The Chickasaw language is a Muskogean language. Chickasaw and Choctaw together form the Western branch of the Muskogean language family. Chickasaw is also related to Alabama, Koasati, Mvskoke (Creek) --- Seminole, Hitchiti and Mikasuki.
Current state of the Chickasaw language
The Chickasaw language was the primary language of the Chickasaw people for hundreds of years. Our language loss happened over time. Boarding schools, which prohibited Indian languages, were a significant part of this loss. Learning English was encouraged by some of our people because English was a necessary skill in negotiating with non-Indians. Chickasaw language was often discouraged, even in our own tribally run schools.
The current state of Chikashshanompa' (the Chickasaw language), is similar to that of most tribes in the United States. Less than twenty languages spoken by tribes in the U.S. are projected to survive another hundred years. In 1994, the estimated number of fluent Chikashshanompa' speakers was less than one thousand. Today, there are less than 120 speakers, all older than 55. A recent study indicated the Chickasaw Nation could lose its last fluent speaker in 20 to 30 years if nothing is done to revitalize the language.
However, there is a resurgence of interest in Chickasaw language. Our people realize the value of speaking the language. They are participating in community language classes, taking part in language camps and clubs, the Chickasaw Master-Apprentice Program and learning on their own through self-study programs.
The Chickasaw language has two main dialects, or ways of speaking Chickasaw. These dialects are regional, associated with the north of the Chickasaw Nation (communities like Kalihomma' and Ada) and the south of the Chickasaw Nation (communities like Tishohminko', Fillmore and Ardmore). One good example is the word for ‘hello.' Northern speakers tend to say ‘chokma,' while southern speakers may choose to say ‘halito.' For ‘thank you,' northern speakers may say ‘chokma'shki,' while southern speakers may say ‘yakookay.' Neither dialect is "right" or "wrong," but simply reflect the speaking preferences of Chickasaw families within a certain geographic area.
Chickasaw spelling systems
The Chickasaw language is an oral one, meaning it is transmitted through speaking from generation to generation. Chickasaw was not a formally written language until the 20th century, though Chickasaw speakers wrote it as they saw fit before that time. A Chickasaw Dictionary was published in 1973, written by Reverend Jess J. Humes and his wife Vinnie May (James) Humes. Chickasaw: An Analytical Dictionary was published in 1994, written by linguist Pam Munro and Chickasaw speaker Catherine Willmond.
A Chickasaw Dictionary was compiled as a "list of Chickasaw words in a very simple manner. Disregarding all rules of orthography, we made an effort to spell the words as they sound, in the hope that anyone using the list could pronounce them." In contrast, Chickasaw: An Analytical Dictionary uses a new spelling system that "represents tonal accent and the glottal stop, neither of which is shown in any previous dictionary on either Chickasaw or the closely related Muskogean language, Choctaw. In addition, vowel and consonant length, vowel nasalization, and other important distinctions are given."
An example of the differences between the two spelling systems is seen in the spelling of the Chickasaw word meaning "to be five in number," talhlhá'pi (Munro-Willmond) and tulhapi (Humes). Humes spells the short a sound (like in the English word father) with a u, whereas Munro-Willmond uses a. Both systems use lh to represent a Chickasaw consonant sound that sounds something like Klondike pronounced without the initial K, or like ilth in the English word filth, but without the t. Munro-Willmond indicates pitch accent of the final a with an accent mark, (talhlhá'pi). Munro-Willmond uses ' (apostrophe) to represent the glottal stop, a stoppage of air in the throat, like the middle of the English word uh-uh, meaning "no."
The Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program uses both spelling systems in our language work. There is no "right" or "wrong" way to spell Chickasaw. Ours is an oral language, so ultimately it is up to each individual Chickasaw person to determine how they want to spell (and speak) their language.
Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program
The Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program was started in 2007. We believe that our language was given to us by Chihoowa (God), and it is our obligation to care for it: to learn it, speak it and teach it to our children. The Chickasaw language is a gift from the ancestors for all Chickasaw people. The job of the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program, simply put, is to help people access that gift.
Green, Richard. "Kindling a Small Flame: The Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program."
The Chickasaw Times. XXXXIIII:7 (July 2009) 34-35.
Hinson, Joshua and Joann Ellis. "Master Apprenticeship Program at the Chickasaw Nation." NIEA News. 39:4 (Summer 2008) 22.
Humes, Jesse and Vinnie May (James) Humes. A Chickasaw Dictionary. Durant: Creative Infomatics, 1973.
Munro, Pamela and Catherine Willmond. Chikashshanompaat Holisso Toba'chi: Chickasaw: An Analytical Dictionary. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Munro, Pamela. "Chickasaw." Native Languages of the Southeastern United States. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.