What Cheers?

Most outsiders visiting Cree communities around Wînipekw (aka James Bay) have heard or have been taught the Cree salutation ‘wâciye’ without any mention of its origins or history. It may surprise many to know that this salutation is actually of English origin and that it has not always enjoyed such a widespread distribution. Its popularity has led to the decline of other salutations in the Cree language, leading even some young Cree people looking puzzled when they hear some of these other words. In this blogpost we will explore the history of Cree salutations.

The word ‘wâciye’ can be heard in all Cree communities around Wînipekw and is typically spelled in a variety of ways, depending on the type of orthography and dialect. In syllabics, it is spelled either ᐙᒋᔦ  or ᐙᒋᔮ, the latter being the dialectal form used in the northern east coast communities. Some may even spell it ᐙᒋᔮᐦ in the northern dialect, following a more recent trend of marking all final aspirations in Cree. Using the alphabet, the word may also be seen spelled as ‘wâchiye,’ ‘waachiye,’ ‘wâchiyâ,’ ‘wâchiyâh,’ ‘waachiyaa,’ or ‘waachiyaah.’ There are of course some flagrant misspellings, but these will be ignored for the purposes of this post.

The word itself is actually an English borrowing. Watkins, an Anglican missionary, wrote in his Cree dictionary of 1865 that “The expression, ‘what cheer?’ has been adopted by the Indians and is used both at meeting and at parting, answering in the former case to ‘how do you do?’ and in the latter ‘good bye.’ It is generally doubled, ‘what cheer? what cheer?'” He also wrote that the English expression is “the common seaman’s salutation” and that it had become “thoroughly naturalized into Cree.” He even provides us with the word’s plural form, ‘wâciyekw,’ spelling it “whatcheâk” in his dictionary.

The English expression “what cheer” appears to have a continued existence in English as well, albeit in contracted forms. The Oxford English Dictionary provides us with two entries, “wotcher” and “wotcha,” stating their etymologies as “late 19th century: corruption of what cheer?” The words are therein glossed as informal British greetings.

Interestingly, the use of this word in Cree, although entirely naturalized by the mid-19th century, has not always extended outside of the coastal communities. Inlanders can often recall the first time they heard the word, usually in the context of meeting coasters. The word appears to have begun spreading inland in the 1970s, a time of social upheaval as our people negotiated the JBNQA and eventually settled in our contemporary communities. For inlanders, the more popular salutation has been ‘kwey,’ not ‘wâciye.’

‘Kwey’ has generally enjoyed a much broader distribution than ‘wâciye,’ being used in Cree dialects such as Southern East Cree, Atikamekw, and Western Innu. Aside from Cree, the word is also used in the Anishinabe dialects spoken in Quebec, as well as in the Eastern Abenaki languages. This has led many to suggest it is a loadword from Anishinabe, but the fact remains that only the dialects spoken in the region that straddles the Ottawa river and Abitibi Lake use this term. Further west, the word is replaced by ‘aanii(n),’ literally meaning ‘how.’ This then begs the question, where does ‘kwey’ come from?

The earliest mention of ‘kwey’ in a Cree language document appears to be in Charles Arnaud’s 1856 manuscript dictionary of the dialect spoken at Essipit and Pessamit. Arnaud, an Oblate missionary, lists the word as “Bonjour Kuaï Kuaï.” Earlier manuscript dictionaries curiously omit the word, suggesting it may in fact have been borrowed from another language between the time of the early manuscript dictionaries and Arnaud’s time. In fact, the earliest textual examples we have of this word are from the Jesuit Relations, but they do not refer to the Cree language. Two such examples of the word show up in 1636, both reported by the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf when speaking of the Wyandot people. Despite the loss of their language due to the epidemics, war, and relocation, their close relatives the Mohawk continue to use this word as a greeting in the community of Kahnawake. The word may therefore actually be a Iroquoian loanword that spread into Algonquian communities after the displacement of the Wyandot to Quebec City in the mid-17th century.

So if both ‘wâciye’ and ‘kwey’ are loan words, what was the original Cree salutation? The Plains Cree dialect appears to have preserved the original word, spelled “atamiskawêw” in Arok Wolvengrey’s dictionary of Plains Cree, published in 2011. Being a verb, it can be translated as ‘he or she greets him or her.’ In fact, the word is present in literary sources from dialects spoken around Wînipekw in the mid-19th century, including Bible translations and even Watkins’ dictionary mentioned above. It also shows up in early manuscript dictionaries, including one from the 1680s, compiled by Antoine Silvy, a Jesuit stationed in the Saguenay region who is also known for having travelled all the way to the region of present day Waskaganish. In the Jesuit Bonaventure Fabvre’s dictionary from the 1690s, the phrase “kit atamiskâtin” is found, followed by the gloss “je te salue.” This then appears to have been a widespread expression that has fallen out of use as ‘wâciye’ and ‘kwey’ increasingly gain popularity. But they are not the only words used nowadays.

ᑮ ᐊᑕᒥᔅᑲᐌᐤ

Luke 1:40, “And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.” (1876, Moose Cree translation)

In Southern East Cree and certain Innu dialects, the French word ‘bonjour’ has been adopted and is pronounced as ‘pôšow.’ Depending on the orthography used, it can also be seen spelled as ‘pûshû,’ ‘puushuu,’ or ‘pushu.’ This salutation has also been turned into verbs that replace the original word mentioned above. In Southern East Cree the verb is ‘pôšôhkawew’ while in the Innu dialects it is ‘pushukateu.’ These words generally mean ‘he or she greets him or her,’ but are sometimes interpreted as referring to handshaking, which has always been part of the traditional Cree salutation. In the same way, ‘wâciye’ has also been turned into a verb of the same meaning along the coast of Wînipekw. Here the verb is ‘wâciyemew.’

Whether one uses ‘wâciye,’ ‘kwey,’ or ‘pôšow,’ one should understand that all three of these loanwords are now part and parcel of the Cree language. They are not English, Wyandot, or French words anymore when pronounced in the Cree manner. In fact, the ability to accommodate loanwords, to a certain extent, is a sign of linguistic vitality. The English language would not be what it is today without its plethora of loanwords, including words of Algonquian origin such as ‘skunk,’ ‘toboggan,’ ‘moccasin,’ and ‘pow-wow.’ What is most important is that we simply continue speaking our language. And with that, I salute you all with a wâciye, kwey, and pôšow!