Cheyenne language

Native to United States
Region Montana and Oklahoma
Ethnicity Cheyenne
Native speakers
2,100 (2007)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2 chy
ISO 639-3 chy
Glottolog chey1247[2]

The Cheyenne language Tsėhésenėstsestȯtse or, in easier spelling, Tsisinstsistots, is the Native American language spoken by the Cheyenne people, predominantly in present-day Montana and Oklahoma in the United States. It is part of the Algonquian language family. Like all Algonquian languages, it has complex agglutinative morphology.


Cheyenne is one of the Algonquian languages, which is a sub-category of the Algic languages. Specifically, it is a Plains Algonquian language. However, Plains Algonquian, which also includes Arapaho and Blackfoot, is an areal rather than genetic subgrouping.

Geographic distribution

Tipi parts in Cheyenne

Cheyenne is spoken on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana and in Oklahoma. At the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, where as of March 2013, there were approximately 10,050 enrolled tribal members, of which about 4,939 resided on the reservation ; slightly more than a quarter of the population five years or older spoke a language other than English.[3]

Current Status

The Cheyenne language is considered a "definitely endangered" in Montana, and "critically endangered" in Oklahoma by the UNESCO.[4] Classes in the Cheyenne language are available at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Montana,[5] at Southwestern Oklahoma State University,[6] and at Watonga High School, in Watonga, Oklahoma,[7]


Cheyenne phonology is quite simple. While there are only three basic vowels, they can be pronounced in three ways: high pitch (e.g. á), low pitch (e.g. a), and voiceless (e.g. ė).[8] The high and low pitches are phonemic, while vowel devoicing is governed by environmental rules, making voiceless vowels allophones of the voiced vowels. The phoneme /h/ is realized as [s] in the environment between /e/ and /t/ (h > s / e _ t). /h/ is realized as [ʃ] between [e] and [k] (h > ʃ / e _ k) i.e. /nahtóna/ nȧhtona 'alien', /nehtóna/ nėstona 'your daughter', /hehke/ heške 'his mother'. The digraph ‘ts’ represents assibilated /t/; a phonological rule of Cheyenne is that underlying /t/ becomes affricated before an /e/ (t > ts/_e). Therefore, ‘ts’ is not a separate phoneme, but an allophone of /t/. The sound [x] is not a phoneme, but derives from other phonemes, including /ʃ/ (when /ʃ/ precedes or follows a non-front vowel, /a/ or /o/), and the past tense morpheme /h/ which is pronounced [x] when it precedes a morpheme which starts with /h/.

The Cheyenne orthography of 14 letters is neither a pure phonemic system nor a phonetic transcription; it is, in the words of linguist Wayne Leman, a "pronunciation orthography". In other words, it is a practical spelling system designed to facilitate proper pronunciation. Some allophonic variants, such as voiceless vowels, are shown. e represents not the phoneme /e/, but is usually pronounced as a phonetic [ɪ] and sometimes varies to [ɛ]. š represents /ʃ/.

Bilabial Dental Postalveolar Velar Glottal
Stop p t k ʔ
Fricative v s ʃ (x) h
Nasal m n
Front Central Back
Non-low e o
Low a


Cheyenne has 14 orthographic letters composed of 13 phonemes, several of which can be devoiced. ([x] is written as x orthographically but is not a phoneme.) Devoicing naturally occurs in the last vowel of a word or phrase. It can also occur in vowels at the penultimate and prepenultimate positions within a word. Non-high [a] and [o] is also usually devoiced preceding h plus a stop. Phonemic /h/ is absorbed by a preceding voiceless vowel. Examples are given below

Penultimate Devoicing

Devoicing occurs when certain vowels directly precede the consonants [t], [s], [ʃ], [k], or [x] that is itself followed by an [e]. This rule is linked to the rule of e-Epenthesis, which simply states that [e] appears in the environment of a consonant and a word boundary.[9]

Prepenultimate Devoicing

A vowel that does not have a high pitch is devoiced if it is followed by a voiceless fricative and not preceded by [h].[9]

Special [a] and [o] Devoicing

Non-high [a] and [o] become at least partially devoiced when they are preceded by a voiced vowel and followed by an [h], a consonant and two or more syllables.[10]

Consonant Devoicing

émane [ímaṅi] ‘He is drinking.’

