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-18th 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!

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Otters & Clouds

Today, on a popular social media site, a picture of a cloud seen over Waswanipi was posted. The comment accompanying the picture read, “Hmmm, more weird looking clouds.” Here is the picture.

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“Hmmm, more weird looking clouds,” by Nadia Happyjack Cooper. Shared here with permission.

Granted, these clouds do look kind of weird, they are quite common. In the field of meteorology, this type of cloud is called by the Latin term altocumulus undulatus.

When faced with the need for highly specific words, the English language often depends on Latin. The Cree language, on the other hand, is properly equipped to describe highly detailed features of the natural world, including clouds. This is largely due to a grammatical feature called polysynthesis, which I spoke at length about in an earlier post. In the Cree language of Waswanipi, the altocumulus undulatus cloud is known by the following term:

ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴᔅᑾᓐ

This word is a beautiful example of polysynthesis, so let us break it down. The word ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴᐗᔅᑾᓐ is an inanimate intransitive verb (i.e., a VII) that features two medials built on the stem of a transitive animate verb (i.e., a VTA). The stem on which the word is built is the following:

ᐸᐦᑯᓐ/

This stem means, “to skin an animal.” To that stem a medial is attached, referring to the animal being skinned. In the case, the animal is an otter and the medial is as follows:

ᐋᒋᑴ/

This medial is derived, through a normal process of medial derivation, from the noun ᓂᒋᒄ. Together, these two components form a new stem, meaning “to skin an otter.” The stem is as follows:

ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴ/

To this stem, another medial is attached. This one means “cloud” and has the following form:

(ᐊ)ᔅᒄ

This medial is derived from the noun ᐗᔅᒄ, a word that is now obsolete in Waswanipi. This medial, however, cannot form a new stem without the addition of a final. The final here adds no meaning to the word, but rather helps form a VII verb. The final is the following:

ᐊᓐ/

Together, these components come to mean “there is an otter-skinning cloud.” This may be a strange description for anyone not accustomed to seeing otters being skinned, but for those who have the choice of word immediately becomes obvious.

When skinning an otter with a bone scraper, the skinner will simultaneously strike the subcutaneous tissues while pulling the skin away from the area being struck. Doing so repeatedly creates a lumpy texture in the otter’s fat, reminiscent of the aforementioned cloud.

While many of us nowadays tend to imagine puppies and kittens in the shapes of clouds, evidently hunters and trappers see things quite differently! So the next time you see an altocumulus undulatus you can help keep a beautiful and meaningful word in use by calling it what our people have called it for centuries, ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴᔅᑾᓐ.

Syllabics Chart

I designed the following chart as a tool to convert the Cree alphabet into syllabics, and vice versa. Aside from a few important changes, it is based on traditional syllabics charts. This version features the letters used in the standard alphabetic orthography and the syllabics used in the eastern syllabic orthographies. The terms cardinal and ordinal refer here to the orientation of the individual syllabic characters. They are included here as a pedagogical tool, in line with my use of these terms in the syllabics lessons published on this blog. The third category, listed here as supplemental, groups together characters that were originally designed to represent sounds from non-Cree languages, as when transcribing English names.

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Note that the long vowels require diacritics in both orthographies to distinguish them from their corresponding short vowels, making the conversion from one orthography to the other effortless. Also note that the long vowel e does not require a diacritic as it does not have to be distinguished from a corresponding short vowel. This simplifies any orthographic conversion as its corresponding syllabic series has traditionally forgone the use of a diacritic as well.

A feature of the alphabetic orthography is that it is not based on English or French phonetics. Rather, it is based on the actual sound structure of the Cree language. As such, every Cree sound is represented by only one letter, making the conversion from the alphabet to syllabics that much easier. For example, the Cree sound variously pronounced as /tsh/, dzh/, /ts/ or even /tz/ is always represented by the single letter c rather than the awkward and variable use of tsh, ts, tch, ch, g, and even j, all of which derive from English and French phonetics. Similarly, the Cree long vowel pronounced as /i:/ is written as ī (or alternatively î), rather than using the English based e, eeea, or even ii. As a final example, the Cree sound that varies between /k/ and /g/ is always spelled as k, rather than drawing from English phonetics and misleadingly using k and g for what is really only one sound in Cree. A word, therefore, commonly written as meegwetch, meegwech, miigwetch, or even miigwech, is consistently written as mīkwec in the Cree alphabetic orthography and ᒦᑴᒡ in syllabics.

