In case you were thinking Cree was simple…

In a previous post I went wild explaining ways in which words can be constructed in Cree using various suffixes that are imbued with particular meanings.  I know that in some ways, this can make Cree seem rather simplistic, albeit it charmingly descriptive.  Well that was just to lure you in!  Now I hit you with the verbs!

Oh Cree verbs, how I love you!  Verbing weirds language…in English.  But Cree speakers often talk about how Cree is a very verbal language and this is an aspect I particularly like to explore with anyone I can nail down long enough to discuss it with.  You see, even colours in Cree are verbs.  Something is not merely ‘red’ or ‘blue’…I like think of things as ‘being red’ or ‘being in the state of appearing blue’.

I’m just going to go ahead and give you a sneak peek before I really get into just how many kinds of Cree verbs there are.

  • wâpiskâw – it is white
  • sîpihkwâw – it is blue

The verb ‘to be’ is already there in the verb that is used to describe what colour something is.  Things are ‘being blue’.  Colours are not merely adjectives tacked on to describe a noun.  Now the complicated thing about colours being verbs is that of course, they need to be conjugated to match the object that is performing the action (being a colour).   For example:

  • wâpiskâw – it is white
  • wâpiskâwa – they are white

Then you have different orders, like the conjunct:

  • ê-wâpiskâk – as it is white
  • ê-wâpiskâki – as they are white

There are more, for the future conditional, and so on.  Forget learning a word like ‘blue’ and being able to use it in any sort of situation without having to make it agree.

If you speak French or Spanish or other languages with ‘genders’, then this is not going to seem too odd to you.  Your words for colours are not verbs, but they do have to agree with the gender and number of the nouns they are describing.

“Ha!” I hear you saying, “were I merely an English speaker, this might be difficult, but I am not monolingual and thus I have an edge!”

Fear not, challenge-seekers!

Cree does not split nouns into genders like you’ll find in French and Spanish.  No ‘male’ nouns or ‘female’ nouns. Instead, Cree splits nouns into ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’.  No one really seems happy with these descriptions, by the way.  They definitely cause confusion…but then again genders in the romance languages aren’t perfectly descriptive either.  What makes a table ‘female’?  Why is the day ‘masculine’? It isn’t always intuitive and eventually you just have to memorise what category the words fit into.  Thus it is with Cree.

So you have animate nouns…people and animals most obviously, but less obviously other objects you don’t necessarily consider ‘alive’ like bread, and stones.  The question that always arises at this point is, do Cree speakers think bread and stones are alive?  Well the answer is…it varies.  Some things are considered ‘animate’ because they move, like a spoon or a paddle.  Other cultural beliefs may be involved in respect to certain words but if you want to understand that, you need to do more than read a blog.

Other nouns are inanimate.  Tables, chairs, most tools.  Yet again, the category isn’t perfect as some berries are inanimate while others are animate.

“But âpihtawikosisân!” you say, “Why are you talking about nouns?  I thought you were going to discuss verbs!”

*gleeful rubbing of the hands*

In many languages, verbs must agree with the actor.  I eat, she eats.  Tengo hambre, tienes hambre, je suit, tu es, etc.  Cree does this too of course, indicating who is doing the action…but Cree goes beyond this.  In Cree, verbs must agree with whether the actor (or object being acted upon) is animate or inanimate.

“Two kinds of verbs?  Like saying ‘I eat (something animate) or I eat (something inanimate)?'” you scoff, “Well it’s different, but not that complicated!”

Actually, at the most basic level you have to deal with three different types of verbs.  Animate Intransitive (AI), Transitive Animate (TA) and Transitive Inanimate (TI).

Basically it breaks down like this.  AI verbs have an actor but no specified object.

  • mîciso [mee-TSO] – to eat

There is no connotation included as to what you should eat, the entire idea is simple ‘to eat’.  There is no object specified, only the action by itself.  There are many AI verbs which are basically self-contained. 

