Language Information

This site is developed by a former Linguistics MA student, Ryan Denzer-King. Genral information of sounds and grammatical structure in the language is provided.

Ryan Denzer-King
Ryan Denzer-King

Overview

Blackfoot is an Algonquian language spoken primarily in Alberta and Montana. There are approximately 5000 speakers in Canada, and another 100 in Montana (Gordon 2005). Blackfoot is an endangered language, as it is no longer common for children to learn the language. There are four dialects of Blackfoot: There are four dialects of Blackfoot: Siksiká (Blackfoot), to the southeast of Calgary, Aapátohsipikani (Northern Piegan), to the west of Fort MacLeod, Aamsskáápipikani (Southern Piegan), in northwestern Montana, and Kainai (Blood), spoken between Cardston and Lethbridge (Frantz 2009, Frantz & Russell 1995). Besides regional dialectal differences, there is also a distinct difference between Old Blackfoot (also called High Blackfoot), the dialect spoken by many of the older speakers in their 70’s and 80’s, and New Blackfoot (also called Modern Blackfoot), the dialect spoken by many of the current speakers in their 40’s-60’s.

Pronunciation

Consonants

Don Frantz developed a system of writing Blackfoot by working with native speakers, in order to create a system that makes sense for their language. Written Blackfoot is easier to read in many ways than written English, because for the most part each letter is only pronounced one way, so there is no guesswork involved. However, words can still be difficult to pronounce because they are so different from English. Blackfoot has 10 consonants, most of which are pronounced like the English sounds they represent. The table below shows the letters used to write consonants in Blackfoot. The second column shows the sound in a linguistic code called the International Phonetic Alphabet. If you are not familiar with this you can just ignore that column. Note that h and ' represent sounds that are not used in English.

Letter IPA English example Blackfoot example
h x German ich nohkátsi, 'my foot, leg'
k k skid kááhtomi, 'to go to war'
m m moon mokáˈpiiwa, 'bad(ly)'
n n nap námitaihtsiwa, 'there is room, space'
p p spit píítáííkiihtsipimiwa, 'spotted eagle'
s s sit si'ka, 'to kick'
t t stick kakáto'si, 'star'
w w water ikská'siwa, 'to race'
y j yellow áápiikayi, 'skunk'
' ʔ the middle sound in 'uh-oh' mi'ksikátsi, 'duck'

Notes:

Notice that the English examples for the letters p, t, and k show these sounds after an s, not at the beginning of a word. That is because in English these sounds are aspirated. This means that they have a little puff of air after them. Hold a sheet of paper in front of your mouth and compare "pit" with "spit". In "pit" the p has a puff of air, whereas in "spit" it does not. In Blackfoot p, t, and k are always pronounced without this puff of air, just like they are in English when they come after an s.

The letter h in Blackfoot does not represent the same sound as the English letter h. Instead, it represents the sound found in German words such as "Bach" or "ich", or Scottish words such as "loch". The letter ' represents another sound not found in most English words. One example is the sound in the middle of "uh-oh".

Vowels

There are only three letters for vowels in Blackfoot, but as in English sometimes they are pronounced differently depending on what sounds come before or after them. Below are the most common basic sounds for the vowel letters.

Letter IPA English example Blackfoot example
a

a

father tsikatsíí, 'grasshopper'
i

i

machine nitáókaman, 'I beg'
o

o

Spanish no ímmoki'kaa, 'to skate'

Notes:

The letter o in Blackfoot does not represent quite the same sound as o in English. In English, we usually add an "oo" sound (as in "moon") to the end of the letter o, whereas in Blackfoot this does not happen. If you speak Spanish, or know someone who does, compare English "no" with Spanish "no". The o in Spanish is the same as the o in Blackfoot.

In some situations, short i sounds more like the i in “bit” (IPA: ɪ)rather than the i in “machine” (IPA: i). This occurs when i comes before two or more consonants, e.g., iihtáíkahksiststakio'p, 'a saw'. This is true even if it is the same consonant twice in a row: ksikkómahkayii, 'white swan'. If short i comes before one consonant at the end of a word it also sounds like the i in "bit": kaahtsá'tsis, 'a playing card'. However, ts and ks count as single consonants in Blackfoot, so short i does not chance before these clusters. Thus the second i in kawai'piksit, 'open', is like the i in "machine" even though it is before two consonants (because ks counts as one sound), while the third i is like the i in "bit" even though it is before one consonant (because that consonant is the end of the word). This is similar to how English counts "ch" as one sound, even though it is written with two letters.

When short i comes before a single consonant + long s + another consonant, it also still sounds like the i in "machine", though these contexts are rare.

For linguists: short /i/ is tense in open syllables and lax in closed syllables. /ts/ and /ks/ are affricates, and so do not form closed syllables intervocalically. Geminate stops form closed syllables, as do consonant clusters. Recent research (Denzer-King 2009, Derrick 2007) has suggested that Blackfoot has a syllabic /ss/, so CVCssC sequences are parsed as CV.CssC, meaning that when /i/ comes before CssC, it is not laxed, since it does not belong to a closed syllable.

Vowel Combinations

When two different vowels occur together, they often make a different sound than they would separately.

Letter IPA English example Blackfoot example
ai e Italian e aapátohsikainaawa, 'North Bloods'
ao ɔ caught saokiáwákaasi, 'antelope'

Notes:

In Blackfoot we also find the sequence oi. This is not included above because it is pronounced just as it is spelled, as a sequence of o and i. This is pronounced just as in English "boy".

