A grammar of Potawatomi

Rob Malouf
Smokey McKinney

December 11, 1995


This is a preliminary document. Nothing in it should be believed. It is only an outline for a real reference grammar of Potawatomi that is yet to be written. Any place where this grammar conflicts with what you know about Potawatomi, this grammar is probably wrong.


This grammatical description of Potawatomi is based primarily on a series of articles written by Charles Hockett. I have also drawn on general sources, such as Bloomfield's ``Algonquian'', and on my meager experience with other Algonquian languages, mainly Blackfoot and Cree. It does not reflect any personal knowledge about Potawatomi, and it should not be considered authoritative in any way. I'm only writing it to help bootstrap a new grammar of Potawatomi, based on the field work of the PBP Language Project. We also have the beginnings of a Potawatomi dictionary.

The orthography I'm using in this document falls somewhere between Hockett's orthography and the practical orthography developed by McKinney, et al. I am only using it because I don't fully understand the correspondances between the two orthographies. It is only meant to be an interim solution. All the forms mentioned here should be re-elicited and recorded in the practical orthography. This interim orthography uses the following vowels:

i machine
e led
a father
o role
u sofa

Weak vowels, which are elided under some circumstances, are capitalized. The lenis obstruents are /p t c' k s s'/ and their fortis counterparts are /b d j g z z'/. The non-obstruents are /m n w y ?/.

Verb structure

Potawatomi verb structure is very complex. In many cases, a single Potawatomi verb will serve the function of a complete English sentence. The verb is core of the sentence and contains most of the information.

In European languages, nouns are classified according their gender. In English, for example, we have separate pronoun forms for referring to individuals which are male, female, or neither. In other languages, like German or French, the gender system is extended to include objects that do not have any natural sex. In German Tische `table' is masculine but Uhr `watch' is feminine. German tables are referred to with a masculine pronoun while German watches are referred to with a feminie pronoun. In Potawatomi, a similar distinction is drawn between classes of nouns. Instead of being based on sex, though, the Potawatomi system is based on animacy. All living things are classified as animate while most non-living things are classified as inanimate. A handful of inanimate objects are classified as animate, for example ?emUgwan `big cooking spoon' and mUgUdemUn `blackberry'. The notion encoded by the Potawatomi gender system is not quite the same as the English word animacy, but is closer to a notion of inherent spiritual power which is not necessarily limited to living things.

Verb stems in Potawatomi can be divided into four classes according to the gender of the subject and whether or not there can be a direct object. Inanimate intransitive (ii) verbs take an inanimate subject and no direct object (e.g., gis'agUde `be dry' and gUmUwUn `be raining'). Animate intransitive (ai) verbs take an animate subject and no direct object (e.g., doki `wake up'). Transitive verbs must take an animate subject, but are classified according to the gender of their object: transitive inanimate (ti) verbs take an inanimate object while transitive animate (ta) verbs take an animate object.

Verbs often come in ta/ti pairs, e.g., nUgU? (ta) and nUgUto (ti) `lose'. These verb stems consist of a verb root nUgU plus an abstract final ? or do. Abstract finals sometimes indicate the class of the verb. Other finals can be used to form verbs stems out of other verb stems. For example, the final ay forms a passive ai verb out of a ta verb: wabUm (ta) `see' but wabUmay (ai) `be seen'. These finals are called `abstract' because they only encode grammatical information. Other finals, known as concrete finals, encode both grammatical and real world information. For example, the final Ose forms ai verbs that include the meaning `by foot'. Thus, we have ?agUm `(a) snowshoe' and ?agUmOs'e `to go by snowshoe'. Between the root and the finals, verb stems sometimes contain medials. Medials provide additional information about the implied or expressed direct object of a verb, for example, akw `wood' in webakwi (ai) `swing an axe' or c'e `round object' in UdUdUbUc'ewebUn (ta/ti) `roll (something)'.

A verb consists of a verb stem plus verb suffixes. Verbs come in four orders. Independent order and imperative order verbs are used in normal conversation. Imperative verbs correspond to commands in English. Conjunct order verbs are used in subordinate clauses, in narrative contexts, and in situations where the subjunctive would be used in English. The fourth order, the particple, is very similar to the conjunct order, but I am not sure what it is used for.

The choice of suffixes for a verb stem depend on the stem's class, on the verb's order, tense, and mood, and on the person and number of the subject and object. Potawatomi indicates two tenses (preterite and non-preterite) and two moods (indicative and negative) by suffixation. Other tenses and moods are indicated by pre-verbal modifiers.

