Cree (also known as Cree-Montagnais, Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi) is the name for a group of closely-related Algonquian languages spoken by approximately 117,000 people across Canada, from the Northwest Territories to Labrador, making it by far the most spoken aboriginal language in Canada. Despite numerous speakers within this wide-ranging area, the only region where Cree has any official status is in the Northwest Territories alongside 8 other aboriginal languages.
However, the most transparent phonological variation between different Cree dialects are the reflexes of Proto-Algonquian *l in the modern dialects, as shown below:
|Word for "Native person"|
|Word for "You"|
|Plains Cree||SK, AB, BC, NT||y||iyiniw||kiya|
|Woods Cree||MB, SK||ð/th||iðiniw/ithiniw||kīða/kītha|
|Swampy Cree||ON, MB, SK||n||ininiw||kīna|
|Northern East Cree||QC||y||īyiyū||čiy ᒌ|
|Southern East Cree||QC||y||iynū||čiy ᒌ|
|Eastern Innu||QC, NL||n||innū||čin|
The Plains Cree, speakers of the y dialect, refer to their language as nēhiyawēwin, whereas Woods Cree speakers say nīhithawīwin, and Swampy Cree speakers say nēhinawēwin. This is similar to the alternation in the Siouan languages Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota.
Another important phonological variation among the Cree dialects involves the palatalisation of Proto-Algonquian *k: East of the Ontario-Quebec border (except for Atikamekw), Proto-Algonquian *k has changed into (ch as in cheese and ts as in Watson) before front vowels. See the table above for examples in the *kīla column.
Very often the Cree dialect continuum is divided into two languages: Cree and Montagnais. Cree includes all dialects which have not undergone the *k -> /tʃ/ sound change (BC–QC) while Montagnais encompasses the territory where this sound change has occurred (QC–NL). These labels are very useful from a linguistic perspective but are confusing as East Cree then qualifies as Montagnais. For practical purposes, Cree usually covers the dialects which use syllabics as their orthography (including Atikamekw but excluding Kawawachikamach Naskapi), the term Montagais then applies to those dialects using the Latin script (excluding Atikamekw and including Kawawachikamach Naskapi). The term Naskapi typically refers to Kawawachikamach (y-dialect) and Natuashish (n-dialect).
We can broadly classify the Cree dialects into nine groups. From west to east:
Like many Native American languages, Cree features a complex polysynthetic morphology and syntax. A Cree word can be very long, and express something that takes a series of words in English. For example, the Plains Cree word for "school" is kiskinohamātowikamik, "Know-by.hand-caus-applicative-reciprocal-place," "The knowing-it-together-by-example place".
Cree dialects, except for those spoken in eastern Quebec and Labrador, are traditionally written using Cree syllabics, a variant of Canadian Aboriginal syllabics, but can be written with the Roman alphabet as well. The easternmost dialects are written using the Roman alphabet exclusively.
Cree dialects for the James Bay Cree are written using Cree syllabics.
Cree was also a component language in two contact languages unique to Western Canada. Michif is a mixed language combining Cree and French. Bungee is a dialect of English with substrate influences from Cree and Scottish Gaelic. Both languages were spoken by Métis voyageurs and settlers in Western Canada. Michif is still spoken in central Canada and in North Dakota. Many Cree words also became the basis for words in the Chinook Jargon trade language used until some point after contact with Europeans.
The social and legal status of Cree varies across Canada. Cree is one of the eleven official languages of the Northwest Territories, but is only spoken by a small number of people there in the area around the town of Fort Smith. In many areas, it is a vibrant community language still spoken by large majorities and taught in schools. In other areas, its use has declined dramatically. Cree is one of the least endangered aboriginal languages in North America, but is nonetheless at risk since it possesses little institutional support in most areas.