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Proto-Iroquoian language

Proto-Iroquoian is the name given to the hypothetical proto-language of the Iroquoian languages. Lounsbury (1961) estimated from glottochronology a time depth of 3,500 to 3,800 years for the split of South and North Iroquoian. At the time of first European contact, speakers of Iroquoian languages ranged from the Cherokee in the Great Smoky Mountains, to the Tuscarora and Nottoway near the modern Virginia/North Carolina border, then further north the Five Nations in Upstate New York and the Huron and Neutral in modern-day Ontario.

The Iroquoian languages are usually divided into two main groups: Southern Iroquoian (Cherokee) and Northern Iroquoian (all others) based on the great differences in vocabulary and modern phonology. Northern Iroquoian is then further divided by Lounsbury and Mithun into Proto-Tuscarora-Nottoway and Lake Iroquoian, although Julian (2010) does not believe Lake Iroquoian to be a valid subgrouping.

Isolated studies were done by Chafe (1977a), Michelson (1988), and Rudes (1995). There have also been several works of internal reconstruction for daughter languages, in particular with Seneca and Mohawk. A preliminary full reconstruction of proto-Iroquoian was not provided until Charles Julian's (2010) work.


Proto-Iroquoian as reconstructed shares the Iroquoian languages' notable typological traits of small consonant inventories, complex consonant clusters, and a lack of labial consonants.


The reconstructed vowel inventory for Proto-Iroquoian is:

Front Central Back
Close i   u  
Mid e       ẽː o     õ   õː
Open a  

Like later Iroquoian languages, Proto-Iroquoian is distinguished in having nasal vowels /õ/ and /ẽ/, although it has more than in its daughter languages.


The reconstructed consonant inventory for Proto-Iroquoian is given in the table below. The consonants of all Iroquoian languages pattern so that they may be grouped as (oral) obstruents, sibilants, laryngeals, and resonants (Lounsbury 1978:337).

Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive t k   ʔ
Affricate ts
Fricative s h
Nasal n
Approximant ɹ j w


  • Julian, Charles. (2010). A History of the Iroquoian Languages. PhD thesis, University of Manitoba. Online:
  • Barbeau, Marius. (1960). Huron-Wyandot Traditional Narratives in Translations and Native Texts. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 165, Anthropological Series No. 47.
  • Chafe, Wallace. (1977a). "Accent and Related Phenomena in the Five Nations Iroquois Languages". In Larry Hyman, ed. Studies in Stress and Accent, 169-181. Southern California Occasional Papers in Linguistics 4.
  • Michelson, Karin. (1988). A Comparative Study of Lake-Iroquoian Accent. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Rudes, Blair. (1995). "Iroquoian Vowels". Anthropological Linguistics 37: 16-69.
  • Lounsbury, Floyd. (1961). Iroquois-Cherokee Linguistic Relations. In William Fenton and John Gulick, eds. Symposium on Cherokee and Iroquois Culture. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 180, 11-17.
  • Lounsbury, Floyd G. (1978). "Iroquoian Languages". in Bruce G. Trigger (ed.). Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15: Northeast. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 334–343. OCLC 12682465.
  • Mooney, James. (1900). Myths of the Cherokee. 19th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 1, 3-548. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.