Mi'kmaq language

Native to Canada, United States
Region Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Gaspé Peninsula, the island of Newfoundland, northern Maine, Boston, Massachusetts
Ethnicity 14,200 Mi'kmaq (1998)[1]
Native speakers
8,300 (2010 & 2011 censuses)[1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2 mic
ISO 639-3 mic
Glottolog mikm1235[2]

The Mi'kmaq language (spelled and pronounced Micmac historically and now often Migmaw or Mikmaw in English, and Míkmaq, Míkmaw or Mìgmao in Mi'kmaq) is an Eastern Algonquian language spoken by nearly 11,000 Mi'kmaq in Canada and the United States out of a total ethnic Mi'kmaq population of roughly 20,000.[3][4] The word Mi'kmaq is a plural word meaning 'my friends' (singular Míkm[5]); the adjectival form is Míkmaw.[6] The language's native name is Lnuismk, Míkmawísimk[7] or Míkmwei[5] (in some dialects).


The phonemic inventory of Mi'kmaq is shown below.


Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open a


Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
plain lab.
Plosive p t k
Affricate t͡ʃ
Fricative s x
Nasal m n
Approximant w l j

The consonants of Mi'kmaq can be divided into two groups: the obstruents /p, t, k, kʷ, t͡ʃ, s, x, xʷ/, and the sonorants /m, n, w, l, j/. The vowels of Mi'kmaq are also counted as sonorants.

The obstruents have a wide variety of pronunciations. When they are located word-initially or next to another obstruent, they are voiceless. However, when they are located between sonorants, they are voiced, and appear as [b, d, g, ɡʷ, d͡ʒ, z, ɣ, ɣʷ].[8] When the stops and affricate are located word-finally, they may be aspirated, and appear as [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ, kʷʰ, tʃʰ]. An example of each kind of pronunciation is given below.

Variant Word Phonemic IPA Gloss
Voiceless ti'am /tiːam/ [tiːam] moose
Voiced Mi'kmaq /miːkmax/ [miːɡmax] Mi'kmaq
Aspirated sqolj /əsxolt͡ʃ/ [əsxolt͡ʃʰ] frog

Mi'kmaq distinguishes between both long and short vowels and consonants, symbolized in Listuguj by doubling the consonant. Beyond expanding in length, long consonants add a schwa when they precede other consonants. For instance, compare /en.mitk/, written in Listuguj as enmitg ("flow away") with /en.nə.mit/, written in Listuguj as ennmit ("stick into"); or, /tox.tʃu.pi.la.wek/, written in Listuguj as toqju'pilaweg ("hoist"), with /ge.si.gaw.wek/, written in Listuguj as gesigawweg ("loud").

Listuguj orthography occasionally begins words with consonant clusters, such as with gta'n ("ocean") or mgumi ("ice"). However, such clusters are pronounced over separate syllables, with a schwa preceding the cluster: for instance, gta'n is pronounced /ək.ta:n/ while mgumi is pronounced /əm.ku.mi/. On the other hand, word-final clusters, such as in asigetg ("investigate") are pronounced over a single syllable: compare the pronunciation of asigetg, /a.si.getk/, with mest'g ("taste"), /mes.tək/.


Mi'kmaq uses free word order, based on emphasis rather than a traditionally fixed order of subjects, objects and verbs. For instance, the sentence "I saw a moose standing right there on the hill" could be stated "sapmi'k ala nemaqt'k na tett ti'am kaqamit" (I saw him/there/on the hill/right-there/a moose/he was standing) or "sapmi'k ala ti'am nemaqt'k na tett kaqamit" (I saw him/there/a moose/on the hill/right-there/he was standing); the latter sentence puts emphasis on the moose by placing ti'am (moose) earlier in the utterance. Further complicating matters is the fact that Mi'kmaq, as a polysynthetic language, has verbs which usually contain the sentence's subject and object: for instance, the aforementioned sapmi'k translates to "I saw him".