Spelling in a consistent manner is an important requirement for literacy. Not doing so creates barriers for language learners and hinders the progression of literacy for a language that is already at risk of being lost in many communities across Cree country. For those wishing to learn how to read and write in syllabics, lessons can be found here.

A Cree Knock-knock Joke

The creativity of children never ceases to amaze me. Linguistically, they find ways to play with the languages they speak that make us laugh while simultaneously saying much about where they are from. Here’s a funny example I once overheard from young children playing together in my home.

Knock knock!
 Who’s there?
Scooby-doo!
 Scooby-doo who?
Enh! You just said “doo who!”

Sadly, the comedic value of this joke only reaches the few Cree communities where doo who, properly spelled tôhow or ᑑᐦᐅᐤ, is known. I also expect some of these kids would have been scolded by their parents for using a word that refers to male genitalia. As a linguist, however, I could not help but laugh at what was a great example of humorous code-switching!

Polysynthesis & the Longest Cree Word Ever

The Cree language can be likened to the world’s most mechanically intricate clocks that, despite their innumerable moving parts, display time using only two or three hands. Similarly, our beautiful language is built on a rich, but incredibly complex, grammatical structure, and yet boasts only a simple repertoire of vowels and consonants. In this way, our language sounds deceptively simple, but its grammar has thwarted many in their attempts to learn to speak it.

Certainly, numerous factors aside from grammar conspire against the would-be Cree speakers. Inconsistent orthographies, sparse learning materials, dialectal differences, and even idiolectal preferences are complicit. But there is one grammatical feature that is so unfamiliar to speakers of European languages that it usually escapes their attention, only to repeatedly frustrate their efforts at speaking with any degree of fluency. This feature is called polysynthesis.

Polysynthesis is the process of stringing together many morphemes, or word-parts, into long words that would be typically expressed as sentences in non-polysynthetic languages. What better way then to illustrate this process than by presenting here what many say is the longest Cree word ever?

The word you are about to see was posted on a social media page dedicated to the Cree language. It is allegedly known by many elderly people in communities along the east coast of James Bay and is here presented in the northern dialect. Prepare to run out of breath trying to read this aloud.

ᒌ ᐅᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓂᐧᐃᑎᐦᑭᐙᑭᓂᐎᐦᑖᐙᑯᐱᓐ

It was evident from the comment section on this social media site that this word stumped many Cree-speakers. So by way of illustration, let us break this word down to reveal its actual meaning. While doing so, the grammatical process of polysynthesis will be made abundantly clear.

The length of this Cree word can be partially explained by its inflexions. In other words, it is a verb that has been conjugated by the addition of a prefix and a suffix. The prefix is here separated by a space, but some people prefer to place it next to the word, making it appear even longer. The inflexions in this word are highlighted here for your convenience.

ᐅᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓂᐧᐃᑎᐦᑭᐧᐋᑭᓂᐎᐦᑖᐙᑯᐱᓐ

The prefix here is a simple past tense marker (some would argue it is a perfective aspect marker, but we can overlook this for the sake of simplicity). The suffix here is a third person plural dubitative preterit marker. It conveys an event involving a group of people that we infer to have occurred, but did not witness ourselves.

Another segment in this word is a derivational morpheme that conveys a passive voice. A passive voice is used in verbs where the subject undergoes the action of the verb. In English, the passive voice would be used to say things like “he is seen” or “she is appreciated.” The passive is highlighted here in blue.

ᐅᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓂᐧᐃᑎᐦᑭᑭᓂᐎᐦᑖᐙᑯᐱᓐ

This passive voice tells us that that something is being done to this group of people. In other words, they are not active participants in this event, but rather, recipients. Let’s keep working at this word!

The next segment is a derivational morpheme that contains both a prefix and a suffix which conveys the meaning of providing something for others. It is here highlighted in red.

ᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓂᐧᐃᑎᐦᑭᑭᓂᐎᐦᑖᐙᑯᐱᓐ

So we now know that something was provided for a group of people in the past, but the speaker only infers this information as he or she was not a witness to the event. A little more work and we shall soon find out what they received!

The following segment is a derivational morpheme that literally means “pack,” “bag,” or “container.” It is here highlighted in green.

ᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓂᐧᐃᑎᐦᑭᑭᓂᐎᐦᑖᐙᑯᐱᓐ

The speaker is therefore telling us that it is inferred that a group of people in the past received a package containing something. Shall we keep going?

The morpheme referring to the contents of the package is underlined below.

ᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓂᐧᐃᑎᐦᑭᑭᓂᐎᐦᑖᐙᑯᐱᓐ

This morpheme can also exist as a word on its own, as follows:

ᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓐ

This word means “spatchcocked grouse.” But even it itself is a word composed of smaller parts! In fact, it is a compound consisting of a suffix referring to grouse and an initial segment that literally refers to game split open from the back and deboned for smoking or grilling. On its own, it is used to refer to fish, but with the suffix it comes to refer to grouse. Here is the root of it all, the word that refers to fish split from the back for smoking or roasting:

ᑳᔅᒋᓈᐤ

It would be remiss of me not to mention that even this word is a noun derived from an initial verb composed of two parts, but I digress too much. Let us return then to the original word now that we have broken it down into its different segments.

ᑳᔅᒋᓈᐧᐋᐦᔮᐧᐋᓂᐧᐃᑎᐦᑭᑭᓂᐎᐦᑖᐙᑯᐱᓐ

This Cree word can be translated as follows (the translation is colour coded to match the associated parts of the Cree word):

They were presumably given a package of spatchcocked grouse.

As has been shown, this one Cree word (two if we consider the prefix a separate word) requires the use of nine English words to be properly translated. This then illustrates beautifully what polysynthesis means. It is so foreign to English-speakers that it must be explicitly explained if they ever wish to acquire any fluency in the Cree language. But do not despair! The Cree language obeys strict rules that allow speakers to formulate these kinds of words. With a bit of practice, one can learn how to do so and amaze fellow Cree-speakers! Perhaps then, a longer word could even be composed to earn the title of the longest Cree word ever.

 

Geraldine Govender: Heritage Award for Excellence

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On February 23 in Toronto, Geraldine Govender accepted the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation for her role in making the Moose Cree dictionary possible. As the director for the Department of Language & Culture at Moose Cree First Nation, Geraldine’s role in building support for the local language revitalization project has been crucial for keeping the dictionary project going.

Geraldine took to social media that day to acknowledge her nomination by Stan Kapashesit and to thank all those involved in the production of this important work on the Cree language.

A third edition of the Dictionary of Moose Cree is presently being prepared. Contributors to the dictionary project since 2012 are listed below:

Project Manager:
Geraldine Govender

Lexicographers:
Kevin Brousseau
Vincent Collette (contributor to the first edition)

Expert Speakers:
Clarence Cheechoo
Susan Cheechoo
William Cheechoo
Agnes Corston
Hilda Jeffries
Gertie Johnstone
Eva Lazarus
Mary Linklater
Jane Louttit (1922-2013)
Eleanor McLeod
Stella McLeod
Caroline Trapper (1929-2017)
Daisy Turner (1918-2017)
George Quachegan

Waswanipi

The following blogpost was originally published on October 13, 2014 on another blog of mine. Save for a few typographical modifications, the post is presented here in its original form.

Only recently have I noticed how Waswanipi’s community emblem was changed from its original design. This must have happened years ago, but somehow it managed to escape my attention. I can distinctly remember the original emblem from my youth, with its torch suspended over the water. But the torch has now been replaced by the moon, which appears to be a better fit for the common, but erroneous, translation of ‘light on the water.’ For those not familiar with the design of the original emblem, here it is on a pin.