  • nikamo [NI-gu-mo] – to sing
  • nîmihito [nee-MI-hi-to] – to dance

You can conjugate these verbs to say “I dance” or “I sing”, and that is a complete sentence.

Well, TA verbs have an actor and a specific animate object.  An animate object like bread, which is an animate noun.

  • mow [MOO] – to eat something animate

This cannot be a stand-alone concept, it needs an object.  It is always ‘to eat something’

By now you can probably figure out that TI verbs have an actor and a specific inanimate object.  Potatoes are inanimate.

  • mîci [mee-TSI] -to eat something inanimate

These are the unconjugated, root verbs by the way.  We have no idea who is doing the action and in the case of TA verbs, we don’t know yet who is being acted on until the verb is conjugated.

mîciso, mow, mîci?  They don’t even really sound the same!  Yet they all mean ‘to eat’, and you have to know each one of these verbs in order to speak Cree at even a very basic level.  Think about that for a second.  There are three verbs for most general actions in Cree.  A general AI verb, and two more verbs for when the object being acted on is animate or inanimate.

Cree verbs can get wicked specific. ‘To drink a hot liquid’ for example is the AI verb, kisâkamitêhkwê and does not resemble the AI verb ‘to drink’ (minihkwê) or the TI verb ‘to drink something inanimate’ (minihkwâta).  I can’t think of any animate drinking substances, so you may be spared having to know a TA verb for ‘to drink something animate’.  Though if you drink with someone, you’re going to have to find a TA verb.  We aren’t talking about those wicked specific verbs right now, however.

I haven’t even touched on conjugation here and I don’t think I will yet.  There are different rules for conjugation for each type of verb.  TA verbs are particularly difficult to conjugate.  Nor have I bothered getting into Intransitive Inanimate verbs (II)….that’s right, a fourth set!

Now, I don’t want this to scare you off, especially if you are a beginner or just exploring your interest in Cree.  So I am going to take a little bit of pity on you and get you working with these verbs right away.


One of the easiest conjugated forms to deal with in Cree is the imperative form.  I briefly touched on this in my post dealing with vocabulary to use to get children ready for bed.  Essentially all you have to do is take the unconjugated root verb and it is a singular command.

  • mîciso [mee-TSO] – eat!
  • mow [MOO] – eat that animate thing!
  • mîci [mee-TSI] – eat that inanimate thing!

I did explain how to make AI verbs plural by simply adding  a -k to the root verb but as things aren’t so simple for TI and TA verbs, let’s just stick to the singular for now.  Repetition is super useful when learning a new language and teaching it to others so if you end up using the singular command on each one of your family members rather than addressing them once in the plural, then it’s not actually a bad thing.

Some animate/inanimate vocabulary

In order for you to give the right command, you need to know whether the object you’re referring to in your command is animate or inanimate.  You could just use the general, AI verb ‘to eat’, and not worry about the animacy of what you want them to eat…but you are a thrill seeker!  Whether now or later, you’re going to want to move beyond that!

So right now I am going to give you some food related vocabulary so that you can pick the right ‘to eat’ command above.  You can use the command alone, like “mow!”, or you can expand your vocabulary (and that of your children or family members) by adding in the noun that the command “eat that animate thing!” agrees with, like pahkwêsikan (bread).

  • mow pahkwêsikan! [MOO] [puh-GWAY-si-kun]

Now eventually you’re going to want to know how to say “eat your bread” or “eat that bread” but let’s just get you comfortable with the verb and the new vocabulary first.  It is still understandable, and no one expects you to be ripping out amazingly fluent and complex sentences right away…so remind yourself of that and start slowly.

So I am going to list some food nouns with pronunciation guides, and with either NA (for animate nouns) or NI (for inanimate nouns).

