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The Menominee Language in Comparison to English [archive]

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The Menominee Language in Comparison to English
Re: Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. Thompson,Case No. 95 C 0030 C (W. D. Wis 1995)


Menominee is one of about thirty-five languages making up the Algonquian language family, the largest group of languages in eastern North America. At the time of first European contact, the family occupied the entire Atlantic coast from Labrador to North Carolina, most of the area drained by Hudson Bay, and most of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River drainage (with the exception of the Iroquoian-speaking areas north and south of Lake Ontario). Among the languages which make up the Algonquian family are two large groups, Cree-Montagnais, which stretches from Labrador to Alberta, and Ojibwa (or Ojibwe/Ojibway), reaching from southern Quebec to Saskatchewan and North Dakota, and including the varieties known as Algonkin, Ottawa, and Chippewa. South of the Great Lakes are Potawatomi, Menominee, Fox-Sauk-Kickapoo (three dialects of a single language), Miami-Illinois, and Shawnee. To the west were Blackfoot, Arapaho and Atsina (or Gros Ventre), Cheyenne, and several other languages which are now extinct. On the east coat there were a large number of tribes who spoke Algonquian languages: Micmac, Malecite-Passamaquoddy, Eastern Abenaki (several dialects, including Penobscot), Western Abenaki, Nipmuck, Massachusett, Narragansett, Pequot-Mohegan, Quiripi-Unquachog, Mahican, Munsee and Unami Delaware, Nanticoke, Conoy, Powhatan, and Pamlico. We have records of about three dozen Algonquian languages all told, but it is almost certain that there were several more that died out before they could be recorded.

The Algonquian languages were the first North American languages encountered by French and English explorers: Jacques Cartier recorded a Micmac phrase in 1534, the Roanoke colonists learned some Pamlico words, and Captain John Smith was taught the Powhatan language by Pocahontas and her relatives. By the end of the seventeenth century, several Algonquian languages had been described in considerable detail; after three more centuries’ study there are grammars and dictionaries of almost all the languages, with a literature of several thousand items (Pilling 1891; Pentland and Wolfart 1982). The languages spoken south of the Great Lakes are among the best known: William Jones and Truman Michelson produced a large corpus of texts and grammatical notes on the Fox language; Carl F. Voegelin published a Shawnee dictionary and other materials; Charles F. Hockett produced a series of articles on Potawatomi; and there are at least half a dozen large dictionaries and as many grammars of the various varieties of Ojibwa. Menominee was the special interest of Leonard Bloomfield, one of the greatest linguists of all time; he published a large volume of Menominee texts, and left manuscript materials for a grammar and dictionary, which were published after his death.


Algonquian languages are often characterized as being of the polysynthetic type, a term which in essence means that a single work incorporates a number of elements which in other languages (English, for instance) would be expressed by separate words. It is often said that in Algonquian languages "everything is a verb"; this statement is an exaggeration, but it is true that Menominee and other Algonquian languages will often use a verb where English prefers a noun or an adjective. The typical Algonquian verb consists of an initial element, which gives only a general idea of the semantic field (concepts like "quickly", "well arranged", "red"), followed optionally by a medial (often equivalent to an English noun, and denoting what is being affected, or the kind of material involved), and a final element, which may indicate how the action is performed ("by hand", "by application of heat") and also indicates whether the verb is transitive or not, and the gender of both the subject and the object. Prefixes and suffixes are added to this basic verb shape to indicate the person and number of the subject and object, the tense of the verb, and some syntactic information (e.g., whether the verb is in a subordinate clause or not); additional prefixes (of a type called preverbs by Algonquianists) may further specify the tense, and serve as equivalents to many English adverbs. Because so much information is packed into a single word, the average word is much longer than in English - some are twenty or more syllables in length. On the other hand, a single Algonquian word may be the equivalent of a whole sentence in English; the languages use about the same number of syllables to express an idea, but in Algonquian they may all belong to a single word, whereas in English each syllable may be a separate word. The following would be a typical Menominee verb complex:


Must – past – greatly - terribly-confused-tell.stories-3rd person

"he must have really mixed up the story"

