lakotabuttonpronunciationat (5K)

lakotalogolesson01 (33K)

iconpdf (1K) Printable Version (.pdf)

SAIVUS recognizes that 'Sioux' is an Anglo term liberally applied to bands of Lakota, and Dakota nations. SAIVUS is adopting the term Sioux and using it for the url sioux.saivus.org because we aspire to create a master guide for learning Dakota and Lakota dialects. For the time being, this resource is on the Lakota language. For more information, see lakota.saivus.org.

Lakota pronunciation is fairly difficult for an English speaker to master, and impossible to explain adequately on paper. While most of Lakota's sounds are also found in English, Lakota has a quite a few sounds that the English language lacks, including a couple that are rarely found in any world language. But don't despair! With just a little practice, proficiency is certainly attainable.

The importance of good pronunciation cannot be stressed enough since language use differs substantially between the Lakota and other cultures. The Lakota are one of the only peoples in the world that refrain from 'motherese'; speech is never simplified when speaking to babies (Standing Bear 1978, 7).1 Language also plays a complex role in religious ceremonies, where it is used to communicate with ethereal beings. The elders say that Lakota is even used to talk to the animals (White Hat Sr. 1999, 4), which the Lakota call wamákȟaškaŋ (literally: living things that move about on the earth). This statement is substantiated by reports that a meadowlark informed Sitting Bull of his future death, as well Black Elk's recollection of a kingbird that spoke to him.2 Be advised, this document describes how Lakota is pronounced based on various reports, but it should not be used as a rubric dictating 'proper' pronunciation. Native speakers of Lakota are the authority on their language, so you should never tell them their speech is incorrect if their manners of speaking differ from the information found here. After all, language is constantly changing and everyone has their own unique accent.

Although there is no vocabulary section in this unit, words for living things will be used in the examples and exercises. Grammatically, living things are treated differently than inanimate objects, so you should commit some of these terms to memory in preparation for the discussion on this matter.

"Héčheš hokšíla waŋ kȟúŋšitku kičhílaȟči thí škhé’. Yuŋkȟáŋ aŋpétu waŋ él kȟúȟšitku kiŋ čhaŋk’íŋ iyáya čhaŋké hokšíla kiŋ išnála thiyáta yaŋké čiŋ ičhúŋhaŋ hitȟúŋkala waŋ táku yak’óǧa-haŋ čha naȟ’úŋ kéye’. K’éyaš hé winúȟčala kiŋ wóyute mahél yuhá kiŋ hokšíla kiŋ heháŋhuŋniyaŋ slolyé šni kéye’. Ho, tkȟá waná lé naȟ’úȟ kiŋ úŋ wóle yuŋkȟáŋ wasná waŋ líla wašté kȟúŋšitku kiŋ gnáka čha hé é čha hitȟúŋkala kiŋ yúta-haŋ kéye’."
"Once, a boy lived alone with his grandmother. And one day, when she was out in the woods getting fuel, the boy, who wasn't home by himself, heard a mouse gnawing at something. But until then, he did not know that his grandmother had any food put away; so now he peered around, and found that it was a very fine cake of pemmican, which the mouse was eating."

- First paragraph of The Turtle Moccasin Boy I from Deloria's Dakota Texts

Lakota contains around the same number of sounds as the English language, but it does not have all the same types of sounds. While Lakota lacks English's 'interdentals' (TH-like sounds) and 'labiodentals' (F/V-like sounds), it is particularly rich in 'fricatives' (CH/SH/S/Z-like sounds). You may even decide that Lakota sounds a bit like French, Arabic or Hebrew, since it has a plethora of 'guttural sounds' (sounds made in the back of the throat).

Focusing on technical aspects of Lakota pronunciation can sharpen your ear, however, if you concentrate too hard on speaking correctly you could potentially over-articulate. Relax and don't be afraid to sound a little sloppy; remember that native Lakota speakers don't sound crisp all the time. It may be more to your advantage to simply get a feel for how the language flows.

In olden days, Lakota was written using pictographs that were painted spirally on hides during the winter, and later in ledger books. These drawings, though impressionistically simplistic, were far more intricate than childish doodles. The meanings of most symbols are not immediately obvious to foreigners, and some take on various modifying marks. Illustrations were arranged in a special order, and once properly decoded, could contain as much information as an entire sentence.

A Selection from the Winter Count of Cloud Shield

lakotapictograph01 (23K) It rained stars.
lakotapictograph02 (26K) They fought with the Cheyennes.
(stripes on arm represent the Cheyenne tribe)
lakotapictograph03 (22K) They killed a very fat buffalo bull.
lakotapictograph04 (20K) They fought the Pawnees across the ice on the North Platte [River].

Today Siouan languages are written using Roman letters, which were introduced by various missionaries as early as 1840.

Lakota is written with the same five vowels as English, but in Lakota each of them are pronounced in one way only. These vowels are called oral vowels in contrast to nasal vowels.

Oral Vowel Pronunciation IPA
   a "ah" as in 'fall' /a/
   e "eh" as in 'bed' /e/
   i "ee" as in 'ski' /i/
   o "oh" as in 'low' /o/
   u "oo" as in 'duke' /u/

Even though the Lakota i and English I both sound like "ee", this does not mean they are identical, and this goes for all other vowels. Lakota speakers consistently articulate vowels with slightly different mouth and tongue positions than English speakers, causing the vowels to sound somewhat different. In fact, not only is the English "ee" is different from the Lakota "ee", both the English and Lakota "ee"s sound different from Italian's "ee", which sounds different from Hawaiian's "ee", and so forth.

