Oneida language

Oneida language
Spoken in Canada, United States
Region Six Nations Reserve, Ontario and central New York and around Green Bay, Wisconsin
Native speakers 160 - 514
Language family
  • Northern
    • Lake Iroquoian
      • Five Nations
        • Mohawk–Oneida
          • Oneida
Language codes
ISO 639-3 one

Oneida is an Iroquoian language spoken primarily by the Oneida people in the U.S. states of New York and Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Ontario. There are an estimated 160 native speakers left. Language revitalization efforts are in progress. The number of speakers in the Green Bay area who learned the language as infants may be as low as six.[citation needed]

As of 1994 the majority of Oneida speakers lived in Canada.[1]



Where and by Whom Oneida is Used

Historically, the Oneida tribe was located in upstate New York in what is now the Utica area. During the early to mid-19th century, significant groups of Oneida migrated to Wisconsin and Ontario as a result of displacement driven by New York State (Michelson 4). While the population in New York today includes about 1100 members enrolled in the tribe (Wonderley xiii), as well as upwards of 16,000 in the Wisconsin tribe (, the majority of these individuals speak English, and use Oneida as a second language if at all. According to the National Virtual Translation Center, there are 250 speakers of Oneida, located between the Wisconsin and Ontario nations ( Another source specifies that, as of a 1991 study, 200 Oneida speakers reside in the Thames (Ontario) Nation, and 50 in Wisconsin.[2] Due to the pre-colonial era practice of assimilating individuals of other tribes captured in warfare, it can be argued that people in the tribe who are not ethnically Oneida speak the Oneida language (Wonderley 14), but the last such events took place over 200 years ago, and the vast majority of current speakers are of Oneida descent.

The Role of Oneida Language in Oneida Society

The Oneida culture places a strong focus on oral narrative tradition (Wonderley xiv): so much so that in the absence of use as primary communication, this is the major societal role of the Oneida language. In the words of the Oneida Men’s Council and Clan Mothers, the “traditional Oneida language is a vital link to our ancestors and national identity” (Elm & Antone vii). These stories have long been used to develop social norms and pass along cultural capital via myths, folktales, and legends. In fact, the Iroquois used three separate common names for these similar narratives: “things which truly happened,” “it is as if an animal walked,” and “they went to the woods to hunt for meat” (Wonderley xix). Respectively, these are stories of the mythology of the supernatural, of (often anthropomorphic) animals, and of parables or fables of human deeds. The Oneida similarly have an extensive tradition of formal oratory and ritual tradition (Wonderley 9). Many Oneida political and diplomatic processes are highly formalized in this way, and spoken words are reinforced by the use of wampum, strings of symbolic shell beads, both in gesturing and as a gift indicating truth or seriousness (Wonderley xx-xxi, 9, 117). The Condolence Ceremony, a ritual of succession of chiefdom, played a central role in the maintenance of the Iroquois Confederacy; the Three Bare Words ceremony, a metaphorical opening of the eyes, ears, and throat, preceded any diplomacy (Wonderley 11). Religious rituals as well made specific use of prescribed language, including the Onnonhouaroia (Midwinter) ceremony, a psychologically-oriented celebration of dreams, and shamanistic medicine ceremonies (Wonderley 12). Traditions of both oral narrative as well as ritual are in general a lesser part of Oneida culture today than they were up until post-colonial times, but as the clan leaders indicate, the culture is valued, and the Oneida language is integral in enacting that culture (Elm & Antone vii).

