powerful of the original Five Nations, controlling a vast area of land on the eastern frontier of the Iroquois Confederacy. The North Country and Adirondack region of present-day Upstate New York would have constituted the greater part of the Mohawk-speaking area lasting until the end of the 18th century.


  • Dialects 1
  • Status 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Consonants 3.1
    • Vowels 3.2
  • Orthography 4
    • Stress, length, and tone 4.1
  • Grammar 5
  • Current number of speakers 6
  • Alexander Graham Bell 7
  • In popular culture 8
  • Learning Mohawk 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


Mohawk has three major dialects: Western (Ohswé:ken and Kenhté:ke), Central (Ahkwesáhsne), and Eastern (Kahnawà:ke and Kanehsatà:ke); the differences between them are largely phonological. These are related to the major Mohawk territories since the eighteenth century. The pronunciation of /r/ and several consonant clusters may differ in the dialects.
  Underlying phonology Western Central Eastern
seven /tsjáːta/ [ˈd͡ʒaːda] [ˈd͡ʒaːda] [ˈd͡zaːda]
nine /tjóhton/ [ˈdjɔhdũ] [ˈɡjɔhdũ] [ˈd͡ʒɔhdũ]
I fall /kjaʔtʌʔs/ [ˈɡjàːdʌ̃ʔs] [ˈɡjàːdʌ̃ʔs] [ˈd͡ʒàːdʌ̃ʔs]
dog /érhar/ [ˈɛrhar] [ˈɛlhal] [ˈɛːɽhaɽ]


Mohawk has the largest number of speakers of the Northern Iroquoian languages; today it is the only one with greater than a thousand remaining. At Akwesasne, residents have begun a language immersion school (pre-K to grade 8) in Kanien’kéha to revive the language. With their children learning it, parents and other family members are taking language classes, too.

In 2006, over 600 people were reported to speak the language in Canada, many of them elderly.[4]


The phoneme inventory is as follows (using the International Phonetic Alphabet). Phonological representation (underlying forms) are in /slashes/, and the standard Mohawk orthography is in bold.


An interesting feature of Mohawk (and Iroquoian) phonology is that there are no labials, except in a few adoptions from French and English, where [m] and [p] appear (e.g., mátsis matches and aplám Abraham); these sounds are late additions to Mohawk phonology and were introduced after widespread European contact. The word "Mohawk" is an exonym.

  Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal n      
Plosive t   k ʔ
Affricate   d͡ʒ    
Fricative s     h
Rhotic r      
Approximant l j w  
The Central (Ahkwesáhsne) dialect has the following consonant clusters:
1st↓ · 2nd→ t k s h l n d͡ʒ j w
t tt tk ts th
k kt kk ks kh kw
ʔ ʔt ʔk ʔs ʔl ʔn ʔd͡ʒ ʔj ʔw
s st sk ss sh sl sn sj sw
h ht hk hs hl hn hd͡ʒ hj hw
l lh lj
n nh nl nj
d͡ʒ d͡ʒj
w wh

All clusters can occur word-medially; those on a red background can also occur word-initially.

The consonants /k/, /t/ and the clusters /ts kw/ are pronounced voiced before any voiced sound (i.e. a vowel or /j/). They are voiceless at the end of a word or before a voiceless sound. /s/ is voiced word initially and between vowels.

carkà:sere [ˈɡàːzɛrɛ]
thatthí:ken [ˈthiːɡʌ̃]
hello, stillshé:kon [ˈshɛːɡũ]

Note that th and sh are pronounced as consonant clusters, not single sounds like in English thing and she.


  Front Central Back
High i   ũ
Mid e ʌ̃ o
Low   a  

i, e, a, and o are oral vowels, while ʌ̃ and ũ (see ) are nasalized; oral versions of ʌ̃ and ũ do not occur in the language.