A Lakota speaker can detect your English accent simply by listening to the way you pronounce o. You may not realize it, but in English O is always pronounced with a W sound following it.3

This is obvious in words like 'low' or 'mow' because the W is written, but often times the W is not transliterated. Words like 'go', and 'toe' still end in a W sound, even though a W isn't included in the spelling. In fact, there is not a single English word in which the lips don't round after an O is produced!

In contrast, all of Lakota's vowels are pure, which means o does not necessarily pattern with w. Therefore, a word like no is always pronounced as "noh" in Lakota and never as "nohw" like it would be in English.

icontree01 (13K)
English Pronunciation
Lakota Pronunciation

Less noticeably, English speakers tend to form a W at the end of "oo" and a Y after "ee", and perhaps after "eh" as well. This is especially apparent if they have a western accent, and many people have a hint of one without realizing it So, pay special attention to how native speakers of Lakota pronounce u, i and e. Make sure you are not producing them as uw, iy and ey.

Like French, some of Lakota's vowels have nasal versions: a, i and u. When these vowels are nasalized, their sounds change to "uh" as in 'above', "ih" as in 'sick', and "euh" as in 'book'. Hold your nose and say "ih." The resulting sound should resemble what nasal i sounds like.

Of course, speakers of languages with nasal vowels don't go around holding their noses all the time. Try saying the word 'in'. Notice that the I in 'in' sounds exactly like the "ih" you produced while holding your nose. Pronounce 'in' again, only this time, try to wean away the N. This is how Lakota speakers produce nasal ; by directing the flow of air into their nasal cavity.

Nasal vowels are denoted by writing an 'engma' or 'eng', ŋ, after them (formerly the Greek letter 'eta': η). This ŋ is not pronounced; it merely signifies the fact that the preceding vowel is nasal.

You can think of ŋ like the letter E in English words such as 'shine' or 'wine'. Note that this E is not pronounced; it is merely there to have you read 'I' as "ay" rather than "ih", as opposed to 'shin' and 'win'.

Nasal Vowel Pronunciation IPA
    Nasal "uh" as in 'canola'

   čhkátotola (woodpecker)

/ã/ [ə̃]
    Nasal "ih" as in 'din'; but without the -N

   ztkátȟo (bluebird)

/ĩ/ [ɪ̃]
    "euh" as in 'book', only nasal. is not found in English, but try pronouncing 'book' with an -N instead of a -K.

   pȟáŋ (female elk)

/ũ/ [ʊ̃]

In old texts, is sometimes written as but in most cases this is just in disguise.4

In cases where changing an oral vowel to a nasal vowel (or vice versa) will not affect the meaning of a word, whether or not a particular vowel of a word is nasal differs between communities of speakers and even individual speakers, especially in cases of i versus (Boas 1941, 4). For instance, some pronounce the word for mourning dove as wakíŋyela, but others as wakíyela.

Aside from nasal vowels, Lakota has many other sounds that are written using two letters. A set of two letters used to record a single sound is called a digraph. In capitalization, only the first member of a digraph is capitalized, thus capital is NOT .

Vowels written two times in a row are called long vowels, and they are twice as long in duration than single vowels. Thus, while u is "oo", uu is "oooo". Be careful not to pronounce ee as i "ee", and oo as u "oo". In slow speech, they are pronounced as if there was a space between; for instance aa is pronounced "ah ah", with no khéze or anything else inbetween.

When nasal vowels are long, their sound value changes to that of oral a, i, and u, but they still maintain their nasality.

Long Vowel Pronunciation IPA
   aa "ah   ah" or "ahhh" as in 'father' [aa] or [aː]
   ee "eh   eh" or "ehhhh" [ee] or [eː]
   ii "ee   ee" or "eeee" [ii] or [iː]
   oo "oh   oh" or "ohhh" [oo] or [oː]
   uu "oo   oo" or "oooo" [uu] or [uː]
   aŋaŋ nasal "uh   uh" or nasal "ahhh" as in 'song'; only longer and without the -NG [ə̃ə̃] or [ãː]
   iŋiŋ nasal "ih   ih" or nasal "eeee" as in 'sing'; only longer and without the -NG [ɪ̃ɪ̃] or [ĩː]
   uŋuŋ nasal "euh   euh" or nasal "oooo" as in 'dune'; only longer and without the -N [ʊ̃ʊ̃] or [ũː]

Below is a list of all of the sounds that the English and Lakota languages share. Some are written slightly differently in Lakota. The next two sections describe sounds that are foreign to English.

Consonant Pronunciation IPA
   b, h, l,
   m, n, s,
   w, y, z

Same as English more or less.

   blóza (white pelican)
   hecá (turkey vulture/buzzard)
   la (flea)
   maká (skunk)
   nakpágiča (marten)
   siŋkpȟé (muskrat)
   wazí (pine tree)
   šiyó (wild game bird)
   zičá (red squirrel)

Between two nasal vowels, h, y and w are nasalized (Rood and Taylor 1996, 444).

   hiŋháŋ (owl)

/b5, h, l,
m, n, s,
z, j, w/

Same as English CH as in 'chalk'. The diacritic, or 'marking', over c is called a 'wedge', 'caron' or 'háček' pronounced "hAH check".

   čháŋ (tree)


Same as English G as in 'gorilla', but never pronounced as a J (as in 'giant'). G is also never silent (as in 'gnome'), which is important because g only occurs in clusters with n, l and m.

   gmahú (black walnut tree)


S with a wedge is the same as English SH as in 'shell'.

