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

Rapping in Cree

N’we Jinan, stylized from niwîcinân/ᓂᐐᒋᓈᓐ, meaning ‘we live (in a certain place)’, is a music initiative that provides a platform for Indigenous artists throughout Canada. Having gained in popularity since the release of their 2014 compilation album, they have since produced songs and albums for a variety of Indigenous artists, many of them Cree youth from the east coast of James Bay.

What caught my ear recently was a verse from their latest song. This verse, a rap by Gary Jolly from Nemaska, is performed entirely in Cree. Although he wouldn’t be the first to attempt such a feat, he certainly gets credit for exhibiting a style and cadence appropriate to the genre.

It should be noted that his rap features many contractions typical of the East Cree dialect as spoken by youth in Nemiska and can therefore be quite difficult to follow if one is not accustomed to it. As such, I have transcribed the lyrics below the video for those interested in seeing what he is saying. Enjoy!

ᒬᐦᒡ ᐁᑳ ᒥᑐᓐ ᐁ ᐱᓯᔅᑳᑎᑲᐎᔮᓐ ᐁ ᐃᑌᔨᐦᑕᒫᓐ
ᓲᐦᒃ ᒫᒃ ᓂᑲ ᑯᒋᐦᑖᓐ ᐆᑕᐦ ᐊᔅᒌᐦᒡ ᒉ ᐱᒧᐦᑌᔮᓐ
ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᒋᑲ ᐯᐦᑕᐎᓈᐙᐤ ᐁ ᐊᔮᔑᐦᑴᔮᐦᒡ
ᒬᐦᒡ ᐊᓐᑌ ᐁ ᐗᓂᔑᓂᔮᐦᒡ ᑖᓐ ᐁᔑᓈᑯᓯᔮᐦᒡ ᐁ ᐅᔥᒋᓃᒌᐎᔮᐦᒡ
ᒥᒄ ᓂᑖᐺᐦᑌᓐ ᐯᔭᑯ ᒌᔑᑳᐤ ᒉ ᐸᓯᑰᑣᐤ
ᒨᔾ ᓂᐐ ᐙᐸᐦᑌᓐ ᓇᑕᐐᔨᔾ ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐱᒫᑎᓰᑣᐤ
ᒉ ᓂᐦᑖᐎᒋᑣᐤ ᐁ ᓃᑳᓂᔥᑲᐙᑣᐤ ᐅᔥᒋᓃᒋᐤᐦ ᑲᔦ ᐐᔭᐙᐤ
ᒉ ᑑᑕᐦᒀᐤ ᑖᓐ ᑳ ᐃᑕᔓᒥᑯᑣᐤ ᒋᔐᒪᓂᑑᐦ

Reading Syllabics: Lesson 3


Lesson 3

Ordinal Characters

In this lesson you will learn how to read five more sets of syllabic characters along with their superscript counterparts. You will also learn how to read new words as you work your way through the lesson. Are you ready?


The first character of this lesson is pronounced like the ke in skeleton, never like the ke in kelp or the ge in get. This is what it looks like:

Memorize its shape as you repeat its sound, paying close attention to the direction in which it points. Let’s now move on to the next character.

This character has the same shape as the first character, but it points in a different direction. This one is pronounced like the ki in skit or the kee in skeet, never like the ki in kit or the kee in keep.  Memorize its shape as you repeat its sound, paying close attention to the direction in which it points. When a fuller or longer vowel sound is required, a dot is place above this character, for example:

Accompanied by a dot, this character now sounds like the ki in skied, never like the key in keyed. The next character also shares the same shape as the first two characters, but again this one points in another direction.

This character is pronounced like the coo in scoop, never like the coo in coot. Its vowel sound may also be pronounced closer to the one in book. Once again, to achieve a fuller or longer sound, a dot is placed above the vowel.

Accompanied by the overhead dot, it now sounds like the choo in school. Memorize its shape as you repeat its sound, again paying attention to the direction in which it points. Only one  character left in this set!

ᑲ ᑳ

The plain form on the left is pronounced like the cu in scuttle or the ca in scat. The dotted one on the right has a fuller and longer sound, courtesy of the overhead dot. This one sounds like the ca in scab. Memorize the shape and the direction in which this last character points. You have now learned a complete set!

ᑫ       ᑭ       ᑯ       ᑲ

By now you have surely noticed that this set of characters does not point in the four cardinal directions the way the characters from the last two lessons do. Instead, this set of characters is rotated so that its round head is placed in one of four corners, each associated with its own vowel.  Top-left is associated with the vowel E; top-right with the vowel I; bottom-left with O; and bottom-right with A.  Since the characters point, more or less, in the ordinal (or intercardinal) directions as opposed to the cardinal directions, characters that obey this pattern are called ordinal characters. Here is a mnemonic device to help you remember the directions and their associated vowels. We will build on this mnemonic as we learn more character sets.

ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ

Now that you have learned a first set of ordinal characters the following sets will be a breeze. Here is the first character of the next set:

This character sounds like the ge of gem. Notice how this character’s head is located in the top-left corner? Do you see how a pattern is emerging? Keep in mind directions in which the characters of the first set point as you learn this set.

ᒉ ᒋ ᒍ ᒐ

Take your time to memorize this shape and the four directions in which it points. Listen to the audio track as many times as you need to help you remember the vowels associated with its four directions. You have now learn two sets of ordinal characters:

ᒉ    ᒋ
ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ
ᒍ    ᒐ

You are now ready to learn a third set of ordinal characters. The following character sounds like the me in medical. Can you predict the direction in which it points? That is correct! It will point to the top-left corner. Here is the character:

Take your time to memorize this shape. The next three characters of this set will follow the predictable pattern of the two previous sets. Here is the full set.

ᒣ ᒥ ᒧ ᒪ

Take your time to memorize this set and the four directions to which it points. Listen to the audio track as many times as you need to help you remember the vowels associated with its four directions. You have now learn three sets of ordinal characters:

ᒣ       ᒥ
ᒉ    ᒋ
ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ
ᒍ    ᒐ
ᒧ       ᒪ

By now you have memorized the four ordinal directions and their associated vowels. The next two sets follow the same pattern, but their shapes can be a little tricky to learn. That is because they are the same shapes as the first two sets learned above, except that they lie horizontally instead of vertically. Here is the first set. It represents the consonant otherwise known as N in English, matched of course with the four vowels as usual.

ᓀ ᓂ ᓄ ᓇ

Notice how this set has the same shape as the first set of this lesson. For this set, however, it is the tail that points in the four expected directions. Pay close attention to the difference between the two sets and listen to the audio track as needed to help you remember the vowels associated with their four directions.

You are now ready to learn the last set of this lesson. Notice how the shape of this set is identical to the second set learned above, except that the characters are laid horizontally as opposed to vertically. Once again, the tail of this character will point to the four directions, not the head.  This set represents the consonant otherwise known as L in English. Note, however, that its sound is closer to the French or Spanish L, rather than the English L.

ᓓ ᓕ ᓗ ᓚ

Note that this last set is not used much outside of the Moose Cree dialect. It represents an older sound that, save for a few words, has been replaced by a Y-sound in the dialects spoken along the east coast of James Bay. Although dialects other than Moose Cree have also preserved this sound, they do not use the syllabic spelling system. You will therefore not encounter this set of characters very often, but it nonetheless represents a Cree sound that has to be learned!

We can now update our mnemonic to represent the five character sets you have learned and the directions in which they point.

ᓓ            ᓕ
ᓀ         ᓂ
ᒣ       ᒥ
ᒉ    ᒋ
ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ
ᒍ    ᒐ
ᒧ       ᒪ
ᓄ         ᓇ
ᓗ            ᓚ

Now, let’s practice reading a few words!

1. A young child who is hurt may complain of having a…


2. A word that means “baby”


3. The baby will often ask for its…


4. The baby wants to sleep and says…


5. The baby wants its mommy and cries out…


6. “This English word was not used long ago,” complains the grandmother. She corrects the baby by teaching him to say…


7. The grandmother’s name is Mary, but everybody calls her…


You’ve learned five new sets and already are reading a bunch of new words! Let’s keep going, shall we?

You may have noticed how the above sets all feature syllables containing a consonant sound along with a vowel sound. In order to write a consonant sound without any accompanying vowel, the last character of any set is spelled as a superscript symbol. Notice how these superscript characters are identical to the last character of the sets you’ve just learned.

ᑫ, ᑭ, ᑯ, ᑲ, ᒃ
ᒉ, ᒋ, ᒍ, ᒐ, ᒡ
ᒣ, ᒥ, ᒧ, ᒪ, ᒻ
ᓀ, ᓂ, ᓄ, ᓇ, ᓐ
ᓓ, ᓕ, ᓗ, ᓚ, ᓪ

In addition to these basic consonants, there are two more superscript consonants to learn. Some Cree words preserve a kind of W-sound after a final consonant. This sound is only heard at the end of certain words and only following the consonants  ᒃ and  ᒻ. To write this sound following these consonants we write  ᒄ and  ᒽ instead of ᒃ and  ᒻ.  Notice how these two superscript characters are based on  the larger ᑯ and  characters. These special superscript finals are important to capture the right pronunciation. But they are also important to distinguish certain words such as:

ᒉᒃ           ᒉᒄ
[eventually]     [which?]

