Grammatical gender in the Cree language

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Posted: 
October 28, 2019

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 axis, as shown by the examples below. (The examples in this post are given in Plains Cree, spoken primarily in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta; but the grammatical observations are true of all Cree dialects.)

Animate and inanimate genders

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, as shown in the tables below.

Gendered nouns in French
Feminine nouns Masculine nouns
la fille (the girl) le garçon (the boy)
la grand-mère (the grandmother) le grand-père (the grandfather)
Gendered nouns in Cree
Gender Singular form Plural form
animate iyiniw (person) iyiniwak (people)
animate pisiskiw (animal) pisiskiwak (animals)
inanimate askiy (land) askiya (lands)
inanimate oskihtêpak (plant) oskihtêpakwa (plants)

But what about less obvious cases, such as the French words 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.

Gender agreement in Cree

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. (For the moment, we’ll ignore the fact that each verb must also agree in number and person.)

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. To know which verb to use, you must know the grammatical gender of the food being eaten. The table below shows examples of verb agreement with objects of both genders.

Verb agreement with animate and inanimate objects
Verb agreement Object gender Meaning
nimôwâw ayôskan animate I’m eating a raspberry
nimôwâw pahkwêsikan animate I'm eating bread
nimîcin mitêhimin inanimate I’m eating a strawberry
nimîcin mîcimâpoy inanimate I'm eating soup

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.

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About the author

Arden Ogg and Dorothy Thunder

Arden Ogg is a linguist and editor from Winnipeg who founded the Cree Literacy Network in 2010 to encourage the use of standard spelling as an essential element of Cree language revitalization. As a kid who grew up reading dictionaries for fun, she found that her first connection with Cree language and culture quickly became a lifelong passion.

Dorothy Thunder is a first-language speaker of Plains Cree, from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan. She has been teaching Plains Cree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for over fifteen years. Dorothy loves embedding essential elements of Cree culture in all her language classes.

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What a fascinating article. Thank you, Dorothy and Arden, for sharing this information.

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