   šúŋka (dog)


Z with a wedge sounds like English Z only less dental. This sound is present in a few English words such as 'pleasure' and 'garage', but not many

   tȟažúška (ant)


(marks the khéze, known to English speakers as the glottal stop). The glottal stop is a sudden pause in speech. This is the break you hear in the interjection "uh-oh"; the dash between 'uh' and 'oh' is where the glottal stop occurs. It can also be heard in the middle of the words 'button' and 'kitten', where the Ts are not actually pronounced.

In Lakota, the khéze is primarily written after certain consonants, especially s, š and ȟ.

   kȟokȟóyaȟaŋla (chicken/poultry)

The khéze goes at the end of a word that ends in a vowel, if it is the last word of a sentence.


The sounds you know as K, P and T in English are written with an h after them in Lakota. However, like the ŋ in nasal vowels, this h is not pronounced.

Aspirated Consonants Pronunciation IPA

Same as English K as in 'kin'.

   khéya (turtle)


Same as English P as in 'pill'. Note that in Lakota ph is never pronounced as F (as in 'telephone').

   pheží (grass)


Same as English T as in 'tin'. Note that in Lakota th does not represent English's TH sound, which is found in words like 'thorn' and 'bathe'.

   thúki (clam)


Aspiration is a short burst of air that sometimes follows K, P and T. In English, K, P and T are unaspirated after S, and aspirated pretty much everywhere else. So, while there is aspiration following the K in 'kit', there is no aspiration following the K in 'skit'. You will notice that the K in 'skit' sounds a bit cleaner or harder sounding than the one in 'kit'; there is less white noise following it.

English speakers generally do not notice the difference between aspirated and unaspirated K, P and T. In fact, it nearly impossible for an English speaker to distinguish K, P and T from G, B and D. The only difference between them is that the vocal chords vibrate when you say G, B, or D, but not when you say K, P, and T.

Touch your Adam's apple and say "aaah". You will notice a buzzing sensation. Now say "sss". Now there should be no buzzing. Sounds that make your vocal box buzz are said to be voiced, otherwise they are unvoiced. K, P and T are unvoiced, unlike G, B and D.

Aspiration is trivial in English because it does not affect the meaning of words. If you pronounce "skit" with an aspirated K instead of an unaspirated K, it just causes you to sound a bit of. On the contrary, aspiration is very important to the Lakota language in that it can change the meaning of a word. If you pronounce the word kíza (to creak) in Lakota with the K in 'kit' rather than the one in 'skit', you'll end up saying khíza (to fight)! For this very reason, the brains of native Lakota speakers are tuned to pick up on the difference.

In Lakota, unaspirated stops CH, K, P, and T written the same as regular čh, kh, ph, and th, only they lack the h.

Unaspirated Consonant Pronunciation IPA
   č Sounds something like an English J (as in 'jury'), however, it is unvoiced. When an English speaker says "ah jah" the vocal chords vibrate throughout the entire utterance, but when a Lakota speaker says ača the vocal chords vibrate for the initial "ah", temporarily pause for č, and start up again for the final "ah". Of course, this all happens more quickly than the blink of an eye, so for starters you can just pronounce č as English J.

Hopefully the wedge above č will remind you never to pronounce it as a K or an S (as in 'corn' or 'cereal').

   čaŋšká (red-tailed hawk)

   k Sounds more like the K in 'skill' than the one in 'kill'.

Whereas kh sounds like the K H sequence in 'ask hall', k sounds like the K in 'ask all'. Remember, the Lakota k is never silent (as in 'knife').

   kimímela (butterfly)

   p As with k, p sounds like the P in 'spill' than the one in 'pll'.

Whereas ph sounds like the P H sequence in 'wasp hill', p sounds like the P in 'wasp ill'.

   píško (nighthawk)

   t As with k and p, t sounds more like the T in 'still' than the one in 'till'.

Whereas th sounds like the T H sequence in 'nest hacked', t sounds like the T in 'nest act'.

   itóptasápa (black ferret)


If you are having trouble producing unaspirated k, p and t, just pronounce them as English G, B and D, respectively. Doing so will not lead to a miscommunication; you will just sound slightly off. K, p, and t are approximately three times more frequent than kh, ph, and th and guttural K, P and T combined (Ullrich 2008, 697).

Exercise: Writing Practice

Note that Lakota lacks the English consonants F, R, V, and the TH sound, however, Lakota contains a few sounds that are foreign to English called gutturals or uvulars, named after the 'uvula', which is that upside down, keyhole shaped flap in the back of your throat. In all cases they are variations of other consonants found in Lakota like ǧ, which is like regular g only more guttural.

Guttural Consonant Pronunciation IPA
   ǧ Guttural g. Ǧ is articulated by closing the throat muscles as you would for g, only they don't close all the way.

This sound does not exist in English but it can be heard in French and German. Some people claim it sounds like a gargled or underwater G, or a G made while swallowing.

   hoǧáŋ (fish)

Before i, ǧ is 'trilled', meaning the uvula taps the back of the throat. Think of a sexy growl.

   kaŋǧí (crow)

/ʁ/ [ʁ, ɣ, R]

There is also a guttural version of h:

Guttural Consonant Pronunciation IPA

Guttural h. This raspy sound is somewhere between English K and English H. To produce ȟ, make an h sound as you would normally only you close your velar muscles more. Your velar muscles are the throat muscles that contract when you swallow.

Have you ever heard someone imitate the roar of a large crowd by making a strong "hhh" noise? This is something like what ȟ sounds like in Lakota. You may have heard this sound6 in other languages such as Hebrew: 'Chanukah', Spanish: "roja" ('red'), German "machen" ('to make'), Scottish "loch" ('lake') or Mandarin: "nǐ hǎo" ('hello'). ȟ is almost a voiceless version of ǧ.

