Cheyenne Language

The Cheyenne language is spoken in southeastern Montana on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and in central Oklahoma. It is a member of the large Algonquian language family of North America which includes other languages such as Blackfoot, Arapaho, Cree, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Menomini, Fox, Massachusett, Delaware, Shawnee, Micmac, and Naskapi.

The Cheyenne alphabet and pronunciation guide

There are only 14 letters in the official Northern Cheyenne alphabet but they can combine to create long words, composed of smaller meaning parts. Here is a prounciation guide for the Cheyenne letters. Click on a word to hear it:
a: ame (pemmican), as in English "father"
e: eho (your father), as in English "pit" (usually "i" not "e" sound)
h: hese (fly), as in English "happy"
k: ke'eehe (grandma), as in English "skit", not as in English "kit"
': he'eo'o (women), glottal stop, as between the two syllables of English "Uh-oh!"
m: me'ko (head, or councilman), as in English "man"
n: nahkohe (bear), as in English "nice"
o: okohke (crow), as in English "note"
p: poeso (cat), as in English "spot", not as in English "pot"
s: semo (boat), as in English "say"
š: še'še (duck), same as "sh" as in English "shirt"
t: tosa'e (Where?), as in English "stop", not as in English "top"
v: vee'e (tepee), as in English "vein"
x: xao'o (skunk), as "ch" in German "Achtung!"
The š symbol has the same sound as the two English letters "sh". The apostrophe (') stands for the glottal stop, a very frequent "sound" in Cheyenne. It is the quick stopping "sound" between the two syllables of the English exclamation, "Uh-oh!" Cheyenne "x" has the same sound as German "x". It is a voiceless velar fricative, raspier than English "h". When Cheyenne "v" comes before an "a" or "o" vowel, it often sounds like English "w". It is still the same sound unit (phoneme), however, whether it is pronounced as "v" or "w".

The Cheyenne "stop" sounds, "p", "t", and "k" are unaspirated. That is, they do not have a puff of air after them as these letters do when they begin English words, such as "pen," "toy", and "kite." Instead, they sound like the letters "p", "t", and "k" when they follow the letter "s," as in the English words "spill," "still," and "skill." Often "p", "t", and "k" are perceived and written as "b", "d", and "g". For instance, the Cheyenne word meaning "cat" can be written as boyso instead of poeso. Boyso is easier to read even though poeso is technically correct. Gi iih is easier to read than ke'eehe (meaning "grandma").

There are three Cheyenne vowels (a, e, o). They can be marked for high pitch (á, é, ó) or be voiceless (whispered), as in ȧ, ė, ȯ. The preferred symbol to indicate voiceless vowels is a dot over the vowels. The last vowel of each Cheyenne word is whispered if that word is pronounced by itself.

Complex syllables

A consonant followed by a vowel with a dot over it followed by "h" followed by another vowel is pronounced as a single syllable even though it is written as two syllables. This single syllable is called a complex syllable. It is very difficult to learn to read and write. It is also difficult to print on signs or in obituaries or other newspaper articles. Sometimes it is better to write a complex syllable as a single syllable instead of two syllables. For instance, the Cheyenne word meaning "Cheyenne persons" is spelled as Tsetsėhestȧhese in the official Northern Cheyenne alphabet. That is almost impossible for someone to read correctly unless they have studied Cheyenne spelling a long time. It is better to write this word as Tsitsistas which is easier to read and pronounce correctly. The Cheyenne word meaning "It's all good" is technically written as emȧhepėheva'e which is very difficult to read. It is usually better to write this word as emhapeva'e or i mha pe va. It is better to spell Cheyenne words so they can be read by more people than it is to be technically correct. Technically correct spellings can be put in the Cheyenne dictionary, along with easier to read spellings.

Cheyenne words are made up of smaller meaning parts

Here is one of the longest Cheyenne words which we have heard:

náohkėsáa'oné'seómepėhévetsėhésto'anéhe, meaning 'I truly do not pronounce Cheyenne well.' This word has the following meaning parts (technically known as morphemes):

ná- 'I'
ohke- 'regularly'
sáa- 'not' (this also requires the -he at the end of the word)
oné'seóme- 'truly'
pėhéve- 'good, well'
tsėhést- 'Cheyenne'
-o'ane 'pronounce'
-he 'negative suffix'

This is just a brief introduction to Cheyenne. If you would like to learn more, visit other Cheyenne pages at this site, or consult the Cheyenne language reference materials page at the Web site of the SSILA (Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas) or the materials listed in the Cheyenne language bibliographies at this site. You can also access the Cheyenne Dictionary online.

Cheyenne is still alive, but for how much longer? The U.S. government was unable to eradicate the Cheyenne language through its campaigns of military genocide against Cheyennes and its policies of cultural and language assimilation at boarding schools. Yet those policies have left a gangrenous wound among the Cheyennes, a lesson taught explicitly (through punishment for speaking Cheyenne) or implicitly in the government schools, and then believed by many parents, that their children cannot "succeed" in the world today unless they speak only English. Not all Cheyenne educators, leaders, or parents believe this false doctrine, which is unsupported by scientific studies of bilingualism, but enough do so that Cheyenne language attrition is occurring today at an alarming rate. Another factor contributing to Cheyenne language loss is the monopoly that English has in the media surrounding Cheyenne children. The end of any language is death to part of the soul of that culture. Wise Cheyennes today resist the threatened death of their language, and are trying to find some cures at this stage of culture and language change. They recognize that some of the most successful Cheyennes have been fluent in both Cheyenne and English, and that knowing one's ancestral tongue need not keep one from functioning well in the dominant society as well, of course, within Cheyenne society. Instead, knowing more than one language can enrich a person, can give him more than one viewpoint from which to view the world. Speaking and understanding the ancestral tongue should be a cause for celebration.

Remember the Tsitsistas in your thoughts and prayers. Remember Cheyenne leaders who are trying to keep their language, a vital part of the soul of the Tsitsistas, alive for future generations. May wisdom be theirs as the Tsitsistas live in the 21st century, while trying to maintain the knowledge and values which are so important to them. The onset of death pangs of endangered languages around the world is felt today by Cheyennes and many other Native American language communities. Ma'heo'o, nehnêševatamemeno, "Great One, take pity on us!"


July 19-August 2, 2014, first adult Cheyenne language immersion camp held at the tribally owned facilities at Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota.

January 21, 2007, a new Cheyenne translation of parts of the Bible dedicated in Lame Deer, Montana.

July 19-30, 1999, Second Annual Cheyenne Language Immersion Camp: Crazyhead Springs Campground on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, 42 happy little campers, the youngest is 4.

June 1998, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe held its first annual Language Immersion Camp. Participants were to speak only Cheyenne within the circle of the tepee camp. This is part of an effort to keep the language alive among the children.

On April 21, 1997, the Tribal Council of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe passed an ordinance which declares Cheyenne as the official language of the tribe.


Visit these pages for more information:

Cheyenne language pages

Other sites featuring Cheyennes

Cheyenne books

Native American languages

General language and linguistics resources

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Nėstaevȧhosevoomȧtse (I'll see you again)

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A Cheyenne Proverb

Névé'novȯhe'étanóme mȧsėhánééstóva, onésetó'ha'éeta netáhoestovevoo'o, onésėhestóxévétáno mȧsėhánééstóva!

Don't race in craziness, try to stop your mounts, try to come in last in terms of craziness!

(This proverb was frequently quoted by the late Cheyenne historian, John Stands In Timber. Its essential meaning is "Don't live a hurried life!")


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latest webpage update June 30, 2015
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