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
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
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
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."
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
||It rained stars.
||They fought with the Cheyennes.
(stripes on arm represent the Cheyenne tribe)
||They killed a very fat buffalo bull.
||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
||"ah" as in 'fall'
||"eh" as in 'bed'
||"ee" as in 'ski'
||"oh" as in 'low'
||"oo" as in 'duke'
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
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.
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
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 iŋ; by directing the flow of air into their nasal
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 "uh" as in 'canola'
||Nasal "ih" as in 'din'; but without the -N
||"euh" as in 'book', only nasal. Uŋ is not found in
English, but try pronouncing 'book' with an -N instead of a -K.
uŋpȟáŋ (female elk)
In old texts, uŋ is sometimes written as oŋ but in most
cases this is just uŋ in
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 iŋ
(Boas 1941, 4). For
instance, some pronounce the word for mourning dove as
wakíŋyela, but others as
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 aŋ is
Aŋ NOT AŊ.
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.
||"ah ah" or "ahhh" as in 'father'
||[aa] or [aː]
||"eh eh" or "ehhhh"
||[ee] or [eː]
||"ee ee" or "eeee"
||[ii] or [iː]
||"oh oh" or "ohhh"
||[oo] or [oː]
||"oo oo" or "oooo"
||[uu] or [uː]
||nasal "uh uh" or nasal "ahhh" as in 'song'; only longer and
without the -NG
||[ə̃ə̃] or [ãː]
||nasal "ih ih" or nasal "eeee" as in 'sing'; only longer and without the -NG
||[ɪ̃ɪ̃] or [ĩː]
||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.
| b, h, l,
m, n, s,
w, y, z
Same as English more or less.
blóza (white pelican)
hecá (turkey vulture/buzzard)
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).
|/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".
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'.
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
(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.
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.
Same as English K as in 'kin'.
Same as English P as in 'pill'. Note that in Lakota ph is never
pronounced as F (as in 'telephone').
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
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,
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
||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)
||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').
||As with k, p sounds like the P in 'spill' than the one
Whereas ph sounds like the P H sequence in 'wasp hill', p
sounds like the P in 'wasp ill'.
||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).
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
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 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
Before i, ǧ is 'trilled', meaning the uvula taps the back of
the throat. Think of a sexy growl.
|/ʁ/ [ʁ, ɣ, R]
There is also a guttural version of h:
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
heȟáka (male elk)
In Lakota, and some dialects of Dakota, guttural ȟ comes after
k, p and t. Some call kȟ, pȟ, and
tȟ the ȟ-aspirated stops.
Because both consonants that comprise kȟ, pȟ, and
tȟ 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 k; k pronounced simultaneously with ȟ.
Guttural p; p pronounced simultaneously with ȟ.
Guttural t; t pronounced simultaneously with ȟ.
tȟaŋpá (white birch)
If guttural kȟ, pȟ, and tȟ 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 kȟ, pȟ, and tȟ 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:
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
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 č; č pronounced simultaneously with the khéze
||Ejective k; k pronounced simultaneously with the khéze
||Ejective p; p pronounced simultaneously with the khéze
p’é (American elm)
||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 (kȟ, pȟ, tȟ) 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,
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.
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".
✖ hét ka la
✔ 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.
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
|pȟesá (comb of a rooster)
|otȟáŋiŋ (to spread)
||ótȟaŋiŋ (to be visible)
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, kȟ, k’).
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.
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
• 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 kȟ 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-
kȟ: for entries starting
with kȟa-, kȟaŋ-, kȟe-,
kȟi-, kȟiŋ, kȟo-, kȟu-, kȟuŋ-
Instead, we find entries starting with k-, kh-, and
kȟ-, 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 kȟ and kȟ, are
alphabetized after iŋ 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,
ká, kaká, káka.
Lakota has some pretty long words, like the word for donut,
aǧúyabskuyagmigma, which is a mouthful in itself!
Breaking this word into syllables, however, makes it much easier to sound
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.
||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.
||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
||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
||a sá pa zi la
|tȟat’échaŋnuga (dotted grayfeather)
||tȟa t’é chaŋ nu ga
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)
|šuŋgwóilake (work horse)
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.
||"ah" + "eh"
||} NOT like the word 'eye'
||"ah" + "ee"
||"ah" + "oh"
||} NOT like the exclamation "ow!"
||"ah" + "oo"
||"eh" + "ee"
||NOT as in 'rein'
||"oh" + "eh"
||} NOT as in 'poignant'
||"oh" + "ee"
||"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
||Similar to 'aptitude'
||Similar to 'Atkins'. In careful speech (in fast speech most English
speakers pronounce the T as a glottal stop).
||Similar to 'stinkpot'
Clusters that contain sounds foreign to English will be extra challenging for
English speakers to produce.
||(no English equivalent)
||(no English equivalent)
||(no English equivalent)
suŋkǧíla (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.
||As in 'baloney'; NOT
as in 'blue'.
Bl is pronounced ml after nasal vowels, see
||As in 'galore'; NOT as in 'glow'
| agléška (lizard)
||a guhlé ška
||As in 'Gommorrah'; NOT as in 'stigma'
||As in 'mahogany'; NOT as in 'magnet'
| gnašká (frog)
||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
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:
||A, i, and u in writing are pronounced
aŋ, iŋ, uŋ after m or n.
Because of this, after m or n, aŋ, iŋ,
and uŋ are pronounced with exaggerated nasalization to emphasize the
||Aŋb, iŋb and uŋb are pronounced
am, im and um.
||Ak/aŋk, ik/iŋk and
uk/uŋk are pronounced ang/aŋng,
ing/iŋng, and ung/uŋng.
Other sound changes are not so intuitive:
||Unstressed vowels, glides (y, w and h) and
the khéze are likely to be lost in fast speech.
||Aya, aye, and awa become aa, long 'ae' as
and oo (IPA: [ɔː])
||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)
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 žažéca 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
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 ḣ, and Violet Catcher as x. Contrast the traditional,
Williamson's, and modern orthographies used to transcribe the following song by
wica yaka pelo
wića’ yaka pelo’
tȟáhan yuŋké ló’
|The old men
You are right.
You will encounter variation like this in reading miscellaneous Lakota
literature, but thankfully, each way of recording Lakota's sounds tend to be
For example, while c, ċ, cͦ, c̀, 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
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
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.
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.
| háu or háo
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.
Tó also means yes, but more in terms of mild assent.
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.
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).
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'.
no [I do not]
yes [that's correct]
| híhaŋni wašté
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
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.
||(Yelled by women in a high pitched voice to praise warriors for acts of valor.)
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
• masculine: ékiciktunža yo (pardon me)
• feminine: ékiciktunža wo (pardon me)
• masculine: akíčiktunža yo (forgive me)
• feminine: akíčiktunža wo (forgive me)
| hahó hahó!
Hahó hahó! is an exclamation of gratitude, not a
• Hayé hayé is used in addressing sacred beings.
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
Tókša is short for
Tókša akhé waŋčhíyaŋkiŋ kte,
which means I will see you again eventually.