Ȟ is useful in creating onomatopoeias. Ȟaȟá (waterfall) imitates the sound of crashing water (White Hat 1999, 198). Íȟaȟa, similar to "ha ha" in English, means to laugh at. Ȟná means to growl or grunt like a bear.

   heȟáka (male elk)


In Lakota, and some dialects of Dakota, guttural ȟ comes after k, p and t. Some call , , and the ȟ-aspirated stops.

Because both consonants that comprise , , and are pronounced in unison, they are considered single sounds, just like English CH is a single sound even though it consists of T and SH pronounced simultaneously. Recall that 'digraph' is the term for single sounds that are written as two.

Guttural Consonant Pronunciation IPA
    Guttural k; k pronounced simultaneously with ȟ.

   uúše (pig)

/kh/ [kχ]
    Guttural p; p pronounced simultaneously with ȟ.

   ahíŋ (porcupine)

/ph/ [pχ]
    Guttural t; t pronounced simultaneously with ȟ.

   aŋpá (white birch)

/th/ [tχ]

If guttural , , and are hard for you to make, you can pronounce them as if they were kh, ph, and th. Doing so will not change the meaning of a word, and in fact this is how they are pronounced in some dialects of Dakota and Nakoda. Besides, k, kh, p, ph, t, and th are 90% more common than , , and in discourse (Ullrich 2008, 697).

Note that you cannot get away with pronouncing lone guttural ȟ as regular h, however, as this does make a difference in the meaning of a word:

hoká (eel) ȟoká (badger)

There is one group of Lakota sounds that is never heard in English, and is quite rare among the world's languages. An apostrophe after č, k, p, or t denotes ejective consonants.7 Č’, k’, p’, t’ sound like they have a click after them, and are often described as 'explosive'.

To produce p’, per say, try pronouncing the word 'pea', but first take the break in "uh-oh" (represented by the dash) and put it right after the initial P: 'p-ea'. This should sound somewhat close to p’. There should be no aspiration after between p and , which is why it is written as p’, not ph’.

Ejective Consonant Pronunciation IPA
   č’ Ejective č; č pronounced simultaneously with the khéze

   phutéwokič’u (elephant)

   k’ Ejective k; k pronounced simultaneously with the khéze

   ptewák’ (work-ox)

   p’ Ejective p; p pronounced simultaneously with the khéze

   p’é (American elm)

   t’ Ejective t; t pronounced simultaneously with the khéze

   t’élanuwé (sand lizard)


Only about 1-2% of the time will you encounter an ejective k’, p’, or t’ instead of their aspirated (kh, ph, th), unaspirated (k, p, t), or guttural (, , ) versions (Ullrich 2008, 698)

Sometimes vowels are stressed, meaning they are louder, higher pitched and therefore more noticeable than the other vowels of the word. Stress is indicated in writing by placing an acute accent mark, ´, directly above a vowel.

All stressed vowels are also long, so you must remember that áŋ, íŋ, and úŋ are pronounced as nasal "ah", "ee" and "oo" rather than nasal "uh", "ih" and "euh", even though they're not always written as áŋaŋ/aŋáŋ, íŋiŋ/iŋíŋ, or uŋúŋ/uŋúŋ.

itȟúŋkala (rodent) = itȟúŋuŋkala

The vowel in single syllable words is always stressed, unless it is a function word like kiŋ (the) or šni (not). Otherwise, stress usually occurs on the second syllable of words in Lakota, but about a third of the time it occurs on the first syllable. Very rarely, it can even occur on the third syllable.

   bló (potato)
   waŋyéča (firefly)
   máyašle (hill coyote)

This is important because the way English speakers are naturally inclined to stress a word may not correspond to how Lakota speakers stress a word. If an English speaker sees the word hetkala (chipmunk) he or she will be most inclined to read it "hEHt   kah   lah"; putting stress on the first syllable. However, when a Lakota speaker pronounces this word, he or she accentuates the second vowel, saying "heh   tkAH   lah".

icontree01 (13K)
English Reading
hét   ka   la
Lakota Reading
he   tká   la"

Some words over two syllables may have multiple stressed vowels, but the first is always more prominent than the second. Thus, the úŋ in šúŋšuŋikpísaŋ (donkey) is stressed more than the á.

šúŋšuŋikpísaŋ = šúŋšuŋikpísaŋ

It is vital to memorize how each word is stressed in Lakota, not only if you want to sound elegant, but also because there are cases where two words differ only in terms of which vowels are stressed. This is not unlike English where 'recórd' means 'to tape music', but 'récord' means 'a disk of music'. Improperly stressing words in Lakota could lead to some dire mistranslations!

maǧá (duck/goose) máǧa (garden)
pȟesá (comb of a rooster) ésa (Quapaw)
otȟáŋiŋ (to spread) ótȟaŋiŋ (to be visible)

Exercise: Stress Practice

Now that you know how each letter of Lakota is pronounced, why don't you practice your pronunciation by reciting the names of the letters in the Lakota Alphabet, or Óowaptaya; from óowa (letter of the alphabet) and ptáya (together). The order in which letters appear is the same as English's Alphabet, only digraphs go after their single counterparts (k, kh), and English letters come before variations of English letters (k, kh, , k’).


