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definition - Lakota language

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Lakota language

Pronunciation [laḱotiyapi]
Spoken in United States, with some speakers in Canada
Region Primarily North Dakota and South Dakota, but also northern Nebraska, southern Minnesota, and northern Montana
Ethnicity Teton Sioux
Native speakers 6,200  (1997)[1]
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 lkt

Lakota (also Lakhota, Teton, Teton Sioux) is a Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes. While generally taught and considered by speakers as a separate language, Lakota is mutually understandable with the other two languages (cf. Dakota language), and is considered by most linguists one of the three major varieties of the Sioux language. The Lakota language represents one of the largest Native American language speech communities in the United States, with approximately 6,000 speakers living mostly in northern plains states of North Dakota and South Dakota.[2]

The language was first put into written form by missionaries around 1840 and has since evolved to reflect contemporary needs and usage.


  Sound system


Lakota has five oral vowels, /i e a o u/, and three nasal vowels, /ĩ ã ũ/ (phonetically [ɪ̃ ə̃ ʊ̃]). Lakota /e/ and /o/ are said to be more open than the corresponding cardinal vowels, perhaps closer to [ɛ] and [ɔ]. Orthographically, the nasal vowels are written with a following ⟨ƞ⟩, ⟨ŋ⟩, or ⟨n⟩; historically, these were written with ogoneks underneath, ⟨į ą ų⟩.[3] No syllables end with consonantal /n/.

Front Central Back
high oral i u
mid e o
low oral a


Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Uvular[4][5] Glottal
Nasals m [m] n [n]
and affricates
unaspirated p [p] t [t] č [tʃ] k [k] [ʔ]
voiced b [b] g [ɡ]
ejective p’ [pʼ] t’ [tʼ] č’ [tʃʼ] k’ [kʼ]
Fricative voiceless s [s] š [ʃ] ȟ [χ]
voiced z [z] ž [ʒ] ǧ [ʁ]
ejective s’ [sʼ] š’ [ʃʼ] ȟ’ [χʼ]
Approximant w [w] l [l] y [j] h [h]

The voiced uvular fricative /ʁ/ becomes a uvular trill ([ʀ]) before /i/[4][5] and in fast speech it is often realized as the voiced velar fricative /ɣ/. The voiceless aspirated plosives have two allophonic variants each: those with a delay in voicing ([pʰ tʰ kʰ]), and those with velar friction ([pˣ tˣ kˣ]), which occur before /a/, /ã/, /o/, /ĩ/, and /ũ/ (thus, lakhóta, /laˈkʰota/ is phonetically [laˈkˣota]). For some speakers, there is a phonemic distinction between the two, and both occur before /e/. No such variation occurs for the affricate /tʃʰ/. Some orthographies mark this distinction; others do not. The uvular fricatives /χ/ and /ʁ/ are commonly spelled ⟨ȟ⟩ and ⟨ǧ⟩.

All monomorphemic words have one vowel which carries primary stress and has a higher tone than all other vowels in the word. This is generally the vowel of the second syllable of the word, but often the first syllable can be stressed, and occasionally other syllables as well. Stress is generally indicated with an acute accent: <á>, etc. Compound words will have stressed vowels in each component; proper spelling will write compounds with a hyphen. Thus máza-ská, literally "metal-white", i.e. "silver; money" has two stressed vowels, the first a in each component. If it were written without the hyphen, as mazaska, it could only have one stress.


Several varying othographies are currently in use to write the Lakota language.[6] Words are often spelled phonetically and multiple spellings can be considered correct.[7][8] Sinte Gleska University uses an othography developed by Albert White Hat and the school's Lakota Studies Department.[9] The writing system of the New Lakota Dictionary has been adopted as the standard orthography by the Sitting Bull College, by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and is also used in a number of schools on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations.[10] This is the system presented below.

The vowels are a, e, i, o, u; nasal vowels are aŋ, iŋ, uŋ. Pitch accent is marked with an acute accent: á, é, í, ó, ú, áŋ, íŋ, úŋ on stressed vowels (which receive a higher tone than non-stressed ones)[11]

The following consonants approximate their IPA values: b, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, w, z. Y has its English value of /j/. An apostrophe, ’, is used for glottal stop.

A caron is used for sounds which are not written with Latin letters in the IPA: č /tʃ/, ǧ /ʁ/, ȟ /χ/, š /ʃ/, ž /ʒ/. Aspirates are written with h: čh, kh, ph, th, and velar frication with ȟ: kȟ, pȟ, tȟ. Ejectives are written with an apostrophe: č’, ȟ’, k’, p’, s’, š’, t’.

