Last week marked the publication of the Grammaire de la langue innue, the first ever modern and comprehensive grammar of the Cree language. So while I usually lay my head down around eleven o’clock, for the past few days my eyes have remained open long after the time of my nightly reclination as I diligently read through each of its 602 pages.
For those unversed in the study of the Cree language or its various appellations, what is here referred to as the Innu language is a group of Cree dialects spoken by around 11,000 people along the north shore of what is now generally known as the St-Lawrence River in Québec. Yet, despite the title of the book, there is no such thing as a homogeneous Innu language. Instead, the book introduces us to a variety of dialects who, for historical and political reasons, have come to be grouped under that term.
Differences aside, the speakers of these dialects have managed, over time, to agree on a single standard spelling system – no simple task considering the glaring phonological discrepancies among the dialects in question. But this move towards orthographic unity, encouraged by their conspicuous cultural and ethnic unity, has been of utmost importance for the development of literacy and the promotion and preservation of the Cree language in those communities. Without such a standard orthography, the present grammar would have most likely failed at being so dialectally inclusive and at successfully targeting the actual speakers of the language who, more often than not, are not trained linguists and might not manage to read an orthography based on conventions used in linguistics.
The author of this grammar, Lynn Drapeau, is a well-known linguist in the field of Algic languages. Having done research since the 1970’s on the particular dialect spoken in Pessamit, she is one of a handful of linguists who has spent a considerable amount of time in our communities to eventually become a speaker of our language. This investment of hers would also result in her 1991 publication of what was then the most extensive dictionary of the any Cree dialect, her Dictionnaire montagnais-français. But her crowning achievement will unquestionably be her Grammaire de la langue innue, which she managed to perfect by dedicating her post-retirement time to parsing countless hours of recordings of elderly monolingual speakers and holding discussions on various points of grammar with her academic and communal research groups.
I have had the pleasure of having the author supervise my work as a graduate student in linguistics, where I focused my interests on the history of the Cree language. It was then that I came to understand how what appears to be a wide and disparate variety of Cree dialects is in fact a language that remains incredibly similar, lexically and grammatically, regardless of its regional innovations. This grammar will therefore undoubtedly prove useful to speakers of other Cree dialects until modern and comprehensive grammars of their dialects are published as well.