Powhatan language

Region Eastern Virginia
Southern Maryland
Ethnicity Powhatan
Extinct Late 18th century (1785- 1790s)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pim
Glottolog powh1243[1]

Powhatan or Virginia Algonquian is an extinct language belonging to the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian languages. It was spoken by the Powhatan people of tidewater Virginia. It became extinct around the 1790s after speakers were forced under duress to speak English.[2][3] The sole documentary evidence for this language is two short wordlists recorded around the time of first European contact. William Strachey recorded about 500 words and Captain John Smith recorded only about 50 words.[4][5] Smith also reported the existence of a pidgin form of Powhatan, but virtually nothing is known of it.[6] Like many Algonquian languages, Powhatan did not have a writing system, so all that is left are the recordings from the 17th century and the piecing together that can be done using related Algonquian languages.

Strachey’s material was collected sometime between 1610 and 1611, and probably written up from his notes in 1612 and 1613, after he had returned to England. It was never published in his lifetime, although he made a second copy in 1618. The second copy was published in 1849, and the first in 1955.[5] Smith’s material was collected between 1607 and 1609 and published in 1612 and again in 1624. There is no indication of the location where he collected his material. In 1975, Frank Siebert, a linguist specializing in Algonquian languages, published a book-length study claiming the "reconstitution" of the phonology of the language.

Although the language had become extinct, some of the tribes that were part of the Powhatan chiefdom still remain close to their lands. These tribes include Nansemond, Chickahominy, Pamunkey and Patawomeck, all of whom are recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although there are clear efforts to reclaim their culture, recultivation of their language is not at the forefront of their campaign. There is also the Powhatan Renape Nation located on the Rankokus Indian Reservation in Burlington, New Jersey that is working to reclaim their culture and educate the public.



This table is based on the reconstruction that was done by Frank T. Siebert in his reconstruction of the language. He used the notes of John Smith but mostly the work of William Strachey in the 1600s. Siebert also used his knowledge of the patterns of other Algonquian languages in determining the meaning of Strachey's notes. This table not only used the practical symbols, but also the IPA symbols, which are in parenthesis.

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
Stop p [p] t [t] k [k]
Affricate č [tʃ]
Fricative s [s] h [h]
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Tap r [ɾ]
Glide w [w] y [j]


Siebert gives a very simplified table in his work with very little indication of whether a tone is high or low, but based on standard IPA, we can assume that "i" is high, "e" and "o" is mid and "a" is Low. He also mentions that the short "a" and "e" are weak vowels. As seen in the Constant chart, Sibert's original lettering and the IPA symbols are both represented in this chart with the IPA symbols in parenthesis.

Front Central Back
High [iː], i [j]
Mid [ɛː],e [ɛ] [oː], o [ʊ]
Low a [ʌ] [aː]

Syllable Structure

Siebert does not specifically go over the structure of syllables, but using the lexicon and examples that he does provide, the patterns can be determined. There is a wide use of the CVC pattern as well as the CVːC. There is also allowance to have two CVC patterns together.


The Powhatan language uses syncope to determine the stressed syllable in words, more specifically the syncopation of weak vowels, /a/ and /e/. Syllable weight is determined based on whether or not the first syllable contains a weak vowel. If it does, then even numbered syllables are heavy and odd numbered syllables are light. For example, /nepass/, which means sun, would be pronounced /ne|PASS/. If the word starts with a strong vowel, then it is the opposite, with the even numbered syllables being light and the odd numbered syllables being heavy. For example, /wiːngan/, which means good, would be pronounced /WIːN|gan/.

There are two kinds of syncope: major and minor. Major syncopation happens in morphemes that are three or more syllables in the middle of the word. This especially happens in light syllables ending in /s/ or /h/. Some examples of this are in the words spoon and broom. "Spoon" would be pronounced /eː | MEH | koːn/, but with major syncopation, it is pronounced /eːm | KOːN/. For "broom", it would pronounced /ČIː | keh | KAHI | kan/, but with the syncopation, it ends up /ČIːK| kahi | KAN/. Notice that the last example is a prime example of the light syllable that ends in /h/ being syncopated.

Minor syncopation tends to be optionally and only seen is specific dialects. Syllable weight is not a factor and instead it depends on if the word begins with /m/ or /n/ or ends with an /s/ or a cluster including /s/ such as /sk/. An example of this is in the word for five which would be pronounced /pa | REːN | eskw / and is instead pronounced as /pa | REːN| esk/ or /pa|REːN| sk/.