Plaque in English, Mohawk, and French describing the Grand River. Plaque located in Galt, Cambridge, Ontario

The Mohawk alphabet consists of these letters: a e h i k n o r s t w y along with and :. The orthography was standardized in 1993.[5] The standard allows for some variation of how the language is represented, and the clusters /ts(i)/, /tj/, and /ky/ are written as pronounced in each community. The orthography matches the phonological analysis as above except:

  • The glottal stop /ʔ/ is written with an apostrophe , it is often omitted at the end of words, especially in Eastern dialect where it is typically not pronounced.
  • /dʒ/
    • /dʒ/ is written ts in the Eastern dialect (reflecting pronunciation). Seven is tsá:ta [dzaːda].
    • /dʒ/ is written tsi in the Central dialect. Seven is tsiá:ta [dʒaːda].
    • /dʒ/ is written tsy in the Western dialect. Seven is tsyá:ta [dʒaːda].
  • /j/
    • /j/ is typically written i in the Central and Eastern dialects. Six is ià:ia’k [jàːjaʔk].
    • /j/ is usually written y in the Western dialect. Six is yà:ya’k [jàːjaʔk].
  • The vowel /ʌ̃/ is written en, as in one énska [ʌ̃ska].
  • The vowel /ũ/ is written on, as in eight sha’té:kon [shaʔdɛːɡũ].
  • In cases where the vowel /e/ or /o/ is followed by an /n/ in the same syllable, the /n/ is written with a low-macron accent: keṉhó:tons (I am closing a door). If the did not have the accent, the sequence en would be pronounced [ʌ̃].

The low-macron accent is not a part of standard orthography and isn't used by the Central or Eastern dialects. In standard orthography, /h/ is written before /n/ to create the [en] or [on]: kehnhó:tons 'I am closing it'.

Stress, length, and tone

Stress, vowel length and tone are linked together in Mohawk. There are three kinds of stressed vowels: short-high tone, long-high tone, and long-falling tone. Stress is always written and occurs only once per word.

  • Short-high tone usually (but not always) appears in closed syllables or before /h/. It is written with an acute accent: fruit káhi, road oháha.
  • Long-rising tone generally occurs in open syllables. It is written with a combination acute accent and colon: town kaná:ta, man rón:kwe. Notice that when it is one of the nasal vowels which is long, the colon appears after the n.
  • Long-falling tone is the result of the word stress falling on a vowel which comes before a /ʔ/ or /h/ + a consonant (there may be, of course, exceptions to this and other rules). The underlying /ʔ/ or /h/ reappears when stress is placed elsewhere. It is written with a grave accent and colon: stomach onekwèn:ta (from /onekwʌ̃ʔta/).


Mohawk expresses a large number of pronominal distinctions: person (1st, 2nd, 3rd), number (singular, dual, plural), gender (masculine, feminine/indefinite, feminine/neuter) and inclusivity/exclusivity on the first person dual and plural. Pronominal information is encoded in prefixes on the verbs; separate pronoun words are used for emphasis. There are three main paradigms of pronominal prefixes: subjective (with dynamic verbs), objective (with stative verbs), and transitive.

Current number of speakers

In 1994, there were approximately 3,000 speakers of Mohawk, primarily in Quebec, Ontario and western New York.[6] Immersion (monolingual) classes for young children at Akwesasne and other reserves are helping to train new first-language speakers.[7] Kahnawake and Kanatsiohareke offer immersion classes for adults.[8][9] By 2006, less than 300 people in Canada (Quebec and Ontario) had any knowledge of the language. About 250 of these lived off-reserve in urban areas.[4]

Alexander Graham Bell

The Scottish scientist Alexander Graham Bell, one of the inventors of the telephone, was greatly interested in the human voice, and when he discovered the Six Nations Reserve across the river at Onondaga, he learned the Mohawk language and translated its then unwritten vocabulary into Visible Speech symbols. For his work, Bell was awarded the title of Honorary Chief and participated in a ceremony where he donned a Mohawk headdress and danced traditional dances.[10]

In popular culture

Mohawk dialogue features prominently in Ubisoft Montreal's 2012 action-adventure open world video game Assassin's Creed III, through the game's main character, the half-Mohawk, half-English Ratonhnhaké:ton (; "ra-doon-ha-GAY-doon"), also called Connor, and members of his native Kanièn:ke village around the times of the American revolution. Ratonhnhaké:ton was voiced and modelled by Crow actor Noah Bulaagawish Watts. Hiawatha, the leader of the Iroquoian civilization in Sid Meier's Civilization V, voiced by Kanentokon Hemlock, speaks modern Mohawk.