Algonquian languages distinguish two genders, animate and inanimate, rather than the three (masculine, feminine, and neuter) of English or Latin. The animate gender includes humans and all other members of the Animal kingdom, some trees and other plants, and a few other items ("kettle", "pipe", etc.); all other nouns are inanimate. By long-standing convention, animates are generally glossed "he" and inanimates "it", but "she" would be an equally correct gloss for the animate category. As in English, verbs are transitive (requiring a direct object, like "hit" or "kill") or intransitive (not taking an object, like "sleep" or "walk"). Algonquian verbs usually come in pairs, differing in the final element depending on whether the action involves an animate or inanimate subject (in the case of an intransitive verb) or an animate or inanimate object (if the verb is transitive), as in Menominee kepe.hsen "he (or she) falls or lies so as to form a barrier", kepe.hnen "it falls or lies as a barrier" (intransitive), or kepe.hsemÎ w "he (or she) lays him (or her) so as to block something", kepe.hnetaw "he (or she) lays it so as to block something" (transitive). Each of these verbs can be changed to indicate plurality (e.g., kepe.hsenok "they fall or lie as a barrier") or a different person (e.g., neke.pehsenem "I fall…") or both (e.g. keke.pehseneq "you all fall…"). As there are many possible combinations of subjects and objects, a transitive verb has dozens of endings, in some of the languages more than a thousand. Since the verb ending indicates the person(s) involved, separate personal pronouns are rarely used.

There are no definite or indefinite articles, but demonstrative pronouns ("this" and "that") may be used where English would have "the". Possession is indicated by a set of prefixes and suffixes, as in Menominee nesu.niyanÎ m "my money", kesu.niyanÎ m "your money", osu. niyanÎ m "his money", etc. ("John’s money" would be John osu. niyanÎ m, literally "John, his money").

The order of words in a sentence is considerably freer than in English: a subject noun may either precede the verb (as in English) or follow it, without changing the meaning significantly; the subject and object may even occur in the opposite order to English (so "the man broke the stick" could come at as "stick he-broke-it man"), and adjectives may occur before, after, or at some distance from the nouns they modify (e.g. meta.tah nene.qnawak meswe.wak "I killed ten rabbits: literally "ten I-killed-them rabbits")


In most respects Menominee is a typical Algonquian language. Menominee has six vowels rather than the usual four, and has complex rules governing vowel length, but otherwise the sound system is similar to Ojibwa, Mesquakie (Fox) and Shawnee. The vocabulary is also similar to the neighboring languages; especially, most Menominee words will have an exact equivalent in Potawatomi and Ojibwa. The noun inflections are similar to other Algonquian languages, but Menominee has a number of verb inflections not found in the other languages, and consequently some sentences are put together in a different way than in Ojibwa or Mequakie.

Since any reasonably competent interpreter can string the words together in a sentence and pronounce them in an intelligible way (by definition), only the choice of vocabulary is of concern here. Leonard Bloomfield’s Menominee Lexicon (1975) lists about 11,000 words, alphabetized by Menominee; it does not exhaust the vocabulary — dictionaries of some of the related languages contain over 20,000 words - but most of the words a non-native speaker might have known are certainly included. An index prepared by the Wisconsin Native American Languages Project in 1976 makes it possible to find most (if not all) of the English words used to gloss the Menominee entries in the lexicon.

However, some of the people who served as interpreters for the treaties may not have spoken the Menominee language at all. The Menominee have always been a rather small tribe, and of no particular importance outside their own district; there is therefore little incentive for outsiders to learn their language. Goddard (1978:584) mentions that "[t]here have always been many Menominees who also spoke Ojibwa and used it in their contacts with outsiders"; Rhodes (1982) suggests that it was specifically the Southwestern dialect of Ojibwa (commonly called Chippewa) which they used in the early nineteenth century, as this is the dialect still spoken by a number of Menominees. The use of Ojibwa as the customary means of communication with non-Menominee people may be very old (Goddard cites an example from 1721), and was certainly well entrenched by the date of the treaties.

If the treaty discussions were conducted in Southwestern Ojibwa (Chippewa) instead of Menominee, the distinctive characteristics of Menominee are irrelevant: it is the features of Ojibwa that need to be considered.