Long Vowels and Long Consonants

In Blackfoot vowels and consonants can be long or short. In English when people talk about short vowels and long vowels they are referring to different sounds, like the "short" o in "hot" versus the "long" o in "moon". However, long vowels in Blackfoot sound exactly the same; the only difference is that they are held longer. Compare the long i sound in siikammi, 'crane' to the short i sound in kamó'siwa, 'to steal'. Consonants can also be long in Blackfoot, except for h and '. Compare the s sounds in sstókimiwa, 'cold water', and i'nákskimiwa, 'a small quantity of water'.

Stress

Blackfoot words usually have one or two vowels which are stressed. As in Spanish or Italian, stress is marked with an accent (´).
 

Sound Changes

Certain sounds in Blackfoot change depending on which sounds are before or after them:

Short vowels after a consonant and before h are whispered instead of being pronounced out loud, e.g., áíkahtsiwa, 'gambler'. Exceptions to this include vowels at the beginning of a word or vowels that are stressed.

Vowels in several common suffixes, including -wa (third person), -istsi (inanimate plural), and -iksi (animate plural), are usually not pronounced. See the Grammar section for more information on how these suffixes are used. In the table below these vowels are enclosed in parentheses to show that they are not usually pronounced.

Suffix Example Meaning
-w(a) kanáítapiwa everybody
-ists(i) iinanistsi leg bones
-iks(i) isttoániksi knives



When an i comes after a consonant and before a vowel, it is pronounced as a y rather than a full vowel, e.g., ká'kiaki, 'I chop'.
 

Grammar

Unlike English, many Blackfoot sentences consist of only a single word. Things like who is doing the action, who they are doing it to, how they are doing it, when they did it, and many other aspects can all be conveyed with prefixes and suffixes rather than separate words or phrases. Because of this, presenting Blackfoot in a way that is useful to English-speaking learners is difficult. We cannot simply talk about "words" for something like we can in English or Spanish, because most Blackfoot words are made up of many parts. Entries in the word list are often presented by root. A root is a part of a word with a basic meaning, that can be used to form many different words. Usually roots do not make any sense by themselves. English roots are different from Blackfoot roots in that many English roots can be used by themselves, for example, we can just say "think". In Blackfoot, on the other hand, you have to say who is doing the action, for instance, "I think" or "you think", because "I" and "you" are not separate words in Blackfoot. They are prefixes that go on the verb to give it meaning. Because of this, the head entries in the word list often will not have any meaning to a native speaker, just as it would not make any sense to say "ing" in English. But when we add it to the end of a verb like "sing", we get a form that makes sense: "singing". Verbs can have many different prefixes and suffixes, but the entries in the word list stick with just a few to make it easier to understand.

Blackfoot nouns and verbs distinguish five different persons. Person is a category that refers to who is performing some action. The sentence "I ate" is 1st person, because the speaker is performing the action. The sentence "you ate" is 2nd person; the listener is performing the action. "He/she ate" is 3rd person; someone who is not involved in the conversation is performing the action. Blackfoot also distinguishes two other non-speech act participants (SAP's) (1st and 2nd person are called speech act participants because they are the ones participating in the conversation). Whereas English only distinguishes one category of non-SAP's, Blackfoot has three: proximate (3rd person), obviative (4th person), and subobviative (5th person). Proximate nouns (or more properly, noun phrases, abbreviated NP's) are more important in the conversation, while obviative NP's are less important. For instance, take the two sentences "The dog chased the cat" and "The cat was chased by the dog". In both sentences the dog is chasing and the cat is being chased. But in the second sentence we are focusing more on what's happening to the cat, rather than what the dog is doing. In Blackfoot, the first sentence would have "dog" as proximate and "cat" as obviative. In the second sentence, "cat" would be proximate and "dog" would be obviative. The subobviative is only used for possessions of obviative NP's. In the sentence "It was the cat that chased the dog's puppy", "cat" would be proximate because it is the focus of the sentence, "dog" would be obviative, and "puppy" would be subobviative, because it is a possession (sometimes called a possessum) of the obviative dog. All Blackfoot nouns have to be marked as 3rd or 4th person (or 5th person if they are a possession). Blackfoot speakers cannot just say ohpoos ('cat'). They must add a 3rd or 4th person suffix: ohpoosa (3rd), ohpoosi (4th).

Like many European languages (German, French, Spanish, Italian), Blackfoot also has gender. Grammatical gender is arbitrary; while it sometimes has some connection to the "real world" gender of the object, often it does not. For instance, in Spanish, as we would expect, "man" is masculine and "woman" is feminine. However, "table" is also feminine, and "watch" is masculine. For these latter nouns there is no reason for them to be those genders. This is why we call this grammatical gender. While Romance languages like Spanish and French have masculine/feminine gender, Blackfoot has animate/inanimate gender. In the real world, people are animate, as are animals. They are capable of moving about on their own, and they have volition (will, desire). Real world inanimate things include rocks, machines, buildings, etc. As in Romance languages, though, Blackfoot grammatical gender does not always match up with real world gender. As we would expect, humans are animates, rocks are inanimate. Just like other languages, however, there are plenty of mismatches. Some plants are animate, while some are inanimate. Some things which are inanimate in the real world are animate in Blackfoot grammatical gender, especially objects which are culturally important. Sometimes size can affect gender: a large rock is "animate", but a small rock is "inanimate". In the dictionary section, animate nouns are marked (A) and inanimate nouns are marked (I). Blackfoot nouns sometimes have a "collective" form. This form is used when multiple objects are viewed as a group rather than individuals. English does this too. When people say "the media" they usually do not mean television, newspapers, magazines, and radio individually. They are referring to the more abstract collective concept of "the media".
 

Written by Ryan Denzer-King, May 2009.
Sources: Frantz & Russell (1995), Frantz (1991), Derrick (2007)