Cree Goodbyes

Speakers of Cree are wont to point out the different greetings and salutations from one dialect to another. Without historical insight the differences can often be puzzling. In a previous post on this blog, which can be read here, we took a look at the historical record to better understand some of the various greetings. In what follows, we will take a brief look at what the historical record has to offer regarding salutations.

Growing up, I can distinctly recall people using the English “bye” when parting with somebody. This salutation, equally used in French, was used even by monolingual Cree-speakers. The Cree “ekote,” could also be heard when ending a conversation or visit, but would often be followed by “bye” as a more definite conclusion. This word then has truly become a trilingual term in these parts, a region now known as James Bay in English. And although “ekote” is occasionally used on its own as a kind of salutation, it originally means ‘that is where…,’ and has acquired a meaning over time that is equivalent to the English “okay.”

Imagine my surprise then during a visit from a friend from Mistissini (originally Mistassini) when he saluted me with the word “miyâwit.” Having never heard this word, he explained to me how this was the way people in Mistissini say goodbye. I was intrigued – I had never heard a Cree salutation other than the unlikely “ekote.” Of course, I had heard the English loanword “wâciye” as both a greeting and salutation in coastal James Bay communities. So naturally, I wondered if this “miyâwit” was a loanword or an original Cree greeting.

After asking around, I realized some people from Mistissini pronounce this word as “niyâwit,” providing me with two variants to investigate. I also learned from another friend that the very same word was used all the way in Pessamit, where another Cree dialect was spoken. There, the word is pronounced largely the same, but is spelled “niaut” in their local orthography. A similar form, spelled “niame” is also used there, and is pronounced without the initial n- in dialects further east. The salutation was therefore widespread, so I turned to the written record.

It turns out these salutations are compound forms based on a simpler “niyâ.” In a manuscript dictionary compiled by the Jesuit Antoine Silvy in the 1680s, the form is recorded along with a few compounded forms as “nia; niakȣte; niakȣ” and glossed as “va ton chemin, adieu.” (Note that the ȣ character is an abbreviated form of the modern French “ou.”) More variants are included on the following line, as “niaȣte; niakȣ ȣte” and again glossed as “adieu, allez à la bonheur.” The forms suggest two basic forms, “niyâ” and “niyâkᵂ,” the former used for singular subjects, while the latter for plurals subjects.

In the 1690s, in another manuscript dictionary, this one compiled by the Jesuit Bonaventure Fabvre, similar forms are recorded as “Nia, niakȣte, niakȣ, niaȣt” and “Niagȣte, niaȣte,” again with similar glosses. These dictionaries corroborate that the word “niyâ” and their derivatives were historically in use in what is now the Saguenay watershed.

The historical record explains the presence of this term in present-day Mistissini, Pessamit, and communities to the east. But the absence of this term in dialects to the north and west was puzzling. Perhaps this was simply a regional word that was originally a loanword from some neighbouring language, perhaps Iroquoian.

Imagine my surprise then when reading through Watkins’ 1865 dictionary one evening I find the entry “Neah, v. def. imper. s. Go thou, pl. Neak, go ye.” These forms, despite being written in a different orthography, match exactly those found in the dictionaries from the 1600s. However, Watkins compiled his dictionary partially in Chisasibi, a region where the northern East Cree dialect is now spoken, and partially in Manitoba where the western Swampy Cree dialect is now spoken. While it is unclear in which community he heard this word, either place is much further west than the Saguenay region and its periphery. What about further west?

In Lacombe’s 1874 dictionary of the Plains Cree dialect, the word does not appear in the alphabetic listing of the Cree-French index. However, under the entry for “aller” on the French-Cree index, we find the example, “va, niyân, allez, niyânk;” where the intrusive “n” likely marks a nasalized previous vowel, as in French. This is not unheard of in Cree. For example, the vowels in the word “ehe,” meaning ‘yes,’ is more often than not nasalized by speakers of various dialects. Excluding this, the words again are identical to those listed in Watkins, Fabvre, and Silvy. It was therefore a nice bit of supporting data when the same word was located in Arok Wolvengrey’s dictionary of contemporary Plains Cree as “niyâ,” and glossed as “go ahead, go on, be off.”

We therefore have evidence for the use of a word across Cree country and spanning centuries in the historical record. The evidence suggests “niyâ” is in fact an Old Cree word as opposed to a loanword. While in the east it is used as a typical salutation, it appears the western dialects may use it more as an imperative nowadays. Unfortunately, there are dialects in which the word could simply not be located in my cursory research. If you recognize this word and its use in your dialect, feel free to comment below. But more importantly, feel free to salute a friend with any one of the above forms!

Niyâwit!

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