Blackfoot language

Siksiká (ᓱᖽᐧᖿ)
Native to Canada, United States
Region Piikani, Siksika, and Kainai Reserves in southern Alberta; Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana
Ethnicity 15,000 Blackfoot (1977)[1]
Native speakers
3,400 (2011 Canadian census)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-2 bla
ISO 639-3 bla
Glottolog siks1238[3]

Blackfoot, also known as Siksika (ᓱᖽᐧᖿ, its denomination in ISO 639-3), Pikanii, Pied Noir, and Blackfoot, is the Algonquian language spoken by the Blackfoot tribes of Native Americans, who currently live in the northwestern plains of North America. Nearly all speakers live in Canada. There are four dialects of Blackfoot, three of which are spoken in Alberta, Canada, and one of which is spoken in the United States: Siksiká (Blackfoot), to the southeast of Calgary, Alberta; Kainai (Blood), spoken in Alberta between Cardston and Lethbridge; Aapátohsipikani (Northern Piegan), to the west of Fort MacLeod; and Aamsskáápipikani (Southern Piegan), in northwestern Montana.[4]

There is a distinct difference between Old Blackfoot (also called High Blackfoot), the dialect spoken by many older speakers; and New Blackfoot (also called Modern Blackfoot), the dialect spoken by younger speakers.[5] Among the Algonquian languages, Blackfoot is relatively divergent in phonology and lexicon.[6] Like the other Algonquian languages, Blackfoot is typologically polysynthetic.

The Cuts Wood Academy in Browning, Montana, founded by Darrell Kipp and the Piegan Institute, offers language immersion instruction in Blackfoot.[7]


Technically the official name of the tribe is Blackfeet and this is the term used by the Piegan Blackfeet in the United States. Canadian bands use the term "Blackfoot", as in the Blackfoot Confederacy.[8] The name Blackfoot probably comes from the blackened soles of the leather shoes that the people wear.[9] The Blackfoot language is a member of the Algonquian-languages family.[10] Blackfoot language has been on a drastic decline in the number of native speakers and now faces extinction in the early 21st century.

Once, the Blackfoot people were one of a few Native American nations that inhabited the Great Plains west of the Mississippi river. The people were buffalo hunters with settlements in the northern United States. Forced to move because of wars with neighboring tribes, the Blackfoot people settled all around the plains area and up into Canada, eventually concentrating in Montana. Blackfoot hunters would track and hunt game while the remaining people would gather food and other necessities for the winter. The northern plains, where the Blackfoot settled, had incredibly harsh winters, and the flat land provided little escape from the winds. The Blackfoot Nation thrived, along with many other native groups, until the European settlers arrived in the late eighteenth century. The settlers brought with them horses and technology but also disease and weapons. Diseases like smallpox, foreign to the natives, decimated the Blackfoot population in the mid-nineteenth century. Groups of Blackfoot people rebelled against the Europeans like Mountain Chief’s tribe. But, in 1870, a tribe of peaceful Blackfoot were mistaken for the rebellious tribe and hundreds were slaughtered. Over the next thirty years, the settlers had eradicated the buffalo from the Great Plains. This took away the main element of Blackfoot life and took away the people’s ability to be self-sustaining. With their main food source gone, the Blackfoot were forced to rely on government support.[9]



Blackfoot has eighteen consonants, of which all but /ʔ/, /x/, /j/ and /w/ form pairs distinguished by length.[11][12]

Labial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k ʔ
Affricate t͡st͡sː
Fricative s x
Approximant w j

The velar consonants become palatals [ç] and [c] when preceded by front vowels.