Historical Phonological Changes

Based on his work to reconstruct Powhatan, Siebert was able to compare the changes that the language might have made compared to Proto-Algonquian and Proto-Eastern Algonquian. Here are three of the most basic changes his research pinpointed:

All syllabic phonemes are the same in between Proto-Eastern Algonquian and Powhatan and the only change between those two and Proto-Algonquian is that word initial /ɛ/ became an /a/ in Powhatan and Proto-Eastern Algonquian. Ex: PA /ɛšpeːwi/ 'it is high' → /aspeːw/

Word final vowels are deleted if they are preceded by a consonant between Proto-Algonquian and Powhatan. Ex: PA /myeːneθki/ 'earthwork' → /meːnesk/

Powhatan drops the difference between /s/ and /š/ that is found in Proto-Algonquian. Similarly, PA /l/ becomes a /r/ in Powhatan, unless it in a word final position of a particle or inflectional morphemes, where it is deleted. Furthermore PA /θ/ becomes a /t/. Ex: PA /šiːˀšiːpa/ 'duck' → /siːssiːp/ ; PA /leːkawi/ 'sand' → /reːkaw/ ; PA /aθemwehša/ 'little dog' → /atemoss/



In Powhatan, nouns take inflective affixes depending on their class. There seems affixes only added to 3rd person noun. These nouns are not only categorized as singular and plural, but also animate and inanimate. For the animate group there are the Proximate and Obviative classes. This is quite common for Algonquian languages. The singular proximate class receives no affix, while the plural receives an /-ak/ suffix. For the obviative class, there is no distinction between singular and plural, both receiving an /-ah/ suffix. Finally, for inanimate nouns, singulars receive no suffix and plurals receive an /-as/ suffix.


Powhatan has 6 affixes for naming items diminutively. These affixes function by a rule of internal sandhi. The last ending in the list is the most commonly seen diminutive. The following are the affixes themselves:


There are 3 types of verb affixes of the Powhatan language, all of which are inflective. Powhatan is a language that follows an agglutinative pattern. Although it might have lost some of its strict rule, there is a clear pattern where the indication of person is pretty consistent regardless of the type or class of verb.

Animate Intransitive Independent (AI) Verbs

The chart below presents the affixes taken by Animate Intransitive Verbs. The first and second singular persons usually take the /ne-/ prefix, unless the verb ends with a long "a", /aː/, in which case it takes a /ne-m/ circumfix. In the plural, 1st person has 2 forms, 'we' inclusive and 'we' exclusive.

Animate Intransitive Indicative
1 /ne-/ /ne-m/
2 /ke-/ /ke-m/
3 /-w/
1p ( 'we' exclusive) /ne-men/
1 ('we' inclusive) /ke-men/
2p /ke-moːw/
3p /-wak/

Transitive Inanimate Independent Indicative

The second group of verbs is for Inanimate Transitive Verbs. These verbs only have singular subjects, but that does not prevent them from having a singular and plural form. These verbs also fall into 3 different classes of their own and well as two negative forms.

Person Classes
1 EX. /taːhteːh/ "to extinguish it" 2 EX. /peːt/ "to bring it " 3 EX. /nam/ "to see it"
1st singularː /ne-amen/ /netaːhteːhamen/ "I extinguish it" /ne-aːn/ /nepeːtaːn/ "I bring" /ne-en/ /nenamen/ "I see it"
2nd singular /ke-amen/ /ketaːhteːhamen/ "you extinguish it" /ke-aːn/ /kepeːtaːn/ "you bring" ke-en/ /kenamen/ you see it"
3 singular /o-amen/ /otaːhteːhamen/ "he extinguishes it" /-oːw/ /peːtoːw/ he brings" o-men/ /onammen/ "he sees it"
1st plural /-amena/ /taːhteːhamena/ "we extinguish it" /-aːna/ /peːtaːna/ "we bring" /-ena/ / namena/ "we see it"
2 plural /-amena/ /taːhteːhamena/ "you all extinguish it" /-aːna/ /peːtaːna/ "you all bring" /-ena/ / namena/ "you all see it"
3rd plural /-amena/ /taːhteːhamena/ "they extinguish it" - /-ena / namena/ "they see it"
Transitve Inanimate Negatives
Person Class 1 Class 3
1st /ne-amoːwen/ /ne-oːwen/
2nd /ke-amoːmen/ /ke-oːwen/
3rd /o-amoːwen/ /o-oːwen/

Transitive Animate

This class of verb is used to express action done to other people and things. Notice the hierarchy that occurs, especially in the 1st singular form with a 2nd singular object. When referring an I to you relationship, like /koːwamaːnes/ 'I love you', an variant of the 2nd person prefix, /ko-/ is used instead of the 1st person /ne-/ prefix even though "I" is the subject.

Person Relationship Affix
1st sing. - 3rd sing /ne-aːw/ /nemeraːmaːw/ "I smell him"
2nd sing - 3rd sing /ke-aːw/ /kemoːnasːw/ "you cut his hair"
1st sing - 2nd sing /ke-es/ /koːwamaːnes/ "I love you"
Negative 1st sing - 2nd sing /ke-eroːw/


Possibly due to the fact that Siebert's research was more focused on reconstructing Powhatan for the purpose of comparing it to Proto-Algonquian or because the notes of Smith and Strachey do not lend themselves to analyzing it, syntax is not discussed in Siebert's research nor are there any examples of what sentences might have been like. However, by looking at other languages in the same family as Powhatan, some basic patterns can be established:

It has been established that Powhatan is considered an agglutinative language, meaning that morphemes can be added on to words to communicate more descriptive meanings. This happens especially in verbs, allowing one long word to basically represent a whole sentence. This almost eliminates the importance of word order.

