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The Ojibwe Language


"These languages of the natives are distinguished for their remarkable simplicity and perfect construction, and at the same time rich in expressions.  Truly, this alone is a convincing example that languages are a blessing from the Creator which has not been denied to any people, because it is certain that these Indians have not themselves invented the manner of speaking their lovely languages..."


- Father Frederic Baraga,

Letter written to "Katolischer Wahrheitsfreund", Feb 1, 1854

The Story of Father Baraga's Dictionary

Father Baraga completed what is considered the largest dictionary of the Ojibwe language which is 723 pages in total.  In addition he completed the first Ojibwe grammar book which is an additional 422 pages in addition to the other books which he had written.  It was stated in the book Kitchi Gami by Johann Kohl that "he collected [these words] as busily and gladly as the bee does honey (pg. 177)."  He was also assisted by Vincent Roy who had been employed to help him with the work which could also be found in Kitchi Gami (pg. 148)

At one point Father Baraga almost lost the entirety of his work.  While Father Baraga was en route to Detroit to publish this manuscript in March of 1852.  He had taken a horse drawn sleigh over the ice of Green Bay.  While going over the ice his sleigh plunged through the ice.  Somehow he was able to save the manuscript still from the accident.  Even after this Detroit was unable to print the document so he continued his journey until he arrived in Cincinnati where he found a publisher.  Father Baraga went through extensive efforts to have his manuscript printed.  

Father Baraga also new of the distinctions between the languages of the Ojibwe Nation.  When he first arrived in L'Anse he experienced the dialect of the Ottawa.  Later on when he went to La Pointe he experienced the Northern Ojibwe language.  How the dialects originated can be read below and the distinctions between the languages can be found in the books that Father Baraga wrote

Language Dialects


The Ojibwe people lived throughout the region ranging from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean along the great lakes and the St. Lawrence river.  They moved from the east coast and migrated west due to a prophecy that foretold the coming of the Europeans to the land around 1400 AD.  They were directed to keep migrating until they found Manomin which translates to "Food on the Water".  This is known today as wild rice which became a staple in the food supply of the Ojibwe people especially during the harsh winters of this region. 


Along the migration, several of the people decided to keep the community at different locations which created a unique trading route for the Ojibwe people and also divided their language into several dialects.  Father Baraga was first primarily trained in Arbre Crochet, MI (now known as Cross Village, MI) initially in this dialect of the Ottawa Tribe.  Soon after learning the basics of the language he was moved to Madeline Island, La Pointe, WI which became the primary dialect used in his Ojibwe Language books.

Ojibwe Language 1750.jpg
La Pointe -
- Arbre Crochet

Map of the Ojibwe Language around the Great Lakes ca. 1750

Father Baraga started learning the Ojibwe language while he was in Cincinnati, OH just after his arrival in the United States in 1830.  It was there that he met a man by the name of William Makatebinessi who was a full-blooded Ottawa Native and who was also a fellow theological student (History of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette, Vol. 1, 26).  From there he went to Arbre Crochet which is where he wrote his first book in the Ojibwe language in the Ottawa Dialect called the Ottawa Prayer Book (Otawa Anamie-Misinaigan) which was first published in 1832.  During this time he helped to create several more books to aid the Ojibwe people in understanding the Catholic Faith.  He continued his work throughout his ministry and when he became Bishop in 1853 he published what is considered the largest Ojibwe Dictionary in 1853.  He preceded that by printing a grammar book in 1850.  

The Evolution of the Ojibwe Language


"I said above that the most important invention the Indians have devised is the birch-bark canoe, but this must be understood with one qualification.  The invention and development of their language, as far as it can be attributed to their own mental power, is immeasurably more remarkable and admirable.

"On the occasion of the building of the canoe, I have already indicated that every string and peg is necessary for the whole, and the Indians have given them all definite names.  They use detail just as minute to describe their arts and crafts and their use for nature.  In their words, swamps, lakes and prairies nothing crawls, flies, swims, or grows that they do not observe and that they do not give a name, no matter how very small it might be.  If this were the case only with the useful plants and animals, I would certainly not have found it so amazing.  But what I admired so much was the when I sat down in the grass with an Indian and asked about the most useless things flitting about, he always knew a name for them. 


"Naturally I could conclude from this that he had observed them all, held them in his hand, and investigated them curiously, and had differentiated them according to their essential characteristics.  We educated people are motived by scholarly curiosity, the admiration for God in all his work, the endeavor to have systems complete and to discern all the links of a chain, in order to develop a rich terminology without any gap.  But I admit that I was at times hard pressed to explain the reason for such a rich terminology with the Indian."

     - Johann George Kohl (ethnographer who traveled with Father Baraga to learn of the Ojibwe in 1855) [2],

The introduction to the French and Jesuits 150 years prior to Father Baraga's arrival brought in an additional language and the introductions of new items which were previously foreign to the Ojibwe people.  Given the differences in the sounds of the vowels, some of these words were added to their vocabulary but were sounded differently.  Father Baraga spoke of this in the beginning pages of his book "A Theoretical and Practical Grammar of the Otchipwe Language".  One of these introductions was the button.  In French, button was called a 'bouton'. In Ojibwe, Father Baraga mentioned that the sound of "u" like in the sound in the word 'fool' or 'full' was unknown to them.  Therefore the word "bouton" was added to their language but pronounced like 'boto' with the o's sounding like the 'o' in the word 'note'.  

