Il Parle Ilinois, ‘He speaks in the normal way’:
The Language of the Inoca

Sam Packard
Parkland College
Anthropology 200

Michelle N. Dunnagan
Parkland College
Anthropology 200

© 2008 by the Center For Social Research, Parkland College

[Editor's Note: For the uninitiated, the language of linguistic analysis can seem a little daunting. Where Sam and Michelle have used technical, formal expressions, I have tried to provide a link that can supply further explanation of the concept.]


" When one speaks the word 'Ilinois,' it is as if one said in their language, 'the men'..." commented the Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette (Thwaites 1899[59]:125) 1 in one of the earliest recorded accounts of the Illinois tribes. "They are divided into many villages, some of which are quite distant from that of which we speak.... This causes some difference in their language, [but] which, on the whole, resembles allegonquin, so that we easily understood each other." (Thwaites 1899[59]:125-127). Father Marquette was describing what we now call the Miami-Illinois language, the language of a group of tribes collectively known to us as the Illinois or the Illinois Confederacy, and known to themselves as the 'Inoca' (Belting 1958:287). It was indeed spoken among a group of people of many villages covering parts of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and also of the Miami tribes of Indiana, who spoke their own dialects of the same language. Over the next 300 years, the geographic area in which this language was spoken was reduced to a small reservation in Oklahoma, where the last native speaker's death in the 1980s forced an official re-classification of 'extinct' (Mithun 1999:334). The language has some rich grammatical features and beautiful words, many of which can be found on any map of Illinois in the form of the names of cities and geographical features. Much of the information that we do have, accumulated little by little, is being consolidated and examined in a revitalization effort that is, as of now, still in its early development (Miami University 2000).

The Place of Miami-Illinois among North American Languages:

Native North American languages at the time of European contact are categorized into nineteen families; one of the most geographically extensive of which is Algic. The Algic family stretched in a broad swath from the Atlantic coast, across the Great Lakes Region, and on to the Candian Rockies. Curiously, there were even two small pockets along the coast of Califorinia. Algonquian consists of 27 languages divided into three groups: Plains, Central, and Eastern; Miami-Illinois is one of the Central Algonquian languages, alongside Cree, Ojibwe, Shawnee, Menominee, Potawatomi, and its closest linguistic relative, Fox-Sauk-Kickapoo (Mithun 1999:326-340).

How we know what we know about the Miami-Illinois language dates as far back as the first handful of Jesuit missionaries to have contact with the Inoca, namely Claude Allouez, the aforementioned Marquette, and Jacques Gravier. What they recorded during their time among the Illinois groups constitutes our most extensive and complete inventory of morphemes. Claude Allouez was a Jesuit missionary and the first known Westerner to make physical contact with the Illinois. He traveled the Illinois lands extensively and at his mission compiled a collection of prayers in the Illinois language. This document, while relatively short and offering no translation, is the earliest known written account of the language. Jacques Gravier served in a mission in the present day East St. Louis area. This was actually a relocation of Marquette's Mission of Immaculate Conception established in 1674 at the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia opposite what is today known as Starved Rock. Fortunately for us, Gravier was quite preoccupied with learning and documenting the language of his flock. A 586 page manuscript with over 22,000 Kaskaskia-Illinois words and French translations is commonly attributed to him. That said, there is some measure of historical controversy over the authorship of the manuscript and its correct attribution (cf. Thwaites 1899[66]:243-245). Masthay (2002:12-13) has convincingly argued that none of the handwriting found in the manuscript corresponds to specimens known to have been penned by Gravier. He concludes that the penman was mostly likely either Jesuit Father Marest or Jesuit Father Tartarin. These issues aside, the document is the most extensive single source for the language (Costa 2003:11). Curiously, the 300 year old paleograph has only recently been transcribed, compiled, and edited (Masthay 2002). The array of other documents generated prior to the early 1900s consists of comparatively shorter contributions made by the sundry missionaries assigned to the various groups of Miami-Illinois speakers. These, though much less extensive, cover a wider range of Illinois dialects, as well as the Miami dialect, none of which had been included in Gravier's work (Costa 2003:12-20).