Ojibwa is a much more widely known language than Menominee, and is still spoken by many thousands of people. There are at least half a dozen recognizable dialects (of which Southwestern Ojibwa is one), differing mainly in "accent" (pronunciation and intonation); the differences are about the same as between North American varieties of English, causing little real impediment to communication. Southwestern Ojibwa is very similar to the varieties I have worked on in Manitoba, and has been the subject of many publications, most recently the dictionary compiled by John D. Nichols and Earl Nyholm (1995).

Since I do not know whether the treaties were translated into Menominee or (more likely) Southwestern Ojibwa, I have given both Menominee and Ojibwa equivalents for the terms discussed below. The Menominee forms are quoted from Bloomfield’s Menominee Lexicon (1975), with grammatical information from The Menomini Language (Bloomfield 1962). For Southwestern Ojibwa I have relied principally on A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwa (Nichols and Nyholm 1995), supplemented by my own knowledge of the language (obtained mainly from speakers in Manitoba).


It is impossible for anyone to make an absolute judgment about the accuracy of a translation unless the texts in both languages are available for comparison. Even when parallel texts are available, there may be differences of opinion, with one person desiring a literal translation of the original text, whereas another is looking for a rendering which better suits the style of the target language (hence competing English translations of the New Testament, or of Dante’s Inferno).

In this case only the English text is available, so it is not always easy to determine how it might have been presented to a Menominee audience. I assume the interpreter was attempting to be accurate rather than artistic — in other words to provide a literal translation of the English words — but the translation would still have had to be phrased in terms of Menominee experience.

It is a basic tenet of linguistics that speakers of any language whatsoever can express any idea they want: there are no "primitive " languages with very small vocabularies, despite journalists’ reports to the contrary (usually based on only a few minutes’ contact with the language). There may, however, be gaps in the vocabulary from an outsider’s point of view: although all languages have words for the things they want to talk about, they do not usually have words for things they do not talk about (and if they did have such words, how would the next generation learn them if they are never uttered?). A tribe that has never seen or heard of a television set will probably not have a word that accurately translates English "television", and similarly one that has no concept of money may lack words precisely equivalent to "buy" and "sell". But a language may have words for concepts quite foreign to the culture of its speakers: English has words like "unicorn" (an animal no one has seen) and "couvade" ( the custom of a husband assuming the pain of child-birth), and there are many people around the world who lack electricity but have heard about television (and have a term for it).

However, hearing about something and having a word for it does not imply full understanding of the concept: people who don’t have electricity are not likely to understand how images are transmitted to a television set (indeed, many North American viewers are not much better informed), and will have no idea of the role television plays in our society.

Although a cultural concept, like any other idea, can be expressed in any language, listeners may not actually comprehend the real significance of the word: anthropology students learn the English word couvade but may not grasp how the custom fits into other cultures. The person without electricity can interpret the sentence Television is destroying our children only superficially, understanding perhaps that TV sets release some kind of poison gas. Similarly, a people whose lands are communally owned may "understand" the words He sold his farm without really grasping what this means to someone familiar with private ownership of land. The cultural baggage of each group is seldom taken into account when translating from one language to another, but it may be vital if both parties are expected to interpret the words in the same way. The problem is not in the translation process — any competent interpreter can utter the correct words — but in recognizing the cultural differences (often a very difficult task) and expressing them clearly to both sides.

When it comes to translating a legal document such as a treaty, there are further complications. Many of the terms in the treaty are (I assume) defined by legislation or court decisions, but these definitions are not known to me, nor to the linguists who compiled dictionaries of Algonquian languages, nor (in all likelihood) to any nineteenth century speaker of Menominee or Ojibwa. Dictionaries of Menominee and other Algonquian languages usually translate the words into ordinary English and avoid "fancy" synonyms: they are much more likely to provide a term for "give up" rather than "cede" or "relinquish", and even if such expressions were used in a translation it would be difficult to decide the precise meaning intended. For example, "expedient" is define in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as both "advantageous, suitable" and "politic rather than just"; the term does not occur in the Menominee dictionary, but it is used by Faries (1938:70) to translate a Cree word (which, it turns out, means "suitable" but not "politic").

