Mohawk language

This article is about the language spoken by the Mohawk people. For other uses, see Mohawk.
Mohawk language
Pronunciation [ɡɑ.njʌ̃ʔ.ˈɡɛ.ha]
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
Language codes
ISO 639-2 moh
ISO 639-3 moh
Glottolog moha1258[2]

current distribution of Mohawk speakers in the United States.

Mohawk /ˈmhɔːk/[3] (Mohawk: Kanien’kéha [ɡa.njʌ̃ʔ.ˈɡe.ha] "[language] of the Flint Place") is an endangered Iroquoian language currently spoken by around 3,500 people of the Mohawk nation in the United States (mainly western and northern New York) and Canada (southern Ontario and Quebec).


The word "Mohawk" is an exonym. In the Mohawk language, the people say that they are from Kanien'kehá:ka or "Flint Stone Place". As such, the Mohawks were extremely wealthy traders as other nations in their confederacy needed their flint for tool making. Their Algonquian-speaking neighbors (and competitors), the People of Muh-heck Heek Ing (Food Area Place), a people whom the Dutch called "Mohicans" or "Mahicans", called the People of Ka-nee-en Ka "Maw Unk Lin" or Bear People. The Dutch heard and wrote this as "Mohawks". This is why the People of Kan-ee-en Ka are often referred to as Mohawks. The Dutch also referred to the Mohawk as Egils or Maquas. The French adapted these terms as Aigniers, Maquis, or called them by the generic Iroquois, which is a French derivation of the Algonquian term for the Five Nations: Snake People.


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.

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.[4]

Current status

Mohawk language stop sign.

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.

A Mohawk language immersion school was established.[5] Mohawk parents, concerned with the lack of culture-based education in public and parochial schools, founded the Akwesasne Freedom School in 1979. Six years later, the school implemented a Mohawk language immersion curriculum based on a traditional cycle of fifteen seasonal ceremonies, and on the Mohawk Thanksgiving Address, or Ohén:ton Karihwatékwen, "The words before all else." Every morning, teachers and students gather in the hallway to recite the Thanksgiving Address in Mohawk.[6]

Kanatsiohareke (Gah-nah-jo-ha-lay-gay) is a small Mohawk/Kanienkahaka community on the north bank of the Mohawk River, west of Fonda, New York. The name means "Place of the clean pot."[1] Kanatsiohareke was created to be a "Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Reverse", teaching Mohawk language and culture.[2] Located at the ancient homeland of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), it was re-established in September 1993 under the leadership of Thomas R. Porter (Sakokwenionkwas-"The One Who Wins").[3] The community must raise their own revenue and frequently hold cultural presentations, workshops, and academic events, including an annual Strawberry Festival.[4] A craft shop on site features genuine handmade Native crafts from all over Turtle Island (North America).

The primary mission of the community is to try to preserve traditional values, culture, language and lifestyles in the guidance of the Kaienerekowa (Great Law of Peace).[5] Kanatsiohareke, Inc. is a non-profit organization under IRS code 501c3.

In 2006, over 600 people were reported to speak the language in Canada, many of them elderly.[7]

Current number of speakers

In 2011, there were approximately 3,500 speakers of Mohawk, primarily in Quebec, Ontario and western New York.[8][9] Immersion (monolingual) classes for young children at Akwesasne and other reserves are helping to train new first-language speakers.[10] Kahnawake and Kanatsiohareke offer immersion classes for adults.[11][12] 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.[7]

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 (/ˈrədnhəɡˈdn/; "ra-doon-ha-gai-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.


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]


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.

Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal n
Plosive t k ʔ
Affricate d͡ʒ
Fricative s h
Approximant l j w
Rhotic r

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   i
Mid e ʌ̃ o
Low   a  

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


A warning sign in Mohawk

Mohawk expresses a number of distinctions on its pronominal elements: 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.

There are three core components to the Mohawk proposition: the noun, the predicate, and the particle.[13]

Mohawk words can be composed of many morphemes. It should be noted that what is expressed in English in many words can often be expressed by just one Mohawk word ("polysynthesis").

Nouns [13][14]

Nouns are given the following form in Mohawk,

Nominal Prefix Noun Stem Nominal Suffix

Noun prefixes give information relating to gender, animacy, number and person, and identify the word as a noun.

For example:

1) o'nenste "corn"

2) oien'kwa "tobacco"

Here, the prefix o- is generally found on nouns found in natural environments. Another prefix exists which marks objects that are made by humans.

3) kanhoha "door"

4) ka'khare "slip, skirt"

Here, the prefix ka- is generally found on manmade things. Phonological variation amongst the Mohawk dialects also gives rise to the prefix ga- to generally denote human made objects.

Noun roots are similar to nouns in English in that the noun root in Mohawk and the noun in English have similar meanings.


5) –eri- "heart"

6) –hi- "river"

7) –itshat- "cloud"

These noun roots are bare. There is no information other than the noun root itself. It should be noted that morphemes can not occur individually. That is, to be well-formed and grammatical, -eri- needs pronominal prefixes, or the root can be incorporated into a predicate phrase.