An exception to the exclusive contributions of the missionaries was the efforts of French aristocrat Constantin-Francois Volney who gathered much information on the Miami dialect in the 1790s. However, modern linguists consider the data collected by Albert Gatschet and those that followed to be in many ways of a higher quality and reliability (Costa 1991:366; 2003:23-31). When Gatschet started his fieldwork on the language, the entirety of the Inoca lands and most of the descendants were located in Oklahoma. This geographic fact continues through the present with the descendants of La Nation des Ilinois being recognized by the U.S. federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs as the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. The consequences of the various Inoca sub-groups being consolidated into a small geographic area in regard to the study of the language were twofold: one was that it was easier for the linguists to collect data from speakers of the variety of Illinois dialects that had persisted; however, two, the speakers' dialects ostensibly would also have been generically homogenized and become less discernible. Being confined to this small area alongside other tribes of Native Americans with different linguistic traditions would also be a central factor in the language's extinction. Gatschet and a small handful of linguists worked with the last generation of native speakers of the language in the early to mid 1900s. Their notes themselves are considered of a high quality (Costa 2003:23-31), particularly the transcription of sounds recognized. The primary limitation of the work focuses on the circumstance that many of the speakers they worked with were older and displayed varying degrees of fluency and recollection. At times these informants could only remember portions of vocabulary or childhood stories, songs, and prayers (Costa 2003:23-31).

The fact that the Illinois language survived in a form that could be at least minimally studied, reconstructed, and revitalized can be considered fortunate. It has been speculated that from the time of European contact the number of indigenous North American languages that have vanished, without leaving behind any speakers, records, or working knowledge, could number in the hundreds (Tsunoda 2005:23). Thus, the preservation of the language insofar as it actually was preserved is a testament to the resilience of the Inoca as a confederacy of tribes working together, and to the missionaries who worked to learn the language, document it, write dictionaries, etc.. Miami, Illinois, and Miami-Illinois are language names used almost interchangeably by the professional community given the fact that the languages of the two groups of tribes were dialects of a common language tradition than individual languages themselves (Swann 2005:293). The Myaamia Project of Miami University in Indiana, started in 1995, has been making a significant effort in the reclamation of both dialect groups. This effort so far has mostly been in the form of translating the documents of the missionaries and linguists and examining and interpreting them into a cohesive inventory of the vocabulary and grammar of the language (Miami University 2002).

Notable Properties of Miami-Illinois

One interesting feature of the Illinois language, which is shared (or was shared in the past) by other Algonquian languages but is rather exotic outside of them, is a gender dichotomy of animate vs. inanimate nouns (the term 'gender' in linguistics designates a class of noun, not necessarily related to biological or social gender). Denoted by the suffix of a noun, the noun is classified as either animate or inanimate, much in the way that many Romance languages have gender classifications of masculine vs. feminine (and, in many cases, a third category of neutral gender). The gender is easily discernible, where animate nouns end in -a generally taking the -aki ending when pluralized, and inanimate nouns end in -i, taking the -a ending when pluralized (note the ending change in the plural nouns in the examples below). David Costa notes that this gender distinction is shared only by Sauk-Fox-Kickapoo; in all other Algonquian languages, final vowels have been lost by sound law to such a degree that one cannot tell the gender of most singular nouns by any particular marking (Costa 2003:205).

Examples of animate nouns Examples of inanimate nouns
akima - chief acihwki (acihkaw) - hill (s)
eeteeshia-(eeteehsiaki) - war chief(s) nipi - water
nahaankana - son in law išiteehioni - thought
mikihkwa - old woman waali (waala) - cave(s)
naala (naalaki) - cicada(s) kaloosioni - word
alenia - man waapimootayi - blanket
manetoowa - spirit, monster wiikiaami - house
lenipinsia - underwater monster waawi (waawa) - egg(s)

Figure 1. Examples of Animate and Inanimate nouns.

