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.

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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.

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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

 

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᙮