Developing verb conjugators for Indigenous languages

"This is not just a project, but a communal effort that will help us support our language learning."

Akwiratékha' Martin, Research Officer, Indigenous Languages Specialist (NRC)

Most Indigenous languages in Canada are polysynthetic, meaning words are made by combining 7 to 10 morphemes, which includes verb formation. Verb conjugations are one of the most difficult aspects of these languages to learn, yet very important as many sentences consist of a single long verb. Representing these conjugations in a printed textbook is almost impossible, since even the most common verbs can take on thousands of possible forms.

In 2017, the distinguished Indigenous educator Brian Maracle, also known as Owennatekha, told the Indigenous languages technology (ILT) project team at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) that one of the toughest problems he and his fellow teachers at the Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa Language School face while teaching Kanyen'kéha (the Mohawk language) is showing students how verbs are formed. Working closely with teachers at the school, the team developed a verb conjugator for Kanyen'kéha called Kawennón:nis. This interactive teaching tool, which displays conjugations for Ohsweken, the Western dialect of the language, is now in daily use at the school. Working alongside a linguist and educator from the community, the team then developed a verb conjugator for Kahnawà:ke, the Eastern dialect.

The verb conjugator project has now expanded in 3 new directions:

  1. After seeing Kawennón:nis, educators who teach Indigenous languages other than Kanyen'kéha loved the concept and asked if the team could develop versions for their own languages. We have been building verb conjugators for several new languages.
  2. Although teachers of Kanyen'kéha find Kawennón:nis to be a useful educational tool, the software framework, Foma, in which it was built is hard to master, even for people with an academic background in computer science. We have created a new development framework for building verb conjugators called Gramble; we now implement verb conjugators for new languages in the Gramble framework, rather than in Foma.
  3. We have been exploring another suggestion made by Owennatekha. Kanyen'kéha is primarily an oral language, and the current text-based version of Kawennón:nis would be even more useful if it spoke its outputs. However, just as printing a text that covers all possible conjugations for verbs is not feasible, neither is recording audio for them. The team worked with collaborators in both Six Nations and Kahnawà:ke to create a preliminary speech synthesis system that speaks Kanyen'kéha verb conjugations out loud. Since Owennatekha's point about the importance of speech output applies to other Indigenous languages, we have recently begun a new project on developing speech generation for 3 Indigenous languages that are unrelated to each other (Kanyen'kéha, Nêhiyawêwin and SENĆOŦEN).

The Gramble development framework

Gramble has been designed to allow Indigenous educators to create interactive grammatical apps for their language in an intuitive and user-friendly way, using a familiar spreadsheet-like interface. The ILT team hopes to release the Gramble development framework as open-source soon.

Currently, verb conjugators for 3 Indigenous languages have been developed in Gramble by members of the ILT team:

  • Mi'kmaq
  • Michif (the ancestral language of the Métis)
  • Anishinaabemowin (as spoken in Kitigan Zibi, Quebec)

We are also working in Gramble on interactive apps for 2 other languages:

  • Nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree)
  • SENĆOŦEN (Saanich)

So far, the team has successfully used the Gramble framework to tackle the grammar of languages belonging to 3 different, unrelated language families. Kanyen'kéha is an Iroquoian language; Mi'kmaq, Michif, Anishinaabemowin and Nêhiyawêwin are Algonquian languages; and SENĆOŦEN is a Coast Salishan language. This suggests that the Gramble framework is sufficiently flexible to work with languages in other families, as well.



  • Build Kawennón:nis, a verb conjugator for the Ohsweken (Western) dialect of Kanyen'kéha
  • Extend Kawennón:nis to the Kahnawà:ke (Eastern) dialect
  • Develop Gramble, a simpler grammar building software
  • Using Gramble, extend verb conjugation tools to other Indigenous languages, including Michif, Anishinaabemowin, Mi'kmaq, Nêhiyawêwin and SENĆOŦEN.
  • Build speech synthesis technology to help learners master verb conjugation pronunciation

Contact us

For general questions:
Roland Kuhn,
Project Leader, Indigenous Languages Technology Project

For questions about the Kanyen'kéha language:
Akwiratékha' Martin

For questions about Kawennón:nis:
Anna Kazantseva

For questions about Gramble:
Patrick Littell

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