Phonology of Potawatomi

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The content of this page was developed from the research of Dr. Laura Buszard-Welcher.


The consonant phoneme inventory of Potawatomi is characterized by a fortis/lenis contrast in plosives, fricatives and affricates. Fortis consonants are longer in duration and always voiceless; lenis consonants are shorter in duration and may be voiced. Fortis plosives are sometimes aspirated. Some speakers, particularly those from Northern Wisconsin, labialize velar plosives in certain words. This is a conservative pronunciation, reflecting the syncopation of a following short /o/. Other speakers use plain velar stops in this environment.

Potawatomi Consonant Chart
    Labial  Alveolar  Post-
 Palatal  Velar  Labial-
Plosives fortis p t     k   ʔ
lenis b d     g     
Nasals   m n            
Affricates fortis      ʧ          
lenis     ʤ           
Fricatives fortis    s ʃ        h
lenis   z ʒ          
Approximants          j   w  


Potawatomi has five vowel phonemes, /i:/, /ɛ:/, /a:/, /o:/ and /ə/. The phonemes /i:/, /ɛ:/ and /a:/ correspond to Proto-Algonquian long vowels *i:, *e:, and *a:. Potawatomi /o:/ is a merger of Proto-Algonquian *o: and *o. Potowatomi /ə/ is a merger of Proto-Algonquian short *i and short *a. A process of vowel syncope in Potawatomi affects historic short vowels, so all cases of /ə/, and those cases of modern /o/ that correspond to historic short /o/ are subject to deletion. In some dialects, particularly Southern Michigan and historically on Walpole Island, the phoneme represented here as /o:/ freely varies between [o:] and [u:]. In all dialects, /ə/ has several allophones whose distributions depend on the surrounding consonants.

Potawatomi Vowel Chart
  Front Central Back
High i:     
Mid ɛ: ə o:
Low    a:   

Potawatomi Marginal Phonemes

The consonant /h/ is a marginal phoneme, found in only a few words, such as éhé 'yes' or ahaw 'okay.' These two words (and a few other interjections) also have nasalized vowels, which otherwise do not occur as phonemes or allophones.

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