Learning Mohawk

Six Nations Polytechnic in Ohsweken, Ontario, offers Ogwehoweh language Diploma and Degree Programs in Mohawk or Cayuga.[11]

Resources are available for self-study of Mohawk by a person with no or limited access to native speakers of Mohawk. Here is a collection of some resources currently available:

  • Talk Mohawk, an iPhone app and Android app, includes words, phrases, and the Thanksgiving Address from Monica Peters and updated for 2014 through [12]
  • Rosetta Stone levels 1 and 2 (CD-ROM) edited by Frank and Carolee Jacobs and produced by the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center at Kahnawà:ke (secondary/high school level)
  • David Kanatawakhon Maracle, Kanyen'keha Tewatati (Let's Speak Mohawk), ISBN 0-88432-723-X (book and 3 companion tapes are available from Audio Forum) (high school/college level)
  • Nancy Bonvillain, A Grammar of Akwesasne Mohawk (professional level)
  • Nancy Bonvillain and Beatrice Francis, Mohawk-English, English-Mohawk Dictionary, 1971, University of the State of New York in Albany (word lists, by category)
  • Chris W. Harvey, Sathahitáhkhe' Kanien'kéha (Introductory Level Mohawk Language Textbook, Eastern Dialect), ISBN 0-9683814-2-1 (high school/college level)
  • Josephine S. Horne, Kanien'kéha Iakorihonnién:nis (book and 5 companion CDs are available from Kahnawà:ke Cultural Center) (secondary/high school level)
  • Nora Deering & Helga Harries Delisle, Mohawk: A Teaching Grammar (book and 6 companion tapes are available from Kahnawà:ke Cultural Center) (high school/college level)
  • On October 8, 2013, "Daryl Kramp, Member of Parliament (Prince Edward-Hastings), on behalf of the Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, today announced support for the Tsi Kionhnheht Ne Onkwawenna Language Circle (TKNOLC) to develop Mohawk language-learning tools."[13]


  1. ^ Mohawk at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Mohawk". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ a b Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 97-558-XCB2006015
  5. ^ "Mohawk Language Standardization Project", Kanienkehaka
  6. ^ Moseley, Christopher and R. E. Asher, ed. Atlas of World Languages (New York: ROutelege, 1994) p. 7
  7. ^ Tanya Lee (2012-07-29). "Ambitious and Controversial School Attempts to Save the Mohawk Language and Culture". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  8. ^ Sam Slotnick. "Learning More Than a Language : Intensive Kanien’kéha Course a Powerful Link for Mohawk Community". The Link: Concordia's Independent Newspaper Sonce 1980. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  9. ^ Kay Olan (2011-06-16). "Kanatsiohareke, Language and Survival". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  10. ^ Groundwater, Jennifer. Alexander Graham Bell: The Spirit of Invention. Calgary: Altitude Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-55439-006-0; p. 35.
  11. ^ Six Nations Polytechnic
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Member of Parliament Daryl Kramp Announces Support for Mohawk Language". Digital Journal. Retrieved 2013-10-24. 

External links

  • Kanehsatake Voices, online lessons, Bilingual Mohawk course in English and French
  •, Mohawk language mobile apps
  • Mohawk - English Dictionary, Websters Online Dictionary
  • Mohawk language, alphabet and pronunciation, Omniglot
  • Marianne Mithun, "A grammar sketch of Mohawk", Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française, Quebec (French)
  • List of Mohawk language resources
  • Mohawk Language Texts, from the Boston Athenæum: Schoolcraft Collection of Books in Native American Languages. Digital Collection.
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