Blackfoot has a vowel system with three monophthongs, /i o a/. Length is distinctive (áakokaawa, "s/he will rope" vs. áakookaawa, "s/he will sponsor a sun dance"):[11][12][13]

Front Central Back
High i o
Low a

There are three additional vowels, called "diphthongs" in Frantz (1997). The first is pronounced [ɛ] before a long consonant, [ei] (or [ai], in the dialect of the Blackfoot Reserve) before /i/ or /ʔ/, and [æ] elsewhere (in the Blood Reserve dialect; [ei] in the Blackfoot Reserve dialect).[14] The second is pronounced [au] before /ʔ/ and [ɔ] elsewhere. The third is /oi/.[15] The short monophthongs exhibit allophonic changes as well. /a/ and /o/ are raised to [ʌ] and [ʊ] respectively when followed by a long consonant, /i/ becomes [ɪ] in closed syllables.[13]

Blackfoot has a pitch accent system, meaning that every word has at least one high-pitched vowel, and high pitch is contrastive with non-high pitch (e.g., ápssiwa, "it's an arrow" vs. apssíwa, "it's a fig").[16] At the end of a word, non-high pitched vowels are devoiced.[12][17]

Glides are deleted word-initially and after another consonant, e.g. in póósa 'cat' from poos-wa (cat-SG).

Morphology and syntax

Blackfoot has four grammatical persons — first, second, third, and obviative. The third person is used for proximate nouns, while obviates are non-present or demoted in comparison to a third person. Inanimate objects cannot be the proximate third person. Redirectional markers can be applied to indicate that the fourth person is the active argument.

As a polysynthetic language, Blackfoot features object incorporation. As subject pronouns appear as affixes to the verb, this makes single-word sentences common. When arguments are not incorporated, however, an SVO word order is preferred.

Nouns must be inflected for number.


All nouns are classified as either animate or inanimate. Generally it is easy to determine whether a noun will be animate, although some inherently inanimate objects such as drums and knives are grammatically animate, probably because of the related cultural views of these items.

Verbs are marked with a transitivity marker which must agree with the animacy of its arguments. Even in stories in which a grammatically inanimate object are markedly anthropomorphized, such as talking flowers, speakers will not use animate agreement markers with them.

Verbal structure

The Blackfoot verbal template contains a stem with several prefixes and suffixes. The structure of the verb stem in Blackfoot can be roughly broken down into the pre-verb, the root, the medial, and the final. The root and final are required elements.

Generally, information encoded in the pre-verb can include adverbs, most pronouns, locatives, manners, aspect, mood, and tense. Incorporated objects appear in the medial. The final includes transitivity and animacy markers, and valency markers.

Writing system

A syllabics script, ᑯᖾᖹ ᖿᐟᖻ ᓱᖽᐧᖿ pikoni kayna siksika, was created by Anglican missionary John William Tims around 1888. Although conceptually nearly identical to Western Cree syllabics, the letter forms are innovative. Two series (s, y) were taken from Cree but given different vowel values; three more (p, t, m) were changed in consonant values as well, according to the Latin letter they resembled; and the others (k, n, w) were created from asymmetrical parts of Latin and Greek letters; or in the case of the zero consonant, possibly from the musical notation for quarter note. The Latin orientation of the letters is used for the e series, after the names of the Latin letters, pe, te, etc.

BlackfootLatin source
pe P
te T
ke K
me m
ne N
we digamma Ϝ

The direction for each vowel is different from Cree, reflecting Latin alphabetic order. The e orientation is used for the diphthong /ai/. Symbols for consonants are taken from the consonant symbol minus the stem, except for diphthongs (Ca plus for Cau, and Ca plus for Coi, though there are also cases of writing subphonemic [ai, ei, eu] with these finals).

C -a -e -i -o final

There are additional finals: allophones [h] and [x], and three medials: ᖿᐧ ksa, ᒣᐧ tsa, ᖿᑉ kya, kwa.

is used for a period.

Also sometimes it is written in Latin letters but with different spelling on computers because not all computers support the letters used in the Blackfoot language.