Remember that when a dot precedes a character that is composed of a consonantal sound followed by a vowel sound, the W is pronounced between the consonant and vowel. Read the following words to reinforce this concept. Translations will help guide your pronunciation if you are unsure of your reading.

ᓂᒌ ᑴᑎᐲᓐ!    ᒬᐦᒡ      ᒸᒄ
[I capsized!]   [like]   [a loon]

In this lesson, you have learned to read five sets of characters. You’ve learned that these sets of characters all pattern according to the ordinal or intercardinal directions and that the vowels associated with these directions remain constant from one set to the next. Having learned all this has allowed you to read the following words:

ᓂᒌ ᑴᑎᐲᓐ

And many more!

VTI – Conjuct Subjunctive (Relational)


1s ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᑫ
2s ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᑌ
3s ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒸᑌ

1p ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᒋᐦᑌ
21 ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᐦᑫ
2p ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒬᑴ
3p ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒸᑣᐌᓂᒡ

Note: Neighbouring East Cree dialects feature …ᒧᒉ as the 1st person form instead of the …ᒧᑫ form found here. In this respect, the Waswanipi form agrees with the neighbouring Atikamekw dialect, and also with the Moose Cree dialect spoken to the west, where the form is the non-contracted equivalent,  …ᒶᑫ.

VTI – Conjuct Indicative (Relational)


1s ᐁ ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᒃ
2s ᐁ ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᑦ
3s ᐁ ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒸᑦ

1p ᐁ ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᒋᐦᑦ
21 ᐁ ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒧᐦᒄ
2p ᐁ ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒬᒄ
3p ᐁ ᑲᓇᐙᐸᐦᑕᒸᑣᐤ

Note: Neighbouring East Cree dialects feature …ᒧᒡ as the 1st person form instead of the …ᒧᒃ form found here. In this respect, the Waswanipi form agrees with the neighbouring Atikamekw dialect, and also with the Moose Cree dialect spoken to the west, where the form is the non-contracted equivalent,  …ᒶᒃ.

Cree Notions of Manhood

ᓂᒌ ᑖᐦᑳᐱᐦᒉᓇᒪᐙᐤ ᐅᑖᑯᔒᐦᒡ ᒋᔐᐃᔨᓂᐤ ᐊᓂᑌ ᑳ ᐐᒋᑦ ᒨᓱᓃᐎ ᒥᓂᔥᑎᑯᐦᒡ ᐁ ᐐ ᑲᑴᒋᒪᒃ ᒉᒀᓂᐦᐃ ᑳ ᒫᒥᑐᓀᔨᐦᑕᒧᒃ᙮ ᒣᒀᒡ ᑳ ᐊᔭᒥᐦᐃᑐᔮᐦᒡ ᒌ ᒋᐦᑖᑐᑕᒻ ᐌᔥᑲᒡ ᑳᒌ ᐃᑖᑲᓂᐎᔨᒡᐦ ᓈᐯᐤᐦ ᐅᔥᑲᒡ ᐁ ᐅᐦᑖᐐᒫᐎᔨᒡᐦ᙮

ᑭ ᑭᔅᑫᓕᐦᑌᓐ ᓈ ᑖᓂ ᐁᑖᑲᓂᐎᑦ ᓈᐯᐤ ᐅᔥᑲᒡ ᐁ ᐅᐦᑖᐐᒫᐎᑦ ᐁ ᐅᑯᓯᓯᑦ ᒫᑲ? ᓂᒌ ᑲᑴᒋᒥᒄ᙮

ᓇᒪᐐᔾ᙮ ᓂᒌ ᐃᑖᐤ ᐁ ᓇᔥᑴᐗᔑᐦᐊᒃ᙮

ᒨᓚ ᐁᔥᑾ ᑭ ᓈᐯᐎᓐ! ᐃᑖᑲᓂᐎᐤ᙮ ᓂᒌ ᐃᑎᒄ ᐊᓂᐦᐁ ᒋᔐᐃᔨᓂᐤ᙮

ᐁᒄ ᑳ ᑲᑴᒋᒪᒃ, ᑖᓐ ᒫᒃ ᐁᑖᑲᓂᐎᑦ ᐐᔾ ᐅᔥᑲᒡ ᐁ ᐅᑖᓂᓯᑦ?

ᐋᔕᔾ ᒫᑲ ᑭ ᓈᐯᐎᓐ! ᒌ ᐃᑗᐤ ᐁ ᐹᐦᐱᑦ᙮