Kanyen'kéha: Mohawk Language | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Kanyen'kéha: Mohawk Language

Kanyen'kéha or Kanien'kéha (also known as the Mohawk language) is an Indigenous language of North America. Kanyen'kéha utilizes the Roman alphabet to write a standardized written form of the language. One of its notable features is that it is polysynthetic, meaning that various parts of the language that carry meaning (morphemes) can be combined to form a multiplicity of words. Many common place names also stem from Kanyen’kéha terms, including Canada, which originates from the word kaná:ta (“town”); similarly, Ontario comes from Kanyatarí:yo or Kaniatarí:io (“beautiful lake”) and Toronto from Aterónto (“logs in the water” or “standing trees in water”).
Mohawk Language
Stop sign featuring the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga territory on the Bay of Quinte in southeastern Ontario.

Introduction: The Kanyen'kehà:ka

Kanyen’kéha is the ancestral language of Kanyen'kehà:ka or Kanien'kehá:ka, “People of the Chert” (sometimes referred to as "People of the Flint"), an Iroquoian people, originally of the Mohawk River Valley located between the present-day city of Albany and the town of Herkimer, New York. As a consequence of centuries of decimation due to disease, warfare, colonial imposition and unscrupulous land dealings, the Kanyen’kehà:ka are scattered across eight communities in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada, and in Upper-New York State in the United States.

The Kanyen’kehà:ka are an original member nation of the Five Nations Confederacy (also referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy). Along with the Onöndowàga (Seneca), Goyogohó:no (Cayuga), Onöñda’gega (Onondaga) and Onyota’a:ka (Oneida) Nations, they created one of the world’s first constitutional democracies prior to European contact. In 1722, the Five Nations Confederacy expanded, bringing in the Tuscarora Nation as the sixth member. They are now referred to as the Rotinonhsyón:nih (Haudenosaunee) or Six Nations Confederacy.

Iroquoian Linguistic Family

Kanyen'kéha belongs to the northern branch of the Iroquoian language family and is related to the following extinct languages: Huron, Petun, Wenro, Erie, Neutral, Susquehannock (Andaste) and Laurentian Iroquois, as well as to the “living languages” of Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. Additionally, Kanyen'kéha borrows words from other languages including Huron, Algonquin, Dutch, French, German and English.

What differentiates Northern Iroquoian languages from one another is the extent to which changes in the syllables or sounds (i.e., phonological innovations) differ from the original Proto-Northern Iroquoian (PNI) language. Kanyen'kéha is different from the other Iroquoian languages in that it:

  1. Retains the original PNI consonant “r” sound.
    bread = kanà:taron'k (Kanyen'kéha) > kaná:talo'k (Oneida)
  2. Experiences lost laryngeals (i.e., a sound that is made from the larynx).
    eye = okáhra (PNI) > oká:ra (Kanyen'kéha)
  3. Adds epenthesis, which is the insertion of a vowel within a word between two consonants to create open syllables. For example, -tr- becomes -ter-; s'w- becomes se'w-.
    fight! = satrí:yo (PNI) > saterí:yo (Kanyen'kéha)
    eat meat = s'wáhrak (PNI) > se'wá:rak (Kanyen'kéha)

Writing the Language

A standardized writing system for Kanyen'kéha was established in 1993 at the Mohawk Language Standardization Conference. The guidelines established at the conference contain rules about the alphabet (including how many letters it contains and which letters make which sounds), new word formation and orthography. A summary of recommendations from the Mohawk Language Standardization Project are as follows:

  1. Letters in the Kanyen'keha alphabet are: A, E, H, I, K, N, O, R, S, T, W, Y
  2. Diacritical marks (used to indicate special pronunciation or stress) include (`:), (´:), (´), (‘)
  3. Capital letters are used (similar to the way they are in English)
  4. Punctuation marks include (?), ("), (!), (.), (,)
  5. New words in the Mohawk language are formed according to function, activity or characteristic. Loan words may be taken from other languages.