While it is thus difficult to classify Mi'kmaq under traditional word-order categories such as SVO or SOV, a more fixed aspect in the language comes in the morphology of its verbs. Certain areas of internal morphology of verbs in Mi'kmaq have regular placement: for instance, when the aspect of a verb is included, it appears as the first prefix, while the negative marker always appears directly after the verb root. An example for both of these instances can be seen in the Mi'kmaq verb kisipawnatqa'ti'w (kisi-paw-natq-a'ti-w), translated as "they cannot get out": the prefix kisi marks the verb as being in the completive aspect, whereas the negative marker, w, appears directly after the verb root a'ti ("the two move"). Unfortunately these solidly-placed elements of verbs are paired with markers that can appear throughout the word, depending again on emphasis; animacy in particular can appear fluidly throughout verbs. In short, while a few specific aspects of Mi'kmaq can be predicted, its syntax in general is largely free and dependent on context.

Writing system

Mi'kmaq-language stop sign in Elsipogtog First Nation

Mi'kmaq is written using a number of Latin alphabets based on ones devised by missionaries in the 19th century. Previously, the language was written in Mi'kmaq hieroglyphic writing, a script of partially native origin. The Francis-Smith orthography used here was developed in 1974, and adopted as the official orthography of the Míkmaq Nation in 1980. It is the most widely used orthography, used by Nova Scotian Mikmaq and by the Míkmaq Grand Council. It is quite similar to the "Lexicon" orthography, differing from it only in its use of the straight apostrophe ' or acute accent ´ instead of the colon : to mark vowel length. When the Francis-Smith orthography was first developed, the straight apostrophe (often called a "tick") was the designated symbol for vowel length, however due to software applications incorrectly auto-correcting the tick to a curly apostrophe, a secondary means of indicating vowel length was formally accepted: the acute accent. The barred-i ɨ is sometimes replaced by the more common circumflex-i î. In Listuguj orthography, an apostrophe marks long vowels, and the letter g is used instead of the letter k. The 19th-century Pacifique orthography omits w and y, using o and i for these. It also ignores vowel length. The 19th-century orthography of Silas Tertius Rand is also given in the table below; this orthography is more complex than the table suggests, particularly as far as vowel quantity and quality is concerned, employing various letters such as a, à, ɛ, ɛ́, o, ɯ́, ɹ̇, ɹ́, ơ, u, etc.

Mi'kmaq orthographies
IPA a e i ə k l m n o p x s t u w j
Francis-Smith a a'/á e e'/é i i'/í ɨ j k l m n o o'/ó p q s t u u'/ú w y
Listuguj a a' e e' i i' ' j g l m n o o' p q s t u u' w y
Lexicon a a: e e: i i: ɨ j k l m n o o: p q s t u u: w y
Pacifique a e i tj g l m n ô p s t o
Rand ă a â ĕ ā ĭ e ŭ dj tc̡ g k l m n ŏ o ō b p h s d t ŏŏ oo u w y

Number system


1 newt
2 ta'pu
3 si'st
4 ne'w
5 na'n
6 as'gom
7 lluigneg
8 ugumuljin
9 pesgunateg
10 ne'wtisga'q

Mi'kmaq uses a decimal numeral system. Every multiple-digit number is formed by using one of the first nine numerals as a prefix or a preceding word, as seen in the number for ten, ne'wtisgaq, a combination of the prefix ne'wt - (derived from newt) and the root isga'q meaning ten (the pattern can be seen in tapuisga'q for 20, nesisga'q for 30, etc.) While 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 all use a single word containing a prefix, the tens between 60 and 90 use the numeral as a preceding word to a separate word meaning ten, te’sisga’q: for instance, 60 is written as as'gom te’sisga’q.

