Cayuga language

Cayuga "our language".svg
Cayuga for "our language"
Native to Canada, United States
Region Ontario: Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation; New York (state): Cattaraugus Reservation
Native speakers
61 (2016 census)[1]
  • Northern
    • Lake Iroquoian
      • Five Nations
        • Seneca–Cayuga
          • Cayuga
Language codes
ISO 639-3 cay
Glottolog cayu1261
ELP Cayuga
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Cayuga (In Cayuga Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ) is a Northern Iroquoian language of the Iroquois Proper (also known as "Five Nations Iroquois") subfamily, and is spoken on Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, by around 240 Cayuga people, and on the Cattaraugus Reservation, New York, by fewer than 10.

The Cayuga language is related to other Northern Iroquoian languages, such as Seneca. It is considered endangered, with only 30 people of the Indigenous population reporting Cayuga as their mother tongue in the 2016 census. However, Cayuga members are making efforts to revitalize the language. (See alsoIndigenous Languages in Canada.)



There used to be two distinct dialects of Cayuga. One is still spoken in Ontario. The other, called "Seneca-Cayuga", was spoken in Oklahoma until its extinction in the 1980s.


Modern dialects

There are two varieties of Cayuga. The Lower Cayuga dialect is spoken by those of the Lower End of the Six Nations and the Upper Cayuga are from the Upper End. The main difference between the two is that the Lower Cayuga use the sound [ɡj] and the Upper use the sound [dj].[3] Also, pronunciation differs between individual speakers of Cayuga and their preferences.


There are five oral vowels in Cayuga, as well as four long vowels, [iː], [aː], [oː], and [eː].[4] Cayuga also has three nasalized vowels, [ẽ], [õ], and [ã].[5] Both [u] and [ã] are rare sounds in Cayuga. Sometimes, the sounds [u] and [o] are used interchangeably according to the speaker's preference. After long [eː] and [oː], an [n] sound can be heard, especially when before [t], [d], [k], [ɡ], [ts], and [j].[5]

Vowels can be devoiced allophonically, indicated in the orthography used at Six Nations by underlining them.

Front Back
Oral Long Nasal Oral Long Nasal
High /i/ /iː/ /u/
Mid /e/ /eː/ /ẽ/ /ẽː/ /o/ /oː/ /õ/ /õː/
Low /a/ /aː/ /ã/


Long vowels

Length is important because it alone can distinguish two completely different meanings from one another. For example:
[haʔseʔ] you are going
[haʔseː] you went [7]

Devoiced vowels

Following are some words that demonstrate what some vowels sound like when they occur before [h]. [ehaʔ], [ẽhaʔ], [ohaʔ], and [õha], [e] and [ẽ] sound like a whispered [j], and [o] and [õ] sound like a whispered [w]. Furthermore, the [ã] in [ẽhãʔ] and [õhã] is nasalized because of [ẽ] and [õ]. The consonant before the nasalized vowel becomes voiceless.[4] Also, odd-numbered vowels followed by [h] are devoiced, while even-numbered vowels followed by [h] are not.[5]



Allophonic variations that occur in Cayuga:
/d/ becomes devoiced [t] before devoiced consonants. The sound [d] does not exist word-finally.[9]
/ɡ/ becomes devoiced [k] before devoiced consonants.
/s/ becomes [ʃ] before [j] or [ɹ].

/dʒ/ becomes [dz] and [ds] before [a] and [o], respectively. Speakers may use [dz] and [ds] interchangeably according to the speaker's preference.

/w/ can be voiceless (sounds like [h] followed by [w]).
/j/ can also be voiceless (sounds like [h] followed by [j])

/h/: "A vowel devoices if the vowel and a following [h] are in an odd-numbered syllable."[9] For example:
the [õ] in [ehjádõ̥hkʷaʔ] [9]

The vowel is voiced when it and a following /h/ are in an even-numbered syllable and in "absolute word-initial position or in word-final position, or preceded by another [h]."[9] For example:
[ʃehóːwih] 'tell her'
[ehjáːdõh] 'she writes' [9]


Most words have accented vowels, resulting in a higher pitch.[4] Where the stress is placed is dependent on the "position of the word in the phrase."[4] The default location for stress for nouns is on final vowel. "In words that are at the end of a phrase, accent falls on the 2nd last vowel, the 3rd last vowel, or occasionally, on the 4th vowel from the end of the word."[4] For example:

[neɡitsõˊː aɡaːtõˊːdeʔ] 'I just heard it' [10]

These sounds are long, especially in an even-numbered position. When nouns and verbs are not at the end of a phrase, accent is placed on the final vowel.[4] For example:

[aɡaːtõːdéʔ tsõː teʔ niːʔ dedéːɡẽːʔ] 'I heard it, I didn't see it' [10]


Cayuga is a polysynthetic language. As with other Iroquoian languages, the verbal template contains an optional prepronominal prefix, a pronominal prefix (indicating agreement), an optional incorporated noun, a verbal root, and an aspectual suffix. The nominal template consists of an agreement prefix (usually neuter for non-possessed nouns), the nominal root, and a suffix.