Chickasaw Language

The Chickasaw language was the primary language of Chickasaw people for hundreds of years. Chickasaw is a Muskogean language, and Chickasaw and Choctaw together form the Western branch of the Muskogean language family. Chickasaw is also related to Alabama, Koasati, Mvskoke—Seminole, Hitchiti and Mikasuki. Language loss occurred over time. Government boarding schools discouraged Indians from practicing their cultures and speaking their languages. Learning English was encouraged by some Chickasaw people because English was a necessary skill in negotiating with non-Indians. Speaking the Chickasaw language was often discouraged, even in tribally run schools.

The current state of Chikashshanompa' (the Chickasaw language), is similar to that of most tribes in the United States. Less than 20 languages spoken by tribes in the United States are projected to survive another 100 years. In 1994, the estimated number of fluent Chikashshanompa' speakers was less than 1,000. Today, there are less than 75 speakers, with the vast majority older than age 55.

The value of speaking the language has been realized and several programs and services have been established over the years to revitalize the Chickasaw language. Tribal employees and Chickasaws of all ages are participating in community language classes, language camps and clubs, the Chickasaw Master-Apprentice program as well as learning through self-study programs, language classes on and using the Chickasaw Language Basics app.

Chickasaw Spelling Systems

The Chickasaw language is an oral one, meaning it is transmitted through speaking from generation to generation. Chickasaw was not a formally written language until the twentieth century, though Chickasaw speakers wrote it as they saw fit before that time. A Chickasaw Dictionary was published in 1973, written by the Reverend Jess J. Humes and his wife Vinnie May (James) Humes. Chickasaw: An Analytical Dictionary was published in 1994, written by linguist Pam Munro and Chickasaw speaker Catherine Willmond. Accompanying the dictionary is a CD that assists with hearing the pronunciation of the language.

A Chickasaw Dictionary was compiled as a “list of Chickasaw words in a very simple manner. Disregarding all rules of orthography, we made an effort to spell the words as they sound, in the hope that anyone using the list could pronounce them.” In contrast, Chickasaw: An Analytical Dictionary uses a new spelling system that “represents tonal accent and the glottal stop, neither of which is shown in any previous dictionary on either Chickasaw or the closely related Muskogean language, Choctaw. In addition, vowel and consonant length, vowel nasalization, and other important distinctions are given.”

An example of the differences between the two spelling systems is seen in the spelling of the Chickasaw word meaning “to be five in number,” talhlhá'pi (Munro-Willmond) and tulhapi (Humes). Humes spells the short a sound (like in the English word father) with a u, whereas Munro-Willmond uses a. Both systems use lh to represent a Chickasaw consonant sound that sounds something like Klondike pronounced without the initial K, or like ilth in the English word filth, but without the t. Munro-Willmond indicates pitch accent of the final a with an accent mark, (talhlhá'pi). Munro-Willmond uses ' (apostrophe) to represent the glottal stop, a stoppage of air in the throat, like the middle of the English word uh-uh, meaning “no.”

The Chickasaw Language Revitalization program uses both spelling systems. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to spell Chickasaw. It is an oral language, so ultimately it is up to each Chickasaw person to determine how they want to spell (and speak) their language.

Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program

The Chickasaw language revitalization program began in 2007 and the department of Chickasaw language was founded in 2009.

Chickasaws believe that the language was given to them by Chihoowa or Abaꞌ Binniꞌliꞌ (God), and that it is an obligation to care for it: to learn it, speak it and teach it to children. The Chickasaw language is viewed as a gift from the ancestors for all Chickasaw people. The job of the Chickasaw language revitalization program is to help people access that gift.

Programs offered by the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program:
The Chickasaw language master-apprentice program pairs an apprentice with a master/fluent Chickasaw speaker. The apprentice will learn the language through full immersion.

Chipota Chikashshanompoli (Youth Speaking Chickasaw) language club meets once a month in Ada and Ardmore. Students learn the Chickasaw language through total physical response activities and song. Students compete each year at the annual Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair.

Chickasaw community language classes meet once a week in Ada, Ardmore, Oklahoma City, Purcell, Sulphur and Tishomingo. Each class is taught by a fluent speaker or fluent speaker with facilitator. East Central University in Ada, Okla. offers four course levels and is taught in the fall and spring.

Chickasaw Language Basics app is the first of its kind to be developed by a tribe or nation. The app features hundreds of Chickasaw words, phrases, songs and videos. Chickasaw Language Basics can be downloaded for free at or accessed on an android mobile device or internet at

With the introduction of Chickasaw.TV, learning the Chickasaw language became more easily accessible. Chickasaw TV has a channel dedicated to learning the Chickasaw language through lessons, songs, games and stories. Visit the Chikashshanompa' channel on Chickasaw TV. is a place for children to learn more about Chickasaw history, people, culture and language through interactive games and activities.