Cree Folk Etymologies

A folk etymology is an attempt to explain the origin of a word or its internal structure by using more familiar words or word parts. It is often an innocent attempt at drawing a deeper meaning from a word that is otherwise morphologically opaque to the speaker. Sometimes, the folk etymology seems so logical that it even becomes the accepted form, pushing the original word into disuse. Take for instance the English word, crayfish. This word came into use in the 16th century from a reanalysis of the Middle English word crevis, originally a French loanword akin to the modern French écrevisse. Reanalyzing it as crayfish must have seemed more logical to speakers of 16th century English as it turned what was originally a French loanword into something much more English-sounding. Another example of a folk etymology that eventually prevailed over the original loanword is muskrat, as explained below.

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Folk etymologies are common to all languages, including Cree. In this post, I will discuss some common folk etymologies from four different dialects: Northern Coastal East Cree, Southern Inland East Cree, Southern Coastal Innu, and Plains Cree. As the Southern Coastal Innu speakers tend to speak French as a second language, the section dealing with words from their dialect will be written in French for their convenience. In order to clarify the origin of words and dispel their folk etymologies I will draw on cross-dialectal comparisons as well as the history of our language, always spelling using the standard orthography that consistently represents the phonology and morphology of our language, but will also include syllabic spellings except for the Southern Coastal Innu dialect as syllabics are not, and have never been, used in this dialect.

Northern Coastal East Cree

In this dialect there is a common assumption that the origin of the word meaning ‘eagle’ is the word meaning  ‘ugly’ or ‘dirty.’ Let us compare the two words in this dialect.

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw na eagle

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw vai 1) s/he is dirty 2) s/he is ugly

By comparing both words one can easily appreciate why the assumption is common. The confusion arises because of two features proper to this dialect that distinguish it from Old Cree. The first is the loss of distinction between Old Cree vowels a and i, both of which are pronounced as i in this dialect. The second feature is called palatalization, which is the change of the consonant k to a c (the c is a consonant that often sounds like the ch or ts in English) when the latter is followed by the vowel i. These features mean that words pronounced differently in Old Cree may have become homophonous in this particular dialect. Let us replace these lost vowels and consonants and compare these words again. To compare, the Old Cree forms will be placed in brackets at the end of the entries.

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw na eagle [Old Cree mikisiw]

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw vai 1) s/he is dirty 2) s/he is ugly [Old Cree macisiw]

We can expound further on the internal construction of these words, but the Old Cree forms are sufficiently different to make the case here.

Southern Inland East Cree

As with the previous dialect, there are features in this one that obfuscate the origins of certain words. One such feature is the loss of distinction between s and š (the š sounds like the sh in English, or the ch in French) In this dialect, s is pronounced š, except by certain speakers when these consonants are in proximity to a c or t, in which case both s and š are pronounced s. Because of this, speakers of this dialect will say iškwew for ‘woman,’ but will say âpatisiw, not *âpatišiw, for ‘s/he works,’ maintaining the s in this situation due to the proximity of the t.

A second feature of this dialect is the loss of short vowels when these occur between consonants that are either identical or pronounced in the same region in the mouth (i.e. homorganic consonants). These features help elucidate the following examples.

The first example is the word for ‘thundering,’ which many people pronounce as follows:

ᓂᒥᔅᒌᔑᑳᐤ nimiscîšikâw vii there is thunder

Many suggest this word is a contraction of nimisciw, ‘thunder’ and šikâw, ‘day.’ The latter is used in compounds to designate weather in common words such as maci‑cîšikâw and miyo‑cîšikâw. However, the above form is in fact a reanalysis of nimiscîskâw, a word composed of nimisciw, ‘thunder,’ and the final of abundance ‑skâw.

ᓂᒥᔅᒌᔑᑳᐤ nimiscîšikâw vii there is thunder [reanalysis of nimiscîskâw, Old Cree  nimiskîskâw]

Another popular folk etymology in this dialect is the origin of the word Nemiska, the name of a historical summering ground as well as a modern community. The word’s original form has been preserved throughout the centuries and continues to be written as follows in syllabics:

ᓀᒥᔅᑳᐤ Nemiskâw ni, place name Nemiska

In trying to explain this word, people often suggest it means ‘place with lots of fish.’ This of course compels them to suggest it comes from the Old Cree word namêsiskâw, which speakers of this dialect pronounce as namešškâw, due to the above mentioned features of this dialect. Naturally, this is false. The problem here is the presence of an archaic component that obscures the meaning of the word. In fact, the word is composed of ne-, ‘point’ and the archaic form ‑miskâw, ‘bed (of a body of water).’ The latter is a common component of place names and is found in the name of another well-known lake in this region, Lake Opémisca or Opimiskâw in Cree, meaning ‘underwater strait’ or ‘narrow channel.’ In the modern dialect, the form of this component is ‑âmiskâw and words based on this component are readily used and understood by fluent speakers. This â preceding the component is termed a ‘pre-medial accretion’ in Algonquian linguistics. A feature of Old Cree is the absence of this vowel where it is found in many modern Cree dialects. Nemiskâw then really refers to an ‘underwater point,’ a feature that would be extremely useful for a community of fishermen who set nets for a living!

