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Orthography Rationale

Symbols we use

First a note about our intended audience and some of the rationale that led to our orthography choices.

We find no standard, highly developed orthography for writing Potawatomi. Our several sources each seem to make up their own way of writing down the language, which means they are all different from each other. Therefore, we perceive that we actually enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom in determining our own symbol set. We are inclined to be unusual, do something like Sequoya did. But we immediately reign in those tendencies with practical realities.

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We pretty much expect learners of Potawatomi to be first speakers of English. For this reason, we have based our symbol set on the Roman alphabet, and where it is possible, the letters mean pretty much what they do in English. This seemed much more reasonable and intuitive to us than creating a whole new variety of symbols that would have to be memorized. Also, the international phonetic alphabet uses many English sounds, and since ours is a lingusitic endeavor, we will probably benefit from maintaining at least some similarities. Yet, the phonetic alphabet seeks to cover every distinct difference in sounds, and therefore must result in some very strange and quite non-intuitive symbols. In a couple of areas the English alphabet was insufficient for our purposes. So we compromised, and adapted a basic English set.

First, we decided to be as simple as possible-- we wanted to use one letter per sound, and if any marking was necessary, to use a single mark. Any marking will do; that is, however an s is marked, you know the result is supposed to be the sh sound, for example. When printing by hand and for the sake of simplicity, we usually put a dot over the letter marked, but using modern word processors makes available all kinds of nifty symbols--again, a real temptation...to be resisted. Since we anticipate writing activity over the internet, where exotic symbols are not possible, we have begun marking consistently with an apostrophe after the letter marked (an example that is common in Potawatomi but not found in English: ending e', kwe' [woman]). This mark does not signify, as it does in some versions of the phonetic alphabet, a pause or glottal stop.

Second, with only five vowels in English, and much of the time how they are pronounced dependent upon their context, we sought to have our vowels always stand for single sounds. That meant we had to come up with some extras beyond the five found in English (of course, in English, those five vowels work really hard to cover many different sounds, each of which the reader is supposed to know, mainly from context). This was especially important since there are some sounds in Potawatomi that are not customary in English, such as an ending e', the sound of a in English "cat." Since we are already using a and e, and in order to avoid exotic, unintuitive symbols such as the phonetic alphabet ¦ (a welded to e), we have been consistently marking e (e') for this sound, which often comes at the end of Potawatomi words.

Finally, we sought to avoid confusions resulting from vowel combinations or clustering, and with an expanded vowel set, we have no need of ee's or ea's, for example. Therefore, based on our single- symbol standard, any time you see successive vowels, you will know they are separate syllables. The exception to the one-symbol-per-sound concept are diphthongs (below we are calling them semivowels)--like ey--although it may be argued these are comprised of more than one sound. Our dipthongs do not use second vowels, but w or y.

Here are our symbols, each followed by a "sounds like in English" (in parentheses), then a Potawatomi example and that example's definition [in square brackets].


Remember, one symbol per sound.

a (the a in English father) maji [leave]
e (the e in English pet) nijena [how are you?]
e' (the a in English cat) jIshe' [uncle]
i (the ee in English feet) siwtagen [salt]
I (the i in English fit) nijItso [how much?]
o (the o in English both) numosh [dog]
u (the oo in English book) waskuk [pepper]
v (the u in English buck) mvkcako [frog]


All as in English except the last three, which are explained below; please note that consonant clusters unusual to English are common in Potawatomi and that all consonants are pronounced in Potawatomi (e.g., the k is not silent in kno [eagle]. Second examples given below illustrate this.

(Additional note: Hockett demonstrates convincingly that English stops [b and p, d and t, g and k] and their differences due to voicing do not have direct equivalents in Potawatomi. Indeed, when you hear Potawatomi spoken, you often wonder if that was a d or t said, for example, or perhaps a combination of both. Since our study is still evolving and our data does show d's used in one place while a t's used in another, we are simply choosing to write as best as we can hear. Hockett's problem, however, will present challenges to the future writing of Potawatomi, especially considering our English speaking audience.)

b be'shkno [bald eagle], bkweshkIn [bread]
p pInoje' [child]
d do:kum [be quiet], mdatso [ten]
t ngotwatso [six], ktiti [otter]
g we'gni [what?]
k kwe' [woman], kshe'mnIto [great spirit], kno [eagle]
m migwen [feather], mshuke' [cow], mbop [soup]
n nektosha [horse], ngot [one]
h ahaw [okay]
w byan [come here]
y gigyago [girl], byan [come here]
s sawak [brown]
z sIze' [older brother]
j cijak [crane]
sh mIsho [grandfather]
zh (like English azure) bozho [greeting], zhwe'nmIshIn [pity me]
c (ch) kcumajIn [run hard], cmokman [non-Indian person]


Semivowels are vowel/consonant (actually vowel/glide) combinations in which certain vowels are followed by a w or y. When this happens, the vowel ends in the shape of an "o" (w) or an "i" (y).

ey (like in English hey) dIneym [my husband]
ay (like in English die) mIsho naynuk [our grandfathers]
aw (like in English how) ahaw [okay]
iw (like first syllable of Kyoto; sometimes oo, like beautiful) iwgwien [thanks]


: (lenthened vowel) e':he' [yes]
' (pause or stopped vowel) ka'akwa [chicken]

Potawatomi beaded belt

Potawatomi dictionary
bode'wadmimo speak Potawatomi
nIshnabe'k The People
mzenegenek books
Orthography - quick reference
Home page: news & updates
nizhokmake'wen resources/help
BWAKA - about us

We welcome your questions and comments.

Text and graphics copyright © Smokey McKinney 1997

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