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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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:


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.


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


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

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


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.


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.


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᙮

Moose Factory Cree: In Memory of Daisy Turner

image description

As the days grew shorter this year, almost symbolically it seemed, our nation saw the passing of Daisy Turner, a woman whose contribution to our language was known largely from the publication of her Moose Factory Cree in 1974. One year shy of becoming a centenarian, Daisy Turner had spent the last couple of years of her life in a elders’ home in Timmins, only to briefly return home to Moosonee before ‘going to sleep,’ as we sometimes say in Cree.

While preparing the second edition of the Dictionary of Moose Cree, published in 2015, I decided I should try to meet Daisy. My opportunity came when, heading home from Moose Factory, I had a few hours to spend in Moosonee before my plane landed.

Daisy greeted me at her beautiful home and cleared the kitchen table. She brought out her Moose Factory Cree and told me all about its origins. She then generously entertained my thoughts and answered some questions about the local dialect as we discussed the publication of the new dictionary, a project she supported wholeheartedly. What touched me most about our exchange, however, was her personal account of learning the language.

Moose Factory Cree

Published in 1974 by the now defunct Highway Book Shop

As she related during our conversation, Daisy had not acquired the Cree language in her own home. Speaking Cree, she told me, was not encouraged by her parents, both of whom were Cree-speakers, but who were also wemištikôšîhkân. This word, which literally means ‘made European,’ is how people of biracial parenting (and their children) are referred to in Cree.

The wemištikôšîhkân typically occupied a higher social status in the world of the fur trade, partly due to their ability to act as intermediaries between our people and Europeans. And while a man of biracial parenting might reasonably be expected to work at the trading post, speaking both Cree and English, and potentially marrying a Cree woman, a woman of similar parenting was often expected to approximate the European woman, speaking English, and marrying White, so to speak, if possible.

Such stories are common in our communities, but Daisy had a different idea in mind. She could not stand the idea of not being able to speak Cree. As she put it, she would leave her part of the village to visit the tents occupied by Cree families summering on the island. And while her friends were busy playing, she explained how she would often sit with their monolingual Cree elders and revel in their stories as she gradually acquired the language.


Moose Factory in 1935 – Daisy would have been 17 years old back then

This is what makes Daisy’s story so interesting and inspiring. In a world where the state of our language is increasingly precarious, a world saturated by English that continuously insinuates the demise of our language, Daisy’s story reminds us that if we care enough to make the effort we can make a difference. After all, Daisy not only learned to speak Cree, but helped countless people by using her language skills to interpret for them during their encounters with medical professionals. And then of course there is her little book. Published in 1974, it joins the Cree Way Project in marking the 1970s as the beginning of our locally driven efforts to publish in our own language.

Daisy’s contribution to the Dictionary of Moose Cree can be counted as 615 entries, but her legacy as a Cree woman cannot be measured.

Sleep well Daisy, your rest is well-deserved.



The chars belong to a genus of fish known by the Latin name, Salvelinus. Three species of char are indigenous to Cree country – the arctic char, the brook trout, and the lake trout. Of the three, the lake trout is the largest, with the heaviest recorded catch weighing in at 102 lbs. But it is also notable for another reason – it is the only fish indigenous to Cree country who’s scientific name is Cree!

The lake trout’s binomial is Salvelinus namaycush. The first part identifies it as a member of the genus of chars, but the second part is actually a Cree borrowing. Namaycush, or rather namekos (following a Cree orthography), is one of two names used for this fish in Cree communities around Wînipek(the body of water otherwise known as James Bay). Its other Cree name consists of three closely related variants mainly used in coastal communities, namely kôkamew, kôkames, and kôkamekw.

The names of many American animals and fish are in fact borrowings from indigenous American languages, but few have been assigned an indigenous scientific name. Pointing out the lake trout’s binomial to Cree-speaking school children will surely make these budding scientists proud!

Lost in Translation: Prostate Exams


Since I began medical school, every module has inspired me to investigate anatomical and medical vocabulary in Cree. Given that we have been learning about the genitourinary system these days, I’ve been calling elders weekly with questions. Recently, while speaking to a septuagenarian from Moose Factory, I decided to ask him about prostate exams. Clearly aware of the subject, he chose to relate a story about his late father.

“A doctor used to come here long ago,” he said. “I guess people weren’t too fond of him – you could tell by the name they gave him,” he added.

Of course I asked him to continue and he said, laughingly, “My father used to call that doctor ᑳ ᓂᐦᑖ ᐴᐦᒋᑎᔦᓂᑫᑦ.” Of course I broke out laughing as well, but he had some advice for me. If I wanted to avoid being named in such a fashion, I should remain wary of appearing too zealous about things like prostate exams!

ᐴᑑ ᑳ ᒌ ᐃᔑᓂᐦᑳᑖᑲᓂᐎᑦ ᓈᐯᔑᔥ

ᐗᔭᐐᑎᒥᐦᒡ ᐁ ᒌ ᒣᑕᐌᔨᑯᐸᓀ ᐅᑯᓯᓴ ᐊᓂᐦᐁ ᐃᔅᑴᐤ, ᒌ ᐴᒣᐦᐁᑯᐸᓐ ᒉ ᐯᒋ ᒌᐌᔨᒡᐦ᙮ ᒌ ᐯᐦᑖᑯᓯᐤ ᒫᒃ ᐁ ᑌᑆᑖᑦ ᐊᓂᑌ ᐗᔭᐐᑎᒥᐦᒡ, ᑑ! ᐁᑯᓐ ᒫᒃ ᑳ ᐃᔑᓂᐦᑳᑖᑦ ᐅᑯᓯᓴ – ᐁ ᒌ ᐴᒐᐎᔑᔑᔨᒡᐦ ᑲᔭᐹ᙮ ᑑ ᐋᔥᑕᒻ! ᑑ ᐋᔥᑕᒻ! ᐁ ᒪᑗ ᑌᑆᑖᑦ᙮

