Horatio Hale’s The Iroquois Book of Rites (Gutenberg text of entire book, Sacred Texts version broken up into chapters), originally published in 1883, contains all sorts of historical and cultural information about the Five (later Six) Nations of the Iroquois; its centerpiece is the Ancient Rites of the Condoling Council in both Iroquois and English (preceded by a sketch of The Iroquois Language). Here’s the famous Condolence Hymn chanted at meetings of the League:

Kayanerenh deskenonghweronne;
Kheyadawenh deskenonghweronne;
Oyenkondonh deskenonghweronne;
Wakonnyh deskenonghweronne.
Ronkeghsotah rotirighwane,—
Ronkeghsota jiyathondek.

I come again to greet and thank the League;
I come again to greet and thank the kindred;
I come again to greet and thank the warriors;
I come again to greet and thank the women.
My forefathers,—what they established,
My forefathers,—hearken to them!


  1. What is meant by “Iroquois Language” here? Isn’t that like saying there’s a “Slavic Language” covering a large part of Eastern Europe? Isn’t it pretty much established that the northern Iroquoian branch contains several languages, e.g., Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk…? Which of those languages might actually be used _here? (Or, does “Canienga” = “Cayuga”?

  2. Yes, I was confused about this too. It’s not like he’s not aware there are different languages; he discusses their differences. My guess is that they’re similar enough to allow for a common “council language” in which the hymns and so on are expressed, parallel to Church Slavonic. But I hope someone who actually knows will drop by and enlighten us.
    “Canienga” (more properly Kanienkehaka) is the Mohawk (the latter word is from an Algonquian name apparently meaning ‘cannibals’).

  3. If a language isn’t standardized it’s hard to say how many dialects it has, or whether there’s more than one language. Unless there was a standardization (or more than one) it makes sense to me to say that there was an Iroquois language which various groups spoke in various different ways.
    I used to know people from Truk, who all had experience getting used to different local ways of speaking their language. They didn’t have a consciousness of a discrete number of dialects, though, AFAIK.

  4. I’d love it if an Iroquoian scholar could “pop in” here and offer greater insight. I’ve never understood the Northern Iroquoian languages (including the still-extant Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora) to be considered anything but distinct languages, not mere dialects. Yes, I know the line between “language” and “dialect” is fuzzy enough but here I thought there was a situation at least as diverse as the South Slavic continuum. (And a continuum it may well be – perhaps neighboring ones of the N. Iroquoian languages are mutually intelligible but those distant from one another – e.g., Seneca vs. Mohawk – might not be…? But w/o an Iroquoian scholar to weigh in here, who knows…)
    I’ll throw in an additional monkey wrench to the effect that in the context of the historic Iroquois confederacy I always understood that by virtue of geography the Onondaga nation was the “central” meeting-place and that, pretty much by consensus and default, the Onondaga language was used in confederate council meetings as the “official language”. Thus, could we be dealing w/ Onondaga in the referred document here?

  5. Actually, that had occurred to me as well. But looking through the chapter on the language, I find this: “The ‘Book of Rites,’ or, rather, the Canienga [Mohawk] portion of it, is written in the orthography first employed by the English missionaries.” I don’t know if “the Canienga portion of it” refers to the Iroquois original as opposed to the translation or part of the original, but it’s another monkey wrench and/or bit of clarification.

  6. Very interesting stuff. We need more scholars working on these languages in our very backyard… (or those that exist needn’t be too bashful… ;^) )
    And to offer one more thought in response to an earlier comment about “standardization”… I would think here that the “separateness” of the languages stemmed from the fact that we’re talking about separate tribes. Then it becomes partly a historical/cultural question; how much intermingling was there between the tribes; how much interdependence – and thus propensity towards more closely knit “varieties” (whether you call them langs. or dialects or whatever)? We’re not talking about Euro-style walled villages here that were totally independent of one another, but weren’t tribes at least to some degree self-standing entities that didn’t necessarily mingle w/ others _all the time…? After all these were warring parties for quite some time before the confederacy was formed… (I do know that a lot of the divergence from “proto-NI” wasn’t necessarily uniform; e.g., I believe Seneca & Cayuga are cited as constituting their own “sub-branch”…)
    With that in mind I’d also love to hear about borrowing/convergence among the languages once the confederacy was in place (w/ presumably more interaction between tribes). This must be one fascinating laboratory for discerning similarities/differences owing to “genetics” vs. “borrowing”…!

  7. these were warring parties for quite some time before the confederacy was formed
    And they weren’t necessarily all that friendly even after it was formed. In particular, there was a lot of tension between the Mohawk, who considered themselves the preeminent “eastern door of the longhouse,” and the western members, especially the Onondaga, who were the “name givers” of the League and considered themselves entitled to speak for it. When Garakontié, the chief diplomat of the Onondaga, made a peace treaty with the French in 1654, the Mohawk were extremely pissed off, and “the two sides fought with each other until the ground was stained with blood and murder” (quoted in S.S. Webb, 1676).

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