Choctaw Language

The Choctaw language belongs to the Muskogean language family, an extensive group that includes Creek (also referred to as Muskogee), Chickasaw, Mikasuki (either a dialect of or very similar to now extinct Hitchiti), Seminole (a dialect of Creek), Alabama, and Koasati. At the time of European arrival, the Muskogean language family was one of the largest in the southeastern United States in both population and geographical range.

Today, Choctaw is the traditional language of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. About 80 percent of the approximately ten thousand tribe members speak the language fluently. The language is also spoken by older members of the Oklahoma Choctaw Nation, a group forced to leave their original Mississippi homeland and follow the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory in the 1830s.

The Choctaw language was and is unique. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians continued to speak Choctaw as their first language and as the vehicle of everyday communication until the late 1980s. This achievement, based in part on their social isolation and to an even greater degree on their belief that their language and their identity were inseparable, distinguished them from almost all other North American native groups. Until the early 1990s most children began kindergarten speaking primarily if not exclusively Choctaw. Today, however, some children still speak mainly Choctaw, but most perceive the language as backward and English as modern. Nonetheless, most teenagers remain bilingual to at least some extent, speaking not only English but a variety of Choctaw marked by a large number of English vocabulary borrowings and incorporating some features of English grammar.

The majority of Choctaw sounds are familiar to the English ear. The language employs only two sounds not ordinarily found in English: (1) a glottal stop /’/, similar to the sound between the two syllables of English uh oh; and (2) a lateral fricative /ł/, similar to the simultaneous pronunciation of thl, as in the English onomatopoetic thlunk. Unlike English, Choctaw may also create meaning differences between words by distinguishing between long, short, nasal, and nonnasal vowels and between single and double consonants.

Choctaw base or elemental words usually consist of one to three syllables. Verb bases are routinely lengthened by the addition of particles conveying additional meaning—when the action occurred, in what manner the activity was conducted (quickly, intensely, and so forth), and who performed the action (if a pronoun).

There is no exact equivalent of the English to be forms. Instead, Choctaw has a special set of verbs to indicate the positional and spatial relationship of two items. These verbs indicate whether the referents are singular, dual, or plural; whether they are “existing, being somewhere”; “standing”; “sitting”; “setting on”; or “hanging from.” They function similarly to the English all-purpose is. For example, the counterpart of the English query “Is Rose there?” (for example, in an office), utilizes the subject’s probable position instead of is:

Rose + at biniili + h + ̨o?

Rose + Subject Particle sit + Verb Particle + Interrogative

Positional verbs and verbs referring to other attributes of the referents (shape, for example) are not uncommon in North American Native languages.

Nouns may be modified by attaching possessive pronouns at the beginning of the base word (for example, my) or by attaching demonstrative (this, that), locative (here, there), or emphatic particles (among other types) at the end of the base. Nouns may also be followed by separate words specifying number, color, size, or the like, functions that are similar to English adjectives.

The normal order of basic sentence constituents in Choctaw is Subject-Object(s)-Verb. (In English, the order is Subject-Verb-Object.) However, Choctaw has more freedom than English in its ability to vary word order because the subject (or subject noun phrase) always has a specific, terminal particle ({-at}). Thus, no matter where the subject noun or noun phrase appears in the sentence, its grammatical function is immediately identifiable. Complex sentences (those consisting of more than one clause) can signal, with an attachment at the end of the first clause, whether or not the subject of the second clause is the same or different from that of the first.

Today, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, recognizing the language-erosive effects of socioeconomic integration with English speakers, has initiated the Choctaw Tribal Language Program, which focuses on immersing Choctaw children in day care and Head Start programs in the Choctaw language. This approach is based on the fact that almost all Choctaw children begin day care around the age of six weeks and on the assumption that the acquisition of English is inevitable, whereas the acquisition of Choctaw is no longer certain. Regular evaluation and annual testing will ultimately determine the success of such programs, but data so far are promising.

Further Reading

  • Karen M. Booker, Languages of the Aboriginal Southeast: An Annotated Bibliography (1991)
  • George Aaron Broadwell, A Choctaw Reference Grammar (1996)
  • James M. Crawford, ed., Studies in Southeastern Indian Languages (1975)
  • Heather Hardy and Janine Scancarelli, eds., Native Language of the Southeastern United States (2005)
  • Patricia Kwachka, ed., Perspectives on the Southeast: Linguistics, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory (1994)
  • Pamela Munro and Catherine Willmond, Chickasaw, an Analytical Dictionary (1994)
  • T. Dale Nicklas, “Elements of Choctaw” (PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 1972)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Choctaw Language
  • Patricia Kwachka
  • Author Roseanna Thompson
  • Keywords choctaw language
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 3, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018