In providing Menominee and Ojibwa equivalents for the terms used in the treaties I have had, in almost every case, to search for synonyms of the English words. I think it's extremely likely that the original interpreters of the treaties would have had to perform a similar exercise, first "translating" the words into ordinary English (at least mentally) and only then translating them into another language. If there were additional steps, for instance if the text was first translated from English into French before being expressed in an Algonquian language, there is even more room for misunderstandings to creep in. The accuracy of the interpreters’ translations will then have depended in part on what they thought the words meant in this particular context. As the interpreters’ thought processes are not recorded, the equivalents offered here may not be the ones they chose.


The structure of Algonquian languages requires the sentence "[they] shall be at liberty to hunt and fish on the lands they have now ceded" to be expressed as something like the following:

They shall be at liberty | that they hunt (and that they fish) | on the lands | that they have (now) ceded.

The phrase "at liberty" does not occur in the Algonquian dictionaries I have consulted; a possible equivalent would be "they shall be allowed, permitted", using the Menominee verb pake.tenew he gives permission to him, lets him" or its Ojibwa equivalent bagidanaad (in either case with the inflection marking an unspecified subject acting on a third person plural object, i.e., "one lets them"; futurity would be expressed by a prefix on the verb). Another possibility in Menominee is ne.hnoneka.te.w " it is permitted".

The phrase "to hunt and fish" would be easily translated into either language, in Menominee probably employing nata.we.qtaw or "he is hunting" and name.qsehkew" he catches fish". In Ojibwa the verb nandawenjige " he gets food by hunting or fishing" would have been an appropriate choice in this context.

The only difficulty in translating "on the lands" precisely is that Algonquian languages do not distinguish between "on the land" and "on the lands", both being the locative form of the noun "land", Menominee ahki.heh, Ojibwa akiing.

The phrase "that they have (now) ceded" could be expressed with the verb "he cedes it, gives it up", Menominee Pake.te.nehtam, Ojibwa bagidendang. Nichols and Nyholm (1995:23) translate the Ojibwa verb only as "release s.t. from one’s mind", but Baraga’s dictionary (1878, 2:341) has "I give it away, I sacrifice it, offer it, I renounce to it [sic], cede it, reject it, let it go".

The phrase "[lands] surveyed and offered for sale" can be translated fairly literally, as [lands] that have been surveyed | and | that have been offered | to be sold.

In Ojibwa the verb "survey" is diba’akii, literally "he measures land"; Bloomfield does not record the Menominee cognate, which would be tepa.hahkiw, but it may exist, and in any case compounding in Algonquian languages is so transparent that such a word could be understood even by speakers who have never heard it before. Alternatively, the less specific Menominee verb kota.pyataw "he measures it" could have been used.

There is ambiguity in the Algonquian words for "offer": a common verb, Menominee pake.tenam and Ojibwa bagidinang "he offers it, releases it", was probably used to translate the phrase "offered for sale", with an appropriate derivative of Menominee tepa.h- "buy/sell", or the Ojibwa verb adaawaage "sell". However, Menominee pake.tenam and Ojibwa bagidinang also mean "he allows it, permits it": the sentence could therefore be understood either as "the land has been offered for sale (but no one wanted it)" or "the sale of the land has been allowed to go through". If the translation was into Menominee, the fact that tepa.h- means not only "buy/sell" but also "pay for" would make the second interpretation much more likely ("he offers it to be paid for" makes little sense compared to "he allows it to be paid for"). The ambiguity could have been avoided – had the interpreter noticed it—only by replacing the obvious translation with a lengthy paraphrase.

Under normal circumstances, the Menominee would have taken this clause to mean that a restriction would apply only to a tract of land that was "surveyed" in a visible manner (such as by enclosing it with a fence or other appropriate boundary markers), bought and paid for by an individual, and actually occupied and actively farmed, since in terms of their own culture it would be an unreasonable act to measure land that was not going to be put to use. In my experience Algonquian people do not undertake pointless tasks: they would not mark out a piece of land if they did not intend to use it, and would not buy (or expect to sell to someone else) land that was not going to be occupied.

As mentioned above, the word "expedient" has two meanings in English, "suitable" and "politic rather than just"; the former is (I hope) the meaning intended in the treaties. The interpreter would probably have divided the clause as follows:

until | the President of the United States | shall deem it expedient | to extinguish their title.