The spelling used in modern popular texts is often written without diacritics. Besides failing to mark stress, this also results in the confusion of numerous consonants: /s/ and /ʃ/ are both written s, /h/ and /χ/ are both written h, and the aspirate stops are written like the unaspirates, as p, t, c, k.


Standard Lakota Orthography, as used by majority of schools, is in principle phonemic, which means that each character (grapheme) represents only one distinctive sound (phoneme), except for the distinction between glottal and velar aspiration which is treated phonetically.

Lakota alphabet
Letter Name of the letter Usual phonetic value (IPA)
A a a [a]
Aŋ aŋ [ã]
B b be [b]
Č č cu [tʃ]
Čh čh ci [tʃʰ]
Č’ č’ c’ó [tʃʼ]
E e e [e]
G g gli [ɡ]
Ǧ ǧ ǧu [ʁ] / [ʀ]
H h ha [h]
Ȟ ȟ ȟe [χ]
I i i [ɪ]
Iŋ iŋ [ĩ]
K k ku [k]
Kh kh ki [kʰ]
K kȟ ka [kˣ]
K’ k’ k’o [kʼ]
L l la [l]
M m ma [m]
Letter Name of the letter Usual phonetic value (IPA)
N n na [n]
O o o [o]
P p pu [p]
Ph ph phi [pʰ]
Pȟ pȟ pa [pˣ]
P’ p’ p’o [pʼ]
S s sa [s]
Š š še [ʃ]
T t tu [t]
Th th ti [tʰ]
Tȟ tȟ ta [tˣ]
T’ t’ t’o [tʼ]
U u u [ʊ]
Uŋ uŋ [ʊ̃]
W w wa [w]
Y y ya [j]
Z z za [z]
Ž ž je [ʒ]
keze [ʔ]

  Phonological processes

A common phonological process which occurs in rapid speech is vowel contraction, which generally results from the loss of an intervocalic glide. Vowel contraction results in phonetic long vowels (phonemically a sequence of two identical vowels), with falling pitch if the first underlying vowel is stressed, and rising pitch if the second underlying vowel is stressed: kê: (falling tone), "he said that," from kéye; hǎ:pi (rising tone), "clothing," from hayápi. If one of the vowels is nasalized, the resulting long vowel is also nasalized: caŋ̌:pi, "sugar," from canhaŋpi.

When two vowels of unequal height contract, or when feature contrasts exist between the vowels and the glide, two new phonetic vowels, [æː] and [ɔː], result[4]: iyæ̂:, "he left for there," from iyaye; mita:, "it's mine," from mitáwa.

The plural enclitic =pi is frequently changed in rapid speech when preceding the enclitics =kte, =kiŋ, =kšto, or =na. If the vowel preceding =pi is high, =pi becomes [u]; if the vowel is non-high, =pi becomes [o] (if the preceding vowel is nasalized, then the resulting vowel is also nasalized): hi=pi=kte, "they will arrive here," [hiukte]; yatkaŋ=pi=na, "they drank it and...," [jatkə̃õna].[4]

Lakota also exhibits some traces of sound symbolism among fricatives, where the point of articulation changes to reflect intensity: zi, "it's yellow," ji, "it's tawny," ǧí, "it's brown" (Mithun 1999:33). (Compare with the similar examples in Mandan.)


  Word order

The basic word order of Lakota is subject–object–verb, although the order can be changed for expressive purposes (placing the object before the subject to bring the object into focus or placing the subject after the verb to emphasize its status as established information). It is postpositional, with adpositions occurring after the head nouns: mas'opiye el, "at the store" (literally 'store at'); típi=kiŋ okšaŋ, "around the house" (literally 'house=the around') (Rood and Taylor 1996).

Rood and Taylor (1996) suggest the following template for basic word order. Items in parenthesis are optional; only the verb is required. It is therefore possible to produce a grammatical sentence that contains only a verb.

(interjection) (conjunction) (adverb(s)) (nominal) (nominal) (nominal) (adverb(s)) verb (enclitic(s)) (conjunction)


When interjections appear, they begin the sentence. A small number of interjections are used only by one gender, for instance the interjection expressing disbelief is ečéš for women but hóȟ for men, for calling attention woman say máŋ while men use wáŋ. Most interjections, however, are used by both genders.[10]


It is common for a sentence to begin with a conjunction. Both čhaŋkhé and yuŋkȟáŋ can be translated as and; k’éyaš is similar to English but. Each of these conjunctions joins clauses. In addition, the conjunction na joins nouns or phrases.