Nominal suffixes aren't necessary for a well-formed noun phrase. The suffixes give information relating to location and attributes. For example:

Locative Suffix:

8) i. onu'ta' "hill"

ii. onuta'ke "on the hill"

9) i. onekwvhsa' "blood"

ii. onekwvhsa'ke "in the blood"

Here the suffix < -ke > denotes location.

Attributive Suffix:

10) kvjy' "fish"

11) kvja'ko'wa "sturgeon" or "big fish"

Here, the suffix -ko'wa denotes an augmentative suffix, which increases the attribute of the noun in question.

Verbs [13][14]

Mohawk verbs are one of the more complex parts of the language, composed of many morphemes that describe grammatical relations. The verb takes the following structure:

Pre-Pronominal Prefix Pronominal Prefix Reflexive And Reciprocal Particle Incorporated Noun Root Verb Root Suffixes

Mohawk grammar allows for whole propositions to be expressed by one word, which we classify as a verb. The other core elements (subjects, objects, etc.) can be incorporated into the verb. Well-formed verb phrases contain at the bare minimum a verb root and a pronominal prefix. The rest of the elements are not necessary.

Tense, aspect and modality are expressed via suffixes on the verb phrase as well.

Some examples:

12) katorats "I hunt"


I-hunt-habitual ASP

This is composed of three parts; the pronominal prefix, the verb root and a suffix which marks aspect. Mohawk seems to prefer aspect markers to tense to express grammaticalisation in time.

13) nya'tsvshayaya'ke' "…where he will cross over again from here to there…"


partitive-translocative-dualic-future-iterative-Noun-verb root-suffix

"Where over here to there will again he cross.."

This example shows multiple prefixes that can be affixed to the verb root, but certain affixes are forbidden from coexisting together. For example, the aorist and the future tense affix will not be found on the same well-formed sentence.

14) vsenatara' "You will make a visit"


future tense+ nominative pronoun + verb root + momentary ASP suffix

15) asenatara' "You should make a visit"


conditional mood prefix + nominative pronoun + verb root + momentary suffix

16) sanatahrune' "You were visiting"


Accusative Pronoun + verb root + stative suffix + momentary suffix

Here, different prefixes and suffixes are used that mark tense, aspect and modality.

Most grammatical relations in Mohawk are expressed through various different affixes unto a verb. Subjects, objects, and relationships between subjects and objects are given their own affixes. In Mohawk, each transitive relationship between subjects and objects are given their own prefix. For example:

17) a: ku-noruhkwa

I-you + love

"I love you"

b: ri-noruhkwa

I-him + love

"I love him"

c: ke-noruhkwa

I-it/her + love

"I love it/her"

Each of these affixes are denoting a transitive relationship between two things There are more affixes for denoting transitive relationships like "we-they", they-us (inclusive/exclusive), etc.

Noun incorporation[13][14]

One of the features of Mohawk called noun incorporation allows a verb to absorb a noun into it. When incorporation happens, an epenthetic a can appear between the noun root and the verb root. For example:

18) Owira'a wahrake' ne o'wahru

Baby ate the meat

With noun incorporation:

19) Owira'a waha'wahrake'

Baby meat-ate

20) Wa'eksohare' "She dish-washed" ks = dish, ohare=wash

21) Wa'kenaktahninu' "I bed-bought" nakt=bed + a (increment) + hninu=buy

22) Wahana'tarakwetare' "He bread-cut" Na'tar=bread + a (increment) + kwetar=cut

Most of these examples take the epenthetic vowel a; it can be omitted if the incorporated noun doesn't give rise a complex consonant cluster in the middle of the word.


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.[15] 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 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.

Learning Mohawk

Six Nations Polytechnic in Ohsweken, Ontario, offers Ogwehoweh language Diploma and Degree Programs in Mohawk or Cayuga.[16]

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:


  1. Mohawk language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Mohawk". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. Groundwater, Jennifer. Alexander Graham Bell: The Spirit of Invention. Calgary: Altitude Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-55439-006-0; p. 35.
  7. 1 2 Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 97-558-XCB2006015
  8. Moseley, Christopher and R. E. Asher, ed. Atlas of World Languages (New York: Routelege, 1994) p. 7
  9. "Mohawk". Ethnologue. Retrieved Jan 26, 2016.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Kay Olan (2011-06-16). "Kanatsiohareke, Language and Survival". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved 2013-02-08.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Bonvillain, Nancy (1973). A Grammar Of Awkwesasne Mohawk. National Museum of Man, National Museums of Canada.
  14. 1 2 3 Michelson, Günther (1973). A Thousand Words Of Mohawk. National Museum of Man, National Museums Of Canada.
  15. "Mohawk Language Standardization Project", Kanienkehaka
  16. Six Nations Polytechnic
  18. "Member of Parliament Daryl Kramp Announces Support for Mohawk Language". Digital Journal. Retrieved 2013-10-24.
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