When preceding a voiceless segment, a consonant is devoiced.[10]


The [h] is absorbed when preceded or followed by voiceless vowels.[11]


There are several rules that govern pitch use in Cheyenne. Pitch can be ˊ = high, unmarked = low, ˉ = mid, and ˆ = raised high.


A high pitch becomes a raised high when it is not followed by another high vowel and precedes an underlying word-final high.[12]

Low-to-High Raising

A low vowel is raised to the high position when it precedes a high and is followed by a word final high.[12]

Low-to-Mid Raising

A low vowel becomes a mid when it is followed by a word-final high but not directly followed by a high vowel.[12]

High Push-Over

A high vowel becomes low if it comes before a high and followed by a phonetic low.[12]

Word-Medial High-Raising

According to Leman, "some verbal prefixes and preverbs go through the process of Word-Medial High-Raising. A high is raised if it follows a high (which is not a trigger for the High Push-Over rule) and precedes a phonetic low. One or more voiceless syllables may come between the two highs. (A devoiced vowel in this process must be underlyingly low, not an underlyingly high vowel which has been devoiced by the High-Pitch Devoicing rule.)” [13]


Cheyenne represents the participants of an expression not as separate pronoun words but as affixes on the verb. Its pronominal system uses typical Algonquian distinctions: three grammatical persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd) plus obviated 3rd (3', also known as 4th person[14]), two numbers (singular, plural), animacy (animate and inanimate) and inclusivity and exclusivity on the first person plural. The 3' (obviative) person is an elaboration of the third; it is an "out of focus" third person. When there are two or more third persons in an expression, one of them will become obviated. If the obviated entity is an animate noun, it will be marked with an obviative suffix, typically -o or -óho. Verbs register the presence of obviated participants whether or not they are present as nouns.

Pronominal affixes

There are three basic pronominal prefixes in Cheyenne:

These three basic prefixes can be combined with various suffixes to express all of Cheyenne's pronominal distinctions. For example, the prefix ná- can be combined on a verb with the suffix -me to express the first person plural exclusive ("we, not including you"), as with nátȧhpetáme, "we.EXCL are big."

Historical development

Cheyenne catechism page 9

Like all the Algonquian languages, Cheyenne developed from a reconstructed ancestor referred to as Proto-Algonquian (often abbreviated "PA"). The sound changes on the road from PA to modern Cheyenne are complex, as exhibited by the development of the PA word *erenyiwa "man" into Cheyenne hetane:


Some Cheyenne words (with the Proto-Algonquian reconstructions where known):


Early work was done on the Cheyenne language by Rodolphe Charles Petter, a Mennonite missionary based in Lame Deer, Montana, from 1916.[15] Petter published a mammoth dictionary of Cheyenne in 1915.[16]


  1. Cheyenne at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Cheyenne". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Northern Cheyenne Tribe website
  4. "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger". Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  5. "Course Descriptions: Cheyenne Studies". Chief Dull Knife College. Retrieved 2013-01-06.
  6. "Southwestern Oklahoma State University - Course Availability". Retrieved 2013-01-06.
  7. Rebecka Lyman (2012-10-15). "Keeping Cheyenne Language Alive" (PDF). Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune. Retrieved 2013-01-06.
  8. There are also two other variants of the phonemic pitches: the mid (e.g. ā) and raised-high pitches (e.g. ô). These are often not represented in writing, although there are standard diacritics to indicate all of them. Linguist Wayne Leman included one more variant in his International Journal of American Linguistics (1981) article on Cheyenne pitch rules, a lowered-high pitch (e.g. à), but has since recognized that this posited pitch is the same as a low pitch.
  9. 1 2 Leman, 1979, Cheyenne Grammar Notes p. 215
  10. 1 2 Leman, 1979, Cheyenne Grammar Notes p. 218
  11. Leman, 1979, Cheyenne Grammar Notes p. 217
  12. 1 2 3 4 Leman, 1979, Cheyenne Grammar Notes p. 219
  13. Leman, 1979, Cheyenne Grammar Notes p. 220
  14. Semiotics, Self, and Society, edited by Benjamin Lee, Greg Urban
  15. "Petter, Rodolphe Charles (1865-1947)" Archived June 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, accessed September 20, 2009
  16. "Petter, 1915, English-Cheyenne Dictionary.


Cheyenne edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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