  Adverbs and Postpositions

Lakota uses postpositions, which are similar to English prepositions, but follow their noun complement. Adverbs or postpositional phrases can describe manner, location, or reason. There are also interrogative adverbs, which are used to form questions.

  Nouns and Pronouns

As mentioned above, nominals are optional in Lakota, but when nouns appear the basic word order is subject–object–verb. Pronouns are not common, but may be used contrastively or emphatically.

Lakota has four articles: waŋ is indefinite, similar to English a or an, and kiŋ is definite, similar to English the. In addition, waŋží is an indefinite article used with hypothetical or irrealis objects, and k’uŋ is a definite article used with nouns that have been mentioned previously.


There are also nine demonstratives, which can function either as pronouns or as determiners.

Distance from speaker
near neutral far
dual lenáos/
plural lená hená kaná

The demonstrative is the most neutral. Once a noun has been located, either by pointing or by description, in space or in the listener’s mind, can then be used. Before that, or is usually used to demonstrate exactly what is meant, although hé may also be used while pointing.


Verbs are the only word class that are obligatory in a Lakota sentence. Verbs can be active, naming an action, or stative, describing a property. (Note that in English, such descriptions are usually made with adjectives.)

Verbs are inflected for first-, second- or third person, and for singular, dual or plural grammatical number.


  Verb Inflection

There are two paradigms for verb inflection. One set of morphemes indicates the person and number of the subject of active verbs. The other set of morphemes agrees with the object of transitive action verbs or the subject of stative verbs.[4]

Most of the morphemes in each paradigm are prefixes, but plural subjects are marked with a suffix and third-person plural objects with an infix.

First person arguments may be singular, dual, or plural; second or third person arguments may be singular or plural.

Subject of active verbs

singular dual plural
first person wa- uŋ(k)- uŋ(k)- … -pi
second person ya- ya- … -pi
third person unmarked -pi

Examples: máni "He walks." mánipi "They walk."

Subject of stative verbs

singular dual plural
first person ma- uŋ(k)- uŋ(k)- … -pi
second person ni- ni- … -pi
third person unmarked -pi

Object of transitive verbs

singular dual plural
first person ma- uŋ(k)- … -pi
second person ni- ni- … -pi
third person unmarked -wicha-

Example: waŋwíčhayaŋke "He looked at them."


Lakota has a number of enclitic particles which follow the verb, many of which differ depending on whether the speaker is male or female.

Some enclitics indicate the aspect, mood, or number of the verb they follow. There are also various interrogative enclitics, which in addition to marking an utterance as a question show finer distinctions of meaning. For example, while he is the usual question-marking enclitic, huŋwó is used for rhetorical questions or in formal oratory, and the dubitative wa functions somewhat like a tag question in English (Rood and Taylor 1996; Buchel 1983). (See also Men and women's speech below.)

  Men and women's speech

A small number of enclitics (approximately eight) differ in form based on the gender of the speaker. Yeló (men) ye (women) mark mild assertions. Kštó (women only according to most sources) marks strong assertion. Yo (men) and ye (women) mark neutral commands, yeto (men) and nito (women) mark familiar, and ye (both men and women) and na mark requests. He is used by both genders to mark direct questions, but men also use huo in more formal situations. So (men) and se (women) mark dubitative questions (where the person being asked is not assumed to know the answer).

While many native speakers and linguists agree that certain enclitics are associated with particular genders, such usage may not be exclusive. That is, individual men sometimes use enclitics associated with women, and vice versa (Trechter 1999).

Examples of enclitic usage

Enclitic Meaning Example[12] Translation
haŋ continuous yá-he "was going"
pi plural iyáyapi "they left"
la diminutive záptaŋla "only five"
ke attenuative wašteke "somewhat good"
ktA irrealis uŋyíŋ kte "you and I will go" (future)
šni negative hiyú šni "he/she/it did not come out"
s’a repeating eyápi s’a "they often say"
seca conjecture ú kte séče "he might come"
yelo assertion (masc) blé ló "I went there (I assert)"
ye assertion (fem) hí yé "he came (I assert)"
he interrogative Taku koyakipa he? "What do you fear?"
huwo interrogative (masc. formal) Tokiya lá huwó? "Where are you going?"
huwe interrogative (fem. formal, obsolete) Takula huwé? "What is it?"
waŋ dubative question seca waŋ "can it be as it seems?"
ške evidential yá-ha ške "he was going, I understand"
keye evidential (hearsay) yápi kéye "they went, they say"


  • all examples are taken from the New Lakota Dictionary.