ᓀᒥᔅᑳᐤ nemiskâw 1) (obsolete) vii there is an underwater point 2) (Nemiskâwni, place name Nemiska [origin ne- ‘point’ + miskâw, ‘bed (of a body of water)’, akin to modern Cree âmiskâw]

A third folk etymology in this dialect that is quite popular is the origin of the word Waswanipi, the name of another local community. The origin of this word however has already been discussed in a previous blogpost and can be read here.

Southern Coastal Innu

Pour ce dialecte, parlé à Pessamit, nous allons regarder deux étymologies populaires. Comme les dialectes ci-dessus, certains traits de ce dialecte sont propices à ces sortes d’étymologies. Comme le cri de l’est de l’intérieur (Southern Inland East Cree), la distinction entre s et š est perdu dans ce dialecte en faveur de š, épelé sh dans l’orthographe locale. La palatalization du k en c, épelé tsh, est aussi un trait comme dans le cri de l’est. Finalement, il y à aussi question de la perte de distinction entre les voyelles a et i, comme dans le cri de l’est du nord (Northern Coastal East Cree). C’est en grande partie à cause de ces traits qu’on retrouve le type d’étymologie dont on discutera ici. Le premier s’agit de l’origine du mot nashkumeu.

nashkumeu vta il/elle le/les remercie

On entend souvent les locuteurs de ce dialecte suggérer que l’origine de ce mot serait un mot qui voudrait dire ‘donner une outarde.’ Par contre, le mot ci-dessus est dans aucun dialecte prononcer de la même manière que le mot qui veut dire ‘donner une outarde.’ Tournons nous vers la langue ancestrale pour le comparer avec le mot qui veut dire ‘donner une outarde.’

naskomêw vta il/elle le/les remercie

oniskimihêw vta il/elle lui/leur donne une outarde

Juxtaposés, c’est amplement claire qu’ils n’ont pas de la même source. Maintenant pour les décomposer, dans la langue ancestrale bien sûr.

Naskomew est un verbe transitif composé de la racine verbal nasko– et la finale transitive animée de locution ‑mew. Anciennement, la forme inanimée était naskohtamo. Le verbe voulais dire ‘consentir’ ou ‘accepter.’ Dans la plupart des dialectes cris ce sens est maintenu. Dans ces dialectes le verbe peux vouloir dire ‘remercier’ ou sinon, c’est la forme rédupliquée nanâskomew, qui prend ce rôle. Le deuxième mot, oniskimihew est la forme transitive du verbe oniskimiw, qui est la forme verbale de oniskima, qui est la forme possessive de niska, ‘outarde.’

De plus, le deuxième mot est en fait pas utilisé dans ce dialecte. Il est plutôt substitué par le mot suivant.

unishkimikueu vta il/elle lui/leur donne une outarde

Tout cela étant dit, c’est impossible dans notre langue de rédupliquer un nominatif, ce qui est preuve que naskomew et nanâskomew ne peuvent pas venir de niska, le mot ancestral pour ‘outarde.’ Il faut aussi se demander pourquoi un mot voulant dire remercier viendra d’un mot voulant dire donner quelque chose!

La deuxième étymologie populaire est l’origine du mot atamishkueu. L’idée serait que ce mot tire ses origines du mot amishku, ‘castor.’

atamishkueu vta 1) il/elle le/les salue 2) il/elle lui/leur donne un cadeau

Le deuxième sens est propre à ce dialecte. Dans les dialectes de la Baie James ce mot n’est plus utilisé et on le retrouve seulement dans la vieille littérature religieuse et seulement avec son sens original, qui est de ‘saluer.’ On continue, par contre, à l’utilisé dans l’ouest avec ce sens. Dans les vieux dictionnaires des dialectes parlés au Saguenay, des dictionnaires compilés par des Jésuites dans les années 1600s et 1700s, le sens de ‘saluer’ est toujours celui qui est mentionner.

Bien sûr, ce mot n’a rien à voir avec le castor et la forme ancestrale de ce mot nous aide à voir ceci.

atamiškawêw vta il/elle le/les salue

La racine de ce mot c’est atam- suivie par les finales pour ‘contacte avec le corps,’ soit ‑škawew et sont antipassif ‑škâkew. Ces formes sont maintenant ‑shkueu et ‑shkatsheu dans ce dialecte. La racine atam– ce trouve dans un autre mot mentionné dans les anciens dictionaires, atamihew, que le père Fabvre vers la fin des année 1600s a traduit par “faire plaisir, bons offices à qlqn.”

Pour être claire, ‘donner un castor’ serait plutôt utamishkumikueu dans l’orthographe moderne de ce dialecte. Il est amplement claire que ce mot n’a rien à voir avec atamishkueu!

Plain Cree

For this dialect we will discuss two popular folk etymologies before bringing this post to an end. There are two features of this dialect that will help elucidate these etymologies. The first is the loss of distinction between Old Cree s and š, as in so many other dialects. However, in Plains Cree the loss is in favour of s. The second feature is the loss of distinction between Old Cree r and y, in favour of y.

