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Number of Speakers: 35,000-50,000

Key Dialects: Northern Ojibwe (Severn Ojibwe or Oji-Cree), Southern Ojibwe (Chippewa), Eastern Ojibwe (Algonquin), Western Ojibwe (Saulteaux), Ottawa (Odaawa)

Geographical Center: Northern United States/Southern Canada in the region surrounding the western Great Lakes

Approximately 35,000-50,000 of the 200,000 Ojibwe Native Americans speak a dialect of Ojibwe (Verwyst 1971, Grimes 1992). As is typical for Native American languages, there are a variety of names by which the language is known. Some of these are Chippewa, Ojibwa, Ojibway, Otchipwe, and Ojibwe, the later being standard in the orthography. Ojibwe is regarded as one of the most geographically diffuse and dialectally diverse North Native American languages, spoken in areas ranging from the interior of Quebec through the Great Plains and as far west as Saskatchewan and parts of British Columbia. There are also smaller scattered settlements in Montana, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico. In terms of speakers, it is one of the largest of the native North American languages, exceeded only by Navajo and Cree. Although there is no single standardized form of the language and despite the dialectal diversity, the language is mutually understandable from region to region.

Ojibwe is an Algonquian language and belongs to the Central Algonquian subfamily of the Algic languages. Other well known Algonquian languages include Cree, Fox, Shawnee, Cheyenne, Massachusett, Narragansett, Penobscot, Passamoquoddy, and Potawatomi. Of these languages, Potawatomi is most closely related to Ojibwe, in particular to the Eastern Ojibwe dialect.

Five regional dialects of Ojibwe are recognized. Northern Ojibwe, also known as Severn Ojibwe or Oji-Cree, is spoken by approximately 8,000 people (1999 SIL, as cited in Grimes 1992) in northern northwest Ontario into Manitoba. Southern Ojibwe or Chippewa, the primary Ojibwe dialect in terms of ethnic and linguistic population, is spoken in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. According to the 1990 Census Bureau (Grimes 1992), there are over 100,000 members of this ethnic group, however, a more precise estimate of the number of individuals who speak the dialect is not available. 10,000 people speak Western Ojibwe or Saulteaux (Poser 2002, as cited in the on-line version of Ethnologue) in the area westward from Lake Winnipeg into Saskatchewan. Outlying groups who speak this dialect can be found as far west as British Colombia. The Eastern Ojibwe dialect known as Algonquin is spoken in southern Ontario, north of Lake Ontario and east of Georgian Bay. This group consists of an ethnic population of at least 25,000 (1998 Statistics Canada, as cited in Grimes 1992). The fifth dialect of Ojibwe, Ottawa or Odaawa, is spoken in Ottawa, Canada. A combined total of 8,000 Ojibwe speak the latter two dialects (Grimes 1992).

There is no standardized form of Ojibwe. In addition, minor pronunciation and grammatical differences distinguish these five dialects. Although they are mutually intelligible by and large, Eastern Ojibwe (Algonquin) has diverged more than the others. Speakers of Western Ojibwe, in particular, find Eastern Ojibwe difficult to comprehend. As suggested by the name Oji-Cree, Northern Ojibwe and Cree share a number of linguistic features. A number of Cree borrowings are attested in this dialect and it is often written in the Cree syllabary, rather than the standard Roman orthography.

Ojibwe makes use of two writing systems. In recent times, the most commonly employed system has been the Roman-based orthography devised by Charles Fiero, of which three varieties exist (Nichols 1988). Ojibwe also employs a variety of the special character Northern Algonquian syllabic orthography, which is typical of older written works.

Ojibwe is a polysynthetic or agglutinative language. That is, grammatical information is encoded in the numerous affixes attached to roots and stems. As such, Ojibwe words are highly structured objects and, in comparison to European languages, their sentences consequently consist of a relatively small number of words. Exponents of all lexical categories (verbs, nouns, adjectives) are highly inflected. Verbs inflect for tense, mood, aspect, and voice. In addition, they must agree with their arguments in person, number, and animacy. There are few adjectives in the language; however, their inflectional properties are similar to those of nouns. Nouns/pronouns inflect for person, number, animacy, and case.