The Situation of Oneida with regard to Multilingualism and Language Shift

There is no dispute that, at this point, Oneida is very much a secondary language: Oneida leaders write in English about the value of preserving Oneida language and culture (Elm & Antone vii-viii). Almost all Oneida are either bilingual or monolingual English speakers; according to M. Dale Kincade, only six monolingual Oneida speakers remained in the United States as of 1991. Today, the Oneida are well known for their (English-speaking) business dealings; most notably, the Oneida in New York operate the profitable Turning Stone Resort & Casino, and have undertaken, and been subject to, substantial legal action centering around it. This is among the Nation’s most public faces, as evidenced by extensive news coverage, as well as the Nation’s own advertisement website, easily as well-developed as their national website (e.g. Gregory, 2008 Jun 27; While it is clear that the Oneida have embraced the use of English, there has nonetheless been a marked effort by Oneida Nation leaders to promote cultural relevance and maintenance through maintenance of the Oneida language and bilingualism [2]. Due to its disuse as a common communicative language – and its extensive use as a prescribed ritual language – the alteration of Oneida by its speakers is minimized. Even Demus Elm’s retelling of the Creation Story, a linguistic act for which the form is not tightly prescribed, leaves limited space for language change (Elm & Antone 2-3). This is not to deny that oral narratives change over time; in fact, Wonderley himself confirms that they do, but with fewer individuals performing the retelling there is reduced possibility for mutation (xviii). Gick notes one of several minor changes from Elm’s morphology to Antone’s over the 25 year span between their narratives: the omission of the final syllable from one particular verb. He assesses that “such differences simply indicate the two speakers’ different ways of storytelling, or of speaking in general,” rather than an appreciable linguistic shift (Elm & Antone 29).

Assessment of the “health” of the Oneida Language

While numbers of native speakers are limited, the viability of the Oneida nations and their efforts of cultural and linguistic preservation are at their highest level in 150 years. All three Oneida nations, New York, Wisconsin, and Thames (Ontario), have relatively well-developed websites publicizing the current events of the tribes and their governmental actions (;; The presence of these sites is known to the public: the Central New York Business Journal reported that the site of the Oneida Nation of New York is the oldest nationally (Gregory 2008 Sep 19). These sites use a limited amount of Oneida language, almost exclusively in a context of explicit cultural preservation. More current information about the six monolingual speakers documented in 1991 is not available, but it is unlikely that any new monolingual individuals have joined this group. Efforts to increase the number of bilingual Oneida speakers, however, have been extensive. One of only three Native American languages predicted by an LA Times article to survive into the mid-21st century (according to the Oneida Indian Nation website, original source not located), Oneida language study has been formally sanctioned by the New York Oneida Nation for the past fifteen years and, through a collaboration with Berlitz to promote intensive language study, has been progressing rapidly for the past four ( The Berlitz representative acting as liaison to the Oneida Nation identified the task as a particularly difficult one: Berlitz divides languages into two sections of difficulty, A and B… I’m going to make up a C list for Oneida. It is a very hard language. It will take a student more hours to learn because of the vocabulary. Word lengths are so long. Learning English can be compared to a train with one car following another and another; in Oneida it’s a circle (qtd. ibid). Despite the challenge, the enthusiasm with which the only recently financially autonomous Oneida have undertaken language preservation bodes well for their success. Additionally, extant literary works are recent: Elm & Antone’s Creation Story was published in 2000, and Wonderley’s collection of stories in 2004. Although Oneida’s time as a primary language is almost certainly ending, if it has not already ended, signs point to its continued use in a cultural context.


Proposed Genetic Affiliation of Oneida

Like many Native American languages, the recent linguistic genetic affiliations of Oneida are quite clear, but the more distant history is uncertain. Derived from Lounsbury’s work and her own original scholarship, Michelson presents a genealogy of the Iroquois language family, of which Oneida is a part (2-3). As attested by Gick, her work is among the little linguistic research on Oneida dating after Lounsbury’s definitive work (x, 169-172). Iroquois has two major subdivisions, Northern and Southern; Southern Iroquois encompasses only Cherokee, which is at present by far the most widespread Iroquois language with in excess of 15000 speakers.[3] Lake-Iroquois languages make up the majority of Northern Iroquois, with the exception of “nearly extinct” Tuscarora and extinct Nottoway (ibid). Of the Lake-Iroquois languages, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca are extant, with only Mohawk having greater than a thousand speakers (ibid; Michelson 3). The close relation of Oneida with Mohawk and Onondaga is further substantiated by archaeological evidence of early Oneida villages, particularly Nichols Pond (Wonderley 5-6). The broader identity of Oneida as well as other Iroquois languages is not as well known. The Iroquois mythological record carries significant ancient elements that point back to distant Asian/Siberian origins (Wonderley xxvi), which coincides with well-accepted archaeological evidence. After this entry into North America, the most far-reaching explanation is offered by Greenberg’s Amerind Hypothesis, but the strongest evidence for this theory comes from not entirely trustworthy analysis of language genetic factors.