99802_Waswanipi_Logo1

The above emblem evidently pointed to the meaning of the name, which must have naturally been understood by those who designed it. The name, spelled Wâswânipiy using a standard orthography, literally translates into ‘torch-fishing lake,’ in reference to a traditional method of luring fish with light, hence the central position of the torch in the community’s emblem. The meaning, however, has largely faded into obscurity as the practice it describes was abandoned, probably in favour of more productive harvesting methods. Already a distant memory in the minds of elders in the 1970s, the practice of fishing by torchlight was eventually forgotten by the community who instead adopted a simplified “light on the water” translation for the community’s name. The result is a new emblem where the moon figures centrally over a lake, obscuring the original meaning of the name.

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The word wâswânipiy is composed of wâswân, meaning ‘torch-fishing place’ and …piy, a contracted form of nipiy used in reference to lakes (examples include mašcekopiy, ‘a pond surrounded by muskeg’ and amiskopiy, ‘a beaver pond’). Wâswân is itself a noun derived from the verb stem wâswe-, meaning ‘to fish by torchlight using a leister.’ In the not-so-distant past, this traditional fishing method was common throughout Cree country. The word is recorded as early as the late 1600s in manuscript dictionaries of the Cree language compiled by Jesuits Antoine Silvy and Bonaventure Fabvre. In the early 1700s, the Jesuit Pierre-Michel Laure again notes the word, translating it as ‘je vais au flambeau pêcher…’ But it is the Jesuit Paul LeJeune’s description from the Relations in the earlier 1600s that deserve attention. The following is a translation of LeJeune’s description, taken from page 311 of volume 6 of the Thwaites edition of the Relations.

This harpoon fishing is usually done only at night. Two Savages enter a canoe,—one at the stern, who handles the oars, and the other at the bow, who, by the light of a bark torch fastened to the prow of his boat, looks around searchingly for the prey, floating gently along the shores of this great river. When he sees an Eel, he thrusts his harpoon down, without loosening his hold of it, pierces it in the manner I have described, then throws it into his canoe. There are certain ones who will take three hundred in one night, and even more, sometimes very few. It is wonderful how many of these fish are found in this great river, in the months of September and October; and this immediately in front of the settlement of our French, some of whom, having lived several years in this country, have become as expert as the Savages in this art.

Aside from his questionable use of the word ‘Savages,’ LeJeune’s description beautifully details the performance of this nocturnal harvest, which Paul Kane captures on canvas in 1845.

Paul Kane

‘Fishing by Torch Light’ is an 1845 oil-on-paper sketch by Paul Kane (1810-1871).

While fishing with leisters is a tradition that has continued into modern times, the practice of doing so at night using torches has been lost in Waswanipi, as in most of Cree country. There are regions, however, where the practice has been remembered, and others where the practice has continued. In fact, the online Innu Dictionary continues to list vocabulary associated with the activity. In 1995, our relatives in what is now called Labrador took some students out on the land to experience our traditional culture. Included was torch-fishing with leisters. The following is a photograph of the students learning this age-old tradition.

Nutshimiu Atusseun Program: students salmon spearing at Tshenuamiu River 1995. Photo: Anthony Jenkinson

Nutshimiu Atusseun Program: students salmon spearing at Tshenuamiu River 1995. Photo: Anthony Jenkinson

This picture perfectly illustrates the meaning of Wâswânipiy, a lake where our people fished with leisters by torchlight. With the growing interest in our traditional culture, now might be the time to reintroduce this tradition. Either way, putting the torch back on the community’s emblem would be a good start!


A Glossary for Torch-Fishing

anihtokan. noun (inanimate); the barbed point of a leister

anihtoy. noun (animate); a leister

anihtoyâhtikw. noun (inanimate); the wooden handle of a leister

tahkamew. verb (transitive, animate); s/he spears it

wâswâkan. noun (inanimate); a torch used for night-fishing

wâswâkanaškway. noun (inanimate); a birchbark torch used for night-fishing

wâswân. noun (inanimate); place where people fish by torchlight using leisters

Wâswânipiy. place name; lake where people fish by torchlight using leisters

wâswâniwiw. verb (intransitive, inanimate); people are fishing by torchlight using leisters

wâswetotawew. verb (transitive, animate); s/he harvests it by torchlight using a leister

wâswew. verb (intransitive, animate); s/he fishes by torchlight using a leister