Lakota Language

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LAKOTA LANGUAGE. "Lakota" is a term used in conjunction with a language complex (and therefore derivatively for its speakers) across an area of the Northern Plains extending from western Minnesota to eastern Montana and northward to Alberta. Other terms are used now equivalently, now differentiatingly, with it, including "Sioux" and "Dakota." The former is eschewed by some because it is a French corruption of an Ojibwa term, whereas Lakota and Dakota are autonyms and derive from the root for "friend" or "ally." It should be added, however, that in speaking colloquially in English, the term "Sioux" is often the one used by speakers themselves.

The language complex is differentiated by a systematic correspondence of l˜d˜n in various speech forms, as seen in Lakota and Dakota, the western and eastern variants, respectively. Because Anglo-American contact was first with the eastern speakers, Dakota was generalized to designate the complex, but recently—because the western speakers who inhabit the large reservations of western South Dakota (Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock) are numerically dominant—the choice of terms has shifted to Lakota. There are only a small number of speakers of the n-variety, at least in the main body of speakers, and their speech is closer to that of the d-speakers so that they call the language Dakota also. There are also descendants of two groups of n-speakers who pulled away from the main body in pre-contact times and moved north into present-day Alberta who still call themselves Nakoda, although Lakota calls them Hohe and the common English designations are Assiniboine and Stoney Sioux.

The traditional political alliance of the Sioux, called the Seven Councilfires, is organized linguistically with seven bands of speakers. They consist of four bands of d-speakers (Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton, Sisseton), two of n-speakers (Yankton, Yanktonai), and one of l-speakers (Teton).

Lakota is part of the larger Siouan-Catawban family of languages, which includes Siouan branches of the Mississippi Valley (Winnebago, Iowa-Otoe, Dhegiha), the Missouri River (Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan), the Ohio Valley (Ofo, Biloxi, Tutelo), and the distantly related Catawba. The original home of the Proto-Siouans is debated among specialists, but it must have been considerably east and south of the Lakota homeland of the contact period.

In addition to being the source of a number of large toponyms in the Upper Midwest, Lakota has also contributed to the American vocabulary the word tepee (literally, they live) and the generalized "Indian" expressions "how" (a greeting) and "kola" (friend). There are presently from ten thousand to twelve thousand speakers.


Rood, David S. "Siouan Languages." In International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Vol. 3. Edited by William Bright. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Rood, David S., and Allan R. Taylor. "Sketch of Lakhota, a Siouan Language." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 17, Linguistics. Edited by Ives Goddard. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996.


See alsoIndian Languages .