Speaking the Language

There are two generally agreed upon dialects of Kanyen'keha: eastern and western. The eastern dialect was established over 350 years ago when two-thirds of the Kanyen'kehà:ka left their original homelands in the 1660s and 1670s to live with the French near present-day Montreal. Since that time, several sister communities have branched off that share a similar dialect that is characterized by common phonology, word usage and French loan words.

The western dialect is shared by the speakers of Kenhtè:ke (Tyendinaga) and Ohswé:ken (Six Nations of the Grand River) who were the last to leave the original homelands in the Mohawk Valley during the 1770s.

Within the eastern and western dialects, each community has its own individual dialect, and within each community there are also family dialects. All dialects are mutually comprehensible, meaning speakers of different dialects can generally understand one another.

Notable Features

A Polysynthetic Language

Kanien'kéha is polysynthetic, which means that words often consist of several morphemes (i.e. words that carry meaning). One word in Kanyen'kéha can be an entire sentence in English. For example:

ká:sere' = a car
+ sere
to drag

rosere'tsherí:yo = he has a nice car
+ sere
to drag
+ tsher
+ í:yo

shasere'tsherakwatákwas = he is a mechanic (he fixes cars)
s repetitive + ha
+ sere'
to drag
+ tshera nominalizer + kwatako
to fix
+ s habitual suffix


Kanien'kéha uses holophrases, expressions in which all the required information (clause, predicate and argument) are included in one word. See above for examples.

Lack of Labial Sounds

Labial sounds are those that require partial or complete closing of the lips (i.e., b, f, m, p, v, etc.). Kanyen'kéha does not have these sounds.


Names of objects are verb-based and often describe the purpose of the object:

wild bergamot: ken'tohkwanóhstha' (“it lessens/decreases the fever”)
game animals: karyota'shón:a'/kariota'shón:a' (“they are for killing”)
pencil: kahyatónkhwa/kahiatónhkwa (“what one uses to write with”)

Word Order

Kanyen'kéha uses a pragmatic-based word order in which the most important information or central topic of discussion is referenced first, followed by supporting and then peripheral information.

Current State of the Language

Kanyen'kéha is considered to be moribund — a critically endangered language where the active users of the language are members of the grandparent generation or older. According to information provided by Kanyen'kehaka communities, there are approximately 932 native speakers of Kanyen'kéha in the world, consisting of 14 family lines that never stopped transmitting the language in the home, and an estimated 32 second-language speakers who are raising a total of at least 28 bilingual children.

Population of First and Second Language Speakers of Kanyen’kéha by Territory

Population Maintaining Intergenerational Transmission (Unbroken) Re-establishment of Intergenerational Transmission (Two Generations)
Community (Territory) Total Population Population On-Territory Number of L1 Speakers Number of L1 Speaking Families Number of L2 Speakers (Adv-Mid Proficiency) Total # of L1́ Children of L2 Speakers
Akwesásne 18,725 12,896 500 9 1000 3
Kahnawá:ke 10,905 7950 298 4 10 11
Kanehsatá:ke 2,503 1371 121 1 1 3
Ohswé:ken 11,259 5,535 5 0 21 7
Tyendinaga 9,599 2,176 0 0 3 4
Wáhta 796 157 8 0 1 0
Total 53,787 30,085 932 14 1036 28

*Numbers for the communities of Ganien:geh and Kana’tsyoharé:ke’ are included with home communities.

Despite the language’s endangered classification, Kanyen'kéha is still the symbolic language used for many vital community functions including longhouse ceremonies, medicine feasts and dances, traditional medicine ceremonies, births, funerals, weddings and traditional council meetings.

Encouragingly, the language status of Kanyen'kéha is rising, with an increasing number of people using the language within Kanyen'kehà:ka communities. Language planning (guided and concerted efforts to provide solutions to the challenges faced by endangered languages) has led to the establishment of immersion, bilingual and second language programming for everyone from infants to adults, including community-based schools (such as the Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa adult immersion school) and university degree programs (such as those offered at Six Nations Polytechnic).

Mentorship programs ensure community linkages and the transmission of traditional ecological knowledge between elder native speakers and younger language learners. Language laws protect and promote the language for future generations. Research guides best practices in language acquisition. Kanyen'kéha is also used on social media, in radio and television programs, and on YouTube.

Further Reading

External Links