The first part was likely translated by Menominee c-kanah or Ojibwa biinish "until", and Menominee me ("the big chief") or Wa.sehtanoh ("the chief in Washington") or Ojibwa Gichi-mookomaan-akiing ogimaa ("the chief in the land of the Long Knives").

The phrase "he shall deem it expedient" would be rendered "(when) he thinks that it is suitable", with the Ojibwa verbs inendang "he thinks so (about it)" and nandawendaagwad "it is suitable, desirable" or the Menominee equivalents en.nehtam and nata.w .nehtakwat (the last word is not attested in Bloomfield’s lexicon, but is a regular derivative).

The legal phrase "to extinguish their title" would have had to be explained at length rather than translated, as there does not appear to be an accurate equivalent even in non-technical English, much less in any Algonquian language. To a layman like myself it appears to mean "[they can do this] until the President decides they can’t" (which would be easy enough to translate), but this paraphrase no doubt misses the point entirely.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary glosses both "cede" and "relinquish" as "give up,…surrender (territory)", so Menominee pake.te .nehtam, Ojibwa bagidendang "he cedes it, gives it up" (cited above) would be appropriate, but the interpreter might well have decided to translate "cede, sell and relinquish" simply as "sell", using the same words (Menominee tepa.h- "buy/sell", Ojibwa adaawaage "sell") as in the phrase "offered for sale".

As for the more general question "Is there a way to clearly express in the Algonquian languages the objective of terminating the right to hunt, fish and gather on the land ceded?", I refer to my earlier remark: speakers of any language can express any concept, provided only that the concept be one speakers can form in their minds. A sentence such as "you may not hunt, fish or gather plants on this land" or "we intend to stop you from hunting (etc.)" is easily expressed in Menominee, Ojibwa or in any other Algonquian language and is not likely to be misunderstood. None of the concepts involved is in the least foreign to Algonquian cultures: there could have been occasions in earlier times when chiefs and religious leaders issued prohibitions (for a limited period) against hunting or other food-gathering activities, either in general or (more likely) at a specific place, such as a religious site, and references to a particular tract of land would have been commonplace in telling of past events. A permanent ban on hunting anywhere in the world known to the Menominees is not, of course, part of the traditional culture, but the concept could be stated as easily and as clearly as in English if one wished to do so. However, since a permanent prohibition against hunting would have deprived the tribe for a significant part of its normal food supply, there surely would have been an immediate and prolonged outcry from all the Menominee present had such a restriction been proposed to them, and, no doubt, a refusal to sign the treaty.


Baraga, Frederic. 1878. A Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, explained in English (new edition, by a missionary of the Oblates). 2 vols. Montreal: Beauchemin & Valois. Facsimile reprint (in one vol.) Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, Inc., 1966.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1962. The Menomini Language. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1975. Menominee Lexicon, edited by Charles F. Hockett. Milwaukee Public Museum Publications in Anthropology & History, no. 3.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, edited by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler; 5th edition, revised by E. McIntosh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, © 1964.

Faries, Richard, ed. 1938. A Dictionary of the Cree Language as spoken by the Indians in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta… Toronto: General Synod of the Church of England in Canada.

Goddard, Ives. 1978. Central Algonquian Languages. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15: Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger (Washington: Smithsonian Institution), pp. 583-587.

Nichols, John D., and Earl Nyholm. 1995. A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Rhodes, Richard. 1982. Algonquian Trade Languages. Papers of the Thirteenth Algonquian Conference, edited by William Cowan (Ottawa: Carleton University), pp.1-10.

Pentland, David H., and H. Christoph Wolfart. Bibliography of Algonquian Linguistics. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Pilling, James Constantine. 1891. Bibliography of the Algonquian Languages. Bureau of [American] Ethnology Bulletin 13.

Wisconsin Native American Languages Project. 1976. An English Key to Bloomfield’s Menominee Lexicon, prepared by the Menominee Team of the Wisconsin Native American Languages Project…edited by Ken Miner. Milwaukee: Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council & University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

--written by Dr. David Pentland, University of Manitoba Dept. of Linguistics

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