Numbers between the tens are stated through multiple-word phrases, beginning with the ten-based root number, such as ne'wtisgaq, followed by jel (meaning "and" or "also") and ending with one of the nine numerals: for instance, the number 28 is constructed as tapuisga'q jel ugumuljin, or literally "twenty and eight".

For numbers beyond 99, Mi'kmaq uses a pattern similar to that of 60–99, with numeral words preceding separate roots which identify higher numbers (such as gasg'ptnnaqan, meaning hundred, or pituimtlnaqn meaning thousand); for instance, 300 is written as si'st gasg'ptnnaqan, while 2,000 is written as ta'pu pituimtlnaqn. The exception to this pattern are the numbers 100 and 1,000, which are simply the roots gasg'ptnnaqan and pituimtlnaqn, respectively. Similarly to digits between the tens, the connecting word jel is used between hundreds and tens, or thousands and hundreds: for example, the number 3,452 is written as si'st pituimtlnaqn jel ne'w gasg'ptnnaqan jel na'nisgaq jel ta'pu.

On top of this basic structure, numbers in Mi'kmaq must agree with the animacy of whatever they are counting: for instance, when speaking of two people one would use the word ta'pusijik, as opposed to the number used for two days, ta'pugna'q. While the suffix -ijik to denote the counting of animate subjects and the suffix -gna'q to denote the counting of inanimate subjects are common, animacy-marking suffixes are somewhat fluid and vary by number and dialect.

Language revitalization efforts and teaching

Cape Breton University's Unama’ki College specializes "in Mi’kmaq history, culture and education." As of 2013, "it has some 250 aboriginal students."[9]

"Parents come to me and say they hear their children in the backseat of the car speaking Mi’kmaq and they’re excited," said the Mi’kmaq language instructor at L’nu Si’puk Kina’muokuom Mi’kmaq school in Indian Brook. Mi’kmaq language courses are mandatory from grades Primary to 12 at the school, which only opened six years ago." Evening classes are starting as of Oct. 2013.[9]

Also as of 2013, Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq Burial Grounds Research and Restoration Association has about forty students in its Mi'kmaq language revitalization classes, and Mi'kmaq greetings are becoming more common in public places.[10]

Bible translations into the Mi'kmaq language

Mi'kmaq is one of the Algic languages, a family that once spanned from a small portion of California across Central Canada, the Midwestern United States, and the northeastern coast of North America. Within this family, Mi'kmaq is part of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup spoken largely along the Atlantic coast. It is closely related to several extant languages, such as Malecite-Passamaquoddy, Massachusett and Munsee as well as extinct languages like Abenaki and Unami. Beyond having a similar language background and sharing close geographic proximity, the Mi'kmaq notably held an alliance with four other tribes within the Eastern Algonquian language group known as the Wabanaki Confederacy: in short, a history of long-term language contact has existed between Mi'kmaq and its close linguistic relatives.

Mi'kmaq has many similarities with its fellow Eastern Algonquian languages, including multiple word cognates: for instance, compare the Mi'kmaq word for "woman", e'pit, to the Maliseet ehpit [æpit], or the varying related words for the color "white": wape't in Mi'kmaq, wapi [wapi] in Maliseet, waapii [wapi] in Munsee, wôbi [wɔ̃bɪ] in Abenaki and wòpe [wɔpe] in Unami. Even outside of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup, there exist similar cognates within the larger Algic family, such as the Cree wāpiskāw [wɔ:bɪska:w] and the Miami-Illinois waapi [wa:pi].[11]

Like many Native American languages, Mikmaq uses a classifying system of animate versus inanimate words. However, while the animacy system in general is common, the specifics of Mikmaq’s system differ from even closely related Algic languages: for instance, in Wampanoag, the word for "sun", cone, is inanimate, while the word for "earth", ahkee, is animate, a fact used by some scholars to claim that the Wampanoag people were aware of the earth's rotation around an unmoving sun;[12] however, in Mikmaq, both the word for "sun", na’gu’set, and the word for "earth", ugs'tqamu, are animate, and parallel cultural knowledge regarding astronomy cannot be gleaned through the language. Much like grammatical gender, the core concept of animacy is shared across similar languages while the exact connotations animacy has within Mi'kmaq are unique.