ᓂᒧᔔᒻ ᒫᒃ ᑳ ᐐᑕᐱᒫᑯᐸᓀ ᓅᐦᑯᒻᐦ ᒌ ᐯᐦᑕᐌᐤ ᐊᓂᔨᐤᐦ ᐃᔅᑴᐤᐦ ᐁ ᒪᑗ ᑌᐺᔨᒡᐦ᙮ ᐁ ᐹᐦᐱᑦ ᒫᒃ ᒌ ᐃᑌᐤ ᐊᓂᔨᐤᐦ ᓅᐦᑯᒻᐦ, ᒉᒀᔨᐤ ᐊᓂᔨᐤ ᑳ ᐴᑕᐙᔥᑕᓂᔨᒡ?

ᐁ ᐅᐦᒋ ᐊᔭᒥᐦᑖᓂᐗᐦᒃ ᒪᓯᓇᐦᐃᑲᓐ


ᐊᔅᑮᐎ ᑲᑫᐦᑖᐌᓕᐦᑕᒨᐎᓕᓕᐤ: ᑖᓐᑌ ᓃᔥᑕᒻ ᑳ ᐅᐦᒋ ᐊᔮᔭᓐ ᐆᒪ ᐐᐗᔑᐎᓐ?

ᒃᕆᔅᑎᔭᓐ: ᐁ ᐊᔭᒥᐦᑖᔮᓐ ᐆᒪ ᒪᓯᓇᐦᐃᑲᓐ ᑳ ᑕᐦᑯᓇᒫᓐ᙮

ᐊᔅᑮᐎ ᑲᑫᐦᑖᐌᓕᐦᑕᒨᐎᓕᓕᐤ: ᐁᒀᓂ ᑳ ᐃᑌᓕᐦᑕᒫᓐ; ᓀᔥᑕ ᑭᑮ ᐃᐦᑎᓐ ᑖᐱᔅᑰᒡ ᑯᑕᑭᔭᒃ ᑳ ᓖᓚᒥᓰᒋᒃ ᐃᓕᓕᐗᒃ, ᐁ ᐸᐱᓯᔅᑫᓕᐦᑕᐦᑭᒃ ᐊᓂᐦᐃ ᑫᒀᓇ ᐅᓵᒻ ᑳ ᐋᓕᒪᓂᓕᑭ, ᓭᓯᑯᒡ ᐸᐦᑭᔑᓋᒃ ᐗᐙᓀᓕᐦᑕᒧᐎᓂᐦᒃ: ᐊᓂᐦᐃ ᐗᐙᓀᓕᐦᑕᒧᐎᓇ ᓇᒪᐐᓚ ᐱᑯ ᓖᓚᒥᐦᐃᑯᐗᒃ ᐃᓕᓕᐗᒃ, ᑖᐱᔅᑰᒡ ᑮᓚ ᑳ ᑑᑖᑯᔭᓐ, ᒫᑲ ᐃᔅᐸᐦᐃᑐᐗᒃ ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐋᓕᒣᓕᐦᑖᑾᓂᓕᒃ ᑭᒋ ᒥᔅᑲᐦᑭᒃ ᐊᓂᒪ ᐁᑳ ᑳ ᑭᔅᑫᓕᐦᑕᐦᑭᒃ᙮

ᐅᐸᐹᒧᐦᑌᐤ ᐁ ᐱᒥᐱᒋᑦ
ᑳ ᑴᔅᑲᓯᓇᐦᐃᑫᑦ ᑖᒪᔅ ᕕᓐᓯᓐᑦ, 1886

Syllabics and the Unicode Consortium

When the Canadian government announced the release of the Canada 150 Typeface last year, I was immensely pleased to read that it would support Cree syllabics. In our communities, however, it is common knowledge that syllabic typefaces based on the Unicode Standard contain a number of errors in the sh-series that make typing in Cree quite a hassle. Fonts designed either locally or by linguists in the know have been used for years to circumvent this problem, but this requires that one manually change the font selected whenever typing in syllabics. Therefore, with the release of Canada 150, I immediately wanted to verify its Cree syllabics to see if the errors had been corrected.

Sadly, the errors had not been rectified and this prompted me to contact the designer of the typeface, Raymond Larabie. He was surprised to hear that the Unicode Standard contained such errors and immediately offered to help get the message across to the Unicode Consortium. We worked together to identify the erroneous glyphs and sent them examples of how the glyphs should be oriented. Eventually, the consortium replied and paid the matter the attention it deserved. A few months and emails later, the Unicode Consortium informed us that they had published a new errata notice to publicize the corrections that will take effect with the release of the Unicode Standard 9.0.

Barriers related to the use of our language need to be identified and removed if our language is to survive its uncertain future and perhaps even thrive once again. A font related problem might not seem that significant, but this little hassle has served as a disincentive for many people who would have otherwise embraced pairing our language with modern technology. I would therefore like to acknowledge and thank Debbie Anderson, Unicode Technical Director, and Raymond Larabie for their assistance in solving this problem.

It will take a while for typefaces to catch up with the corrections. In the meantime, those wishing to type in Cree can download and install the BJCree typeset provided freely here. It can be used on word processors, but not on social media. For the latter, we will simply have to be patient as we wait for the world to catch up to the Unicode Standard 9.0.

The errors and corrections can be seen below in the consortium’s latest errata notice.

Errata Unicode