In the Language and Culture Links section of this blog I linked to a Cree Family Unit site that I stumbled across years ago. As you can see from the URL, it appears to have been developed in Saskatchewan as part of a family unit in the Cree language/culture program.
There are two ways to navigate this site. If you click on “Resource” you get the full unadorned document. Otherwise you can go through it a bit at a time as it is broken down into Lessons. The nice thing about the Lessons is that there is often audio content that you can download in order to hear the words pronounced. There is also a ‘test’ at the end. Just skip to Lesson Two and Lesson Three if you want to hear the kinship terms spoken right away and don’t need the linguistic breakdown.
I’m bringing this resource up because I wanted to talk about kinship terms in Cree. I like peeking at my stats, to see how people find this blog, and I get to see search engine terms. (By the way, to say “I love you” in Cree, it’s kisâkihitin – gee-SAH-gih-tin. A lot of would-be lovers out there it seems!) A lot of people want to know what to call their relatives in Cree.
If you grew up with Cree-as-ceremony, like I did, then you probably say “kookum” for grandmother. Yup, we say things like, “My kookum”. Well, it makes sense that we’d say it like that. kôhkom means “your grandmother”, so it’s what people would say to you when talking about your grandmother, and would be the word you picked up as meaning “grandmother”. Oh but it’s bad Cree, hey? We’re actually saying “my your grandmother”!
Doesn’t matter really, I still say kookum so that people who aren’t fluent Cree speakers know who I’m talking about. But I also say nôhkom, which is how you say “my grandmother” properly. I say things like, “nôhkom, my kookum used to etc etc”.
It’s confusing when you don’t hear the kinship terms regularly, because in Cree the relationship to you is part of the word itself. My younger sibling, your younger sibling, his younger sibling, their younger sibling…the root word is always the same but the possessive prefixes change depending on who is related to this younger sibling. If you hear the term at all in Cree, you’ll often here “your (relative)” and if that’s all you hear, then of course that’ll be the term you use.
My kids definitely have struggled with this. One will point to herself and say “nitânis” which means “my daughter”. Obviously it makes no sense, but it’s what she hears.
The site I linked to does a good job of showing you how to break down the root terms and then using the personal prefixes, but I figured I’d go over some anyway without getting into the root terms per se.
A big caveat here…what I present on this page differs somewhat from what is presented in the link I’ve provided. That is because these kinship terms can vary somewhat from community to community. I am presenting the terms as I am familiar with them.
Common possessive prefixes and kinship terms
While you might be interested in how to say “their father” and “our-not-including-you aunt”, you probably want to walk before you run. Most often you’re going to be saying “my (relative)” and “your (relative)”. So here are these two possessive prefixes:
ni – (my)
ki – (your)
Both of these prefixes are singular. “Your” in English can mean “you a single person” or “you, many people” so I want it to be clear that I mean “you a single person, that is your thing”.
Alright, here are some common kinship terms, with a bit of a pronunciation guide:
- nikâwiy – my mother (NI-gah-wee)
- kikâwiy – your mother (KI-gah-wee)
- nôhtâwiy – my father (NOOH-tah-wee)
- kôhtâwiy – your father (KOOH-tah-wee)
- nôhkom – my grandmother (NOOH-gom)
- kôhkom – your grandmother (KOOH-gom)
- nimosôm – my grandfather (NI-mo-soom)
- kimosôm – your grandfather (NI-mo-soom)
Now, I’m just going to stop here for a second, because what I’m about to show you is important. You can understand a lot about Cree kinship as it is understood culturally if you pay attention to the kinship terms themselves. At first, if you’re not used to them, the kinship terms can seem awfully complicated, but it all makes cultural sense so you might as well approach it with that in mind.
Remember the word for mother (my mother: nikâwiy and your mother:- my mother: kikâwiy)? The following kinship term looks an awful lot like these ones, check it out:
AUNT (MOTHER’S SISTER or FATHER’S BROTHER’S WIFE)
- nikâwîs – my mother (NI-gah-wees)
- kikâwîs – your mother (KI-gah-wees)
That’s right, instead of a ‘y’ on the end, you’ve got an ‘s’, changing the end sound from ‘wee’ to ‘wees’. I won’t go into diminutives right now, but just be aware that this change follows the pattern of diminutives.
But wait a minute…this kinship term has two meanings? Huh? What are you trying to do, âpihtawikosisân, scare everyone away?
Cultural lesson…I was taught to think of my mother’s sisters as my mothers. Not my birth mothers, but as women who definitely held that maternal role in my life. There was a closer bond to them than there were to my mother’s brothers. If you need to relate it to English, just think of it as ‘the women in your life who are related to you in a way that gives them a maternal role’. Those women are my mother’s sisters and my father’s brother’s wives. My father doesn’t actually have any brothers, but you might be getting the drift.
