About the Oneida Language

Hiawatha belt

Oneida is a native American language of the Iroquoian family. It is related to the other languages of the League of the Iroquois (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later, Tuscarora) also known as the Five (Six) Nations Confederacy or Haudenosaunee, and it is more distantly related to Cherokee and several languages no longer actively spoken, such as Huron. It has an extensive oral literature of ceremonial speeches shared with the other Confederacy nations as well as a wealth of stories. It has only been written down systematically in the last couple of generations.

map of Oneida reservations

The language is, however, endangered. The Oneida people, originally from New York state, currently have three reservations in New York, Ontario, and Wisconsin . All Oneidas speak English and most know only a few expressions in Oneida. There are probably no more than a dozen native speakers of Oneida currently in the Wisconsin community and perhaps several dozen in Ontario, but all three communities have language preservation projects and there are at least a few people who have become fairly fluent. Dialect differences do exist, but they are minor.

The language is structurally remarkable for a number of its properties. It has a very small inventory of sounds (no labial phonemes), a process of whispered syllables, a small number of parts of speech (verbs, nouns, and particles) where most words are structurally verbs even if they function as nouns, and a very extensive and complex system of word formation that includes noun incorporation, extensive prefixation and both derivational and inflectional suffixes so that single Oneida verbs tend to be the equivalent of whole English clauses.

Oneida Nation belt