A Look at Iroquoian Languages

From here. A look at the difficulties involved in learning an Iroquoian language for an English speaker. Iroquoian languages are probably some of the most monstrously complex languages on the face of the Earth. Take a look at that Cherokee paradigm below. I don’t get it. Are Cherokees replicants, supermen or space aliens? How could any normal human being possibly learn such a labyrinthine language?


All Iroquoian languages are extremely difficult, but Athabaskan is probably even harder. Siouan languages may be equal to Iroquoian in difficulty. Compare the same phrases in Tlingit (Athabaskan) and and  Cherokee (Iroquoian). Tlingit: kutíkusa‘áatIt’s cold outside. kutíkuta‘áatIt’s cold right now. In Tlingit, you can add or modify affixes at the beginning as prefixes, in the middle as infixes and at the end as suffixes. In the above example, you changed a part of the word within the clause itself. Cherokee: doyáditlv uyvtlvIt is cold outside. (Lit. Outside it is cold.) ka uyvtlvIt is cold now. (Lit. Now it is cold.) As you can see, Cherokee is easier.


Cherokee is very hard to learn. In addition to everything else, it has a completely different alphabet. It’s polysynthetic, to make matters worse. It is possible to write a Cherokee sentence that somehow lacks a verb. There are five categories of verb classifiers. Verbs needing classifiers must use one. Each regular verb can have an incredible 21,262 inflected forms! All verbs contain a verb root, a pronominal prefix, a modal suffix and an aspect suffix. In addition, verbs inflect for singular, plural and also dual. For instance:

ᎠᎸᎢᎭ   a'lv'íha 
You have up to 126 different forms*:
ᎬᏯᎸᎢᎭ  gvyalv'iha    I tie you up
ᏕᎬᏯᎸᎢᎭ degvyalviha   I'm tying you up
ᏥᏯᎸᎢᎭ  jiyalv'ha     I tie him up
ᎦᎸᎢᎭ                 I tie it
ᏍᏓᏯᎸᎢᎭ sdayalv'iha   I tie you (dual)
ᎢᏨᏯᎢᎭ  ijvyalv'iha   I tie you (pl)
ᎦᏥᏯᎸᎢᎭ gajiyalv'iha  I tie them (animate)
ᏕᎦᎸᎢᎭ                I tie them up (inanimate)
ᏍᏆᎸᎢᎭ  squahlv'iha   You tie me
ᎯᏯᎸᎢᎭ  hiyalv'iha    You're tying him
ᎭᏢᎢᎭ   hatlv'iha     You tie it
ᏍᎩᎾᎸᎢᎭ skinalv'iha   You're tying me and him
ᎪᎩᎾᏢᎢᎭ goginatlv'iha They tie me and him etc.
*only some of which are listed above.

Let us look at another form: to see

I see myself        gadagotia
I see you           gvgohtia
I see him/her       tsigotia
I see it            tsigotia
I see you two       advgotia
I see you (plural)  istvgotia
I see them (live)   gatsigotia
I see them (things) detsigotia
You see me             sgigotia
You see yourself       hadagotia
You see him/her        higo(h)tia
You see it             higotia
You see another and me sginigotia
You see others and me  isgigotia
You see them (living)  dehigotia
You see them (living)  gahigotia
You see them (things)  detsigotia
He/she sees me              agigotia
He/she sees you             tsagotia
He/she sees you             atsigotia
He/she sees him/her         agotia
He/she sees himself/herself adagotia
He/she sees you + me        ginigotia
He/she sees you two         sdigotia
He/she sees another + me    oginigotia
He she sees us (them + me)  otsigotia
He/she sees you (plural)    itsigotia
He/she sees them -          dagotia
You and I see him/her/it           igigotia
You and I see ourselves            edadotia
You and I see one another          denadagotia/dosdadagotia
You and I see them (living)        genigotia
You and I see them (living or not) denigotia
You two see me                  sgninigotia
You two see him/her/it          esdigotia
You two see yourselves          sdadagotia
You two see us (another and me) sginigotia
You two see them                desdigotia
Another and I see you          sdvgotia
Another and I see him/her      osdigotia
Another and I see it           osdigotia
Another and I see you-two      sdvgotia
Another and I see ourselves    dosdadagotia
Another and I see you (plural) itsvgotia
Another and I see them         dosdigotia
You (plural) see me      isgigoti
You (plural) see him/her etsigoti
They see me             gvgigotia
They see you            getsagotia
They see him/her        anigoti
They see you and me     geginigoti
They see you two        gesdigoti
They see another and me gegigotia/gogenigoti
They see you (plural)   getsigoti
They see them           danagotia
They see themselves     anadagoti
I will see datsigoi
I saw      agigohvi
He/she will see dvgohi
He/she saw      ugohvi

Number is marked for inclusive vs. exclusive and there is a dual. 3rd person plural is marked for animate/inanimate. Verbs take different object forms depending on if the object is solid/alive/indefinite shape/flexible. This is similar to the Navajo system. Cherokee also has lexical tone, with complex rules about how tones may combine with each other. Tone is not marked in the orthography. The phonology is noted for somehow not having any labial consonants. However, Cherokee is very regular. It has only three irregular verbs. It is just that there are many complex rules. Cherokee is rated 5, most difficult of all.

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3 thoughts on “A Look at Iroquoian Languages”

  1. Seneca is one of the nations of the Iroquois League and also the name of a Roman philosopher. Since those names can’t be etymologically related, are they actually homonyms when pronounced faithfully?

  2. Well, the Seneca never called themselves this in their language, but rather something like Onöndawága. Our (English) word for their tribe purportedly comes from the name of their once largest village, Osininka. Now in English the two words are indeed homonomous.

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