Lakota Alphabet
A a
Aŋ aŋ
B b
Č č
Čh čh
Č’ č’
E e
G g
Ǧ ǧ
H h
Ȟ ȟ
I i
Iŋ iŋ
K k
Kh kh
Kȟ kȟ
K’ k’
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
Ph ph
Pȟ pȟ
P’ p’
S s
Š š
T t
Th th
Tȟ tȟ
T’ t’
U u
Uŋ uŋ
W w
Y y
Z z
Ž ž

Learning how to spell words could come in handy, say, if you want to talk about the sound system of Lakota, or spell a word to someone who can't hear the difference between aspirated and unaspirated consonants. If you ever want to spell a word in Lakota, simply name off each letter in the word.

lakotapicenteringpineridge (19K)

o   gli   la   a   la   o   ya   aŋ   ku   e

Remembering the names of Lakota letters does not require you to memorize 38 letters. After all, vowels do not really have special names and the names of most consonants end in -a, except for b, č, š, and ž which end in -e, and g which ends in -li. As for č, k, p, and t: unaspirated versions end in -u, aspirated versions end in -i (because aspiration is easiest to hear after i), and ejective versions end in -o. So, to memorize the alphabet you just need to remember six basic facts:

   • b, č, š, and ž end in -e
   • g ends in -li
   • unaspirated consnants (č, k, p, t) and ǧ end in -u
   • aspriated consonants (čh, kh, ph, th) end in -i
   • ejective consonants (č’, k’, p’, t’) end in -o
   • otherwise, consonants end in -a

Confusingly, although digraphs like kh and represent single sounds, in alphabetization the second letter of a digraph is treated as if it its own consonant. Thus, in the Lakota-English Dictionary we do not find the following sections for words starting with k-, kh-, and -:
   k: for entries starting with ka-, kaŋ-, ke-, ki-, kiŋ-, ko-, ku-, kuŋ-
   kh: for entries starting with kha-, khaŋ-, khe-, khi-, khiŋ-, kho-, khu-, khuŋ-
   : for entries starting with kȟa-, kȟaŋ-, kȟe-, kȟi-, kȟiŋ, kȟo-, kȟu-, kȟuŋ-

Instead, we find entries starting with k-, kh-, and -, all under one section:
   k: for entries starting with ka-, kaŋ-, ke-, ki-, kiŋ-
      → then entries starting with kha-, khaŋ-, khe-, khi-, khiŋ-, kho-, khu-, khuŋ-
         → then entries starting with kȟa-, kȟaŋ-, kȟe-, kȟi-, kȟiŋ, kȟo-, kȟu-, kȟuŋ-
        and then continuing to entries starting with ko-, ku-, kuŋ-

This is because the single consonants h and ȟ, which comprise the second members of the digraphs and , are alphabetized after but before o in the Lakota Alphabet; just as you find H between I and O in English. As we would expect, words starting with ejective k’ appear at the very end of the section since the khéze is the last letter of the alphabet.

The only other bit of information you need to know in order to alphabetize words is that stressed vowels go after non-stressed vowels, and words stressed on their first vowel go after words stressed on their second vowel: ka, , kaká, káka.

iconpdf (1K) Printable Lakota Alphabet Flash Cards (.pdf)

Exercise: Spelling Practice

Exercise: Alphabetization Practice

Lakota has some pretty long words, like the word for donut, aǧúyabskuyagmigma, which is a mouthful in itself!

lakotapicdonut (19K)

aǧúyabskuyagmigma (donut)

Breaking this word into syllables, however, makes it much easier to sound out:


Now it is the equivalent of nine small words. Native speakers can break down words like aǧúyabskuyagmigma into syllables without even thinking about it because they have subconsciously mastered a handful of principles. By learning these principles yourself, reading long words like donut will be, well, a piece of cake.

In short, all you need to know is that each Lakota syllable must contain only 1 vowel, and it can have anywhere from 0-3 consonants: up to 2 at the beginning, and only 1 at the end but only if it's at the end of the word. But, let's break this down into two basic guidelines.

Syllabification Guidelines

1. V (Vowel): each syllable must contain one, and only one, vowel (oral or nasal). This means the number of syllables in a word is proportionate to its number of vowels.

waúŋchala (monkey) = wa   úŋ   cha   la

Long vowels can be put in two separate syllables in slow speech, or in the same syllable in fast speech. Note that once any syllables contain long vowels, the number of syllables of a word will no longer be proportionate to its number of vowels.

2. CV(C) (Consonant + Vowel) or CCV(C) (Consonant + Consonant + Vowel): Consonants always belong at the beginning of syllables, unless at the end of a word.9 It doesn't matter whether you treat digraphs the same as single letters or two different letters.

asápazila (salamander) = a   sá   pa   zi   la
tȟat’échnuga (dotted grayfeather) = tȟa   t’é   chaŋ   nu   ga
wóš’iŋ (bullfrog) = wó   š’iŋ

Guideline 1 signifies that the following combinations of vowels (and their equivalents with nasal vowels), never mix together as they would in English. Instead, each individual member should remain audible. In fact, in slow speech there is a khéze between them, though this is never written.

iǧúǧaothila (rock wren) = iǧúǧa’othila
šuŋgwóilake (work horse) = šuŋgwó’ilake

Be especially wary of pairs like au and oe, which always mix together in English. Au is "ah   oo" as in 'Raul' NOT as in 'automatic', and oe is "oh   eh"; as in 'Noel' NOT as in 'Joel'.

Here is a complete list of sounds that always mix in English; be sure to keep these vowels separate when you speak Lakota.

