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A Fifteen Minute Choctaw Lesson

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  • Choctaw is a very complex language, but the following will give you a very brief description of its sounds and how they are written in the Byington orthograpy used by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. (The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians uses three orthographies, including the Byington orthography, and the Chickasaw Nation uses yet another one for its closely related language.) Our examples are not perfect, but they are about as good an idea as one can get without spending a long time with a native speaker.


    Choctaw is an oral language that was first reduced to writing in the nineteenth century by Cyrus Byington, a Presbyterian missionary. He was able to use the letters of the roman alphabet to represent most of the sounds in Choctaw. The main differences are that he used the Greek letter upsilon for the short a sound (sort of like the a in against), and lh or hl for the aspirated l sound (sort of like the lth sound in health if you can make the sound without voicing the l. In other words, put your tongue up behind your teeth like you would if you were going to pronounce the l, and then exhale the th sound). The roman letter v is often substituted for the Greek upsilon. In writing, lh is used before consonants and hl is used before vowels. You will also see ch as in cheese and sh as in shake.

    The Choctaw language does not use the English consonants or letters C, D, G, J, Q, R, V, X or Z. There are essentially three vowels - a, i and o, each of which has three sounds - long, short and nasal. The short sounds are written v, i and u, respectively. The long sounds are written a, e and o. The nasal sounds are denoted by (1) the vowel followed by m before p or b, (2) the vowel followed by n before t, ch or l, and (3) the vowel is underlined or typed with a superscript n in all other cases.

    Examples of (1) are ampo for dish, impa for eat and ombinili for chair. Examples of (2) are tanchi for corn, pinti for mouse, and isapontuk for mosquito. Examples of (3) are aki for my father, chiki for your father, and shoshi for bug or worm. However, you may see many different styles of writing and spelling, and people play fast and loose with o's and u's.

    There are two dipthongs (combinations) - ai and au, which sometimes appear as ay or aw. Ai sounds like the English i in ice or mice, and au sounds similar to the ou in house or mouse.

    Choctaw does not have any plurals. The only way to make a noun plural is to add a number or a quantity. Ofi can be one dog or a hundred dogs. You must say ofi tuklo for two dogs, or ofi laua for a lot of dogs.

    Likewise, Choctaw does not have any gender specific nouns except hattak (man) and ohoyo (woman). To make the generic cow (wak) male you must add nakni and to make her female you must add tek, giving wak nakni, the bull, and wak tek, the moo cow. Gender does appear in kinship terms, but that subject is too complicated to cover in
    years, much less our fifteen minutes.

    Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek/Seminole are all members of the Muskogean language family. Choctaw and Chickasaw are very similar because they separated very recently in the archaeological sense. They are very different from Creek/Seminole because their predecessors separated a very long time ago. However, they all still share a basic set of sounds and grammatical construction.

    Choctaw does not have nearly as many words as English, so one word may have many meanings. Anumpa, for example not only means word, but it can also mean a language, news, and all sorts of things connected with words. Choctaw language is Chahta anumpa, but Chahta anumpa could also mean a Choctaw word.

    You may see or hear the word na hullo, which is the Choctaw term for a European (white) man. Since English is the predominant European language in the United States you will also see the English language referred to as na hullo anumpa or simply as na hullo.

    And, here is the phrase that everyone wants to know:

    "I love you" is "Chi hollo li."
     


    A Few Choctaw Words and Phrases

     

    Halito! Hello!
    Chim achukma? How are you?
    Amachukmahoke. I am fine.
    Chisnato? And you?
    Amachukma akinli. I am fine too.
    Yakoke! Thank you!
    Ome. All right, you're welcome, general assent
    Chi pisa lachike. Goodbye (Literally "I'll see you soon.")
    A Yes
    Keyu No
    Oka Water
    Illimpa Food
    Corn Tanchi
    Chukka House
    Bvnna To want or to need
    _____ sv bvnna. Example: Oka sv bvnna. I want/need _____. Example: I want some water.
    _____ chi bvnna. Example: Illimpa chi bvnna. You want/need _____. Example: You need some food.
    Nanta? What?
    Nanta chi bvnna? What do you want?
    Oka sv bvnna. I want some water.
    Hattak Man
    Ohoyo Woman
    Nakni Adjective for male
    Tek Adjective for female
    Vlla Child
    Vlla nakni Boy (male child)
    Vlla tek Girl (female child)
    Svshki My mother
    Aki My father
    Svpokni My grandmother
    Amafo My grandfather
    Achvffa One
    Tuklo Two
    Tuchena Three
    Ushta Four
    Tahlapi Five
    Hannali Six
    Ontuklo Seven
    Ontuchena Eight
    Chakkali Nine
    Pokkoli Ten
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