The first first folk etymology we will discuss is the proposed relationship between the Plains Cree words for ‘woman’ and ‘fire.’

ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ iskwêw na woman

ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ iskotêw ni fire

The rational behind this, aside from a phonetic resemblance, is that women would have traditionally been the keepers of the home fire. However, the words in Old Cree are not as similar as Plains Cree speakers would have wished when the lost distinction between s and š is reestablished.

ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ iskwêw na woman

ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ iskotêw ni fire [Old Cree iškotêw]

As with the examples from other dialects, the loss of distinction between two Old Cree sounds is often what leads people to reanalyze common words with obscure origins. Another common example in Plains Cree is the endonym, Nêhiyaw, which some people have tried to explain as ‘four-bodied person’ and, alternatively, as ‘precise speaker.’ Of course, this word today simply refers to a Cree person.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw na a Cree person

As with some of the other folk etymologies mentioned above, there is often a bit of romanticizing involved. This is often a telltale sign that the explanation is false. Consider the Old Cree form of this word.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw na a Cree person [Old Cree nêhiraw, ‘a person belonging to one’s tribe, a compatriot’]

The historical meaning of this word is supported by historical and modern sources. For example, foreign tribes allied to our people would be designated by a compound word prefixed by this word, for example the Nêhiraw-kwêtâciwak of  the 1600s (referring to the ‘Allied Iroquois,’ i.e. the Wyandot) or the Nêhiyaw-pwâtak of the plains (referring to the ‘Allied Sioux,’ i.e. the Dakota). Additionally, the word is known to have been used by other Algonquian peoples, including the Anishinabe. In their language the word meant precisely the same thing, but would have been pronounced nî’ina. An 1886 dictionary of the Anishinabe language, compiled by J.A. Cuoq, includes the following words – note the presence of Latin and an old orthography based on French:

NIINA, (2) de notre nation; (note 2 states, “Cf. le latin nostras qui n’est qu’un dérivé de NOS, de même a été formé de NI, signe de la 1ère personne)
Niina ikwe, femme de notre nation ;
Niina masinaigan, livre à l’usage de notre nation ;
Niinawe, parler la langue de notre nation ;
Niina ikitowinan, nostratia verba
niinawinagos, i avoir l’air d’être un des nôtres, un de nos nationaux ;
Niinawisi otenang, à notre village, au village algonquin ;
Niinawisik nongom animisik, ceux de notre nation ont de la peine dans ce temps-ci;
Kotakitok Niiawisik, egent Nostrates.

Going back even further to F. Baraga’s 1853 dictionary of the Anishinabe language, we find on page 284 the word “niinawe, (nin),” which he glosses as “I speak the language of the people with whom I live.” This word is an exact cognate of the Plains Cree nêhiyawêw.

Now that the Old Cree meaning of this word has been explained, let us turn to the folk etymologies. The ‘four-bodied person’ explanation is quite straightforward. Aside from it being odd, it requires a word of the form *nêwiraw to have existed. This word, which would literally mean ‘four-body,’ would then undergo some irregular change of inserting an extra syllable and losing a w, yielding nêhiraw. If this were the case, we would expect to find evidence either in the historical record or in another dialect or related language, yet no evidence for this can be found anywhere. No such word exists in any Cree dialect or related language.

The second folk etymology is that of ‘precise speaker.’ This explanation is meant to apply to the verb nêhiyawêw in Plains Cree.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐤ nêhiyawêw vai s/he speaks Cree

The idea behind this one is that the word would be based on the root nah-, meaning ‘favourable’ or ‘proper’ and a component referring to speech that is common to all dialects of Cree, ‑w. However, combining these components would yield *nahiwêw, a non-existent word, rather than nêhiyawêw. For this explanation to therefore make sense, we would first need to ignore the fact that the initial vowel of nêhiyawêw does not match the vowel in the root nah-. Additionally, we would need to ignore the whole middle section of the word! Fortunately, the actual derivation of this word is actually straightforward – it is composed of nêhiyaw and a component referring to speech that is common to all dialects of Cree, ‑w. The original meaning of this word is therefore quite clear.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐤ nêhiyawêw vai s/he speaks Cree [Old Cree nêhirawêw, ‘s/he speaks the language of the tribe’]

The real issue behind these folk etymologies is the difficulty people have of accepting that the word nêhiyaw in Plains Cree is really just a single word with a straightforward meaning. In fact, this word exists in most Cree dialects, but never with an initial component nêw-, meaning ‘four,’ as proposed by the first etymology, nor with the initial root nah– as in the second. The historical, cross-dialectal, and cross-linguistic data is amply clear about both the original form of the word and its meaning.

Folk etymologies are always quite interesting as they reveal ways in which people perceive certain aspects of the language they speak. There are many other folk etymologies in Cree, but this initial survey will hopefully have peaked your interest in the subject. Stay on the look out for interesting explanations of Cree words and feel free to share any you may have heard in the comments below!

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