English Diphthongs

ae "ah" + "eh" } NOT like the word 'eye'
ai "ah" + "ee"
ao "ah" + "oh" } NOT like the exclamation "ow!"
au "ah" + "oo"
ei "eh" + "ee" NOT as in 'rein'
oe "oh" + "eh" } NOT as in 'poignant'
oi "oh" + "ee"
ou "oh" + "oo" NOT as in 'soul'

Even for assortments of vowels that do not mix in English, make sure you refrain from applying English spelling conventions. Ea is "eh ah" as in 'Leah' NOT as in 'leader', and io is "ee   oh" as in 'Rio Grande' NOT as in 'riot'. Iou is "ee   oh   oo"; NOT "ee uh" as in 'serious' or "ai   uh" as in 'pious'.

The only exception8 to this rule is au, but only in the word háu (hello), which is pronounced like the English word 'how'. In this one word alone, the vowel sounds do mix together. It is believed to be a loanword, possibly from Cheyenne.

As for consonant clusters, it is worth noting that Lakota speakers put some consonants together that English speakers never pair up at the beginning of syllables.

   pt Similar to 'aptitude'

   pté (cow)

   tk Similar to 'Atkins'. In careful speech (in fast speech most English speakers pronounce the T as a glottal stop).

   ziŋtkála (bird)

   kp Similar to 'stinkpot'

   ikpísaŋla (pronghorn)

Clusters that contain sounds foreign to English will be extra challenging for English speakers to produce.

   ȟč (no English equivalent)

   tháȟča (deer)

   ȟm (no English equivalent)

   teȟmúǧa (fly)

   ngǧ (no English equivalent)

   suŋíla (fox)(pronounced as suŋngǧíla)

Tiny fractions of vowels are audible between the two consonants of the following clusters: bl, gl, mn, gm, gn, and in Sičáŋǧu Lakota, ks (White Hat Sr. 1999, 43). This mini vowel is called "schwa". It might sound to you like a little a, e, i, o, or u, but the actual sound value is none of those in particular. To English speakers the vowel fraction in the Lakota compound mní-sóta (sky-tinted water) sounds like an i, which is why the borrowed state name 'Minnesota' is spelled with one. These combinations are syllabified as if the mini-vowel were written.

Consonant Cluster Pronunciation IPA
   bl As in 'baloney'; NOT as in 'blue'.

   bloká (bull) = buhlo   ká

Bl is pronounced ml after nasal vowels, see Sound Changes).

   gl As in 'galore'; NOT as in 'glow'

   agléška (lizard) = a   guhlé   ška

   gm As in 'Gommorrah'; NOT as in 'stigma'

   igmú (cat) = i   gu

   gn As in 'mahogany'; NOT as in 'magnet'

   gnašká (frog) = guhna   šká

   mn As in 'monotonoey'; NOT as in 'amnesia'

   keš’ámna (snails) = ke   š’á   muhna


Be advised, compound and reduplicated words can potentially violate the guidelines you have learned. For instance, they can contain syllables ending in consonants that are not at the end of the word.

Compound words can contain three adjacent syllables, as in šuŋngblóka (stud) (ng is actually a digraph). In these cases, the first consonant belongs at the end of the previous syllable, and the next two belong at the start of the following syllable. Thus, šuŋngblóka is syllabified as šuŋng   bló   ka.

Reduplicated words, are words that repeat a part of themselves. For instance pispíza (prairie dog) is syllabified as pis   pí   za rather than pi   spí   za. This is because the pis- was actually copied from the piz in piza, which was initially the beginning of the word (actually piz- was copied, but z changes to s before p).

For now, all you can do is be aware that exceptions like šuŋngblóka and pispíza exist. Once you become experienced Lakota speaker, and gain knowledge of how compounding and reduplication work, you will be able to recognize these exceptions right off the bat.

Exercise: Syllabification Practice

Exercise: Reading Practice

Words are generally spelled they way they are produced in careful speech, but sounds can change to ease pronunciation, and speech can get slurred when talking quickly. Interestingly, some of these changes are predictable:

1. A, i, and u in writing are pronounced , , after m or n. Because of this, after m or n, , , and are pronounced with exaggerated nasalization to emphasize the difference.

matúgna (crayfish) = maŋtúgna
chuwínuŋgA (camel) = chuwíngA

2. Aŋb, iŋb and uŋb are pronounced am, im and um.

waŋb (eagle) = waŋm

3. Ak/aŋk, ik/iŋk and uk/uŋk are pronounced ang/aŋng, ing/iŋng, and ung/uŋng.

škečátȟaŋka (wolverine) = škečátȟaŋngka

Other sound changes are not so intuitive:

4. Unstressed vowels, glides (y, w and h) and the khéze are likely to be lost in fast speech.

wamníyomni (cocoon) = wamuhníomuhni

5. Aya, aye, and awa become aa, long 'ae' as in 'bat' (IPA: [æː]), and oo (IPA: [ɔː]) respectively.10

wičháyažipa (wasp/bee) = wičháažipa

6. When words are pronounced in isolation or at the end of statements, stressed short vowels are devoiced at the end of words, causing them to sound whispered as if an h follows them.

...khečhá... (shaggy dog) = ...khečháh...

While it would be infeasible for you to memorize and apply all of these rules in your speech, once aware of them, you can be sure to listen for them in speech. There is still hope that you can subconsciously acquire these speaking traits, even as an adult.

Other sound changes will be discussed in subsequent lessons; as they only relevant to the process of building words.

The relationship between the sounds of words and their meanings is not always arbitrary in Lakota, which has an interesting property called sound symbolism. In some words s, š, and ȟ (or their voiced versions z, ǡ and ǧ) can sometimes be swapped to convey gradations: s/z implies subtlety, ȟ/ǧ symbolizing extremity and š/Ž is inbetween.

s/z   š/ž   ȟ/ǧ

For instance, whereas the root -sléčA means to split something with ease, -šléčA means to split something with difficulty, and -ȟléčA means to have a hard time splitting something. Here, we went from painless to arduous in task. Likewise, whereas the root -mnuza means to produce a light crunching sound as packed snow, -mnuža a means to produce a heavy crunching sound as a stale cracker, and -mnuǧa means to produce a very loud cracking sound as a tree branch.

