Intro to Algonquianist terminology – Part 3 Initials and finals

This is part three of a beginner’s guide to Algonquianist terminology with a focus on Mi’gmaq. Here’s parts one and two. In this part, I talk about two important parts of an Algonquian verb or noun, initials and finals, plus two topics related to initials: preverbs and initial change.

The big thing that people these days find useful about Bloomfield’s writing is that he divided the Algonquian verb into a template with a whole bunch of different positions

Here’s the basic positions, although there are also a lot of things that go after that “Person/number marking” slot.





Person/number marking etc.

This is a lot to get a handle on all at once, so this post is only going to talk about two of the ones that are found in every verb. That’s the initial and final (verbs also have person/number marking, which I mention HERE). We’ll get back to preverbs and medials, as well as other types of finals in future posts.

Basic Example

For example, let’s look at welei  “I am good/well”. It has three parts, and we can see what they mean by comparing what happens if we change each of them. The first part, wel- means “be good/well”, which we can see by changing it to something else, like megwei “I am red”. This first part is known as an initial.

The second part, -e, means that the verb is intransitive and has an animate subject. We can also see what happens when we change it. For example, if we change the -e to -a’l, we can get wela’lin “you sg are good to me” (which is also used for “thank you’). This second part is known as a final (or specifically in this case an abstract final: we’ll get to concrete finals in a future post.)

The third part, -i, means that the subject of the verb is “I”. We can change it, for example to wele’g “s/he is good” if the subject of the verb is “he or she”, or if there is both a subject and an object, as in wela’lin “you sg are good to me” (subject = you sg, object = me). There’s some more complicated stuff that goes on with person/number marking but this is the basics.



Person/number marking

Full Word





















More about Initials

There are LOTS of initials, so making a list of them would be kind of like copying half the dictionary. They have lots of different meanings and can occur in lots of different types of contexts. We just saw in the last section the initial wel- with a couple of different verb finals, but you can also put initials with a noun final, to create a noun.

For example, teppit is a verb translated “s/he is on top, is aboard” but tepaqan is a noun translated “car, sled, vehicle”. In both cases the initial tep- means “on, on top of” but it can be a verb or a noun depending on what it combines with. I’m not sure if all initials have both verb and noun forms, but a lot of them do.

Another thing that initials can do is attach on to words that already have an initial, in which case they’re called preverbs. For example, if we look at wel- “good” again, it can go with the verb elugwet “s/he works” to make wellugwet “s/he is good at working, works well” (if you’re wondering where the e went, see the section “Initial Change” below).

*Initials can also go with medials and concrete finals, but I’ll talk about that when I bring them up in the next post.

More about Finals

So where an initial tells you something about the general meaning of the word, a final tells you more about its role in the sentence. First, a final tells you whether the word is a noun or a verb, Then if it’s a verb final, it tells you how many nouns go with the verb and whether they’re animate or inanimate. If it’s a noun final, it tells you whether the noun is animate or inanimate, and maybe other things like whether it’s big or small.

Here’s some examples of the four types of verb finals, although there are several options in each category:









The abbreviations that people use for the verb finals come from their animacy and transitivity: AI is animate intransitive, II is inanimate intransitive, TA is transitive animate, and TI is transitive inanimate. It may seem weird that the animate/inanimate part comes before “intransitive” but after “transitive”: the way it was explained to me is that this is because the animate/inanimate part refers to the subject of intransitive verbs but to the object of transitive ones. Sometimes people also refer to them with V for verb, so VAI, VII, VTA, VTI.

As for noun finals, they’re also found with initials and you can tell from them whether a noun is animate or inanimate, so people often refer to them as NA (noun animate) and NI (noun inanimate).

For example, tepa’latl is a verb with the initial tep- “on” and the VTA final -al, which can be translated “s/he puts it.animate (such as a bottle) onto (something)”. The noun tepaqan has the same initial tep- “on”, but it has the inanimate noun (NI) final and it can be translated as “car, sled, vehicle,” literally something that you put things on.

Another example is a’tugwet, which is an AI verb translated “s/he tells a story” (AI final -e), but it can also be transitive a’tugwewatl “s/he tells a story to him/her” (TA final -ew) or can be an inanimate noun a’tugwaqan “a story” (NI final -aqan) or an animate noun a’tugwewinu “a storyteller” (NA final -ewinu).


