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Nēhiyawēwin, Nīhithawīwin, Nēhinawēwin.
|Total speakers:||50,000 approx.|
|Writing system:||Latin alphabet, Cree syllabics (variation of Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics)|
|Official language of:||Northwest Territories (Canada)|
|Regulated by:||no official regulation|
nsk — Naskapi
moe — Montagnais
atj — Atikamekw
cre — Cree (generic)
crm — Moose Cree
crl — East Cree (North)
crj — East Cree (South)
crw — Swampy Cree
cwd — Woods Cree
crk — Plains Cree
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.|
 Dialect criteria
The Cree dialect continuum can be divided by several criteria. Dialects spoken from northern Ontario and coastal north-western Quebec make a distinction 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 and Whapmagoostui, 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:
|Word for "Native person"
|Word for "You"
|Plains Cree||SK, AB, BC, NT||y||iyiniw ᐃᔨᓂᐤ||kiya ᑭᔭ|
|Woods Cree||MB, SK||ð/th||iðiniw/ithiniw ᐃᖨᓂᐤ||kīða/kītha ᑫᖬ|
|Swampy Cree||ON, MB, SK||n||ininiw ᐃᓂᓂᐤ||kīna ᑮᓇ|
|Moose Cree||ON||l||ililiw ᐃᓕᓕᐤ||kīla ᑮᓚ|
|East Cree||QC||y||īnū ᐄᓅ; īyiyū ᐄᔨᔫ||čī ᒌ|
|Kawawachikamach Naskapi||QC||y||īyuw ᐃᔪᐤ||čīy ᒋᔾ|
|Western Innu||QC||l||ilnu||čil <tshil>|
|Eastern Innu||QC, NL||n||innu||čīn <tshin>|
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, or the evolution of the Old Church Slavonic vowel yat into different present-day Slavic languages.
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 /tʃ/ (ch as in cheese) before front vowels. See the table above for examples in the *kīlawa 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. Nonetheless, the people from the two areas easily communicate.
- Atikamekw (r-dialect)
- Western Montagnais (l-dialect)
- Eastern Montagnais (n-dialect, also sometimes called Innu-aimun)
- Naskapi (y-dialect)
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, while at other times Cree is more explicit than English. For example, the Plains Cree word for "school" is ᑭᐢᑭᓄᐦᐊᒫᑐᐏᑲᒥᐠ kiskinohamātowikamik, "Know-by.hand-caus-applicative-reciprocal-place," "The knowing-it-together-by-example place". To say "he always danced like that" in Plains Cree, however, is simply ᑭ ᐃᓯ ᓇᓃᒥᐦᐃᑐᐤ ki-isi-nanīmihitow.
 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.
 Creole languages
Cree was also a component language in two creoles unique to Western Canada. Michif, combining Cree and French; and Bungee, combining Cree and Scottish Gaelic. Both languages were spoken by Métis voyageurs and settlers in Western Canada. 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 seven 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.
- Ahenakew, Freda, Cree Language Structures: A Cree Approach. Pemmican Publications Inc., 1987. ISBN 0-919143-42-3
- Steller, Lea-Katharina (geb. Virághalmy): Alkalmazkodni és újat adni – avagy „accomodatio“ a paleográfiában In: Paleográfiai kalandozások. Szentendre, 1995. ISBN 963-450-922-3
- Wolfart, H. C. & Freda Ahenakew, The Student's Dictionary of Literary Plains Cree. Memoir 15, Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics, 1998. ISBN 0-921064-15-2
- Wolvengrey, Arok, ed. nēhiýawēwin: itwēwina / Cree: Words / ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ: ᐃᑗᐏᓇ [includes Latin orthography and Cree Syllabics]. [Cree-English English-Cree Dictionary - Volume 1: Cree-English; Volume 2: English-Cree]. Canadian Plains Research Center, 15 October 2001. ISBN 0-88977-127-8