History of the Speakers of Oneida

The Nichols Pond village site dates to approximately 1450, indicating the Onondaga as the probable immediate ancestors of the Oneida, as corroborated by a myth of the formation of the Oneida tribe by two Onondaga brothers (Wonderley 4-6). From this time, the Oneida remained largely sedentary through the arrival of French missionaries in the mid-17th century at their main settlement at Primes Hill in northern New York (Wonderley 6-10). Due to the centrality of hunting to the Oneida culture, clan membership was matrilineal (as men were often away) and tasks were divided along gender lines (Wonderley 9), both societal elements that are still at least nominally in place (Elm & Antone viii). The Oneida rapidly adopted French technology and integrated it with little cultural change into the common lifestyle (Wonderley 13, 18). In their attempt to bring European religion, however, French missionaries, spearheaded by Jacques Bruyas, gradually succeeded in dismantling a significant portion of Oneida culture (Wonderley 16-17). Under the leadership of chief Good Peter, and against the rest of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Oneida backed the United States in the Revolutionary War. Oneida Castle at Primes Hill was destroyed in 1780 by loyalist forces, beginning a difficult era for the Oneida that resulted in their subsequent nearly complete assimilation into the new American way of life, with respect to appearance, technology, and lifestyle (Wonderley 19-20). Almost immediately after the end of hostilities, however, they suffered severe political abuse by the State of New York, and the vast majority of Oneida land was annexed. During this time, portions of the tribe broke off and relocated to Wisconsin and Ontario. This process of sequestration and demoralization culminated in 1850 with the appropriation by the City of Utica of the Oneida Stone, a long-standing symbol of the Nation (Wonderley 23-24, 28-29). Within the last ten to twenty years, the Oneida Nation of New York has been greatly revitalized by the establishment of the Turning Stone resort and casino. The funds generated from this enterprise have enabled the Nation to direct substantial effort to rebuilding both culture and territory (, and have led to the formation of a variety of other Nation-owned businesses ( Most notably, in April 2005 the Oneida Nation of New York filed an ultimately successful application for federal land-into-trust territorial organization, limiting jurisdiction, and tax liability, of Oneida territory to the Nation and the federal government (Gregory 2008 Jun 6).

Written History of Oneida

The written historical record of the Oneida has largely been written by outside individuals in foreign languages, either English or French. The script used for Oneida writing was developed by French missionaries (, but writing by Oneida individuals is extant only from relatively recent years and is nearly exclusively in English. Prior writings about Oneida language and people recorded oral narrative, and even these accounts dropped off as of about 1930 (Wonderley xiv-xvi). It is only since the 1980s that the Oneida themselves have employed writing, in any language, at least in a public context, and much of this stems from the legal battles of the Nation. The Creation Story by Elm & Antone appears to be the only book written in Oneida in major publication, and much of the scholarship underlying this work, while certainly in collaboration with Oneida speakers, was done in English (e.g. Elm & Antone 7-27).



Alveolar Palatal Velar Labio-velar Glottal
Nasal n
Plosive t k ʔ
Affricate ts
Fricative s h
Approximant l j w

There are four oral vowels, /i e o a/, and two nasal vowels, /ũ/ (written ⟨u⟩) and /ə̃/ (written ⟨ʌ⟩}. Vowel length is indicated with a following colon, ⟨:⟩.

Like other Iroquois languages, Oneida has a relatively limited inventory of vowels, and fairly standard set of consonants. According to Gick, “all consonants sound similar to English” with a few exceptions involving fricatives and the glottal stop (ibid). Oneida lacks bilabial stops and labio-dental fricatives.[3] Oneida segments are largely CV, and VV appears in disyllabic sequences ai, ae, ao, and au (Michelson 11). Consonants can also cluster in particular arrangements up to CCCCC in the word-medial position; word-initial or word-final clusters are limited to CCC (Michelson 16-17). Oneida generally accents on the penultimate syllable, and shares with Mohawk the “PLI rules that… lengthen an accented open penult” (Michelson 66). Basic register tone results from the Oneida accent system, but is not contrastive (Michelson 68).[4]


Oneida is polysynthetic, and has substantial noun incorporation (Michelson 47-48). Affixes are both prefixing and suffixing depending on precise usage (Elm & Antone 5). Verbs take three aspects, habitual, punctual, and stative, which are marked via suffixing (Michelson 47). Modal prefixes (future, factual, and optative) fill the role of verb tense; non-modal prefixes are often adpositional (Michelson 46). Oneida is head-marking, and designates person and number in this way (ibid).[4] These so-called “patient prefixes” take singular, dual, or plural forms to mark the inclusive-exclusive distinction (Michelson 46).