  • pahkwêsikan (NA) [puh-GWAY-si-kun] bread or bannock
  • oskâtâsk (NA) [OSK-ah-tahsk] carrot
  • mahtâmin (NA) [MUH-dah-min] corn
  • picikwâs (NA) [PI-tsi-gwahs] apple
  • kihci-okiniy (NA) [kih-TSI-OK-in-ee] tomato
  • kohkôsiwiyin (NA) [koh-goo-SOO-wi-yin]  bacon
  • kohkomin (NA) [KOH-go-min] cucumber
  • wâwi (NI) [wah-WI] egg
  • wiyâs (NI) [wi-YAHS] meat, without specifying from which animal
  • askipwâwi (NI) [us-KIP-wah-wi] potato
  • mîcimâpoy (NI) [mee-TSI-mah-poi] soup
  • mîciwin (NI) [MEE-tsi-win] food

Now you can choose either mow or mîci to give your order “eat it!” and you can add in the specific food you want that person to eat.

If you want to challenge yourself a little, you can use the word êkwa, which in this case means ‘and’.  So you can say, eat your egg and bacon.  But pay attention!  Which verb you use (TA or TI) depends on which noun directly follows it.  So if you want to say “eat the egg and bacon” you say:

mîci wâwi êkwa kohkôsiwiyin.

You choose that TI verb because egg is inanimate and it is the first thing you are mentioning. But if you want to say “eat the bacon and egg”, the first thing you are going to mention is bacon, which is animate.  So you say:

mow wâwi êkwa kohkôsiwiyin.

Alright!  Speak Cree! nêhiyawê!

About âpihtawikosisân

Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Currently living in Montreal, Quebec. Passions: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. Education: BEd, LLB, working on a BCL
This entry was posted in Cree vocabulary, Fluency, Imperative/command form, Plains Cree, Pronunciation, Word lists. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to In case you were thinking Cree was simple…

  1. Emo says:

    Unrelated to the subject of this post, but genuinely related to the subject of trivia about the Cree language…

    The ultimate origin of the Cree writing system turns out to be… Thomas More’s Utopia (no kidding!).

    …in Willis’ system [of shorthand] 16 symbols out of 22 are identical to the Cree syllabary and William Moon’s blind code. The link is there, very clear and obvious. The system is based on the rotation in four orientations of basic symbols similar to the central 10 symbols in More’s Utopian alphabet. The importance of More’s sytem is that it is the first I have seen which demonstrates rotation as a basic feature for creating a symbol.

    (1) To see what Thomas More’s alphabet looked like:

    (2) From the same blog, here’s what a Cree syllabic typewriter looked like (made of old-fashioned steel):

  2. Emo says:

    As a follow-up to my prior (obscure but interesting) comment, I note that the author of that blog (now defunct) that dealt with the history of Cree syllabics also presented her research to the government of Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (in 1992) on the same subject:
    If you take the time to read that document, you can decide for yourself if she’s a Christian missionary or not (many linguistics institutes are, overtly or covertly, operated for Christian missionary purposes… with a significant example being S.I.L., cf. … I notice that the Wikipedia article for S.I.L. is currently in a state of conniption over this very issue…)
    Coming back to this peculiar source on Cree literacy…
    At least at the time of her deposition (in 1992) she was neither fluent in Cree nor really an expert in the written language… however, it does seem that she did vastly more original research than 99% of people who earn an M.A. (at the infamous O.I.S.E., no less… where, in my extremely limited [and biased] experience, it seems that turning in a series of autobiographical reflections from a road-trip with quotations from Foucault constitutes a valid M.A. thesis).

  3. Bruce says:

    wawah miyawsin, kinahin apitikisan iskwew

    • Thank you, though I am becoming less skilled lately I notice! Too much time away from the language, not hearing it and not speaking it.

      • Bruce says:

        Tapwe! poko tatokisikaw kapahcitayah kinehiyawinaw .Nistah askaw nitayimin ka-nehiyaweyan.maka oma ka-ayahmitayan kamasinahaman miyawsin ekwa kimamicihin. Sakowe! For sure we have to be immersed to be-come fluent. Sometimes i struggle in speaking. But what I`m reading on your blog is awesome! It is obvious it comes from the heart and spirit! As our kimosompanawak would instruct and model.I would love someday to travel to that part of kanata. Kinanaskomitin eatoskataman nehiyawewin. ekosi pitama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s