In English- and French-speaking areas, traces of Mi'kmaq can be found largely in geographical names within regions historically occupied by the Mi'kmaq people, including Quebec[13] and several towns in Nova Scotia such as Antigonish and Shubenacadie. Moreover, several Mi'kmaq words have made their way into colonizing languages: the English words "caribou"[14] and "toboggan"[15] are borrowings from Mi'kmaq. The name caribou was probably derived from the Mi’kmaq word xalibu or Qalipu meaning "the one who paws".[16] Marc Lescarbot in his publication in French 1610 used the term "caribou." Silas Tertius Rand translated the Mi'kmaq word Kaleboo as caribou in his Mi'kmaq-English dictionary (Rand 1888:98).

The aforementioned use of hieroglyphic writing in pre-colonial Mi'kmaq society shows that Mi'kmaq was one of the few Native American languages to have a writing system before European contact.

Bakker identified two Basque loanwords in Mi'kmaq, presumably due to extensive trade contact between Basque sailors and Native Americans in the 16th century.[17] The overall friendly exchanges starting in mid-16th century between the Mi'kmaqs and the Basque whalers provided the basis for the development of a Algonquian–Basque pidgin, with a strong Mi'kmaq imprint, recorded still in use in the early 18th century.

Placenames from Mi'kmaq

A 2012 book, by the Mi’kmaq linguist Bernie Francis and anthropologist Trudy Sable, The Language of this Land, Mi’kma’ki, "examines the relationship between Mi’kmaq language and landscape."[22]


  1. 1 2 Mi'kmaq at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Mi'kmaq". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Statistics Canada 2006
  4. Indigenous Languages Spoken in the United States
  5. 1 2 Micmac Teaching Grammar. Delisle / Metallic 1976.
  6. Native Languages of the Americas: Mi'kmaq (Mi'kmawi'simk, Mi'kmaw, Micmac, Míkmaq)
  7. Chris Harvey's page on Míkmawísimk
  8. Bragg, Russell A. (1976). Some Aspects of the Phonology of Newfoundland Micmac (MA).
  9. 1 2 Beswick, Truro (2013-10-16). "Efforts gain strength across N.S. to ensure future for Mi'kmaq language". The Chronicle Herald. Halifax, NS. Retrieved 2013-10-24.
  10. Myslik, Jaime (2014-03-25). "Mi'kmaq is making a comeback in a Nova Scotia community - Politics - CBC News". CBC News : Politics. Retrieved 2014-03-28.
  11. Native Languages of the Americas
  12. Boston Review: Touching Their Ancestors’ Hands, 'Animacy'
  13. Online Etymology Dictionary, 'Quebec'
  14. Online Etymology Dictionary, 'caribou'
  15. Online Etymology Dictionary, 'toboggan'
  16. Kavanagh, Maureen, ed. (2005) [1985], "Hinterland Who's Who", Canadian Wildlife Service/EC, ISBN 0-662-39659-6, retrieved 21 December 2013
  17. Bakker, P. (1989). Two Basque Loanwords in Micmac. International Journal of American Linguistics Vol. 55, No. 2 (Apr., 1989), pp. 258-261
  18. "Amqui (ville)" (in French). Commission de toponymie du Québec. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  19. "Causapscal (Ville)" (in French). Commission de toponymie du Québec. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  20. "Matapédia (Municipalité)" (in French). Commission de toponymie du Québec. Retrieved 2012-01-12.
  21. "Paspébiac (Ville)" (in French). Commission de toponymie du Québec. Retrieved 2011-12-29.
  22. "Book launch today". Cape Breton Post. 2012-03-26. Retrieved 2012-10-21.


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