Lakhota is one dialect of a language widely spoken in the northern plains. It is not easy to find a universally acceptable designation for this language, given the fact that there is no unambiguous native name for it. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century scholars (Stephen R. Riggs, Franz Boas) used the term Dakota both for the language and for its eastern dialect. This is obviously awkward and liable to confusion. Here the designation Sioux is used for the language, reserving Dakota for the dialect. Many speakers of the language dislike the term Sioux because of its foreign origin (cp. Goddard 1984), its use primarily by non-Indians, and because some do not recognize that all the dialects represent the same language.
The Sioux language is the first or second language of about 10,000-12,000 people in the northern plains and contiguous areas of the United States and Canadian prairie provinces. Some speakers of the language are to be found in other places in both countries as well, such as Los Angeles and Toronto. This is one of the largest surviving native language communities in North America.
Lakhota (Teton Sioux) is one of the five closely related dialects. Parks (1990), based on extensive surveys of all the Sioux-speaking reservations and reserves in the late 1970s, identifies these as Santee-Sisseton, Teton, Yankton-Yanktonai, Assiniboine, and Stoney. The easternmost of these is Santee-Sisseton. Nineteenth-century scholars, following native usage, referred to this dialect as Dakota. The westernmost of the dialects, Teton, is designated by its native name, Lakhota or Lakota. Speakers of the Assiniboine and Stoney dialects call their language Nakoda. The remaining dialect, Yankton-Yanktonai, also located geographically between the Santee-Sisseton and Teton dialects, show affinities with both Dakota and Nakoda, although speakers call their language Dakota.
Each of these dialects has reservation- or reserve-based subdialects, some quite different from the others. The subdialects of Teton Sioux oppose the southwest reservations (Pine Ridge and Rosebud) to those on the Missouri River (Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Standing Rock). The populations on these reservations reflect earlier band divisions among the Teton Sioux, so the present linguistic differences quite likely reflect differences older than the reservation period, which dates only from the last third of the nineteenth century.
The Sioux language, in one or another of its dialects, but chiefly Dakota, has been written for over 150 years by missionaries, anthropologists, educators, and native speakers, using a variety of writing systems, all based on the Roman alphabet. Not surprisingly, there exists a sizable corpus of Sioux writings (see de Reuse 1987, 1990), some favoring a broad rendering of the language, others a fairly narrow rendering. In most cases there is no indication with or in the document of the intended degree of phonological exactitude, although most are more broad than narrow.