This dichotomy might be of particular interest to anthropologists who would pay attention to how a people's culture is mirrored in aspects of their language, and also how, according to the principle of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a people's worldview might conversely be influenced by their language and its vocabulary and grammar. For example, would the animacy classification of a given object or entity which a child is taught and brought up knowing, help construct how they perceive that object or entity? A third category of nouns, not grammatically defined in the language but pointed out by Costa (2003:208), is 'unexpectedly animate nouns' or objects that would normally be considered semantically inanimate (inanimate in meaning) but are grammatically animate .

ahkihkwa - drum

ahsapa - star

alaankwia - rainbow

manetwa - falling snow

moohswaya - deer hide

piiwia - feather

aankwahsakwa - driftwood

Figure 2. Examples of Unexpectedly animate nouns.

One involved in the language-culture relationship would take interest here for possible indications of the perspective the Inoca took of the world around them. For example, if we had the same feature in our language, would we classify the same words as animate or inanimate? If not, what is characteristic about these objects in their culture and worldview or ours that would elicit such a classification? The word for drum is one of a small handful of words (about five are documented by Costa) in the language which change their meaning with their gender classification. The word for 'kettle,' the inanimate ahkihkwi, when changed to the animate ahkihkwa, becomes the word 'drum.' The relation between the two words makes sense given the description of the typical Illinois drum from the contact period explorer Pierre de Liette as " earthen pot, which they half fill with water and cover with a buckskin, which they stretch as tight as they can" (Delliette 1934:386). But are we to speculate that the kettle or pot becomes an animate thing, imbued with spirit, once made into a drum? We do not know much about the Illinois' religious ceremonies or dances, save the 'calumet dance,' accounts of which emphasize heavily the role of the calumet, or sacred pipe, but not the music. Raymond Hauser (1973:174-175) notes that Inoca music and dance was but poorly documented by the European observers of the period. However, drums are a central and driving part of many Native American spiritual ceremonies and dances, their beat often times likened to that of a heartbeat. That a special role would be subtly implied by its grammatical animacy is not an unreasonable speculation, but it is only speculation, and simply an example of what might be ascertained to augment our knowledge of the Illinois culture by examining the language. Hauser comments on the Europeans' description of Manitou, or a universal spirit to which all things are connected; describing a rite de passage in which pubescent boys seek their connection to the Manitou by going into seclusion to meditate and fast: "The symbolic appearance of a recognizable object in a dream, usually a bird or animal, was evidence of the man-Manitou relationship… the visionary then sought an object of symbolic veneration, usually the skin or feathers of a bird or the hide of an animal."(Hauser 1973:181-182) Again, 'feather' and 'deer hide,' objects described in the passage as relics sought and kept as a symbolic connection to Manitou, are both 'unexpectedly animate' nouns and carry significant spiritual weight.

In addition to these gender categories, there is a small category of nouns with variable animacy depending on dialect or speaker. Many body parts and plants are animate while others are inanimate, a phenomenon seemingly unpredictable to us since no native speakers survive and there is such limited surviving knowledge of pre-contact Illinois culture. These instances in the language, however, may themselves help provide us clues as was speculated earlier about the 'unexpectedly' animate nouns.

A second interesting attribute of Miami-Illinois which is universal to Algonquian languages and common among most other Native North American languages is polysynthesis. Synthesis, in linguistics, is a term that refers to the morpheme to word ratio in a language (morphemes are defined as the smallest linguistic unit with semantic meaning, often associated with but not equivalent to a syllable - note that syllables can comprise multiple morphemes). A polysynthetic language is one in which a relatively large number of morphemes are strung together into single words. Many different words, affixes, or other morphemes can be strung together in a single word in polysynthetic languages; at times a single word can convey the meaning of an entire sentence, and the distinction between sentence and word can even be blurred. In the sentence Kiyošiaki ihsa weentamawaahsiikwi, which means ‘the old men wouldn’t listen,‘ Kiyošiaki is the word for ’old men,’ ihsa is an emphasizer, and weentamawaahsiikwi translates to ‘he does not tell him about it’. Here is another example with a breakdown of the components (Costa 2003: 433):

Eehkwi eenswikaateeholaata ihsa nimenka saakikoleehaakok. -

“Once he had tied their feet together, in a short time he came up with only his nose out of the water.”

