Cree language

Cree language
Spoken in Canada, United States
Ethnicity Cree
Native speakers 117,400  (2006 census)[1]
(including Montagnais–Naskapi and Atikamekw)
Language family
Writing system Latin, Canadian Aboriginal syllabics (Cree)
Official status
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1 cr
ISO 639-2 cre
ISO 639-3 cre – Macrolanguage
individual codes:
nsk – Naskapi
moe – Montagnais
atj – Atikamekw
crm – Moose Cree
crl – Northern East Cree
crj – Southern East Cree
crw – Swampy Cree
cwd – Woods Cree
crk – Plains Cree
A rough map of Cree dialect areas

Cree (Nēhiyawēwin / ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ; also known as Cree–Montagnais, Cree–Montagnais–Naskapi) is an Algonquian language spoken by approximately 117,000 people across Canada, from the Northwest Territories and Alberta to Labrador, making it the aboriginal language with the highest number of speakers in Canada.[1] It is also spoken in the U.S. state of Montana. Despite numerous speakers within this wide-ranging area, the only region where Cree has any official status is in the Northwest Territories, alongside eight other aboriginal languages.[2]



Endonyms are Nēhiyawēwin ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ (Plains Cree), Nīhithawīwin (Woods Cree), Nēhinawēwin and Nehirâmowin (Atikamekw), Nehilawewin (Western Montagnais, Piyekwâkamî dialect), Leluwewn (Western Montagnais, Betsiamites dialect), Innu-Aimûn (Eastern Montagnais), Iynu-Ayamûn (Southern Inland East Cree), Iyiyiw-Iyimiwin (Northern East Cree).

Dialect criteria

The Cree dialect continuum can be divided by many criteria. Dialects spoken in northern Ontario and the southern James Bay, Lanaudière, and Mauricie regions of 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 *r in the modern dialects, as shown below:

Dialect Location Reflex
of *n
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 čīy ᒌ
Southern East Cree QC y iynū čīy ᒌ
Kawawachikamach Naskapi QC y iyyū čīy
Atikamekw QC r iriniw kīr
Western Innu QC l ilnū čīl
Eastern Innu QC, NL n innū čīn

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 /tʃ/ or /ts/ (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

The Cree dialects can be broadly classified into nine groups. From west to east:

ISO-3 ISO-3 name Linguasphere Linguasphere name dialect type additional comments
cre Cree (generic) 62-ADA-a Cree
cwd Woods Cree
62-ADA-ab Woods Cree th / k / s / ī Also known as "Woods/Rocky Cree". In this dialect ē has merged into ī.
crk Plains Cree 62-ADA-aa Plains Cree y / k / s / ī (northern)
y / k / s / e (southern)
Divided to Southern Plains Cree (Nēhiyawēwin) and Northern Plains Cree (Nēhiyawēmowin). In the Northern dialect, ē has merged into ī.
crw Swampy Cree
62-ADA-ac Swampy Cree, West
n / k / s / e (western)
n / k / s\š / e (eastern)
Also known as "West Main Cree." In the western dialect, š has merged with s.
62-ADA-ad Swampy Cree, East (Ininiwi-Išikišwēwin)
crm Moose Cree
62-ADA-ae Moose Cree l / k / s\š / e Also known as "West Main Cree." "Central Main Cree," "West Shore Cree," or "York Cree."
crl Northern East Cree
(Īyiyū Ayimūn)
62-ADA-af Cree, East y / č / s\š / ā (northern)
y / č / s\š / e (southern-coastal)
y / č / š~s / e (southern-inland)
Also known as "James Bay Cree" or "East Main Cree". The long vowels ē and ā have merged in the northern dialect but are distinct in the southern. Southern East Cree is divided between coastal (southwestern) and inland (southeastern) varieties. Also, the inland southern dialect has lost the distinction between s and š. Here, the inland southern dialect falls in line with the rest of the Naskapi groups where both phonemes have become š. Nonetheless, the people from the two areas easily communicate.
crj Southern East Cree
(Īnū Ayimūn)
62-ADA-ag Cree, Southeast
62-ADA-b Innu
nsk Naskapi 62-ADA-ba Mushau Innuts
62-ADA-baa Koksoak y / č / š~s / ā Western Naskapi (Kawawachikamach)
62-ADA-bab Davis Inlet n / č / š~s / ā Eastern Naskapi (Mushuau Innu or Natuashish)
moe Montagnais 62-ADA-bb Uashau Innuts + Bersimis
62-ADA-bbe Pointe Bleue l / č / s\š / e Western Montagnais (Leluwewn); also known as the "Betsiamites dialect"
62-ADA-bbd Escoumains
62-ADA-bbc Bersimis
62-ADA-bbb Uashaui Innuts n / č / s\š / e Western Montagnais (Nehilawewin), but sometimes called "Central Montagnais" or "Piyekwâkamî dialect"
62-ADA-bba Mingan n / č / s\š / e Eastern Montagnais (Innu-aimûn)
62-ADA-c Atikamekw
atj Atikamekw
62-ADA-ca Manawan r / k / s\š / e
62-ADA-cb Wemotaci
62-ADA-cc Opitciwan


This table is made to show all possible consonant phonemes that may be included in a Cree language.

Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Stop p t t͡s t͡ʃ k
Fricative ð s ʃ h
Approximant ɹ j 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 kiskinohamātowikamikw, "" or 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.

Various Cree dialects have begun creating dictionaries to serve their communities. Some projects, such as the Cree Language Resource Project (CLRP) is developing an online bilingual Cree dictionary for the Cree language.

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.[citation needed]

Legal status

A Cree/English/French stop sign in Québec

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.[2]

In many areas, it is a vibrant community language spoken by large majorities and taught in schools through immersion and second-language programmes. 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.

See also



External links

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