Kanyen’keha, like other onkwehonwe languages, is polysynthetic, meaning that words are composed of many elements. A single word in Kanyen’kéha is the equivalent of a whole sentence in English. For example the simple sentence “I will wash dishes.” is four words in English and one word in Mohawk – enkeksoharényon. But this one word is composed of five elements we call roots (which linguists call morphemes). Each of the roots has a particular meaning or use, as in:
The English sentence can be said in almost any word order (even though it may sound clumsy and awkward) and it still makes sense, as in:
• Wash dishes I will.
• Dishes I will wash.
• Wash dishes I will.
In Mohawk, however, these five elements: en + ke + ks + ohare + nyon can not be put together any other way – they will not make sense. What’s more, ke (all by itself) does not mean “I” and ks (all by itself) does not mean “dish” and ohare (all by itself) does not mean “wash.” They only mean those things when they are assembled along with other roots in the correct sequence.
So, learning to speak Mohawk using the Root Word Method requires students to learn hundreds of word roots and how to assemble them to make whole words, the equivalent of whole sentences in English.
In most other native language programs, students learn by memorizing whole words, phrases and sentences. They don’t learn how to change those words/phrases/sentences to fit different circumstances. They don’t learn how to think in the language to be able to say something they’ve never heard before.
What makes learning Mohawk very complicated is the fact that a single Mohawk word can describe:
• an action;
• the number and gender of the person(s) who did the action:
• the number and gender of the person(s) the action was done to;
• whether the action benefited that person(s);
• a general time frame describing when the action took place or will take place;
• the object involved in the action;
• the direction the action took place in relation to the speaker;
• whether the person who did the action went someplace to do it;
• whether the action had been done before;
• whether the action undid a previous action; and
• whether the action was done multiple times.
The Root Word Method requires learning about 800 roots, prefixes and suffixes plus their variations, plus the rules for assembling them, plus the exceptions. Students also have to learn another 700 particles, names and stand-alone descriptions. When learned in a sequence from grammatically simple-to-complex students can become proficient speakers relatively quickly.