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Cree language facts for editors of English and French: Gender

Arden Ogg,
Editors’ Association of Canada and the Cree Literacy Network
(The Editors’ Association of Canada began using the name Editors Canada on July 1, 2015.)

Dorothy Thunder,
University of Alberta and the Cree Literacy Network


Most native speakers of English are happily unaware of grammatical gender, at least until they attend their first French (or other language) class. There, they discover that every French noun must have its le or la. Cree, like French, also uses grammatical gender, but it orients itself along a different axis1. Whereas French sorts its nouns into masculine and feminine, the Cree worldview organizes its nouns according to animacy: that which is living (or animate), and that which is not (inanimate). Since Cree doesn't have definite articles, speakers rely instead on plural suffixes, ‑ak (animate) and ‑a (inanimate), to show which is which.

Grammatical gender is simple to grasp when nouns correspond with natural, real-world categories. In French and in Cree, many nouns do:

French English
La fille girl (feminine)
Le garçon boy (masculine)
la grand-mère grandmother (feminine)
le grand-père grandfather (masculine)

Cree English
iyiniw person (animate singular)
askiy land (inanimate singular)
iyiniwak people (animate plural)
askiya lands (inanimate plural)
pisiskiw animal (animate singular)
oskihtêpak plant (inanimate singular)
pisiskiwak animal (animate plural)
oskihtêpakwa plant (inanimate plural)

But what about less obvious cases, such as le citron (lemon) and la framboise (raspberry)? Neither is inherently male or female. For Cree, what about ayôskan (raspberry [animate]) and mitêhimin (strawberry [inanimate])? Neither, in nature, is more or less animate than the other. In French, in Cree, and in every other language that uses grammatical gender, we can find hundreds of examples where gender assignment is equally arbitrary.

Of course, the biological distinction between male and female is as readily recognized in Cree as in English (which doesn't use grammatical gender at all). However, in Cree, as in French, grammatical gender doesn't care about biology.

For grammatical gender, what really matters is agreement. Agreement happens when a word changes its form in relationship with other words. In English, one eats food, no matter what kind. French uses manger with both masculine and feminine objects. In Cree, however, grammatical gender extends to verbs. The gender of the noun object dictates the verb choice.

To continue our example with eat and foods of different genders: Cree uses the verb ‑môw‑ with animate nouns. It uses the verb ‑mîc‑ with inanimate nouns. (For the moment, we'll ignore the fact that each must also agree in number and person.) To know which verb to use, you must know the grammatical gender of the food being eaten:

Cree English
nimîcin mitêhimin. I'm eating a strawberry (inanimate).
nimôwâw ayôskan. I'm eating a raspberry (animate).
nimîcin mîcimâpoy. I'm eating soup (inanimate).
nimôwâw pahkwêsikan. I'm eating bread (animate).

Gender agreement is so central to Cree that almost all verbs exist in parallel sets, with distinct animate and inanimate stems. Even words we consider to be adjectives in English or French turn up in Cree as pairs of verbs, all bound by the rules of grammatical gender.

For editors who encounter Cree words in English or French text, it's important to be aware that the effects of grammatical gender are extensive, reaching beyond the noun to dictate even the verb itself.

Back to the note1The grammatical observations made here are true of all Cree dialects. Example words and phrases, however, are given exclusively in Dorothy Thunder's y‑dialect (Plains Cree), spoken primarily in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta.