Cree Goodbyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Towards a Standard Orthography – Part 2

Part 2

In part 1 of this post we discussed the nature of orthography and orthographic standardization, using the history of French orthography as an illustration. In this post, we will summarize what has been accomplished to date in Cree country with regard to orthography, summarizing the development of three types of Cree orthographies. The first part of this post will summarize the evolution of a Cree orthography based on the French spelling conventions, which culminated in a standard for the a number of dialects spoken in eastern Quebec and Labrador. We will then summarize the development of the English-based orthography. Lastly, the advent of Cree-based orthographies, both syllabic and alphabetic, will be briefly summarized. In part 3 we will expound on the latter and propose some improvements to the consistency of their use by presenting a principled approach to standardization.

French-based Orthography

Page one of L’oraison dominicale, a collection of prayers translated by the Jesuit Massé. Published in 1632, this was the first substantial attempt to represent the Cree language in writing, here using a French-based orthography.

The earliest extant example of an attempt to write anything in Cree goes back to Samuel de Champlain’s reports of his voyages in eastern Cree country, roughly the St-Lawrence region around what is now Québec City. In 1632 he notes the name of a headman likely named Mahîhkanâhtikw, which his report notes as “mahigan aticq.” In the same year, we find a more substantial attempt with the publication of a set of prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, by the Jesuit Énemond Massé, again in an eastern dialect. The first phrase of the prayer, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ is translated in Massé’s publication as “Novtavynan ca tayen ouascoupetz.” While the intrusive pe might have erroneously crept in during the printing process, his spelling reflected French orthographic conventions from the early 1600s. For instance, his use of v, which has since become u in modern French, the use of the letter c to represent a [k] when followed by an o or a, and the use of the digraph ov to represent the sound [u], which modern French now spells ou. When the spelling is brought into line with standards that will be discussed in the following post, this phrase becomes a clear Nôhtâwînân kâ ihtâyan waskohc.

Around the same time, the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune provided a first brief description of Cree grammar in his Relations of the mid-1630s. By the late 1600s, Jesuits such as Antoine Silvy and Bonaventure Fabvre would leave us the earliest extant dictionaries of the Cree language. These Cree-French dictionaries, manuscripts that were not published at the time, presented an orthography based on French conventions of the mid-1600s, the biggest change from Massé’s work being the replacement of the v by u, and the use of the ligature ȣ (commonly represented in modern transcriptions by the numeral 8) for the digraph ou. Their works reflect other peculiarities of French orthography, including the occasional use of tto represent the sound [ts] when followed by i, a common feature of modern Canadian French where a word like petit is pronounced [p(ə)tsi]. They would also make use of the digraph ch to represent the sound [ʃ] and tch to more consistently represent [ts]. These works are nonetheless quite impressive, with a high degree of accuracy despite the awkardness of French orthographic conventions. A key feature missing in these works is vowel length distinction proper to Cree, but lacking in French orthography.

By the 1720s, the Jesuit Pierre-Michel Laure compiled a French-Cree dictionary and translations of prayers by working closely with a Cree-speaking woman named Pechabanoukoue (his spelling). His orthography would closely approximate those of the 1600s, except for his replacement of ȣ for the letter u. By the 1760s, the last Jesuit assigned to Cree country, Jean-Baptiste de La Brosse, would start compiling his Cree-Latin dictionary and would also publish religious literature. While still relying on French spelling conventions, which were yet progressing towards modern French conventions, La Brosse does appear to make an effort to update the orthography by making it more consistent. He replaces ch by shtch by tsh, and also attempts to do away with the use of the letter t to represent [ts], spelling it tsh instead. For instance, the earlier spelling of asti was standardized by La Brosse to astshi (a dialectal form of the word for ‘earth,’ askiy).

By the 1800s, the Oblates had taken over for the Jesuits, two of which, Flavien Durocher and Charles Arnaud, would compile dictionaries of their own. The orthographies in these dictionaires closely mirrored the orthographic conventions set by La Brosse in the century prior.

All of the above works were of dialects spoken along the St-Lawrence River and up the Saguenay River. The orthography developed by these missionaries was based on French orthographic conventions. Centuries later this same French-based orthography would heavily influence the orthographic standardization of descendent dialects spoken in roughly the same regions, now referred to as Innu dialects, as well as the Atikamekw dialect. It should be noted, however, that Mashteuiatsh, politically considered an Innu community, has not endorsed this standard orthography now in use in other Innu communities, though it continues to use a French-based orthography.

A modern example of the standard used by eastern dialects taken from that discusses the history of this orthography, the culmination of the French-based orthography discussed here.

A brief note will suffice regarding other French-based orthographies outside of the region described above. Louis-Philippe Vaillancourt in 1991 published a French-Cree dictionary of the dialect spoken in Eastmain, which is mixed coastal East Cree dialect with features of both the northern and southern dialects. His intended audience were French-speaking, and his orthography reflects that fact. We should also note that the Catholic missionary Albert Lacombe published a dictionary of the Plains Cree dialect in 1874 that used a French-based orthography. His fairly consistent representation of vowels and consonants would influence the development of a Cree-based orthography, which will be discussed below.

English-based Orthography

Since contact with the English-speaking world in the 1600s, employees of the Hudson’s Bay company routinely noted down Cree names and words in their journals. A few, such as Henry Kelsey in the early 1700s, James Isham in the 1740s, and Alexander Mackenzie in the 1780s made early attempts at gathering word lists. These lists, as with most early examples of Cree written by English-speakers, are barely decipherable largely due to the reliance on English spelling conventions. They stand in stark contrast to early documentation by French-speaking authors largely because of the quirky nature of English orthography and a not so insignificant thing called The Great Vowel Shift. For instance, commenting on James Isham’s spellings of Cree words, Pentland noted in 1977 that Isham “spelled nikotwās(ik) ‘six’ as Cutte wash, cut ta wash ick and Coote washick; he wrote Neish cock, neishcook and neishcoock for niskak ‘geese,’ but Nish ko for the singular niska ‘goose.’

The Great Vowel Shift was a change in the way English was pronounced that spread from dialect to dialect beginning in the 1400s in southern English and influencing all dialects by the 1700s. However, English orthography has largely been standardized by the 1500s, resulting in spellings that deviate considerably form modern pronunciation. It also resulted in multiple pronunciations for a single consonant or vowel, further complicating the picture. Take for instance the words bat, bad, bate, bathe, calm, and calamity, a series of six words with six different vowel sounds; [æ], [æ:], [e], [e:], [ɑ:], and [ə], respectively. Consonants are not any better. Consider the digraph gh in the words aghastenough, and daughter, each treated differently with the first two pronounced [g] and [f], respectively, and the third example simply left unpronounced. This inconsistencies caused by the Great Vowel Shift and other changes to the language after the orthography had been largely settled also resulted in words spelled exactly the same, but pronounced differently. Take for instance the words sow, ‘to plant seeds’ and sow ‘a female pig,’ or lead, ‘a type of metal’ and lead ‘to show the way.’ There are countless examples of this type in this language.

It is no surprise then that early attempts by English-speakers to write Cree were quite frankly terrible. However, by the mid-1800s Anglican missionaries such as John Horden and Edwin Watkins made advances in standardizing their English-based orthographies. Though yet imperfect, what they achieved was remarkable considering the obstacles. Watkins would publish a dictionary in 1865 which continues to be used especially in its second edition revised by Faries and Ahenakew and published in 1938. A Cree grammar publish in 1948 by H.E. Hives illustrated well the evolution of this orthography. However, this English-based orthography is not without problems. It occasionally obscures relationships between certain words and also obscures common processes such as vowel-lengthening. And while it represents certain vowels well, it does poorly at representing the distinction between short and long vowels in many instances.

A page from Hives’ 1952 grammar that illustrates the English-based orthography at its zenith.

The problems inherent in using English-based spelling conventions to devise an orthography for the Cree language, and the shortcomings of what has been achieved compelled linguists in the later half of the 1900s to start looking at creating an orthography based on the Cree language’s own sound system.

Cree-based Orthography

Excerpt from Thomas Vincent’s 1886 translation of Pilgrim’s Progress that illustrates a later stage of development of the syllabic orthography.

By the 1840s a new Cree-based orthography emerged that did away with the Latin alphabet and made use of what has come to be term syllabics. This limited set of characters, based on the unlikely marriage of Devanagari and Pitman shorthand, spread like wildfire due to its ease of use. By the early 1860s, the Anglican John Horden and his team would improve the system by removing the Pitman derived finals, replacing them by smaller versions of the Devanagari derived syllabic characters. This change greatly facilitated the use of this spelling system, though for unknown reasons it would only be endorsed by publications of the Anglican church and the people in the communities around James Bay that this denomination serves. Throughout Cree country, from James Bay to the prairies, an impressive number of books would be published in syllabics throughout the later half of the 1900s.

The beauty of syllabics is that it essentially captured all Cree phonemes well, including representing the distinctive short versus long vowels. In fact, those who created the system were perceptive enough to not mark length on the phoneme /ê/, despite it always being a long vowel, as this one has no distinctive length variation in any dialects of our language. What resulted was a beautiful and accurate orthographic representation of our language that could now move on to the important step of standardization. However, despite the superiority of this spelling system, the task has never taken up. As a result there remain many inconsistencies in this orthography in every Cree dialect that uses it. In fact, inconsistencies have only increased in recent decades due to the gradual deterioration of our language and an insistence by speakers to spell phonetically rather than phonemically. The lack of any real literacy and the absence of official endorsement of standardized syllabic orthographies by influential organizations has allowed this happen, making it now difficult for many to learn how to use what was once the easiest spelling method to acquire.

Excerpt from Bloomfield’s 1930 “Sacred Stories of the Sweetgrass Cree” that illustrates well his phoneme-based orthography.

By the early 1900s, the famed linguist Leonard Bloomfield started gathering data on various Algonquian languages, including Cree, and proposed a first reconstruction of the theoretical ancestral language that would be termed Proto-Algonquian. His transcription of our language set the tone for a use of the alphabet that was neither English-, not French-based, but rather based on phonological features of Cree itself. Michelson, another linguist actively investigating Cree in the 1930s, would also produce phonemic and phonetic transcriptions of Cree, but would also collect impressive amounts of syllabic texts written by Cree-speakers themselves.

As far as we can tell, the first to specifically propose in print the standardization of Cree orthography was C. Douglas Ellis. As a linguist with experience investigating Cree dialects around James Bay, he published his “A Proposed Standard Roman Orthography For Cree” in 1970, proposing an orthography that is based on the internal features of Cree itself. This would be followed up by a 1973 publication by the same author and a 1977 publication by David Pentland, another linguist, titled “Nêhiyawasinahikêwin: A Standard Orthography for the Cree Language.” Louis-Philippe Vaillancourt would also publish on the topic after the publication of his French-Cree dictionary of the dialect spoken in Eastmain. Arok Wolvengrey, another linguist working out west on Plains Cree, and Jean Okimāsis would add to these publications with their own “How to Spell it in Cree: The Standard Roman Orthography,” in 2008.

The proposals outlined in these publications have led to a much-improved representation of the Cree language when using the alphabet, one that is neither based on French or English orthographic conventions. However, the degree to which the proposed conventions are applied varies from dialect to dialect. And while the orthography is intended to be largely phonemic, there continues to be some inconsistencies that are revealed only when tested by using language internal processes.

In the final post we will discuss the proposed standard and compare its application in the real world. We hope to illustrate some of the inconsistencies that should be addressed and will propose ways to do so. A standard syllabic orthography will also be discussed as will the merits of considering its use.

Towards a Standard Orthography – Part 1

Part 1

In February of 2021 Montreal-based publisher Joseph John launched an online campaign to add Cree to Google’s translation software. His campaign has managed to attract quite a bit media attention, but reactions among Cree people have been mixed, with pertinent questions regarding dialect and orthography being raised by many. 

For Google to even be able to add our language to its translation software it will have to address both issues, something with which even we as Cree people continue to struggle. But let us disregard the question of dialect for the time being and focus on orthography to better understand what Google would require to even be able to add our language to its service. This topic is especially pertinent as the solution for Google would ideally translate into a solution for us.

In this post we will describe the nature of orthography and orthographic standardization. As an example from which perspective and lessons can drawn, we will then provide a brief history of French orthography. In the following post, a summary of what has been accomplished to date in Cree country with regard to orthography will be provided followed by an outline for a principled approach to a standard orthography of our language.

What is orthography?

Orthography is a set of shared conventions for writing a language that allows speakers of that language to communicate using the written word. Without shared conventions, written communicate becomes laborious, or even impossible. It is the need to communicate using the written word that compels us to abide by what we perceive to be shared conventions. After all, why write if no one can read? 

In the absence of shared conventions, an orthography may gradually take form commensurate with the need or desire to communicate. In the beginning, competing conventions naturally arise. The process of addressing these and settling on a shared set of spelling rules is called standardization. For most languages, this process took hundreds of years and did not happen organically. To settle competing conventions, most languages benefitted from learned persons who systematically assessed them against their understanding of the history of that language and its phonemic and morphemic structures. And yet, despite pronouncing themselves in favour of one convention versus another, progress towards a standard orthography could only happen if others endorsed their opinions. Let us look at the development of the French standard orthography to better grasp what is involved.

A Brief History of French Orthography

The earliest example of written French goes back to 842 with the Oath of Strasbourg. The French portion of this multi-lingual document would be hardly recognizable to speakers of contemporary French given the evolution of both the spoken and written language since. In fact, French orthography as we understand it nowadays was largely establish between the 14th and 17th century, hundreds of years after the first evidence of its written form.

The concerted effort undertaken by individuals during those few centuries aimed at establishing a set of conventions based on both phonemic and historical principles. The resulting orthography, not yet its present form, but likely recognizable to most contemporary speakers, is largely based on the pronunciation of Old French with an attempt to remain as close as possible to the language’s Latin origins. However, these pioneers had to wrestle with many issues, including one we wrestle with as Cree-speakers – Old French was not a unified language, but rather a set of dialects. As a result, the spelling of certain words became largely etymological with the consequence being a multitude of silent letters. For instance, the French word for ‘time,’ pronounced /tã/, would become temps, to represent its Latin origin tempus rather than its Old French origin tens (whence English tense). Additionally, letters that had been pronounced differently in Latin were retained in French in words where the letters had come to represent the same sound, as in the case of the French letters s and c, both pronounced /s/ in the early orthographies. With time, many etymological errors crept in and orthographic reforms became necessary to address the shortcomings of what was a misguided attempt to model French onto Latin, a completely different language in spite of its ancestral relationship with French.

The many errors that were introduced during that period started receiving attention the 1600s with the establishment of the Académie Française in 1635. The progression towards a standard French orthography would continue with further reforms into the 1800s. But these would not be the last. In 1990 a further set of reforms affected another few thousand words, many of them common words. This reform continues to be criticized and even challenged by some, but it is slowly becoming the norm. Even well-established dictionaries were slow to adapt, with the 1990s reforms finally being included in the 2011 edition of the Dictionnaire Larousse.

All told, French has been written for over a thousand years and has really only achieved a semblance of a standard hundreds of years later. Its crawl towards a standard orthography really only picked up the pace in the 1600s, with the establishment of the Académie Française, the pre-eminent council for matters pertaining to the French language. This council of forty members has played a crucial role in the development of a consistent orthography and has published 9 editions of a dictionary deemed official by much of the French-speaking world. Yet, the heavy reliance on Latin continues to make French orthography clumsy, fuelling fringe advocates of even more drastic orthographic reforms who insist on purging French orthography of silent letters and homophonous letters and letter combinations. Despite the heavy influence of Latin, French orthography works well precisely because it is standardized and is endorsed by all French-speakers countries regardless of dialect.

What about Cree?

In contrast, Cree was first committed to writing in the early 1600s, and mostly by non-Cree people until the late 1800s. And although attempts to develop a suitable orthography have been made since the beginning, the task continues to be complicated by dialectal variance, the choice between alphabet and syllabics, and the ever-present influence of a colonial language such as English or French. To make matters worse, ongoing language loss continues to diminish the potential for real literacy in any dialect. The future may seem grim, but there is hope for both us and Google. In our next post we will ignore the noise and review what has been accomplished across Cree country to date and discuss a principled approach to a real standard orthography.


The turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a bird indigenous to the Americas that was domesticated nearly 3,000 years ago. It came to be called ‘turkey’ presumably due to trade with the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire after the bird was introduced to Africa, Asia, and Europe.

This indigenous bird was known to Cree people historically in the southern reaches of Cree country, and then later at northern trading posts where Europeans raised their domesticated animals, including turkeys.

Documentation of the Cree name for this bird begins in the 1600s and 1700s, where its name is listed in French-based orthographies suggestive of miširew and mišihyew, forms that continue to be used by contemporary speakers. Modern sources in various Cree dialects (written here in their local orthographies followed by a standard orthography for the sake of comparison) include the Atikamekw ‘micirew’ (miširew), the Innu ‘mishineu’ and ‘mishileu’ (mišinew/mišilew), the East Cree ‘ᒥᔑᐦᔦᐤ’ (mišihyew), the Moose Cree ‘ᒥᔑᓓᐤ’ (mišilew), and the Swampy Cree ‘ᒥᔑᓀᐤ’ (mišinew). All these forms derive from the Old Cree name for the bird, which the comparative method allows us to reconstruct as *mišihrew, appropriately meaning “large gallinaceous bird.”

Interestingly, an elderly man from Attawapiskat informed me yesterday that a river on Akimiski Island bears the name ᒥᔑᓀᐗᒋᔾ (mišinewaciy), meaning “turkey hill.” He relates how an even older man told him he used to hunt wild turkeys on that island years ago. A domesticated flock gone feral perhaps?

Beland, Jean Pierre. Atikamekw Morphology and Lexicon. Dissertation, Berkeley, Linguistics, University of California, 1978.

Brousseau, Kevin. Lexical Database of the Atikamekw Dialect, 2020.

Brousseau, Kevin. Lexical Database of the Moose Cree Dialect, 2020.

Brousseau, Kevin. Lexical Database of the Swampy Cree Dialect, 2020.

Fabvre, Bonaventure. Racines Montagnaises (ca. 1693). Transcribed by Lorenzo Angers et Gerard E. McNulty. Québec: Université Laval, 1970.

Junker, Marie-Odile & Marguerite MacKenzie. Editors. Dictionnaire innu en ligne. 2016. Web.

Junker, Marie-Odile, Marguerite MacKenzie, Luci Bobbish-Salt, Alice Duff, Linda Visitor, Ruth Salt, Anna Blacksmith, Patricia Diamond, and Pearl Weistche, eds. The Eastern James Bay Cree Dictionary on the Web: English-Cree and Cree-English, French-Cree and Cree-French (Northern and Southern dialects). 2018. Web.

Laure, Pierre, S.J. [1823 copy of 1726 manuscript]. Apparat français-montagnais. Transcribed by David E. Cooter. Sillery, Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1988.

Silvy, Antoine, S.J. [c.1678–1690]. Dictionnaire montagnais-français (ca. 1678– 1684). Transcribed by Lorenzo Angers, David E. Cooter & Gérard E. McNulty. Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1974.

Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020. Web.

Cree Months


Months in the Cree language are a recurring topic of conversation in our communities as these have mostly been supplanted by English or French names. It is quite natural, in fact, to hear elderly monolingual speakers make use of the English or French names, often followed by the Cree ᐲᓯᒽ, meaning ‘month.’ There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is the variability from one community to another that complicates communication when the calendar is involved. This is largely because months are often named after seasonal phenomena that naturally vary from region to region. As a result, certain names that are common to multiple dialects may not always refer to the same month.

Below, you will find a comparison of the names of the months in six Cree dialects, those spoken at Attawapiskat (eastern Swampy Cree, an N-dialect), Moose Factory (Moose Cree, an L-dialect), Waskaganish (southern coastal East Cree, a Y-dialect), Waswanipi (southern inland East Cree, a Y-dialect), Opitciwan (Atikamekw, an R-dialect), and Pessamit (southern Innu-aimun, an L-dialect). The names will be spelled phonologically using syllabics to facilitate the comparison. It is important to recognize that only the first four dialects are officially written using syllabics. The others have adopted Latin script orthographies. Note that month names in Opitciwan are Cree adaptations of Anishinabe month names from the dialect spoken at Lac Simon.


Attawapiskat ᑭᔐ ᐸᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ
Moose Factory ᑭᔐ ᐹᐦᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ
Waskaganish ᒪᑯᔐ ᒌᔑᑳᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐗᔭᐐᒪᑲᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᑳ ᒋᓄᔑᑦ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᑫᓄᓯᑦ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᒋᔐ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᑭᔐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᑭᔐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᑳ ᑕᐦᑯᑯᒋᐦᒃ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᑳ ᑕᐦᑯᔑᑦ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᐊᑯᐦᑲᒌᔥ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐁᐱᔑᒥᓂᔥᑴᐤ


Attawapiskat ᒥᑭᓯᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᒥᑭᓯᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᒥᒋᓯᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒥᒋᔑᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᒥᑭᔑᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᓂᑭᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐐᓇᔥᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᓂᔅᑭ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᓂᔅᑭ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᓂᔅᒋ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᔒᔒᐱ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᓂᔅᑭ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᑳ ᐙᓯᐦᑯᑑᑦ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᔒᔒᑉ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐊᓃᑭ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐊᓖᑭᔑ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐋᔑᒸᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒸᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᐙᐱᑯᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᓂᔅᓯ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᓵᑭᐸᑳᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᓵᑭᐸᑳᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᒧᔖᐌᐦᔮᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐙᐱᑯᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᔖᒋᐸᑳᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᓇᒣᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᐅᑌᐦᐃᒥᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐙᐱᑯᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐅᐸᔥᑰᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐅᐸᔥᑰᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ, ᐸᔥᑰᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐅᐸᔥᑰᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒣᒀ ᓃᐱᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᐅᑌᐦᐃᒥᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᒥᐦᑯᒥᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᔐᑖᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐅᐦᐸᐦᐆᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐅᐦᐸᐦᐆᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᒥᔕᑳᒣᐦᔮᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐊᑎᐦᑌᐎᒥᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᐅᑕᐦᑕᐦᑯᓐ ᐲᓯᒻ
Pessamit ᐅᐴ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐌᐦᐌᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐌᐦᐌᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐌᐦᐌᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐊᑎᐦᑲᒣᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᑳᑯᓀ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐅᔥᑰ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐅᐱᒪᐦᐊᒧᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐅᐱᒪᐦᐊᒧᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ, ᐱᒪᐦᐊᒧᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐐᔖᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐱᓈᔅᒌᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᐐᔖᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᓇᒣᑯᓯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐙᔅᑌᔅᓰᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᑲᔥᑲᑎᓂᓯᐤ
Moose Factory ᑲᔥᑲᑎᓂᓯᐤ
Waskaganish ᑲᔥᑲᑎᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒪᔥᑲᐗᑎᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᐊᑎᐦᑲᒣᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᑕᒀᒋ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐸᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᔑᔥ
Moose Factory ᐲᐧᐋᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ, ᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᔑᔥ, ᐹᐦᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ, ᐹᐦᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᔑᔥ, ᒪᑯᔐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐲᐦᒉᒪᑲᓄ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐲᐦᒉᒪᑲᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᒪᑯᔐᒌᔑᑲᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᐲᐦᒋ ᐱᐳᓐ
Pessamit ᐲᔑᒧᔅᔅ

Sources for the above are as follows: Attawapiskat, Angela Sheesheesh (Facebook post, 2020); Moose Factory, Dictionary of Moose Cree – 3rd edition (2019); Waskaganish, Annie Whiskeychan’s Lexicon (1973); Waswanipi, Waswanipi Realities and Adaptations: Resource Management and Cognitive Structure (Feit, 1978), Jane Saganash (2020), Allan Saganash (2020), Maggie Gull (2020), and Emma Sagansh (2020); Opitciwan, Atikamekw Morphology and Lexicon (Béland, 1978) & Dictionnaire atikamekw (online, 2020); and Pessamit, Dictionnaire français-montagnais (Drapeau, 1991).

Note that the Waswanipi is a mixed dialect transitioning towards Southern Inland East Cree. The speech of elders speakers of this dialect contains many features of the dialect directly to the south, that of Opitciwan. There are thus a variety of month names collected in this community. Terms followed by (F) were unknown to speakers consulted and are therefore only found in Feit, 1978.

Fieldwork in the six dialects undertaken by the author of this blog informs the above phonological spellings.

Thorny Translations

I love seeing multilingual signage in public places, especially when Indigenous languages are included. In certain regions of Cree country this is more than mere tokenism as our language continues to be spoken by the majority and speakers are often literate. This is particularly true of elderly monolinguals who must often travel south for medical services. For these people, providing Cree signage is a small price to pay to make them feel welcome in a world where their ability to communicate is severely restricted. How difficult is it anyway to accommodate our people linguistically? 


Signage at Timmins & District Hospital (2020)

As it turns out, the most difficult part is often the translation itself as Cree language translators are often faced with thorny problems that lack eloquent solutions. For instance, translating between European languages is usually fairly straightforward. This is because most European language, barring Basque and the Finno-Urgic Languages, share a common ancestor and are therefore typologically quite similar. What’s more, they all make use of the International Scientific Vocabulary, a set of shared specialized vocabulary for all things scientific and many modern inventions. Cree, on the other hand, is neither related to, nor typologically similar to European languages and no consensus exists concerning the use of the International Scientific Vocabulary.

Take for instance the above image. A glance at both English and French translations will reveal a largely shared vocabulary. But while diagnostic imaging is rendered word for word as imagerie diagnostique in French, it is translated as ᔕᑄᐸᒋᑲᐣ (ᔖᑆᐸᐦᒋᑲᓐ) in Cree, a word coined decades ago that literally translates as “(thing used for) looking through.” This word, however, is quite common in Cree and would be readily understood by most speakers of the dialects spoken around both coasts of James Bay. A Cree translator would not have had any difficulty translating that word. However, the following makes me wonder just how long the translator had to ponder before deciding on this translation.

Screen Shot 2020-05-02 at 7.26.44 PM.png

I must admit, I read this one twice before properly parsing it, but it turns out to be quite easy to understand. Despite this, the word is not likely to be in common use given its length and morphological complexity. While elevator and ascenseur are both nouns that each contain two morphemes (or word-parts), the Cree translation is a verb that contains no less than five morphemes and is conjugated in the third person passive of the conjunct indicative neutral – now that’s mouthful! Let us break it down and gain a better appreciation of the issues translators face. We will use the alphabetic spelling of this word in order to clearly illustrate its internal components.

kâ kospâhtawîwâpihkepaniwâkâniwahk

This word was obviously provided by a translator fluent in a dialect linguists call Swampy Cree, but it should be intelligible to speakers of other dialects, especially after we parse it here together. Here is the same word, colour coded to display its internal components.


Whoever came up with this translation clearly flexed those brain muscles! It translates to something along the lines of “roped platform which is used to automatically ascend.” Let us get started. The grey w‘s in the above word carry no meaning, they are simply connectors linguists call epentheses. The purple parts that surround the word are third person singular conjunct indicative neutral inflexions – simply put, they provide the word with the sense of “that which is.” The black portion of the word above is a passive inflexion of an underlying verb of the following form.


This word literally means “he or she uses something akin to a roped platform to ascend automatically.” Let us break it down further. The turquoise part of the word is an instrumental morpheme – it adds the sense of “using something for a particular task” to an underlying verb. If we remove this, we are left with the following.


The remaining word now means “he or she ascends automatically on a roped platform.” The final part refers to the automatism of the action, the green portion refers to the use of a rope or something rope-like, and the red portion refers to any movement done on a surface above ground. Finally, the blue portion refers to ascent. We can further remove the two last parts and end up with the following verb.


Now the word literally just mean “he or she ascends on a surface above the ground.” This is a verb often used for climbing stairs or any other platform, but would not be used for climbing a slope or a mountain.

The complexity of Cree verbs, amply illustrated by this example, is often recruited to translate words that are otherwise quite simple in English or French. This complexity, however, also means there is no guarantee the intended audience will fully understand what is referred to at times. And while putting up signage in our language is indeed an important task, Cree translators are often baffled by the task at hand, often resorting to calling one another for advice. A Cree language commission could eventually work on providing guidelines for the creation of neologisms or even explore the use of the International Scientific Vocabulary, but until then translators are on their own, solving linguistic puzzles whose complexities few can truly appreciate.

Cree Folk Etymologies

A folk etymology is an attempt to explain the origin of a word or its internal structure by using more familiar words or word parts. It is often an innocent attempt at drawing a deeper meaning from a word that is otherwise morphologically opaque to the speaker. Sometimes, the folk etymology seems so logical that it even becomes the accepted form, pushing the original word into disuse. Take for instance the English word, crayfish. This word came into use in the 16th century from a reanalysis of the Middle English word crevis, originally a French loanword akin to the modern French écrevisse. Reanalyzing it as crayfish must have seemed more logical to speakers of 16th century English as it turned what was originally a French loanword into something much more English-sounding. Another example of a folk etymology that eventually prevailed over the original loanword is muskrat, as explained below.

Screen Shot 2020-03-29 at 7.17.30 PM.png

Folk etymologies are common to all languages, including Cree. In this post, I will discuss some common folk etymologies from four different dialects: Northern Coastal East Cree, Southern Inland East Cree, Southern Coastal Innu, and Plains Cree. As the Southern Coastal Innu speakers tend to speak French as a second language, the section dealing with words from their dialect will be written in French for their convenience. In order to clarify the origin of words and dispel their folk etymologies I will draw on cross-dialectal comparisons as well as the history of our language, always spelling using the standard orthography that consistently represents the phonology and morphology of our language, but will also include syllabic spellings except for the Southern Coastal Innu dialect as syllabics are not, and have never been, used in this dialect.

Northern Coastal East Cree

In this dialect there is a common assumption that the origin of the word meaning ‘eagle’ is the word meaning  ‘ugly’ or ‘dirty.’ Let us compare the two words in this dialect.

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw na eagle

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw vai 1) s/he is dirty 2) s/he is ugly

By comparing both words one can easily appreciate why the assumption is common. The confusion arises because of two features proper to this dialect that distinguish it from Old Cree. The first is the loss of distinction between Old Cree vowels a and i, both of which are pronounced as i in this dialect. The second feature is called palatalization, which is the change of the consonant k to a c (the c is a consonant that often sounds like the ch or ts in English) when the latter is followed by the vowel i. These features mean that words pronounced differently in Old Cree may have become homophonous in this particular dialect. Let us replace these lost vowels and consonants and compare these words again. To compare, the Old Cree forms will be placed in brackets at the end of the entries.

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw na eagle [Old Cree mikisiw]

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw vai 1) s/he is dirty 2) s/he is ugly [Old Cree macisiw]

We can expound further on the internal construction of these words, but the Old Cree forms are sufficiently different to make the case here.

Southern Inland East Cree

As with the previous dialect, there are features in this one that obfuscate the origins of certain words. One such feature is the loss of distinction between s and š (the š sounds like the sh in English, or the ch in French) In this dialect, s is pronounced š, except by certain speakers when these consonants are in proximity to a c or t, in which case both s and š are pronounced s. Because of this, speakers of this dialect will say iškwew for ‘woman,’ but will say âpatisiw, not *âpatišiw, for ‘s/he works,’ maintaining the s in this situation due to the proximity of the t.

A second feature of this dialect is the loss of short vowels when these occur between consonants that are either identical or pronounced in the same region in the mouth (i.e. homorganic consonants). These features help elucidate the following examples.

The first example is the word for ‘thundering,’ which many people pronounce as follows:

ᓂᒥᔅᒌᔑᑳᐤ nimiscîšikâw vii there is thunder

Many suggest this word is a contraction of nimisciw, ‘thunder’ and šikâw, ‘day.’ The latter is used in compounds to designate weather in common words such as maci‑cîšikâw and miyo‑cîšikâw. However, the above form is in fact a reanalysis of nimiscîskâw, a word composed of nimisciw, ‘thunder,’ and the final of abundance ‑skâw.

ᓂᒥᔅᒌᔑᑳᐤ nimiscîšikâw vii there is thunder [reanalysis of nimiscîskâw, Old Cree  nimiskîskâw]

Another popular folk etymology in this dialect is the origin of the word Nemiska, the name of a historical summering ground as well as a modern community. The word’s original form has been preserved throughout the centuries and continues to be written as follows in syllabics:

ᓀᒥᔅᑳᐤ Nemiskâw ni, place name Nemiska

In trying to explain this word, people often suggest it means ‘place with lots of fish.’ This of course compels them to suggest it comes from the Old Cree word namêsiskâw, which speakers of this dialect pronounce as namešškâw, due to the above mentioned features of this dialect. Naturally, this is false. The problem here is the presence of an archaic component that obscures the meaning of the word. In fact, the word is composed of ne-, ‘point’ and the archaic form ‑miskâw, ‘bed (of a body of water).’ The latter is a common component of place names and is found in the name of another well-known lake in this region, Lake Opémisca or Opimiskâw in Cree, meaning ‘underwater strait’ or ‘narrow channel.’ In the modern dialect, the form of this component is ‑âmiskâw and words based on this component are readily used and understood by fluent speakers. This â preceding the component is termed a ‘pre-medial accretion’ in Algonquian linguistics. A feature of Old Cree is the absence of this vowel where it is found in many modern Cree dialects. Nemiskâw then really refers to an ‘underwater point,’ a feature that would be extremely useful for a community of fishermen who set nets for a living!

ᓀᒥᔅᑳᐤ nemiskâw 1) (obsolete) vii there is an underwater point 2) (Nemiskâwni, place name Nemiska [origin ne- ‘point’ + miskâw, ‘bed (of a body of water)’, akin to modern Cree âmiskâw]

A third folk etymology in this dialect that is quite popular is the origin of the word Waswanipi, the name of another local community. The origin of this word however has already been discussed in a previous blogpost and can be read here.

Southern Coastal Innu

Pour ce dialecte, parlé à Pessamit, nous allons regarder deux étymologies populaires. Comme les dialectes ci-dessus, certains traits de ce dialecte sont propices à ces sortes d’étymologies. Comme le cri de l’est de l’intérieur (Southern Inland East Cree), la distinction entre s et š est perdu dans ce dialecte en faveur de š, épelé sh dans l’orthographe locale. La palatalization du k en c, épelé tsh, est aussi un trait comme dans le cri de l’est. Finalement, il y à aussi question de la perte de distinction entre les voyelles a et i, comme dans le cri de l’est du nord (Northern Coastal East Cree). C’est en grande partie à cause de ces traits qu’on retrouve le type d’étymologie dont on discutera ici. Le premier s’agit de l’origine du mot nashkumeu.

nashkumeu vta il/elle le/les remercie

On entend souvent les locuteurs de ce dialecte suggérer que l’origine de ce mot serait un mot qui voudrait dire ‘donner une outarde.’ Par contre, le mot ci-dessus est dans aucun dialecte prononcer de la même manière que le mot qui veut dire ‘donner une outarde.’ Tournons nous vers la langue ancestrale pour le comparer avec le mot qui veut dire ‘donner une outarde.’

naskomêw vta il/elle le/les remercie

oniskimihêw vta il/elle lui/leur donne une outarde

Juxtaposés, c’est amplement claire qu’ils n’ont pas de la même source. Maintenant pour les décomposer, dans la langue ancestrale bien sûr.

Naskomew est un verbe transitif composé de la racine verbal nasko– et la finale transitive animée de locution ‑mew. Anciennement, la forme inanimée était naskohtamo. Le verbe voulais dire ‘consentir’ ou ‘accepter.’ Dans la plupart des dialectes cris ce sens est maintenu. Dans ces dialectes le verbe peux vouloir dire ‘remercier’ ou sinon, c’est la forme rédupliquée nanâskomew, qui prend ce rôle. Le deuxième mot, oniskimihew est la forme transitive du verbe oniskimiw, qui est la forme verbale de oniskima, qui est la forme possessive de niska, ‘outarde.’

De plus, le deuxième mot est en fait pas utilisé dans ce dialecte. Il est plutôt substitué par le mot suivant.

unishkimikueu vta il/elle lui/leur donne une outarde

Tout cela étant dit, c’est impossible dans notre langue de rédupliquer un nominatif, ce qui est preuve que naskomew et nanâskomew ne peuvent pas venir de niska, le mot ancestral pour ‘outarde.’ Il faut aussi se demander pourquoi un mot voulant dire remercier viendra d’un mot voulant dire donner quelque chose!

La deuxième étymologie populaire est l’origine du mot atamishkueu. L’idée serait que ce mot tire ses origines du mot amishku, ‘castor.’

atamishkueu vta 1) il/elle le/les salue 2) il/elle lui/leur donne un cadeau

Le deuxième sens est propre à ce dialecte. Dans les dialectes de la Baie James ce mot n’est plus utilisé et on le retrouve seulement dans la vieille littérature religieuse et seulement avec son sens original, qui est de ‘saluer.’ On continue, par contre, à l’utilisé dans l’ouest avec ce sens. Dans les vieux dictionnaires des dialectes parlés au Saguenay, des dictionnaires compilés par des Jésuites dans les années 1600s et 1700s, le sens de ‘saluer’ est toujours celui qui est mentionner.

Bien sûr, ce mot n’a rien à voir avec le castor et la forme ancestrale de ce mot nous aide à voir ceci.

atamiškawêw vta il/elle le/les salue

La racine de ce mot c’est atam- suivie par les finales pour ‘contacte avec le corps,’ soit ‑škawew et sont antipassif ‑škâkew. Ces formes sont maintenant ‑shkueu et ‑shkatsheu dans ce dialecte. La racine atam– ce trouve dans un autre mot mentionné dans les anciens dictionaires, atamihew, que le père Fabvre vers la fin des année 1600s a traduit par “faire plaisir, bons offices à qlqn.”

Pour être claire, ‘donner un castor’ serait plutôt utamishkumikueu dans l’orthographe moderne de ce dialecte. Il est amplement claire que ce mot n’a rien à voir avec atamishkueu!

Plain Cree

For this dialect we will discuss two popular folk etymologies before bringing this post to an end. There are two features of this dialect that will help elucidate these etymologies. The first is the loss of distinction between Old Cree s and š, as in so many other dialects. However, in Plains Cree the loss is in favour of s. The second feature is the loss of distinction between Old Cree r and y, in favour of y.

The first first folk etymology we will discuss is the proposed relationship between the Plains Cree words for ‘woman’ and ‘fire.’

ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ iskwêw na woman

ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ iskotêw ni fire

The rational behind this, aside from a phonetic resemblance, is that women would have traditionally been the keepers of the home fire. However, the words in Old Cree are not as similar as Plains Cree speakers would have wished when the lost distinction between s and š is reestablished.

ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ iskwêw na woman

ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ iskotêw ni fire [Old Cree iškotêw]

As with the examples from other dialects, the loss of distinction between two Old Cree sounds is often what leads people to reanalyze common words with obscure origins. Another common example in Plains Cree is the endonym, Nêhiyaw, which some people have tried to explain as ‘four-bodied person’ and, alternatively, as ‘precise speaker.’ Of course, this word today simply refers to a Cree person.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw na a Cree person

As with some of the other folk etymologies mentioned above, there is often a bit of romanticizing involved. This is often a telltale sign that the explanation is false. Consider the Old Cree form of this word.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw na a Cree person [Old Cree nêhiraw, ‘a person belonging to one’s tribe, a compatriot’]

The historical meaning of this word is supported by historical and modern sources. For example, foreign tribes allied to our people would be designated by a compound word prefixed by this word, for example the Nêhiraw-kwêtâciwak of  the 1600s (referring to the ‘Allied Iroquois,’ i.e. the Wyandot) or the Nêhiyaw-pwâtak of the plains (referring to the ‘Allied Sioux,’ i.e. the Dakota). Additionally, the word is known to have been used by other Algonquian peoples, including the Anishinabe. In their language the word meant precisely the same thing, but would have been pronounced nî’ina. An 1886 dictionary of the Anishinabe language, compiled by J.A. Cuoq, includes the following words – note the presence of Latin and an old orthography based on French:

NIINA, (2) de notre nation; (note 2 states, “Cf. le latin nostras qui n’est qu’un dérivé de NOS, de même a été formé de NI, signe de la 1ère personne)
Niina ikwe, femme de notre nation ;
Niina masinaigan, livre à l’usage de notre nation ;
Niinawe, parler la langue de notre nation ;
Niina ikitowinan, nostratia verba
niinawinagos, i avoir l’air d’être un des nôtres, un de nos nationaux ;
Niinawisi otenang, à notre village, au village algonquin ;
Niinawisik nongom animisik, ceux de notre nation ont de la peine dans ce temps-ci;
Kotakitok Niiawisik, egent Nostrates.

Going back even further to F. Baraga’s 1853 dictionary of the Anishinabe language, we find on page 284 the word “niinawe, (nin),” which he glosses as “I speak the language of the people with whom I live.” This word is an exact cognate of the Plains Cree nêhiyawêw.

Now that the Old Cree meaning of this word has been explained, let us turn to the folk etymologies. The ‘four-bodied person’ explanation is quite straightforward. Aside from it being odd, it requires a word of the form *nêwiraw to have existed. This word, which would literally mean ‘four-body,’ would then undergo some irregular change of inserting an extra syllable and losing a w, yielding nêhiraw. If this were the case, we would expect to find evidence either in the historical record or in another dialect or related language, yet no evidence for this can be found anywhere. No such word exists in any Cree dialect or related language.

The second folk etymology is that of ‘precise speaker.’ This explanation is meant to apply to the verb nêhiyawêw in Plains Cree.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐤ nêhiyawêw vai s/he speaks Cree

The idea behind this one is that the word would be based on the root nah-, meaning ‘favourable’ or ‘proper’ and a component referring to speech that is common to all dialects of Cree, ‑w. However, combining these components would yield *nahiwêw, a non-existent word, rather than nêhiyawêw. For this explanation to therefore make sense, we would first need to ignore the fact that the initial vowel of nêhiyawêw does not match the vowel in the root nah-. Additionally, we would need to ignore the whole middle section of the word! Fortunately, the actual derivation of this word is actually straightforward – it is composed of nêhiyaw and a component referring to speech that is common to all dialects of Cree, ‑w. The original meaning of this word is therefore quite clear.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐤ nêhiyawêw vai s/he speaks Cree [Old Cree nêhirawêw, ‘s/he speaks the language of the tribe’]

The real issue behind these folk etymologies is the difficulty people have of accepting that the word nêhiyaw in Plains Cree is really just a single word with a straightforward meaning. In fact, this word exists in most Cree dialects, but never with an initial component nêw-, meaning ‘four,’ as proposed by the first etymology, nor with the initial root nah– as in the second. The historical, cross-dialectal, and cross-linguistic data is amply clear about both the original form of the word and its meaning.

Folk etymologies are always quite interesting as they reveal ways in which people perceive certain aspects of the language they speak. There are many other folk etymologies in Cree, but this initial survey will hopefully have peaked your interest in the subject. Stay on the look out for interesting explanations of Cree words and feel free to share any you may have heard in the comments below!

ᑳ ᒥᓄᑌᐦᐁᑦ

Midnight Shine, a popular Cree band from northern Ontario, recently released a cover of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, with a twist. Instead of singing the lyrics as they were written, the band instead offers a bilingual version, switching to Cree halfway through the song. The Cree lyrics, written in the dialect spoken in Attawapiskat, are provided below in syllabics. They begin around 2:17. Enjoy!

ᓂᐐ ᐱᒫᑎᓰᓐ
ᓂᐐ ᒦᓂᐙᓐ
ᓂ ᓈᓇᑕᐙᐸᒫᐤ ᑳ ᒥᓄᑌᐦᐁᑦ
ᒨᓇ ᓂᑮ ᐃᑣᓐ ᐆᐦᐅ ᑫᒀᓇ

ᐁ ᓈᓇᑕᐙᐸᒪᒃ ᑳ ᒥᓄᑌᐦᐁᑦ
ᐋᔕᔾ ᓂ ᑭᔐᓂᓃᐎᓐ
ᐁ ᓈᓇᑕᐙᐸᒪᒃ ᑳ ᒥᓄᑌᐦᐁᑦ
ᐋᔕᔾ ᓂ ᑭᔐᓂᓃᐎᓐ