Choctaw Language

Bishinik, unknown date

Choctaw Language

Language is always changing, like fashions and especially music. People will say a word in a particular style and other will follow the example until it is accepted as the way to say it. It is these differences that set people apart from other people. It can denote an area where they live, or even a state. Slang is often created just for this purpose. People who live in the north sound different than people who live in the south and each one is proud of the way they talk. That goes for city folks and country folks as well.

When the Choctaws lived in Mississippi before 1830, they probably all spoke Choctaw in the same way, however, when the tribe was removed to Oklahoma, certain changes came into the language. The Choctaws who stayed in Mississippi now speak differently from those who now live in Oklahoma. This is called a dialect. All Choctaws can understand each other. they merely pronounce the words slightly different. And as a result, there are many ways of saying the same thing.

There are only 21 letters in the Choctaw alphabet including three combinations. You’ll find most of the letters pronounced as they are in English. This fact, alone, made it very easy for the missionaries to translate many of their materials in Choctaw enabling the Choctaw people to learn very quickly.

A – as in father, or in sofa

A – as “u” in tub

B – as in boy, or bat

Ch – as in church

E – as in they, or long “a”

F – as in far, or fight

H – as in house, or horse

HI – as in think

I – as in it, or give

K – as in kick, or kite

L – as an aspirated “I”

M – as in might, or more

N – as in night or now

0 – as in not, or “u” in put

P – as in pow

S – as in sir, but never as in his

Sh – as in shall or shirt

T – as in top or tight

W – as in we, or way

Y – as in young, or year

L – as in laugh, or lay

There are two diphthongs: AI – as in pine AU – as in now, or all

Nasalized vowels: “A”, “I”, “0”, and “U” or A, I, O, and U. These can be written either way and are pure nasals. They retain the vowel sounds with the exception of some of the sound coming through the nose like a slight breath creating a softer sound. The only difference in the sound is when it occurs before the letter “k”. The the vowel sound is long and harder, more like “ang”, “ing”, “ong”, and “ung”.

In pronouncing words K or H is followed by I, M, N, or B, there is a very short vowel sound. It is almost like a soft breath between the two letters.

Ahni – to think (ah-a-neh)          tohbi – white (toe-i-beh)

ikbi – to make (ik-i-beh)          lakna – yellow (lahk-na)

hokli – to catch (hok-i-leh)      mahli – to blow (mah-i-leh)

In some words u is written for o, and v and a have the same sounds. For example:

hashi – Sun (Han-sheh)      hushi – bird (ho-sheh)

chula – fox (chew-lah)      hapi – salt (ha-peh)

pala – lamp (pa-lah)         shinuk – sand (Shee-newk)

The consonant hl has three pronounciations. Older Choctaws will say “thl” where as a more modern pronounciation is simply “th” as in think.

hlampko – strong (thlamp-ko/thamp-ko)

Okhlili – dark (oak-thlee-lee/oak-thee-lee)

However, these are not to be confused with some Choctaw words that use both the “h” and “l” sound. For instance: Mahli – (to blow) is pronounced “mah-i-leh”, with the middle syllable (i) nothing more than a quick breath. This is one reason why learning the vocabulary is so important.

A double consonant is given an extended sound.

homma – red (hoem-mah)      ibbak – hand (eb-bach)

issi – deer (es-seh)              chukka – house (chew-kah)

iyi – foot (ee-yeh)               nittak – day (neh-tach)

Words containing the combination-letters of “oi” and “oa” are prounounced as though they were “owi” and “owa” – and the combined letters of “ia” and “io” are pronounced as though they were written “iya” and “iyo”.

nia – fat (nee-ya)                  ia – to go (eh-ya)

foi – bee (foe-weh)              nukoa – mad (no-koe-wah)

keyu – not (kee-yeh)            fiopa – to breath (fi-yoe-pah)

In the study of Choctaw, there is a sound known as “nasalization” or “through the nose”. There are two nasal consonants, (m) and (n) in which the vowel before the (m) or (n) is nasalized. In other words, the nasalized sound will be indicated by underlining the vowel.

ampo – dish (ahmpoe)        ompi – pawpaw (ohm-peh)

sinti – snake (sehn-teh)       pinti – mouse (pehn-teh)

anchi – quilt (ahn-cheh)      ofunlo – screech owl ( oe-fun-lo)

Choctaw is not difficult, but it is different than English. To learn more, you may purchase the book and two cassette combination set that this article was taken from. “Introduction to Choctaw” is available at the Choctaw Capitol Museum, Rt.1, Box 105AAA Tuskahoma, OK 74574 for $30 plus $3 shipping and handling.