Eehkwi - ‘while’

eenswikaateeholaata - ‘he ties him together at the feet’

ihsa - emphasizer

nimehka - ‘short time’

saakikoleehaakok - ‘he comes up with his nose out'

Figure 3. Examples of Polysynthetics.

Below is another wonderful example of morphology (word structure) in polysynthetic languages from the closely related central Algonquian language Odawa (Ottawa), where we can see many components come together, each time constructing a single word with an increasingly complex definition (Christianson, personal communication 2007):

nbaagan. = 'bed'

onbaaganike = 's/he makes the bed'

onbaaganikeshki = 's/he habitually makes the bed'

ogiinbaaganikeshkishi = 's/he habitually made the bed in a pitiful way'

ogiinbaaganikeshkishikaazosii = 's/he didn't pretend to habitually make the bed in a pitiful way'

Figure 4. Examples of Morphology.

Navajo, another polysynthetic Native North American language, the most widely spoken of such languages and estimated to have over 100,000 living speakers, was used in World War II to encode communications between US military units operating in the Pacific Theater. Because of the nature of the language, and due in a large part to the polysynthetic structure, the messages were purportedly never deciphered by Japanese code breakers.

The flexibility of syntax is a third notable characteristic of Miami-Illinois, in addition to the gender system and polysynthesis. The syntax (word order within a sentence) in Illinois and related languages is very flexible, shown by another example from the Odawa language. Here, each sentence translates to "The baby is poking the boy:"

Binoojins boojaanpinaan gwiizens-an

Gwiizens-an boojaapinaan binoojins

Boojaapinaan gwiizens-an binoojins

Boojaapinaan binoojins gwiizens-an

Binoojins gwiizens-an boojaapinaan

Gwiizens-an binoojins boojaapinaan

Figure 5. Examples of Syntax.

As opposed to the English sentence, "The baby is poking the boy," in which you can tell that 'baby' is the subject and 'boy' is the object because of their place in the order of words, Odawa and other Central Algonquian languages use prefixes and suffixes to do the same thing. In the above example, the '-an' on the end of gwiizens-an and 'n' on the end of boojaapinaan denote subject and object in these sentences as would word position in English. (Christianson, personal communication 2007)

These features are not any kind of summary of the language but a small sample of known Miami-Illinois attributes representing a rich language unique to the linguistic arena. The language is very similar to its relatives in the Central Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian family, but also displays several unique features.

Toponyms and Ethnonyms

Most people's experiences with the Illinois language, at least those who live in the Midwest, are limited to toponyms (place names) of which there are many in Illinois and the surrounding states. From the cities of Peoria (from the tribal self-name /peeraweewa/), Chicago ("wild onion" or "wild leek"), and Des Moines (from the tribal self-name /mooyinkweena/ or Moingwena); to the Mississippi River (cognates of Mississippi appear in several Central Algonquian languages meaning 'big river' or 'grand river') and Lake Michigan ('big water' in Kaskaskia-Illinois); to, of course, the state of Illinois itself; many of the place names in Illinois have their roots in the Miami-Illinois lexicon. However, most of these names do not come directly from the language. Most are rather French interpretations of either the original words or tribal names, or words from neighboring languages (e.g. Odawa). One interesting anecdote is the etymology behind the name of Des Moines. The label comes from the reference /mooyinkweena/, which is currently thought to be the name, of French origin, of one of the seven major Illinois tribes. The original name, from the Illinois language, is /mooyinkweena/. This is not itself known to be their self-given name, or a genuine label for them in any neighboring tribe's language. The word itself translates to 'shitface,' and thus it was likely a label provided to missionaries by a neighboring Illinois group, as perhaps a practical joke or sign of hostility (Costa 2000:46-49).

Many of the names, as you might ascertain from the above examples, come as French manifestations of the names of the Inoca tribes themselves. The consensus is that the Inoca were not a single Nation but a 'confederacy' of seven major tribes. These were the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Moingwena, Coiracoentanon, Tamaroa, Tapouara, and Cahokia, with references to more minor groups occasionally recorded by the French. Some would also include here the Mitchigamea, but rather clearly they spoke a language quite distinct from Inoca (Thwaites 1899[59]:151-153).