The implications of trading consonants is not always intuitive, whereas, sóta means transparent, šóta is the word for smoke, and ȟóta is the term for gray. Here, we went from mostly see-through, to translucent, to opaque, which has little to do with an amount of effort; plus, 'smoke' is a noun. We find a similar example with z, ž and ǧ: whereas zi means yellow, ži means tawny and ǧi means brown. In this case we went from light to dark in the spectrum of warm colors (Lakota has no native word for orange).

This phenomenon is not always three-fold; sometimes only pairs of contrast exists; zazéča means full of small holes, as in lattice work, and ǧaǧéča means full of large holes, but there is no intervening žaž�ca of the nature full of medium-sized holes.

While sound symbolism is a definite property of the Lakota language, be cautious of the fact there are many counterexamples to the generalizations we just observed. Just because two words differ only in terms of a select consonant does not necessarily imply they are related in meaning; ȟá, in contrast to šá (white), means to bury something, not opaque white. A related point is that you cannot freely swap them in any word you like; whereas sutá is the word for strong, šutá and ȟutá are meaningless, and therefore do not convey quite strong and very strong.

The Lakota alphabet you have learned is relatively new. The way most Lakota speaking adults write their language using English letters is myriad, in some cases having been inspired by various missionary systems. Since these missionaries were used to hearing English, they could not distinguish all of Lakota's sounds; particularly the unaspirated contrasts č, k, p, and t. Resultantly, native Lakota speakers don't always identify every Lakota sounds in writing.

However, their method of writing Lakota is actually the most efficient because it uses the fewest number of letters and diacritics. It is true that some cases of ambiguity arise that occasionally result in miscommunications. However, in most cases context virtually always eliminates this threat. Given 'huha', if the conversation is about anatomy, a native speaker can tell that 'huha' is huhá (limbs), but if the conversation is about making leather, he or she knows that 'huha' is ȟuhá (hide scrapings).

Native speakers have familiarity with their vocabulary and knowledge of various spelling conventions working for them. They can get away with spelling a word like thiwákiŋyela (rock dove) as 'thiwakinyela' because they already have the word for rock dove memorized, and besides that, they're aware that that ŋ - not n - is typically found in clusters. Likewise, in English it doesn't unofficially matter if someone spells the word 'tomorrow' as 'tommorow' or 'tommorro', because any native English speaker can tell what word you're trying to write. This is because they already have the word - "tuh   mah   rohw" meaning 'next day' - stored in their brains. Given such, it would be tedious to spell this word 'tuhmahrohw' even though it would reflect the pronunciation more accurately. For native speakers of both languages, words function more as memory aids than a set of pronunciation instructions, and many of them view modern orthographies as unnecessarily complicated.

Problematically, since more and more children are growing up speaking English and learning Lakota as a second language, the traditional method of writing has become the least efficient for future generations. When kids try to acquire their language from reading ad-hoc spellings as opposed to verbal utterances, bad speaking habits form, and their confidence gets destroyed by the number of speaking errors they are inclined to make.

If you are monolingual in English trying to learn Lakota, you can definitely empathize. You've probably never heard the Lakota word for bald eagle before. Traditionally, this word is written as 'anukasan'. But if you're used to reading English, the spelling will tempt you to reconstruct it improperly. You might pronounce this word "ah   noo   kah   san" or "ah   nuh   ah   sah"; both of which will cause you to sound funny. On the other hand, if you are given the precise phonetic spelling anúkȟasaŋ, which identifies all the sounds of the word, your speech will come out a lot more accurate. I once heard a professor of Native American History butcher 'Wakan Tanka' (Great Spirit) as "wAHn   kuhn   tAHn   kuh", when it should really be pronounced Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka; this word does not have any Ns at all! While you may never be able to pronounce Lakota perfectly, careless recitation of the word for such a sacred term can be taken as a sign of disrespect.

In light of this fact, most reservations have developed and adopted more drawn out alphabets that identify more sounds of their dialect. Although many Lakota communities have decided on a particular writing system, to date there is no universal standard, and many individual teachers promote their own systems. While the David Rood records guttural H as ȟ, Albert White Hat Sr. writes it as , and Violet Catcher as x. Contrast the traditional, Williamson's, and modern orthographies used to transcribe the following song by Used-as-a-Shield:

Traditional Orthography Williamson's Orthography Modern Orthography
Wicahcala kin
heya pelo
maka kin
tehan yunkelo
eha pelo
wica yaka pelo
Wića’ḣćala kiŋ
heya’ pelo’
maka’ kiŋ
tehaŋ’ yuŋke’lo
eha’ pelo’
wića’ yaka pelo’
Wičáháȟčala kiŋ
heyá peló’
makȟá kiŋ
tȟáhan yuŋké ló’
ehá peló’
wičáyakȟa peló’

The old men
The earth
You spoke
You are right.

- The Earth Only Endures by Used-as-a-Shield (Densmore 1918, 357)

You will encounter variation like this in reading miscellaneous Lakota literature, but thankfully, each way of recording Lakota's sounds tend to be very similar.11 For example, while c, ċ, , , ć, č, and ç are all different ways of recording the CH sound, each of them consists of some kind of line near the character.