In addition to tense and mood, the verb suffixes indicate the person and number of the participants in the action denoted by the verb. Potawatomi distinguished four person categories. First, second, and third person are familiar from English, and correspond to the pronouns I, you, and he/she/it. The first person inclusive (you and me) and the first person exclusive (them and me) are marked with separate forms. Potawatomi also has a fourth person, known as the obviative. In a Potawatomi sentence, only one participant can be referred to as the third person, usually the most important or most newsworthy individual. All other participants that would be considered third person in English must be marked as obviative in Potawatomi. Like English, Potawatomi distinguishes two numbers, singular and plural. To make referring to these person/number/gender combinations easier, we can use the following abbreviations:

1 first person singular animate
2 second person singular animate
12 first person plural inclusive animate
15 first person plural exclusive animate
25 second person plural animate
3 third person singular animate
0 third person singular inanimate
3' obviative singular animate
0' obviative singular inanimate
35 third person plural animate
05 third person plural inanimate

In addition, ta verbs are also marked for direct or inverse voice. In Potawatomi, there is a requirement that major reference must outrank the minor reference on the pronominal hierarchy. Each person can be assigned a rank, where second person outranks first person, which outranks third person, which outranks the obviative. If the subject outranks the object (as in I see the man), then the subject is the major reference and the object is the minor reference and the verb is in the direct voice. But, if the object outranks the subject (as in The man sees me), then the object is the major reference and the subject is the minor reference and the verb is in the inverse voice. Whether this is really a voice distinction, like the English passive, or is just an idiosyncracy of Algonquian verb agreement is a matter for debate.

Inflectional markers that represent all the categories described above are suffixed to verb stems to form verbs. Each class of verb takes a different set of endings. These endings are described in section 7.2, 7.3, and 7.4 of Hockett's IJAL paper on Potawatomi. [Hockett's paradigms should be doublechecked and added here.]

A verb complex consists of a personal prefix, a sequence of preverbs, and an inflected verb. The personal prefix indicates the person of the verb's major reference: n for first person, k for second person, and w for third person (before a strong vowel, these prefixes are nd, kd, and wd, respectively). Preverbs function like English adverbs. They modify the tense or meaning of the verb. Hockett describes quite a few preverbs in section 7.1.

Noun structure

The structure of Potawatomi nouns is similar in many respects to the structure of Potawatomi verbs. The smallest nominal unit is the noun root. A noun stem consists of a noun root plus medials and finals. The main difference between nouns and verbs in Potawatomi is not their structure but their distribution: noun roots occur with nominal finals and verb roots occur with verbal finals. Although I have seen it argued that Algonquian languages don't distinguish nouns and verbs, I think that is not true. Noun stems are classified as either animate or inanimate, and either independent or dependent (nai, nii, nad, or nid). Most noun stems are independent. Nouns stems which cannot occur alone are dependent. Hockett is not clear on what he means by this, but I have a hunch that dependent nouns are either obligatorily possessed or are really a kind of medial. For example, there is the noun stem napo (nii) `a drink', made up of root n and medial apo `liquid'.

Possessed stems include a personal prefix and a personal suffix indicating the person, number, and gender of the possessor. Sometimes a possessive suffix is added between the noun stem and the personal suffix. The personal prefixes on nouns are the same as those for verbs: n for first person, k for second person, and w for third person. The personal suffixes are similar to but not the same as the verbal agreement suffixes. For example, nosnan `our (15) father' is made up of the personal prefix n plus the root os (nad) `father' plus the personal suffix Unan (15). Plural, vocative, or obviative noun stem also take a paradigmatic suffix. Animate plural nouns take the suffix k while inanimate nouns take the suffix n (these suffixes are uk and en after consonants). For example, we have nosnanuk `our (15) fathers', which is nosnan `our (15) father' plus the plural suffix k.

Finally, noun stems can also take the locative suffix or the preterite suffix. The locative suffix k (uk after a consonant) functions a little like a preposition in English. It forms an location from a noun. For example, jiman `canoe' versus jimanuk `in the canoe' or jik `by' and dopwun `table' versus jik dopwunuk `by the table'. The preterite suffix pUn is added to possessed nouns to indicate that the possessive relationship was broken because something happened to the thing possessed, e.g., nospun `my deceased father' or njimanmupun `the canoe I used to have (now lost, stolen, or destroyed)'.

Noun stems, like verb stems, can be also be derived from other stems by adding finals. A common final is the diminutive -s (-es after a consonant). For example, from mbes `lake' we can form mbeses `pond', or from mimi `dove' we can form mimis `little dove'. The gender of a diminutive noun stem is the same as the gender of the stem it is derived from. Sometimes the meaning of a dimunitive form is not predictable from the meaning of the root (e.g., s'kote' `fire' but s'kote's `matches'). The final ken forms noun stems with an instrumental meaning from other noun stems (e.g., s'kote'kan `flint and steel'). Other noun stems are derived from verbs. The final n derives instrumental nouns from verbs, while the finals wun and akun derives nouns whose meanings are idiosyncratically related to the meanings of the underlying verbs.


coshugégo zero
ngot one
nizh two
nzwé three
nyaw four
nyanen five
ngotwatso six
nyak seven
shwatso eight
shak nine
mdatso ten
mdatsoshItngot eleven
mdatsoshitnizh twelve
nizhwaptuk twenty
nzw�ptuk thirty
nyawaptuk fourty
nyanomtene fifty
ngotwok one hundred
nizhwok two hundred

Rob Malouf, malouf@csli.stanford.edu
Linguistics Department, Stanford University