Let’s try another term:
UNCLE (FATHER’S BROTHER or MOTHER’S SISTER’S HUSBAND)
- nohcâwis – my uncle (NOH-tsah-wis)
- kohcâwis – your uncle (KOH-tsah-wis)
You might be having a harder time seeing the similarity between these terms and the terms for father (my father: nôhtâwiy, your father: kôhtâwiy). However, this is another change that follows the diminutive pattern that changes every ‘t’ in a word to a ‘c’.
By now you should see the pattern. If my father actually had brothers, they would also have a paternal role towards me, while my mother’s brothers do not. Since my mother’s sisters are like mothers to me, it makes sense that their husbands would be like fathers to me. If my father’s brothers are like fathers to me, then of course their wives would be like mother’s to me. When I use these kinship terms I actually think of them in my head as my ‘little mothers’ or ‘little fathers’. Not in a small sense, but just to remind myself of the kinship ties.
So what, opposite sex siblings of my parent’s generation are just chopped liver?
No no, they have their own kinship terms and their own roles.
AUNT (FATHER’S SISTER or MOTHER’S BROTHER’S WIFE or MOTHER-IN-LAW)
- nisikos – my aunt (NI-si-gos)
- kisikos – my aunt (KI-si-gos)
You can see how the translation to ‘my aunt’ sort of fails to really describe the kinship here, right?
My father’s sister is not as close to me in kinship terms as my mother’s sisters are. This is true in real life as well as it is in terms of kinship, but that’s a fluke. It could have been that my dad’s sister and I were closer than anyone else but we’re talking about family ties in cultural theory rather than how they may actually turn out.
There is a distance there then, between the opposite sex sibling of my father, while his same sex siblings would be closer to me. My mother-in-law would have the same degree of distance as my father’s sister.
I do not want to break your brain, but I want to point out that my mother-in-law’s sister would have the same kinship term as she. Just like my mother’s sisters have a similar relationship to me as my mother does, so would my mother-in-law’s sisters have a similar relationship to me as my mother-in-law.
UNCLE (MOTHER’S BROTHER or FATHER’S SISTER’S HUSBAND or FATHER-IN-LAW)
- nisis – my uncle (ni-SIS)
- kisis – your uncle (ki-SIS)
Again, the distance between my mother’s brothers and my father’s sister is about the same in degree. Opposite sex siblings do not fill that maternal or parental role the way same sex siblings do. Their role and relationship to you is different, but not necessarily less important.
I’d like to point out something else here that I have not often seen in practice, at least not among younger generations. In the old days, you would not speak directly to the opposite sex parent of your spouse. That means if you are a man, you would not talk to your mother-in-law, and women were not supposed to speak to their father-in-law. This was a two-way restriction…they weren’t supposed to be talking to you either. It was very much a matter of respect, and is one of those practices that seems to have been lost. Now, I have thought about this a fair amount, and I’m not sure it is a practical thing to ‘bring back’, but who knows?
Brain breakage once more…my father-in-law’s brothers would have the same kinship term as my father-in-law.
Well, let’s continue because I’ve got plenty more to confuse you with! (or if you’re like me, it’s not so much confusing as it is awesome!)
YOUNGER SIBLING (of either gender)
- nisîmis – my younger sibling (NI-see-mis)
- kisîmis – your younger sibling (KI-see-mis)
As you’ll soon see, there are a lot of sibling terms. You can talk about your siblings in terms of their gender, or in terms of their age compared to yours. I, personally, am more used to talking about my siblings according to their age rather than their gender and I don’t really know why that is. I suppose it depends on which terms are used more often in your community.
SIBLING (generic term, either gender)
- nîtisân – my sibling (NEE-ti-sahn)
- kîtisân – your sibling (KEE-ti-sahn)
This term, general as it is, tends to be more useful when used in the plural to refer to all of your siblings if you have a range of older and younger siblings. For that reason, I’m going to give you the plural of these terms:
- nîtisânak – my siblings (nee-TI-sahn-uk)
- kîtisânak – your siblings (kee-TI-sahn-uk)
- nimis – my older sister (ni-MIS)
- kimis – your older sister (ki-MIS)
Pretty self-explanatory, I think.
- nistês – my older brother (ni-STAYS)
- kistês – your older brother (ki-STAYS)
So now you have four kinship terms with which you can refer to your siblings.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
What, you thought the confusion ended with same sex siblings being in maternal or parental roles? Not even!
So consider this. If your mother’s sisters are like your moms….and your father’s brothers are like your fathers…well, then what are their children to you?
Oh, don’t give me that blank look! Break it down. My mother’s sisters are like my mothers. So their children are like my mother’s children…my siblings. My father’s brothers are like my fathers. So their children are like my father’s children…my siblings.
PARALLEL COUSIN (MOTHER’S SISTER’S CHILD or FATHER’S BROTHER’S CHILD)
A parallel cousin is a child of the same sex sibling of your mother or father.