The names Illinois, Illini, and Illiniwek are all French derivatives that can likely be traced back to the Miami-Illinois word /irenweewa/. In the Gravier dictionary, /irenweewa/ translates to il parle Illinois or "he speaks Illinois." Costa assigns the meaning of the word in Miami-Illinois as "he speaks in the ordinary way." He goes on to say that if the Ojibwe had borrowed this word, it would have been /ilinwek/ as plural or /ilinwe/ as singular. /Ilinwe/ is exactly how Illinois would be pronounced in French, and this explains the most likely origin of the words Illinois and Illiniwek in our language. The name they had for themselves, however, was most likely /Inoca/ or /Inouca/. "This is by far the most common name for the Illinois Indians in the missionary sources," states Costa (2000: 46-49). Some of the tribe names and likely meanings are as follows:

Kaskaskia: /kaaskaaskiwa/ - 'katydid' or 'cicada'
Peoria: /peewaareewa/ - '(manitou) dreamer' (Michael McCafferty, personal communication 2007)
Moingwena: /mooyinkweena/ - 'excrement faces' or 'someone had put excrement on face'
Mitchigamea: /meehcikamia/ - 'big water' or 'big-water person' in Kaskaskia-Illinois, however, they were not speakers of Inocan (see Father Marquette's First Journey of 1673, pp. 151-153).

Figure 6. Toponyms and Ethnonyms.

In regards to the Peoria and Kaskaskia, the missionary sources also use the name maskootia or meehkotia intermittently for the Peoria or Kaskaskia tribes, or sometimes to refer to the Illinois in general. This is also the modern Fox/Sauk name for the Peoria tribe. The name translates to "prairie people." The original names for the Cahokia and Tamaroa tribes and their etymologies are, at this time, more elusive.

Final Thoughts

Much of this language and the people who spoke it are indeed obscure at this time. As we have seen, however, the work of a handful of missionaries from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as a few linguists and language enthusiasts from the 1800s have produced a database of information on this language and its people to be cultivated by scholars of this and future generations. As more interest is vested in the language and more manuscripts uncovered and/or investigated, our knowledge of the Illinois tribes and their language should be expected to blossom further. The extensive vocabulary, the rich morphological and syntactic character, the clues to the names of rivers and cities which have become household names to all Midwestern folk, should all be uncovered and illuminated with any luck and a good measure of scholarly dedication.

1 The word "Ilinois" is a label borrowed by the French from the Odawa (Ottawa) for people living to the south and west of Lake Michigan (Thwaites 1899[51]:205). The proper ethnonym for the majority of Native American groups known historically as the "Illinois," is "Inoca."

Works Cited

Belting, Natalia M.
1958 Illinois Names for Themselves and Other Groups. Ethnohistory 5(3):285-291.
Costa, David J.
1991 The Historical Phonology of Miami-Illinois International Journal of American Linguistics 57(3): 365-393
2000 Miami-Illinois Tribe Names. In John Nichols, editor. Papers of the 31st Algonquian Conference. pp. 30-53. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
2003 The Miami-Illinois Language. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Delliette, Pierre
1934 Memoir of De Gannes Concerning the Illinois Country. In The French Foundations: 1680-1693. Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, Volume 23. Edited by Theodore Calvin Pease and Raymond C. Werner. Springfield, Illinois.
Hauser, Raymond E.
1973 Ethnohistory of the Illinois Indian Tribe, 1673-1832. DeKalb: Hauser.
Hodges, Frederick Webb, ed.
1910 Michigamea. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30. Government Printing Office.
Masthay, Carl
2002 Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary. Published by the Author, Carl Masthay, 838 Larkin Ave, St. Louis, Missouri, 63141-7758.
Myaamia Project Initiatives: Illinois Project.
2002 Miami University. Oxford, Ohio., accessed 12 May 2007.
Mithun, Marianne
1999 The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Swann, Brian
2005 Algonquian Spirit: Contemporary Translations of the Algonquian Literatures of North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Thwaites, Reuben G.
1899 The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents : Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. Vol. LIX. Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co.
1899 The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents : Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. Vol. LXVI. Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co.
Tsunoda, Tasaku
2005 Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.