Initial (story/storytell)


Person Marking

Full Word


Verb, Intransitive





s/he tells a story

Verb, Transitive





s/he tells a story to him/her

Noun, Inanimate






Noun, Animate






Other common noun finals are -uti as in elui’tmasuti (NI) “oath, pledge” (compare elui’tmasit “s/he swears, pledges, takes an oath”), -j for large or normal-sized things and -ji’j for small things. For example gajuewj “cat” gajue’wji’j “kitten” (both NA); gmu’j “stick”, gmu’ji’j “small stick” (both NI).

If you’re trying to figure out which part of a verb or noun is the final, the most useful thing to do is to look for other related words, either by asking a speaker or by looking it up in a dictionary and looking for words that are alphabetically close because those should probably have the same initial. If you’ve got a verb, try seeing if there are any related nouns, or if you’ve got a noun, try seeing if there are any related verbs. If you’ve got a verb that’s intransitive, try a transitive version, or if you’ve got a transitive verb, try an intransitive one. If you have more experience with finals, you may also be able to recognize them based on other verbs with the same final. For example, -al, a’l, -at, -a’t and single vowels before the person/number marking are really common verb finals, as are the noun finals listed above.


Many initials can also go before a verb (and maybe a noun?) that already has an initial, in which case they are called preverbs (See also the preverbs page on the wiki). For example, nata- has a general meaning of being skilled or knowledgeable. So you can use it as an initial as in natawe’g “s/he is skilled, competent, knowledgeable” or you can use it as a preverb as in natalugwet “s/he is a good worker” (we saw up above that elugwet is translated “s/he works” — the e- at the beginning disappears for other reasons, known as initial change, which are discussed in the section right below). In Algonquianist literature, some people say that preverbs and initials are really fundamentally different and that there’s a lot of overlap between them, while others say that they’re really the same thing and it’s more a matter of where they attach, but it boils down to pretty much the same effect when you’re looking at the language. It’s also possible to have multiple preverbs attached to the same verb, such as in etlnewtigimlugwet “s/he is in the process of working alone secretively” (etl- in the process of, newti- alone, gimi- secretly).

Initial Change

Many initials (and also preverbs) have two different forms, one of which is slightly longer than the other because it has an “e” in it. Here are some examples:

Shorter form (“unchanged”)

Longer form (“changed”)




be good/well



work, fix, prepare



thus, in such a way

‘np- (or ‘mp-)*






*The shorter/unchanged form of nep- is also sometimes written ‘mp-, as in mpoqon “bed”. In either case the pronunciation is the same.

The Algonquianist description for this difference is called “initial change”, and the shorter versions of the initials are described as not having undergone initial change (unchanged forms), while the longer version have undergone initial change (changed forms). Here’s some examples of the situations that each type of form is found in, using the initial ges-/’gs- “like/love”. Note that although the longer “changed” form is generally the one first encountered by learners of Mi’gmaq, it is actually less common overall, which is why the shorter form is considered more basic.

Longer form (“changed”)






I like him/her

I like it.inanimate

Past/direct evidence



I liked him/her

I liked it.inanimate


Shorter form (“unchanged”)



Future/indirect evidence



I will like him/her

I will like it.inanimate



pewalul ‘gsalan “I want you to like him/her”



like him/her!

Has a preverb before it*


“I like him/her a lot”




‘lpa ‘gsalg… “if I like it.animate…”

‘lpa ‘gsatman “if I like it.inanimate”



“precious one, someone/something cherished or valued” (animate or inanimate)


*This one may not always result in initial change at least in Listuguj Mi’gmaq — sometimes you get the longer form here instead. If there are several preverbs all in a row, all but the first one are found in their shorter form.

**In other Algonquian languages, there are two ways of marking person/number on the verb: verbs in the “independent order” (basic sentences) have both prefixes and suffixes, while verbs in the “conjunct order” (questions, embedded clauses, sometimes stories) have only suffixes. Mi’gmaq does not use these person prefixes on verbs at all, although they can be seen on nouns, as in ‘ngij “my mother”, nujj “my father”, so all of its verbs look like the conjunct forms of the other languages. However, for the languages that do make this distinction, the initial is unchanged in the independent and changed in the present and past/direct conjunct.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>