wishing bone

Cree language

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.

Dialect criteria

The Cree dialect continuum can be divided by many criteria. Dialects spoken from northern Ontario and coastal north-western Quebec make a distinct difference between /ʃ/ (sh as in she) and /s/, while those to the west (where both are pronounced /s/) and east (where both are pronounced either /ʃ/ or /h/) do not. In several dialects, including northern Plains Cree and Woods Cree, the long vowels /eː/ and /iː/ have merged into a single vowel, /iː/. In the Québec communities of Chisasibi, Whapmagoostui, and Kawawachikamach, the long vowel /eː/ has merged with /aː/.

However, the most transparent phonological variation between different Cree dialects are the reflexes of Proto-Algonquian *l in the modern dialects, as shown below:

Dialect Location Reflex
of *l
Word for "Native person"
← *elenyiwa
Word for "You"
← *kīla
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
Moose Cree ON l ililiw kīla
Northern East Cree QC y īyiyū čiy ᒌ
Southern East Cree QC y iynū čiy ᒌ
Kawawachikamach Naskapi QC y iyyū čiy
Atikamekw QC r iriniw kira
Western Innu QC l ilnū čil
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).

Dialect groups

We can broadly classify the Cree dialects into nine groups. From west to east:

Swampy Cree in turn has an eastern and a western dialect which differ in the use of the phoneme š. In the western dialect, š has merged with s.

  • Moose Cree (l-dialect)
  • James Bay Cree (y-dialect, sometimes called East Cree)

James Bay Cree has a northern and a southern dialect which differ in the number of vowel distinctions they make. The long vowels ē and ā have merged in the northern dialect but are distinct in the southern. Also, the southern dialect has lost the distinction between s and ʃ. Here, the southern dialect falls in line with the rest of the Montagnais groups where both phonemes have become ʃ. Nonetheless, the people from the two areas easily communicate.


This table is made to show all possible (consonant) phonemes that may be included in a Cree language.
Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k
Affricate ts
Fricative ð s ʃ h
Approximant ɹ w
Lateral l


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".

Written Cree

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.

Contact languages

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.

Legal status

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.


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  • Steller, Lea-Katharina (née Virághalmy): Alkalmazkodni és újat adni – avagy „accomodatio“ a paleográfiában In: Paleográfiai kalandozások. Szentendre, 1995. ISBN 963-450-922-3
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  • Junker, Marie-Odile, Marguerite MacKenzie, Luci Salt, Alice Duff, Daisy Moar & Ruth Salt (réds) (2007-2008) Le Dictionnaire du cri de l'Est de la Baie James sur la toile: français-cri et cri-français (dialectes du Sud et du Nord).
  • LeClaire, Nancy, George Cardinal, Earle H. Waugh, and Emily Hunter. Alberta Elders' Cree Dictionary = Alperta Ohci Kehtehayak Nehiyaw Otwestamakewasinahikan. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1998. ISBN 0888643098
  • MacKenzie, Marguerite, Marie-Odile Junker, Luci Salt, Elsie Duff, Daisy Moar, Ruth Salt, Ella Neeposh & Bill Jancewicz (eds) (2004-2008) The Eastern James Bay Cree Dictionary on the Web : English-Cree and Cree-English (Northern and Southern dialect).
  • Norman, Howard A. The Wishing Bone Cycle Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians. New York: Stonehill Pub. Co, 1976. ISBN 0883730456
  • Hirose, Tomio. Origins of predicates evidence from Plains Cree. Outstanding dissertations in linguistics. New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415967791
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