One would note as well that the word for hello in Ojibwe which is now traditionally pronounced as 'boozhoo' is remarkably close to the French word for hello which is 'bonjour'.  Father Baraga wrote this traditional word as 'bojo' in his dictionary and noted that it meant "Good Day".  It is interesting to note that Father Baraga was adamant about the Ojibwe not being able to pronounce the "oo" which is found as a common vowel now when describing the pronunciation of the Ojibwe language.  More research into this will be needed as he was the first to record the sound of the Ojibwe language in written format.  These changes in pronunciation may have taken place over time with the introduction of English into their language as well.


In the grammar book that Father Baraga wrote of how the vowels of the Ojibwe language were sounded:


"The four vowels, a, e, i, o, are pronounced as follows.

a is invariably pronounced as in the English words father; as, anakanan, mats ; ta-nagana, he will be left behind ; ga-saga-ang, he that is gone out

e is always pronounced as in the English word met, as, eteg, what there is , eta, only ; enendang, according to his thought or will

i is always pronounced as in the English word pin ; as, inini, a man ; kigi-ikit, thou hast said ; iwidi, there.

o is always pronounced as in the English word note ; as, odon, his mouth , onow, these here ; okoj, its bill." 

He states that, "These rules have no exception in the Otchipwe language.  The four vowels are invariably pronounced as stated here, they may occur in the first or last syllable of a word, or in the middle ; and they are never silent.  Which you will please to mind well, if you wish to pronounce correctly and easily the words of this language."

He also stated, "As the general rule for the pronunciation of vowels is to pronounce them always equally, and never to let them be silent, it follows that , where two of three vowels of the same kind, or different vowels appear together in a word, they must all be sounded."


Sagaam, he goes out; pron. sa-ga-am

Oossi, he has a father; pron. o-os-si

Nin nibea, I cause him to sleep; pron. nin ni-be-a

O moawan, they make him weep, cry, pron. o mo-a-wan

Maingan, wolf; pron. ma-in-gan

Nawaii, in the middle; pron. na-wa-i-i


There are some diphithongs proper in this language.  The letter i forms them, when it is preceded or followed by some other vowel, ai, ei, oi, ia, ie, io.  Both vowels are pronounced in one syllable, but both must be distinctly sounded, they are proper diphthongs.  

Misai, a loach, (fish;) pron. mi-sai

Omodai, bottle, pron. o-mo-dai

Apakwei, a mat to cover a lodge; pron. a-pa-kwei

Saiagiad, whom thou lovest; pron. sa-ia-gi-ad

Ebiian, thou who art; pron. e-bi-ian

Aiaig, where you are; pron. a-ia-ieg

Aioiog, make use of it; pron. a-io-iog"

(A Theoretical and Practical Grammar, 4-5) 

There has been significant study to the Ojibwe Language including revisions to the work within Father Baraga's Dictionary.  There one will find differences between the original grammar and dictionary version published in 1843 (in which Father Baraga believed was the first attempt ever to be able to capture the pronunciation of the oral language in written format [B,Pref]) and the published versions published in 1878 and 1880 (which was edited by Albert LaCombe who was a missionary to the western Cree [A,IX].

Saying the "Our Father" prayer in Ojibwe

(Original Prayer)

Our Father

Our Father who art in heaven

Hollowed be thy name

Thy kingdom come

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven

Give us this day

Our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil


(Ojibwe Language)

Nosing (Pater Noster)

Nosina wakwing ebiian

Apegish kitchitwawendaming kidanosowin

Apegish bidagwishinomagak, kidogimawiwin

Enendaman apegish ijiwebak,

Tibishko wakwing, migo gaie aking, migo gaie ishpiming

Mijishinang nongo agijigak nin pagweijiganimina

Minik eioiang

Bonigidetawishinang gaie ga iji nishkiinangi

Kego gaie ijiwijishikange gagwedibeningewining

Dash ininamawishinang maianadak


(Direct translation)

Our Father

Our Father who is in heaven

May your name be hollowed

May come your kingdom

What you decide,

May it happen equally in heaven as in earth

Give us today our bread

As much as we use every day

Forgive us whatever we have offended you with

just like we forgive others

Do not lead us into temptation

And hold us far from what is bad


Efforts to help restore the Ojibwe language

This video shows some of the efforts that are taking place to help the restoration of the Ojibwe language and culture.  Please see the Truth and Healing Initiative Page to understand how the history of the boarding schools has impacted the Native Traditions and cultures.


Father Baraga would not have spent his entire life writing his Ojibwe dictionary to then see the efforts to eradicate the language happen right after his passing.  He would have done everything he could to have prevented that and now I'm sure this is his way of helping the restoration of these languages happen again.  

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