Other languages in the Algonquian family are marked with Obviative/Proximate endings, which clarify the subjects of focus, especially in telling stories.

There is not enough data recorded to put together a definite list of the imperatives, but Strachey documents imperatives being used. Therefore, using those lists and what is known about Proto-Eastern Algonquian, a tentative list can be created. Some examples of these imperatives are as follows: /pasekwiːs/ " arise you!" ; /pyaːk/ "come you all!" ; /ontenass/ "you take it away from there!" ; /miːčiːs/ "you eat it!" ; /miːčiːk/ "you all eat it!" ;

Person Animate Transitive Class 1 Transitve Class 3
2nd Singular /-s/ /-ass/ /-s/
2nd Plural /-ek/ */-amok/ /-ek/

Finally, as explained in the transitive animate verbs section, there are circumstance of animacy hierarchy with direct objects in Powhatan. Instead of the hierarchy going 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person, there is a pattern of 2nd person, 1st person, 3rd person. For example, to say "I strike him" it would be /nepakamaːw/, where the /ne-/ prefix for 1st person is first and the /-aːw/ for 3rd person is at the end. However to say something like " I feed you", it would be /keassakmes/ with the /ke-/ prefix for 2nd person at the beginning and a different /-es/ suffix for 1st person at the end. This might be a result of a practice of respect for others before oneself. "It is one of the few languages that give greater importance to the listener than the speaker," Dr. Blair Rudes, the linguist that worked on reconstructing the language for the movie The New World, remarked in an interview.

Dialect variation

Siebert's 1975 study also examined evidence for dialect variation. He found insufficient justification for assigning any apparent dialects to particular areas.[7][8] Strachey’s material reflects considerable lexical variation and minor phonological variation, suggesting the existence of dialect differentiation. A speculative connection to the Chickahominy and Pamunkey Virginia Algonquian tribes has been suggested, but there is no evidence to support this link.[5]

The table below gives a sample of words reflecting lexical variation. Each word is given as written by Smith or Strachey, followed by a proposed phonemic representation.[9]

Powhatan Words Representing Two Dialects
English Dialect A Orthographic Dialect A Transcription Dialect B Orthographic Dialect B Transcription
sun keshowghes, keshowse /ki·so·ss/ nepausche /nepass/
roe woock /wa·hk/ vsecān /osi·ka·n/
copper osawas /osa·wa·ss/ matassun, matassin /matassen/
he is asleep nuppawv̄, nepauū /nepe·w/ kawwiu /kawi·w/
(his) thigh apome /opo·m/ wÿkgwaus /wi·kkway/
arrow attonce /ato·ns/ asgweowan /askwiwa·n/
muskrat osasqaws /ossaskwe·ss/ mosskwacus /mossaskwe·ss/
raccoon aroughcan /a·re·hkan/ esepannauk (plural) /e·sepan/

Powhatan loan words in English

Siebert credited Powhatan with being the source of more English loans than any other indigenous language.[3] Most such words were likely borrowed very early, probably before Powhatan—English conflict arose in 1622. Among these words are: chinquapin (Castanea pumila), chum (as in chumming), hickory, hominy, matchcoat, moccasin, muskrat, opossum, persimmon, pokeweed, pone (as in corn pone), raccoon, terrapin, tomahawk, and wicopy.[3]

Reconstruction for the The New World

For the film The New World (2005), which tells the story of the English colonization of Virginia and encounter with the Powhatan, Blair Rudes made a tentative reconstruction of the language "as it might have been." A specialist in the American Indian languages of North Carolina and Virginia, he used the Strachey and Smith wordlists, as well as the vocabularies and grammars of other Algonquian languages and the sound correspondences that appear to obtain between them and Powhatan. More specifically, he used a Bible translated into Massachusett to piece together grammar and Proto-Algonquian to compare the words in Smith and Strachey's records. [4][10]

See also

Distribution of Carolina Algonquian speaking peoples


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Powhatan". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Mithun 1999, p. 332.
  3. 1 2 3 Siebert 1975, p. 290.
  4. 1 2 Lovgren 2006.
  5. 1 2 3 Siebert 1975, p. 291.
  6. Campbell 2000, p. 20.
  7. Siebert 1975, pp. 295–296.
  8. Feest 1978, p. 253.
  9. Siebert 1975.
  10. Rudes, Blair A. 2011. "In the Words of Powhatan: Translation across Space and Time for 'The New World'", In Born in the Blood: On Native American Translation, edited by Brian Swann.


External links

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