Oneida is either verb-initial, or having no dominant form.[4] Interpretation of Elm’s portion of the text of the Creation Story itself reveals a clear verb-initial word order (Elm & Antone 35-61), but Antone’s portion (30-35) does not, suggesting that word order is variable by speaker, and flexible usage is grammatically acceptable. Also, Oneida constructs sentences in the active voice only.[4]


This document summarizes several of the texts most central to the study of Oneida. Karin Michelson’s A Comparative Study of Lake-Iroquoian Accent scientifically evaluates in depth many of the linguistic specifics of the Oneida language and its relatives, continuing the seminal work of Floyd Lounsbury from 1946. Anthony Wonderley, historian of the New York Oneida Nation, provides the best-recognized account of historical factors and their interplay with Oneida culture in Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth, and History. Finally, The Oneida Creation Story, compiled by Floyd Lounsbury and Bryan Gick from the narratives of Demus Elm and Harvey Antone, provides considerable insight into the use of the Oneida language as it is perceived by the Oneida people. Conspicuously missing, unfortunately, is direct reference to Lounsbury’s Oneida Verb Morphology and Phonology of the Oneida Language, among several others. In the words of Ray Halbritter, the National Representative of the New York Oneida Nation: “Oneidas have a history as distinguished and tragic as that of any people…. But there is nothing traditional about poverty and despair…. As soon as we built up resources from gaming and other enterprises, we turned back to our cultural heritage strongly committed to preserve and revitalize it” (Elm & Antone vii). Today, the Oneida language and the long history it encompasses is jeopardized by the limited number of speakers and the danger of cultural irrelevance, but the zeal of its leaders for the preservation of the culture may maintain the life of the language. Through the work of Floyd Lounsbury and others, texts “of great linguistic value” like Elm and Antone’s serve to accomplish this purpose (vii).


  1. ^ Moseley, Christopher and R. E. Asher, ed. Atlas of World Languages (New York: Routelege, 1994) p. 7
  2. ^ See Ethnologue's page.
  3. ^ a b See [1].
  4. ^ a b c d See WALS Online.


  • Elm, Demus, and Harvey Antone. The Oneida Creation Story. Ed. Floyd G. Lounsbury and Bryan Gick. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  • Gregory, Traci. “Breaking down the Ruling on the Nation’s Properties.” Central New York Business Journal 6 Jun 2008: 3.
  • Gregory, Traci. “Six Suits Filed Against Oneida Land-into-Trust Decision.” Central New York Business Journal 27 Jun 2008: 5.
  • Michelson, Karin. A Comparative Study of Lake-Iroquoian Accent. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988.
  • Michelson, Karin E. and Doxtator, Mercy A. Oneida-English / English-Oneida dictionary. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2002. 1200 pages. ISBN 0-8020-3590-6
  • “Oneida Nation Unveils New Web Home.” Central New York Business Journal 19 Sep 2008: 16.
  • Wonderley, Anthony. Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth, and History. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Oneida Nation of the Thames — Oneida 41   Indian reserve   …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida Indian Nation — Total population 1,000+ Regions with significant populations …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida Cnty. v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. State — Supreme Court of the United States Argued Oct. 1, 1984 …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. State v. Oneida Cnty. — Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. State v. Oneida Cnty. Supreme Court of the United States Argued Nov. 6 and 7 …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida — may refer to: Contents 1 Native American/First Nations 2 Places 2.1 Geographical features in central New York Sta …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida Lake — View of Frenchman s Island and Durham Island from Cicero, a suburban Syracuse town Location Oneida / Oswego counties …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida people — For other uses, see Oneida (disambiguation). Oneida Total population 100,000+ Regions with significant populations …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida Nation of Wisconsin — A watertower for the Oneida Nation in Oneida …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida County, New York — Location in the state of New York …   Wikipedia

  • Oneida — [ō nī′də] n. [< Iroquois Oneiute, lit., standing rock ] 1. pl. Oneidas or Oneida a member of a North American Indian people living originally near Oneida Lake in New York and now also in Wisconsin and Ontario 2. the Iroquoian language of this… …   English World dictionary