Radio programming in Blackfoot

Radio station KBWG in Browning, Montana, broadcasts a one-hour show for Blackfoot language learners four times a week.[18] The Voice of Browning, Thunder Radio, FM 107.5, or "Ksistsikam ayikinaan" (literally "voice from nowhere") went live in 2010, and focuses on positive programming. In 2011, John Davis, a 21-year-old Blackfeet Community College student explained "I was the first Blackfeet to ever talk on this radio", Davis said. "This is my coup story." A story in the Great Falls Tribune noted, "When the station was replaying programming that originated elsewhere, the radio was all "tear in my beer" and "your cheatin' heart." They called it the suicide station for its depressing old country themes ..." The station's offerings have now expanded beyond country to include AC/DC and Marvin Gaye, and "on-the-air jokes they would never hear on a Clear Channel radio station, such as: "The captain is as cool as commodity cheese."[19]

“So far we have broadcasting Monday through Friday from around 6:30, Indian time”, quipped station manager Lona Burns, “to around 11, Indian time.” ... “It’s Indian radio”, agreed Running Crane. “Where else can you hear today’s hits with traditional music?[20]

Canadian government support

The Canadian government has provided support for the languages through funds and other financial resources. According to James Moore, the former Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, “the Government of Canada is committed to the revitalization and preservation of Aboriginal languages.” The funding was put to use in the form of digital libraries containing interviews with native speakers, online courses, and various other resources in the hopes of promoting Blackfoot language and passing it down to subsequent generations. On top of both of these government efforts, the Canadian Government has also provided over $40,000 through the Aboriginal Languages Initiative Fund to promote the use of Aboriginal languages in community and family settings.[21]

Revitalization efforts

In the late 1900s, many tribes began a surge of revitalization efforts to encourage cultural awareness of indigenous customs and traditions. Of these, the Blackfoot revitalization effort has proven to be quite successful, producing various institutions, including a college dedicated to preserving and promoting Blackfoot traditions. Today, there are head-start programs in primary and secondary schools on the reservation to teach even infants and toddlers about the history of the tribe from an early age. In 1987, Dorothy “Still Smoking” and Darrell Robes Kipp founded the Piegan Institute, a non-profit foundation in Montana dedicated to researching, promoting, and preserving the Blackfoot language. Today, the Piegan institute is a nationally recognized K-8 private language school and a leading research center for indigenous languages. Another, Nizipuhwahsin School (founded in 1995) is a Blackfoot-Language Only elementary school. However, the most significant demonstration of the tribe’s success in education is seen in the Blackfoot Community College, founded in 1974.

Blackfoot Community College (BCC) is a two-year, nationally accredited college that was made possible by the Indian Education Act of 1972 and the 1964 Act enacted by the Office of Economic Opportunity. BCC is a member of both the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). It allows teenagers and adults alike to take classes in a wide range of subjects, from classes in Psychology and Digital Photography to classes on Blackfoot language and tradition. They have beginning Blackfoot language classes with labs for members and non-members of the community to learn the language.[22]


  1. Blackfoot at Ethnologue (14th ed., 2000).
  2. BlackFoot at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Siksika". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Don Frantz' Blackfoot page
  5. Bortolin & McLellan (1995)
  6. Mithun (1999:335)
  7. "Cuts Wood Academy - Blackfoot Immersion School in Browning, Montana". The Piegan Institute. Retrieved 2014-04-09.
  9. 1 2 Gibson, K. (2003). The Blackfeet (1st ed.). Mankato, Minn.: Bridgestone Books.
  10. Nijhuis, M. (2003). Our Blackfoot Language. Retrieved 15 April 2014, from
  11. 1 2 "Blackfoot Pronunciation and Spelling Guide". Retrieved 2007-04-10
  12. 1 2 3 Frantz, Don. The Sounds of Blackfoot. Retrieved 2007-04-11
  13. 1 2 Frantz (1997:1-2)
  14. Frantz (1997:2)
  15. Frantz (1997:2-3)
  16. Frantz (1997:3)
  17. Frantz (1997:5)
  18. Stephanie Tyrpak (2011-04-14). "KBWG Brings Blackfoot Language Lessons to the Airwaves". Archived from the original on 2011-04-19. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  19. "KBWG, the "Voice of Browning Montana" can be heard at 107.5 FM". 2011-06-11. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  20. John McGill (2011-01-19). "'Voice of Browning' radio station KBWG expanding". Glacier Reporter. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  21. Market Wired
  22. Hungry-wolf, Adolf (2006). The Blackfoot Papers. Good Medicine Cultural Foundation. p. 195.



External links

Blackfoot language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
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