One notable aspect of the Ojibwe pronominal system that is characteristic of Algonquian languages in general is the use of the so-called fourth person or obviative form of the third person. In essence, Ojibwe divides the category of third person into two components: the proximate third person, which refers to a more pragmatically topical antecedent and corresponds to the typical use of third person in European languages, and the obviative third person (i.e. the fourth person), which refers to a less pragmatically topical antecedent. For example, in the sentence John fooled his brother and his wife, the reference of the expression his wife is ambiguous in English. It can refer either to John’s wife (the most pragmatic or the proximate meaning) or it can refer to John’s brother’s wife (the obviative reading). Comparable sentences are not ambiguous in this way in Ojibwe because the fourth person pronoun corresponding to the bold-faced item in the English sentence above serves to disambiguate these meanings. In addition to prefixation, suffixation, and incorporation, reduplication is a productive morphological process encoding plurality, repetition, diversity, and intensity of action.

Syntactically, Ojibwe is a free word order language. That is, for a given sentence, all logically possible word orders are attested and all are semantically equivalent (cf. Latin). Despite this freedom, the basic or most commonly observed surface word order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO).

The phonology of Ojibwe is characterized by a simple vowel inventory consisting of four primary vowels, none of which are diphthongs, two to three reduced vowels (depending on the analysis), and a consonant inventory comprised of between thirteen to seventeen phonemes (again, depending on the analysis). Roughly half of the consonants (i.e. the sibilants) show a length distinction. Vowels (some of which may vary in length) are typically reduced or elided, giving rise to an abundance of consonant clusters. Ojibwe is a stress language. In many cases, stress is used contrastively. In particular, stress is both lexically and grammatically contrastive. For example, in the latter case stress can differentiate first person from second person in certain moods and tenses.

With the exception of the influence of Cree on the Northern Ojibwe dialect, external linguistic influence on the language is rarely discussed, nor does it appear to be a significant force shaping the character of the language.

Speakers of Ojibwe refer to themselves as Anishinaabe(g) ‘original people’ and to the language as Anishinaabemowin/Odjibwemowin. Throughout the southern dialects, the language is spoken mainly by the older generations, most of whom are bilingual in English. In these communities, fewer children are learning the language in their home environment. In the northern dialects, on the other hand, the language is spoken by individuals of all ages and many of the elders are either monolingual or bilingual in another Native language. In nearly all Ojibwe communities there are language retention, maintenance, and preservation programs in both scholastic and non-scholastic capacities.

The language plays a prominent role in the arts, in particular film and literature. Ojibwe texts (literary and historical) are abundant and well preserved. A number of these materials have been translated into English and other languages. At present, some Ojibwe writings are regularly published. The newspaper Wawatay News of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, is printed in several dialects of Ojibwe as well as in English. The newspaper’s parent organization, The Wawatay Native Communication Society is engaged in the production of television and radio in Ojibwe. Nonetheless, the majority of Ojibwe language material is translated from materials originally written in English. Some aspects of the Ojibwe language and culture have influenced neighboring peoples. For example, the English word Mississippi is an Ojibwe borrowing, meaning ‘great/mighty river’.

The territory originally occupied by the Ojibwe was farther north into the Canadian interior. However, as French settlers arrived, the tribes migrated south and west, pushing other tribes (such as the Sioux, for example) south as well. More so than their densely populated Algonquian cousins to the east, the Ojibwe were less affected by European epidemics and largely resisted European conquest and exploitation. The majority of their land was ultimately appropriated by both Americans and Canadians, however unlike many of the Native Americans of North America, attempts to uproot the Ojibwe to Kansas and Oklahoma were unsuccessful. Consequently, nearly all Ojibwe reservations are within their post-migratory territories at present.

Baraga, Frederic. 1878. A Theoretical and Practical Grammar of the Otchipwe Language for the Use of Missionaries and Other Persons Living Among the Indians. Montreal: Beauchemin & Valois.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1957. Eastern Ojibwa: Grammatical Sketch, Texts, and Word List. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Campbell, G.L. 1991. Compendium of the World’s Languages Vol. 1-2. London and New York: Routledge.

Grimes, B.F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Ethnologue (on line version).

Holmer, Nils Magnus. 1953. The Ojibway on Walpole Island, Ontario, A Linguistic Study. Uppsala: Lundequistska Bokhandeln.

Nelson, Robert M., ed. 2004. A Guide to Native American Studies Programs in the North Central United States. Available online at the following address:

Nichols, John D. Nichols, ed. 1988. An Ojibwe Text Anthology. Studies in the Interpretation of Canadian Native Languages and Cultures 2. Centre for Research and Teaching of Canadian Native Languages, Univ. of Western Ontario.

Verwyst, Chrysostom. 1971. Chippewa Exercises: Being a Practical Introduction into the Study of the Chippewa Language. Minneapolis, MN: Ross & Haines.

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