Powhatan language

Powhatan or Virginia Algonquian is an extinct language of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian language family, itself a member of the Algic language family. Powhatan was spoken by the Powhatan people of tidewater Virginia until the late 18th century, dying out in the 1790s after speakers switched to English.

What little is known of Powhatan is by way of wordlists recorded by William Strachey (about 500 words) and Captain John Smith (about 50 words). Smith also reported a pidgin form of Powhatan, but next to nothing is known of it.

Smith’s material was collected between 1607 and 1609, and published in 1612 and again in 1624. There is no indication of the location where he collected his material. Strachey’s material was collected sometime between 1610 and 1611, and probably written up from his notes in 1612 and 1613, after he had returned to England. It was never published, and remained in manuscript form, although Strachey made a second copy in 1618. The second copy was published in 1849, and the first in 1955.

Dialect Variation

Strachey’s material reflect considerable lexical variation and minor phonological variation, suggesting the existence of dialect differentiation. However, there is insufficient justification for assigning any apparent dialects to particular areas. A speculative connection to the Chickahominy and Pamunkey Virginia Algonquian tribes has been suggested, but there is no evidence to support this link.

The table below gives a sample of words reflecting lexical variation. Each word is given as written by Smith or Strachey, followed by a proposed phonemic representation.

Powhatan Words Representing Two Dialects
English Dialect A Orthographic Dialect A Transcription Dialect B Orthographic Dialect B Transcription
sun , /ki·so·ss/ /nepass/
roe /wa·hk/ /osi·ka·n/
copper /osa·wa·ss/ , /matassen/
he is asleep , /nepe·w/ /kawi·w/
(his) thigh /opo·m/ /wi·kkway/
arrow /ato·ns/ /askwiwa·n/
muskrat /ossaskwe·ss/ /mossaskwe·ss/
raccoon /a·re·hkan/ (plural) /e·sepan/

Loan Words from Powhatan

Powhatan is credited with being the source of more English loans than any other indigenous language. Most such words were likely borrowed very early, probably before Powhatan-English conflict arose in 1622. Among these words are: chinquapin, chum, hominy, matchoat, moccasin, muskrat, opposum, persimmon, pone (as in corn pone), raccoon, terrapin, tomahawk, and wicopy.

Reconstitution for The New World

For the film The New World, Blair Rudes, a specialist in past and present American Indian languages from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, reconstituted a version of the language from these wordlists and knowledge of three other Algonquian languages, assuming that Powhatan would be similar to them.

According to Rudes,

For the most part, subjects would come first, objects would come second, verbs would come last. But sometimes objects would come after verbs. Adverbs would frequently come at the very beginning of a sentence.

The Algonquian are among the easier [Native American languages] in terms of pronunciation for a European. They tend to be somewhat like Spanish, for example, in terms of having a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel structure. This is one of the reasons why the English borrowed quite a number of words from the Algonquian language that we still have today, like pecan, opossum, and moccasins.



  • Ethnologue entry for Powhatan
  • Campbell, Lyle (2000). American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Feest, Christian. 1978. "Virginia Algonquin." Bruce Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 15. Northeast, pp. 253-271. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Lovgren, Stefan. 2006. " 'New World' Film Revives Extinct Native American Tongue", ''National Geographic News", January 20, 2006
  • Marianne Mithun. 1999. The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge Language Family Surveys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Frank Siebert. 1975. "Resurrecting Virginia Algonquian from the dead: The reconstituted and historical phonology of Powhatan," Studies in Southeastern Indian Languages. Ed. James Crawford. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Pages 285-453.

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