Northern Cheyenne versus Southern Cheyenne:
Two Different Dialects?

Cheyenne speakers and non-Cheyenne researchers sometimes refer to two dialects of Cheyenne, Northern Cheyenne (spoken in Montana) and Southern Cheyenne (spoken in Oklahoma). Some people go even farther and speak of the "Northern Cheyenne Language." Many Cheyennes speak of language differences between Cheyenne spoken in Oklahoma and Montana. Some "Northerners", for instance, say that you can spot a speaker from Oklahoma after listening to just a few words of their speech.

My own research confirms that there are some slight differences in Cheyenne spoken in these two locations. As far as I have been able to determine, after many years of research, there are no differences in pronunciation or grammar. But there are a handful of words, however, which are different between Montana and Oklahoma. Speakers from one location perfectly understand these words spoken in the other location. Are these word differences enough to say that there are two different dialects of Cheyenne? The answer to this question depends on whether you want to look only at technical linguistic data or also at how speakers of the language actually feel about their language differences.

Because Cheyenne speakers from Montana and Oklahoma so strongly perceive there to be a dialect difference, and because they tease each other so much about those differences, these perceptions themselves CREATE a sociological reality of a dialect difference. It would not be proper to say, therefore, that there is NOT a Northern versus Southern dialect of Cheyenne. We simply need to be aware what we are referring to when we speak of these "dialects." These are real dialects in the minds of the speakers, themselves, and that is a very important sociological (and sociolinguistic) reality.

On the other hand, we can also point out that there are actually quite few actual linguistic differences between the Cheyenne spoken in Montana and that spoken in Oklahoma. In fact, it is more likely that there are some greater differences in the Cheyenne spoken by different Cheyenne families than there are between speakers from the North and South but these, also, are rather minimal, and often consist of little more than whether or not some people have a slight lisp, pronounce one vowel of a morpheme differently from other speakers, or have some similar small phonetic differences.

I am not aware of any Northern vs. Southern dialectal differences in the morphology (grammar) of nouns or verbs. I am aware of no differences in the way words or morphemes are pronounced between Oklahoma and Montana speakers.

There are a few individual words which are generally recognized to be used differently by Oklahoma and Montana speakers. Following is the entire list of such words which we have been given by Cheyenne speakers so far (we try to omit anecdotal examples which cannot be verified by reputable linguistic means, such as by checking with a variety of speakers). (Here, "od" refers to Oklahoma Dialect, while "md" refers to Montana Dialect) (N.B.: as of March 18, 1991 not all of the following claimed od/md dialectal differences have been verified with sufficient numbers of speakers, especially speakers of od):

1. clock: od: k'ko'haseo'o (onomatopoeic; literally, ticking thing)
md: e'he (orig. meaning of 'sun' and continues to mean this in both od and md)

2. apple: od: m'xeme (inanimate); ma'xementse 'apples'
md: m'xeme (animate); ma'xemeno 'apples'

3. watermelon: od: mhoo'o (in md, as well as od, this also has the more general meaning of 'melon')
md: nx'mvhe (lit. raw eating thing)

4. cucumber: od: hekve-mhoo'o (lit. thorny-melon)
md: mata (the same word used for 'peyote'; some md speakers may use hekve-mhoo'o for 'cucumber', also ??)

5. 25 cents: od: thvetse (loan translation from English 'two bits')
md: tshnto (lit. that (coin) which is thick)

6. cat: od: ka'n-htame (lit. short-nosed-dog; the literal meaning may initially sound odd, but historically htame seems to have been semantically extended beyond orig. 'dog', to something like 'small domesticated animal'; cf. ksees-hotame 'pig' (lit. sharp-nosed-dog); for md speakers, and perhaps for some od speakers, too, this means 'bulldog')
md: pso (we speculate this to be a sound transl. from English 'pussy')

7. pay: od: heotssane 'he got paid' (lit. he's bringing (something) out; refers to bringing money out of the office)
md: onnxhemohe 'he got paid' (lit. it was destroyed to him; perhaps refers to destroying an indebtedness)

8. crackers: od: thkonave-khkonheontse (lit. skinny little breads; it is said that od speakers call crackers this, in teasing imitation of the md word)
md: mo'hkonave-khkonheontse (lit. dried little breads)

9. potatoes: od: astome-mshstoto (lit. false eating things)
md: mshstoto (lit. eating things)

10. washboard: od: nka's'o or hahehaseo'o (lit. rubbing-thing)
md: nkhs'o

11. He's really a strong Christian (typically said with derision):
od: hohestaahe (lit. he-very.much-baptized(?))
md: hohema'henev'ho'eve (lit. he-very.much-holy-whiteman-be)

12. 'car': It is said that Oklahoma speakers call a car amho'hhe (animate), while the most common term in Montana is inanimate amho'hesttse, but this has not been verified, as yet, and I would not be surprised to discover that some Oklahoma speakers use the inanimate word for car today.

13. Days of the week: When saying days of the week, Oklahoma speakers begin counting of the 'first day' with Tuesday (and calling Monday the 'end of the holy day'), while Montana speakers start the 'first day' with Monday. The words for 'Saturday' and 'Sunday' are the same in Montana and Oklahoma, so Montana speakers pronounce five days with a number in the term for the day of the week, while Oklahoma speakers only have four.

In each case of a dialect word difference which we have listed, speakers from one State understand what speakers from the other State mean when they say one of the words. Muchf good-natured joking takes place over such words. For instance, a Northern Cheyenne speaker may teasingly ask a Southern Cheyenne speaker how he pronounces the word for 'cat'. If the answer ka'n-htame is given, laughter occurs. The Northern Cheyenne speaker might say, "Oh, but that means 'short nosed dog'!' Then the Southern Cheyenne speaker might ask (already knowing the answer) what the Northern Cheyenne word for 'cat' is. When he gets the response pso, he, in turn, has a good laugh.

It has been claimed by Moore (1987:99) that Montana speakers refer to 'horse' as mo'hno'ha while Oklahoma speakers refer to a horse as nhtotse, literally, 'my pet'. But this claim is incorrect. There is abundant evidence in the fieldnotes of several researchers, whose work spans numerous decades, that both Oklahoma and Montana speakers refer to 'horse' as mo'hno'ha and, likewise, speakers in both areas will sometimes refer to their own horse (or, less generally, a dog or cat) calling it 'my pet'. The difference as to which term will be used is not one of a geographical difference but rather a difference in a speaker's personal intention when he is speaking.

If you are aware of other differences in words between Cheyenne spoken in Oklahoma and Montana, please email me (remove NOSPAM before emailing). I would like to add other such words to my files.

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