It may surprise you to know that orthography is a very big deal, and has its own politics. In some cases, the act of white missionaries and linguists creating orthographies for Lakota was criticized as a form of patronization. Recently, programs have been established at major universities to train native speakers of American Indian languages in linguistics, and some have created orthographies for Lakota, but the issue by no means settled. Believe it or not there are articles and books written about Lakota transcription in particular, not to mention debates, committees and conferences dedicated to working out Lakota's orthography dilemma.

Forming the most concise, easy-to-learn, error-free alphabet for writing Lakota is a deceptively complex endeavor, as many considerations must be taken in mind. Should Lakȟóta iyápi (Lakota language) be written as one word or two? Given that Lakȟóta iyápi morphs into Lakȟól’iyápi in slow speech and Lakȟótiyapi in fast speech, should the spelling maintain such flexibility, as 'get you' versus 'getchya' in English? If iyápi (language) is pronounced the same as iápi, should y be included in the spelling?

SAIVUS conforms to the writing system of the best Lakota-English, English-Lakota Dictionary, in this case that of the Lakota Language Consortium, which uses an orthography that is widely approved by Lakota speakers. This orthography12 consolidates the best attributes of previous systems, has been field tested for usability, and contains a symbol for every sound of the language. Moreover, it has been officially adopted by a large number of Lakota speaking people.

Comparison of Various Lakota Orthographies

Now that you know all about the sounds of Lakota, why don't you try checking your pronunciation with these commonly used words and phrases. Unfortunately, there are not many to try because Lakota does not have so many formal expressions of etiquette. In the old days, courtesy was communicated through tone of voice and body language. Since literacy was nonexistent, there was little need for overt measures of politeness.

Like English, in Lakota some words are used only by children. Just as 'boo-boo' is a children's term in English for 'sore', múla is a baby word in Lakota for cow. Yet unlike English, in some cases Lakota words segregated according to gender as well. Some anthropologists believe that the emphasis of gender in Plains tribes derives from the division of labor necessary to support life on the range; only men were physically strong enough to hunt the fierce buffalo, so the women did domestic work instead. While it can be argued that the Lakota are more male-dominated than other tribes, say the Iroquois who were matrilineal, the Lakota hold gender distinctions more as a means for celebrating male/female differences than preferring one sex over the other.

Gender rules may vary from tribe to tribe, and sometimes men use feminine forms because they grew up around female speakers. The Lakota consider correcting another's speech impolite.

Common Words & Phrases
   háu or háo hello, yes
Háu, pronounced like the English word 'how', is the classic Indian way of greeting that you've probably seen in the movies, and it is customary to raise your right hand while saying it. Contrary to popular belief, this greeting is restricted to Siouan languages and is not universal among Indians. Although the phrase háu, kȟolá (hello, male friend) is uttered frequently, háu is not used like 'hello' in English. It is restricted to formal occasions, as in a medicine man or a tribal council, and it is only used by men.

also means yes, but more in terms of mild assent.

   háŋ yes
Unlike háu, háŋ is informal and today it is used by both sexes, though originally it was restricted to women. It does not mean hello.
   oháŋ okay, sure
This expression is only used by women. When stressed, óhaŋ, it means among. For Sičáŋǧu speakers, the stress is reversed; óhaŋ means okay and oháŋ means among (White Hat Sr. 1999, 187).
   hiyá no
Hóȟ is a more emphatic version of hiyá, but is not used by women. Only use it if you really mean no!

To the confusion of English speakers, háu and háŋ can be translated no, but, only in response to a negative question. If someone asks you 'Do you eat meat', unless you are a vegetarian the customary response in both English and Lakota is 'yes'. However, if someone asks you the negative version 'Don't you eat meat?' or 'You don't eat meat?', whereas in English it is customary to say 'no' as in 'no, I do not eat meat', in Lakota it is customary to say 'yes', as in 'yes, that's correct; I don't eat meat'.

'You don't eat meat?'
icontree01 (13K)
English Reply
no [I do not]
Lakota Reply
yes [that's correct]

   híhaŋni wašté good morning
Literally, híhaŋni wašté means something was good this morning. It sounds a bit awkward only because it is a direct translation of the English expression 'good morning,' which is idiomatic. Originally, there was nothing equivalent to 'good morning' in Lakota. Some would say, as far as the nature-loving Lakota are concerned, all mornings are good.
   hókahé yes
Hókahé means welcome as in welcome to my home and is not used in response to someone thanking you. It is often exclaimed in response to háu (greetings). It is also said before races, similar to get ready!
   Taŋyáŋ yahí. It is good that you came/
This phrase is used as an alternative to hókahé.
   lililili! (Yelled by women in a high pitched voice to praise warriors for acts of valor.)
   čaŋtéšičé I'm sorry
Čaŋtéšičé literally means heart feels bad; i.e. I feel sad.

You could also ask for forgiveness by forming one of the following verbs into a command:

   • masculine: ékiciktunža yo (pardon me)
   • feminine: ékiciktunža wo (pardon me)

   • masculine: akíčiktunža yo (forgive me)
   • feminine: akíčiktunža wo (forgive me)

   hahó hahó! thank you
Hahó hahó! is an exclamation of gratitude, not a phrase.

   • Hayé hayé is used in addressing sacred beings.

   philámayaye thanks
Today, philámayaye is more often used for thanks than hahó hahó in everyday conversation. It literally means it made me feel good. Philámayaye ló is the masculine form of philámayaye, but men often just use the feminine form.
   tókša bye
Tókša is short for Tókša akhé waŋčhíyaŋkiŋ kte, which means I will see you again eventually.

iconprintablenotes (14K)

Quiz on Lesson 1

© 2009-2011 SAIVUS. All Rights Reserved.
Last Updated: 04/29/2011