The term "ablaut" refers to the tendency of some words to change their final vowel in certain situations. Compare these sentences.

Šúŋka kiŋ sápa čha waŋbláke.
Šúŋka kiŋ sápe.
Šúŋka kiŋ sápiŋ na tȟáŋka.

The last vowel in the word "SápA" changed each time. This vowel change is called "ablaut". Words which undergo this change are referred to as A-words, since, in dictionary citations, they are written ending in either -A or -Aŋ. These words are never written with a final capital letter in actual texts. Derivatives of these words generally take the ablaut as well, however there are exceptions.

There are three forms for ablauted words: -a/-aŋ, -e, -iŋ. These are referred to as a/aŋ-ablaut, e-ablaut, and iŋ-ablaut respectively. Some words are ablauted by some and not others, like "gray" hóta or hótA. Ablaut always depends on what word follows the ablauted word.


This is the basic form of the word, and is used everywhere in which the other forms are not utilized.


There are two cases in which e-ablaut is used.
---1. Last word in the sentence
---2. Followed by a word which triggers e-ablaut

  1. Last word in sentence
  Heciya ye He went there. (e-ablaut of the verb )
Yute She ate it. (e-ablaut of the verb yútA)
Tipi kiŋ paha akaŋl he. The house stands on a cliff. (e-ablaut of the verb hÁŋ)
  2. Followed by a word which triggers e-ablaut

There are three classes of words which trigger e-ablaut

a) various enclitics -such as- ȟča, ȟčiŋ, iŋčhéye, kačháš, kiló, kštó, któ, lakȟa, -la, láȟ, láȟčaka, ló, séčA, sékse, s’eléčheča, so, s’a, s’e, šaŋ, šni, uŋštó
b) some conjunctions and articles -such as- kiŋ, kiŋháŋ, k’éaš, k’uŋ, eháŋtaŋš
c) some auxiliary verbs -such as- kapíŋ, kiníča (kiníl), lakA (la), kúŋzA, phiča, ši, wačhíŋ, -yA, -khiyA

  Škáte šni. He did not play. (enclitic)
  Škáte s’a. He plays often. (enclitic)
  Škáte ló. He plays. (enclitic (marking assertion))
  Okȟáte eháŋtaŋš... If it is hot... (conjunction)
  Sápe kiŋ The black one (definite article)
  Glé kúŋze. He pretended to go home. (auxiliary verb)
  Yatké-phiča. It is drinkable. (auxiliary verb)


The iŋ-ablaut (pronounced i by some) occurs only before the following words:

kte (irrealis enclitic)
yeto (familiar command enclitic)
na, nahaŋ (and)
naiŋš (or, and or)
ye (polite request or entreaty enclitic)

  Waŋyáŋkiŋ yeto. Take a look at this, real quick.
  Yíŋ kte. She will go.
  Skúyiŋ na wašté. It was sweet and good.
  Waŋyáŋkiŋ yé. Please, look at it.


"Hau kola", literally, "Hello, friend," is the most common greeting, and was transformed into the generic motion picture American Indian "How!", just as the traditional feathered headdress of the Teton was "given" to all movie Indians. As "hau" is the only word in Lakota which contains a diphthong, /au/, it may be a loanword from a non-Siouan language.[4]

"Hau" is spoken only by men; women use the greeting "Haŋ" or "Haŋ kolá."

Other than using the word friend, one typically uses the word "cousin" or "cross-cousin" since everyone in the tribe was as family to each other. These words are very important to the language's tone of proper respect. The terms are as follow[10]:

"Taŋhaŋši" N - my male cross-cousin (man speaking, term of address)
"Taŋhaŋšitku" N - his male cross-cousin
"Taŋhaŋšiya" V-CAUSATIVE - to have someone for a male cross-cousin

"Haŋkaši" N - my female cross-cousin (man speaking, term of address)
"Haŋkašitku" N - his female cross-cousin
"Haŋkašiya" V-CAUSATIVE - to have someone for a female cross-cousin

"(S)cephaŋši" N - my female cross-cousin (woman speaking, term of address)
"(S)cepȟaŋšitku" N - her female cross-cousin
"(S)čepaŋšiya" V-CAUSATIVE - to have someone for a female cross-cousin

"šic'eši" N - my male cross-cousin (woman speaking, term of address)
"šic'ešitku" N - her male cross-cousin
"šic'ešiya" V-CAUSATIVE - to have someone for a male cross-cousin

"Hakataku" N - her brothers and male cross cousins, his sisters and female cross-cousins (i.e. relative requiring respect)
"Hakataya" V-CAUSATIVE - to have someone for a sibling or cross-cousin of the opposite sex

