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What is Chickasaw?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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Chickasaw is a Native American language of the Muskogean family, which also includes Choctaw, Koasati, Alabama, Creek, Apalachee, and Hitchiti-Mikasuki. It is most closely related to Choctaw, and many speakers of this language also speak or understand at least some Choctaw, since Choctaw has a larger number of speakers, and church services in the area where Chickasaw speakers live were only conducted in Choctaw or English in recent history. Choctaw speakers cannot, for the most part, understand Chickasaw. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, however, it was a lingua franca for many tribes living along the lower Mississippi River. Today, most speakers live in the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, where the tribe was forcibly relocated in the 1830s, and there are under 1,000 native speakers, all over the age of 50.

The sounds of Chickasaw mostly also exist in English, so it is relatively easy for English speakers to learn the basics of the language, although many grammatical features are quite different from those in European languages. Chickasaw has 16 consonants, all but one of which exist in English, and nine vowels. The vowels are contrasted according to length and nasality, so they may be thought of as only three vowels rather than nine, each with a short, long, and nasalized version.

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Chickasaw, like many Indian languages, is agglutinative, meaning that elements such as tense, case, and pronominal subject and object are expressed by morphemes added to the main verb of a sentence, rather than by separate words, as in English. Consequently, a sentence that may take many words to express in English often requires only a single word in Chickasaw. For example, the English sentence, "We are going to get married," translates as "Ilittihaalalla'chi."

Like nearly all Native American languages, Chickasaw was strictly an oral language before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, and there is consequently no native writing system. A variety of systems using the Roman alphabet — the same alphabet English uses — have been used to write the language over the years, so there are often inconsistencies among texts. Not many Chickasaw texts exist, however, and none are officially published.

Chickasaw language revitalization efforts have been underway since the 1970s, but the younger generations have mostly switched to English, and it has not been taught as a native language for many decades. However, there are many books and programs available for learning Chickasaw, as well as an extensive analytical dictionary compiled by Pamela Munro and Catherine Willmond and published in 1994.

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