Mi’kmaq Language

Also known as: Micmac, Mi’gmaq, or Mi’kmaw

The Mi’kmaq language (spelled and pronounced Micmac historically and now often Migmaw or Mikmaw in English, and Míkmaq, Míkmaw or Mìgmao in Mi’kmaq) is an Eastern Algonquian language spoken by nearly 11,000 Mi’kmaq in Canada and the United States out of a total ethnic Mi’kmaq population of roughly 20,000.

The word Mi’kmaq is a plural word meaning ‘my friends’ (singular Míkm); the adjectival form is Míkmaw. The language’s native name is LnuismkMíkmawísimk or Míkmwei (in some dialects).

Mi’kmaq Writing System

Mi’kmaq is written using a number of Latin alphabets based on ones devised by missionaries in the 19th century. Previously, the language was written in Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic writing, a script of partially native origin.

The Francis-Smith orthography used here was developed in 1974, and adopted as the official orthography of the Míkmaq Nation in 1980. It is the most widely used orthography, used by Nova Scotian Mikmaq and by the Míkmaq Grand Council.

It is quite similar to the “Lexicon” orthography, differing from it only in its use of the straight apostrophe ⟨’⟩ or acute accent ⟨´⟩ instead of the colon ⟨:⟩ to mark vowel length.

When the Francis-Smith orthography was first developed, the straight apostrophe (often called a “tick”) was the designated symbol for vowel length, however due to software applications incorrectly auto-correcting the tick to a curly apostrophe, a secondary means of indicating vowel length was formally accepted: the acute accent.

The barred-i ⟨ɨ⟩ is sometimes replaced by the more common circumflex-i ⟨î⟩. In Listuguj orthography, an apostrophe marks long vowels, and the letter ⟨g⟩ is used instead of the letter ⟨k⟩.

The 19th-century Pacifique orthography omits ⟨w⟩ and ⟨y⟩, using ⟨o⟩ and ⟨i⟩ for these. It also ignores vowel length. 

Míkmaq Language history and related languages

Mi’kmaq is one of the Algic languages, a family that once spanned from a small portion of California across Central Canada, the Midwestern United States, and the northeastern coast of North America.
Within this family, Mi’kmaq is part of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup spoken largely along the Atlantic coast.
It is closely related to several extant languages, such as Malecite-Passamaquoddy, Massachusett and Munsee as well as extinct languages like Abenaki and Unami (Lenape).
Beyond having a similar language background and sharing close geographic proximity, the Mi’kmaq notably held an alliance with four other tribes within the Eastern Algonquian language group known as the Wabanaki Confederacy: in short, a history of long-term language contact has existed between Mi’kmaq and its close linguistic relatives.

Mi’kmaq has many similarities with its fellow Eastern Algonquian languages, including multiple word cognates: for instance, compare the Mi’kmaq word for “woman”, e’pit, to the Maliseet ehpit [æpit], or the varying related words for the color “white”: wape’t in Mi’kmaq, wapi [wapi] in Maliseet, waapii [wapi] in Munsee, wôbi [wɔ̃bɪ] in Abenaki and wòpe [wɔpe] in Unami.

Even outside of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup, there exist similar cognates within the larger Algic family, such as the Cree wāpiskāw [wɔ:bɪska:w] and the Miami-Illinois waapi [wa:pi].

Like many Native American languages, Mi’kmaq uses a classifying system of animate versus inanimate words. However, while the animacy system in general is common, the specifics of Mi’kmaq’s system differ from even closely related Algic languages.

For instance, in Wampanoag, the word for “sun”, cone, is inanimate, while the word for “earth”, ahkee, is animate, a fact used by some scholars to claim that the Wampanoag people were aware of the earth’s rotation around an unmoving sun; however, in Mi’kmaq, both the word for “sun”, na’gu’set, and the word for “earth”, ugs’tqamu, are animate, and parallel cultural knowledge regarding astronomy cannot be gleaned through the language.

Much like grammatical gender, the core concept of animacy is shared across similar languages while the exact connotations animacy has within Mi’kmaq are unique.

In English and French speaking areas, traces of Mi’kmaq can be found largely in geographical names within regions historically occupied by the Mi’kmaq people, including Quebec and several towns in Nova Scotia such as Antigonish and Shubenacadie.

several Mi’kmaq words have made their way into colonizing languages: the English words “caribou” and “toboggan”are borrowings from Mi’kmaq. The name caribou was probably derived from the Mi’kmaq word xalibu or Qalipu meaning “the one who paws.”Marc Lescarbot in his publication in French 1610 used the term “caribou.” 

Silas Tertius Rand translated the Mi’kmaq word Kaleboo as caribou in his Mi’kmaq-English dictionary (Rand 1888:98).

The aforementioned use of hieroglyphic writing in pre-colonial Mi’kmaq society shows that Mi’kmaq was one of the few Native American languages to have a writing system before European contact.

Bakker identified two Basque loanwords in Mi’kmaq, presumably due to extensive trade contact between Basque sailors and Native Americans in the 16th century. 

The overall friendly exchanges starting in mid-16th century between the Mi’kmaqs and the Basque whalers provided the basis for the development of a Algonquian–Basque pidgin, with a strong Mi’kmaq imprint, recorded still in use in the early 18th century.

Listen to audio files of Micmac spoken by a native speaker.