  Learning Lakota

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

  • Lakotiya Woglaka Po! - Speak Lakota! : Level 1, 2, 3 & 4 Textbooks and Audio CDs by Lakota Language Consortium. (elementary/secondary school level)
  • New Lakota Dictionary. (ISBN 0-9761082-9-1)
  • Lakota: A Language Course for Beginners by Oglala Lakota College (ISBN 0-88432-609-8) (with companion 15 CDs/Tapes) (high school/college level)
  • Reading and Writing the Lakota Language by Albert White Hat Sr. (ISBN 0-87480-572-4) (with companion 2 tapes) (high school/college level)
  • University of Colorado Lakhota Project: Beginning Lakhota, vol. 1 & 2 (with companion tapes), Elementary Bilingual Dictionary and Graded Readings, (high school/college level)
  • Lakota Dictionary: Lakota-English/English-Lakota, New Comprehensive Edition by Eugene Buechel, S.J. & Paul Manhart (ISBN 0-8032-6199-3)
  • English-Lakota Dictionary by Bruce Ingham, RoutledgeCurzon, ISBN 0-7007-1378-6
  • A Grammar of Lakota by Eugene Buechel, S.J. (OCLC 4609002; professional level)
  • The article by Rood & Taylor, in [4] (professional level)
  • Dakota Texts by Ella Deloria (a bilingual, interlinear collection of folktales and folk narratives, plus commentaries). (University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 0-8032-6660-X; professional level) (Note: the University of South Dakota edition is monolingual, with only the English renditions.)


  1. ^ Lakota at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
  2. ^ Lakota. Online version of: Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World (15th ed.). Dallas: SIL International. Accessed 05-16-2009.
  3. ^ Elementary Bilingual Dictionary English-Lakhóta Lakhóta-English (1976) CU Lakhóta Project University of Colorado
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Rood, David S., and Taylor, Allan R. (1996). "Sketch of Lakhota, a Siouan Language, Part I". Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 17 (Languages), pp. 440–482.
  5. ^ a b (2004). Lakota letters and sounds.
  6. ^ "Language Materials Project: Lakota." UCLA. (retrieved 23 Dec 2010)
  7. ^ Powers, William K. "Comments on the Politics of Orthography." American Anthropologist. #92, 1990: 496. (retrieved 23 Dec 2010)
  8. ^ Palmer, 2
  9. ^ Hirschfelder, Arlene B. Native heritage: personal accounts by American Indians, 1790 to the present. New York: McMillan, 1995: 84. ISBN 978-0-02-860412-1.
  10. ^ a b c New Lakota dictionary. Lakota Language Consortium, 2008
  11. ^ Cho, Taehong. Some phonological and phonetic aspects of stress and intonation in Lakhota: a preliminary report. Published as a PDF at :humnet.ucla.edu
  12. ^ Deloria, Ella. 1932. Dakota Texts. New York: G.E. Stechert.


  • Palmer, Jessica Dawn. The Dakota Peoples: A History of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota through 1863.Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7864-3177-9.
  • Rood, David S. and Allan R. Taylor. (1996). Sketch of Lakhota, a Siouan Language. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 17 (Languages), pp. 440–482. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution. Online version.
  • Ullrich, Jan. (2008). New Lakota Dictionary. Lakota Language Consortium. ISBN 0-9761082-9-1.

  Further reading

  • Buechel, Eugene. (1983). A Dictionary of Teton Sioux. Pine Ridge, SD: Red Cloud Indian School.
  • DeMallie, Raymond J. (2001). "Sioux until 1850". In R. J. DeMallie (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Plains (Vol. 13, Part 2, pp. 718–760). W. C. Sturtevant (Gen. Ed.). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-050400-7.
  • Mithun, Marianne (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Parks, Douglas R.; & Rankin, Robert L. (2001). "The Siouan languages". In Handbook of North American Indians: Plains (Vol. 13, Part 1, pp. 94–114). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  • de Reuse, Willem J. (1987). "One hundred years of Lakota linguistics (1887-1987)". Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics, 12, 13-42. Online version.
  • de Reuse, Willem J. (1990). "A supplementary bibliography of Lakota languages and linguistics (1887-1990)". Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics, 15 (2), 146-165. (Studies in Native American languages 6). Online version.
  • Trechter, Sarah. (1999). "Contextualizing the Exotic Few: Gender Dichotomies in Lakhota". In M. Bucholtz, A.C. Liang, and L. Sutton (Eds) Reinventing Identities (pp. 101–122). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512629-7

  External links



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