Kôhkom vs Nôhkom

I recently came across a post on social media encouraging people to teach their kids to say nôhkom, rather than kôhkom, when addressing their grandmothers. Similarly, nimošôm was encouraged, rather than cimošôm, when addresing their grandfathers. But is this, in fact, correct? If so, where does this use of kôhkom and cimošôm come from and why do people perpetuate their incorrect usage?

The crux of the matter here is the historical loss of the vocative case in most Cree dialects. While it is preserved in the old written documents and recordings, the majority of Cree speakers today do not make use of a vocative case – it is one of many grammatical details lost in the Cree language of the post-residential school era. As such, a few monolingual elders today preserve a small number of vocative case examples, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

So what exactly is a vocative case? The vocative case is the form a noun takes when it is used in addressing a person. In Cree, the vocative case is formed in various ways, depending on what type of noun is being used and whether it is singular or plural. Plural vocative cases are the simplest. These are formed by the addition of the suffix …tikw. When addressing a group of men, the vocative form is therefore nâpetikw. When address a group of people, the form is iyinîtikw. When addressing a group of children, one would say awâšišitikw.

This brings us now to the more complex singular forms. There are generally two ways to form the singular vocative case, though the singular is further complicated by a number of exceptions. Let’s first look at the first vocative form.

For all nouns ending in a w, the vocative case is formed by dropping the w and replacing it by an h. If one were addressing a man, the form would therefore be nâpeh. When addressing a woman, the equivalent form would be iskweh.

The second form is used for nouns that end in a consonant other than w. For these nouns, the vocative suffix …eh is used. The timeless example here is of Cahkâpeš addressing his sister as nimišeh! [Note here that the proper form is nimiseh, but Cahkâpeš is said to speak like a child and therefore changes every t to c and every s to š.] When addressing one’s paternal uncle, one would say nôhkomiseh! When addressing one’s maternal uncle, one would say nisiseh!

Finally there are the exceptions. The two most common examples here are the words for mother and father. If one wanted to say, “my mother” in Cree, the proper form is nikâwiy [not mâmâ!]. The vocative form, however, is nekâh. Similarly, if one wanted to say, “my father,” the proper form is nôhtâwiy [not pâpâ!]. The vocative form here is nôhtâh. These forms are common enough that most elderly speakers today would recognize them.

This then brings us back to the kôhkom versus nôhkom discussion. People are right in saying that nôhkom means, “my grandmother.” But they are unfortunately wrong in suggesting that this form is correct vocatively. To suggest replacing kôhkom by nôhkom when addressing one’s grandmother would, in fact, represent a case of hypercorrection. In other words, our lack of familiarity with a particular form, in this case the original vocative form, is misleading us into thinking that the simple possessive form should serve as the vocative. In this particular instance, the correct vocative form is nôhkow, pronounced /nuuhkuu/.

But what about the vocative form for grandfather? In this case, my own research and discussions with elders did not reveal any other form besides nimošôm, which raises the question as to whether the word can serve as a recipient to the vocative suffix …eh. My inclination would be to say yes, but this is something I cannot confirm.

So where did our vocative use of the kôhkom and cimošôm come from? People are correct in saying these forms are the second person singular possessive forms. In other words, these mean “your grandmother” and “your grandfather,” respectively. My inclination is to say these are forms that have come to be used as vocatives when children repeat after their parents. For example, imagine a parent telling their young child to tell their grandmother they love her. A parent might say, “”Ci sâcihitin” iš kôhkom!” Imagine a child then walking up to their grandmother and repeating what they were told, saying, “ci sâcihitin kôhkom.” In this way,  a possessive form becomes incorrectly used as a vocative form. Of course, we would then expect the child to learn the proper form, but this kind of error is common in other languages. Consider the French language, for example, and how the words oncle and tante are often replaced by mononcle and matante. Even though these two forms literally mean, “my uncle” and “my aunt,” this would not prevent someone from saying something like “ton mononcle” and “ta matante.”

As a result of the widespread use of kôhkom as a vocative, people have come to use côhkom, pronounced /chuuhkum/, as the second person singular possessive form. This form is typically produced by a young speaker that has yet to figure out the exceptions to palatalization, a topic perhaps for another blogpost. However, in this case, the form has become generalized as a way of distinguishing it from kôhkom.

As a result, what we then have a kind of domino effect, where one form takes the place of another as the original vocative, nôhkow, is lost.

côhkom → kôhkom → nôhkow

Since we have broached the topic of childish forms, let us finish with a brief word about  these. Childish forms are words or conjugations typically used by children, who abandon the forms as they mature and acquire adult language. Alas, many childish forms have become the norm in the speech of post-residential school generations, including my own speech. Examples of childish conjugations include saying things like kâ wâpamâyâhc rather than kâ wâpamaciht or kâ wâpamikoyâhc, instead of kâ wâpamiyamihtExamples of childish words in my dialect include saying niwî šîšîn rather than niwî šicin, niwî kwâkwân instead of niwî minihkwen, or niwî pepen for niwî nipân.

Of particular interest to this discussion is the existence of two childish vocative forms for “grandmother” and “grandfather.” For “grandmother,” there is the vocative form kôkow,  pronounced /kuukuu/, while for grandfather the form is môcow, pronounced /muuchuu/. These forms tend to be used in coastal communities.

So let us wrap things up. People are, in fact, correct in pointing out that kôhkom and cimošôm are being incorrectly used as vocatives, but the story is far from simple. There is a whole class of word forms called the vocative case that has generally gone into disuse, except in the speech of some monolingual elders. Short of convincing everyone to start using vocatives again, regular possessive forms will probably continue being used incorrectly as vocatives. This raises an important question – at what point does one accept that these errors are in fact merely examples of language change?

ᓂᐐ ᓇᔅᑯᒫᐤ Florrie Mark-Stewart ᑳ ᐯᒋ ᐊᔭᒥᐦᐃᑦ ᒉᒋᔐᑉ ᑳ ᑖᐦᑳᐱᐦᒉᓇᒪᐗᒃ᙮ ᒨᔥ ᓂ ᐯᒋ ᐐᒋᐦᐃᒄ ᐁ ᑲᑴᒋᒪᒃ ᒫᓐᐦ ᒉᒀᔨᐤᐦ᙮ ᓂᐸ ᓇᔅᑯᒫᐤ ᐌᔥᑕᐐᔾ ᓂᑳᐎᔾ ᐁ ᐯᒋ ᐐᐦᑕᒪᐎᑦ ᑖᓐ ᐁᑌᔨᐦᑕᐦᒃ ᐆᔨᐤ ᑳ ᒪᓯᓇᐦᐊᒧᒃ᙮