- nisîmis – my younger cousin (NI-see-mis)
- kisîmis – your younger cousin (KI-see-mis)
- nîtisân – my cousin (NEE-ti-sahn)
- kîtisân – your cousin (KEE-ti-sahn)
- nimis – my older female cousin (ni-MIS)
- kimis – your older female cousin (ki-MIS)
- nistês – my older male cousin (ni-STAYS)
- kistês – your older male cousin (ki-STAYS)
That’s right, the terms are the same as they are for our siblings, because in fact, these cousins are like our siblings. They are the children of our mothers and fathers. They are closer to us than the anglo understanding of ‘cousin’. Though I did not grow up in a super traditional household, this aspect of my upbringing certainly is true. My mother’s sister’s children were as close (and annoying) to me as my own brothers, while there has always been a distance between me and my mother’s brother’s children.
So remember…the term you use to refer to your older brother, nistês, is the same term for your father’s brother’s sons and your mother’s sister’s sons.
So what about those ‘distant’ cousins, how do we refer to them?
CROSS COUSIN (MOTHER’S BROTHER’S CHILD or FATHER’S SISTER’S CHILD)
A cross cousin is the child of the opposite sex sibling of your mother or your father. The kinship term you use is also influenced by whether you yourself are male, or female.
If you are male:
- nîstâw or nîscâs – my older same sex cross cousin (nees-TAHW) (nees-TSAHS)
- kîstâw or kîscâs – your older same sex cross cousin (kees-TAHW) (kees-TSAHS)
These are not totally different words. I am more used to the latter, but it is a diminutive of the former and which one you use will depend on your community. So as a male, you are talking about the son of your mother’s brother, or the son of your father’s sister. The idea to try to focus on is that this cousin is the same sex as you but is no like your brother, but rather somewhat more removed and thus your cousin.
This is also the term you would use to refer to your brother-in-law, who is the same level of closeness as your male cross cousin. Again, just to point out how I understand the terms and not necessarily the way everyone else does, for me kîstâw is the term I would use for your brother-in-law while kîscâs is what I’d use for your same sex cross cousin.
- nîtim – my older opposite sex cross cousin (NEE-tim)
- kîtim – your older opposite sex cross cousin (KEE-tim)
For you males, this is the daughter of your mother’s brother or the daughter of your father’s sister.
If you are female:
- nicâhkos – my older same sex cross cousin (NI-tsah-kos)
- kicâhkos – your older same sex cross cousin (KI-tsah-kos)
Yes ladies, this is also how you would refer to your sister-in-law.
- nîtim – my older opposite sex cross cousin (NEE-tim)
- kîtim – your older opposite sex cross cousin (KEE-tim)
Lovely term here, because it’s the same as the one males use for their opposite sex cross cousin, whew!
So you have special terms for your cross cousins that are the same sex as you, and necessarily males will have a different male term than females. However, if your cross cousins are the opposite sex then whether you are male or female, you use the same term.
Whether you are male or female:
- nîcimos – my younger cross cousin (NEE-tsi-mos)
This is a diminutive of the term nîtim. You cannot tell the gender of the younger cross cousin in question just from the term. Also note that this term is slang for ‘lover’ or ‘sweetheart’ and is what I call my partner with no connotations of us having a blood relation.
I am only going to introduce two more important kinship terms before I try to wrap it up with a visual.
- nitânis – my daughter (NI-dahn-is)
- kitânis – your daughter (KI-dahn-is)
- nikosis – my son (NI-go-sis)
- nikosis – your son (KI-go-sis)
Remember those cousins that are actually like your siblings? Like my mother’s sister’s daughter who is like my sister. Well, her kids are also like my sons and daughters, as mine are to hers. I use the same kinship terms towards her kids as I do my own.
I recognise that all of this can be hard to wrap your head around if it is unfamiliar to you. When I finally learned these kinship terms, for me it was a glorious epiphany! You see, while I was surrounded mostly by English as I grew up, there were certain turns of phrase or ‘things we did’ that did not fit into English paradigms. I sort of thought we were just weird that way and did not value it as a cultural difference until I saw the proof in the language. These terms were immediately intuitive to me, because I’d already been living them. If you don’t have that experience then it’s going to be odd at first.
So I want you to try to think of it on generational terms, if you can. To help, I drew a nice little diagram!
I didn’t include all the various terms we’ve discussed here because there just isn’t room. You have the basics now though, and should be able to figure other things out. Like…if my daughter’s children are my grandchildren, then what are the children of my mother’s sister’s children? Why…my grandchildren, of course. After all, their daughters and sons are my daughters and sons kinship-wise.
What would my daughter call the other girls in our family that I also call daughters?
What do you think I would call my grandmother’s sister? My grandfather’s brother?
I don’t know about you, but I am tuckered out. Time to go pick up nitânisak. Maybe next time I’ll show you what terms you use when you’re actually addressing yourself to your relatives (hah, were you thinking you had things mostly figured out already?).