Shawnee Sounds and Orthography

  In contrast to the intriguing complexity of Shawnee word structure, Shawnee has a straightforward sound system.  Nevertheless, peculiar ways of writing Shawnee by Indian agents, travelers, missionaries, explorers and interpreters has resulted in an abundance of different spellings for the names of individuals, tribes, rivers, mountians, villages and towns that derive from Shawnee.

  The one Shawnee who has presented an orthograph, Thomas Wildcat Alford, put it in a form that is difficult to read and learn.  One of the best systems was by the Reverend Daniel Jones who visited the Shawnee early on, but no one picked up on his system.  Lewis Cass, Governor of the old Northwest Territory, developed a scheme for writing down Indian languages that was widely used at the time, but discontinued at a later time.  The "Shawnee Sun" (a newspaper in Shawnee published in Kansas in the late 19th century) had another eccentric spelling system which is not readily interpretable into Shawnee sounds by a general reader.

  By the late nineteenth century, linguists and anthropologist had developed phonetic symbols to write words in unwritten languages, and the works of Albert Gatschet in the late 19th century and anthropologists in the early 20th century have given linguists records that accurately reflect the sounds they heard.  In the 1930s when Carl Voegelin began his work, his fieldwork transcriptions reflected the phonetic symbols used at that time, and his later publications represent Shawnee words in the form linguists now use in the Americas.  At the end of this article, I have put a table of comparisons for vowels and one for consonants of various ways that have been employed to write Shawnee.  I have also included the symbols used in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which is widely used around the world, but has variations not usually used in North American Indian linguistics.

   In writing Shawnee on this site, I will use a "regularized orthography" that reflects a one-to-one relationship with the symbols current among North American linguists, but have replaced some symbols with orthographic variants commonly used in English spelling.  However, names which have come into common usage, such as that of the famous Shawnee leader Tecumseh, will remain in the commonly used form.  There are attempts to put his name, and others, into a form that reflects Shawnee pronunciation (such as Tecumthe, Tecumtheh, etc.), but these are awkward and only represent halfway measures.

   Here is a simple, straightforward spelling system with recognizable letters.  I have used two letter spellings for some sounds, such as "ch", "th", and "sh" which do not satisfy the linguistic imperative of one sound for one letter, but they are common English spellings that the general reader can recognize.  The use of an apostrophe for the "glottal stop" (the catch in the throat between the sounds of "Oh-oh!") has been used by linguists and is followed here.

A Shawnee Orthography (21 letters)





1.  The letter "ch" is as in the word "chip"; "th" as in the word "think"; and "sh" as in the word "ship".  These are sometimes pronounced voiced, but it is a non-contrastive variation ("ch" is sometimes like "j" as in "jump", "th" as in "this", or "sh" as in the "ge" of "beige"). Similarly, the sounds p, t, k are sometimes heard as b, d, g.

   Example:  shaawanoki is sometimes heard as shaawanogi 'The Shawnee' (with the plural ending -ki).

3.  The glottal stop (the catch in "Oh, oh!") is actually a variant of "h" ("h" is syllable initial and the glottal stop is syllable final), but for the sake of a clear understanding of the actual pronunciation the two sounds are written separately.

 Example: hat-tho'-kaa-ka 'myth'

4.  The glottal stop is often omitted in word composition.

   Example: The stem: -'shin-wa 'recline, crouch, come to rest'. pem'shinwa 'He is lying stretched out" but shekshinwa
                  'He lies down'.

5.  A word cannot begin in a vowel, but sometimes the initial "h" is so soft that it is not heard.  In composition, stems with an initial "h" often loose it when non-initial.

   Example:  The particle hochi- 'from' occurs in this form before a verb (Oklahooma niila hochi-lenawe -- literally,
                  'Oklahoma I from-live' = 'I am from Oklahoma'.  However, its non-initial doublet -(o)ochi occurs in
                  composition with hina 'that' before a noun: hinaoochi (that-from) 'from there'.

6.  Initial nasals (m and n) are sometimes unvoiced.  Therefore, some sources do not hear them.  This leads to words appearing without the initial nasal.  An example is the name of Blackhoof, the famous Shawnee chief.  His name is literally Black + hoof (m'kateewi 'it is black' + -kasha 'fingernail, toenail, hoof' = M'kateewikashe), but it is commonly spelled "Catahecassa" (among other forms such as Cutewecusa, Cutthewekasaw, Cutaweskesha, Gateweekesa, etc.). In such cases, I have followed what seems to me to be the most common spelling (in this case "Catahecassa").

Another example is the word m'shoma 'clan' (patri-sib, gens, name group). Since in English we do not have initial nasals before other consonants, this was transcribed by Thomas Wildcat Alford as "umsoma".  However, it has crept into general use through novelistic sources incorrectly as "unsoma'.  In this case, I have stuck to the actual pronunciation and write it as m'shoma since it is an important word in Shawnee social structure and relationships.


1. The four vowels occur both long and short.  Their status is uncertain as some believe only a couple vowels are contrastive for length.  Furthermore, length is transcribed differently by different investigators, some hearing length and some not.  Additionally, sometimes one investigator writes a long vowel (aa) whereas another writes a vowel plus a glottal stop (-a'). This variation may show up in texts one way or the other depending on the source, so a certain amount of inconsistency occurs.  That the long vowels make a difference in meaning can in some cases be illustrated by contrastive pairs, such as chaaki yaama 'all this' and chaki 'small'.

2.  The pronunciation of the vowels, however, is varied.  /i/ may be pronounced tense (as in beat) or lax (as in bit); /e/ as in bait or bet; /a/ as in father butter; /o/ as in boot, book or boat.  Sometimes this is free variation (sometimes one or the other) and sometimes a word is nearly always pronounced one way or the other.  There seems to be a tendency for the vowels to be lax (as in bit not beat) or centralized (putt nor pot) -- at least with informants of the Kishpoko division with whom I worked.

The following charts show some of the common correlations of different transcription symbols:

Chart I:  Consonants:

Chart II:

Here is a line from a Shawnee text written in phonetic symbols and the Shawnee orthography given above.

For corrections, additions or comments, contact me at:


Copyright 2003 by Noel Schutz
Text and Graphics by Noel Schutz








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