Cree language facts for editors of English and French

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Posted: 
August 5, 2019

The increasing emergence of Indigenous languages into the mainstream is a positive development in Canada’s multicultural evolution, but for editors of texts in English and French who encounter a language such as Cree, it can present a serious challenge.

For English and French, style guides such as The Chicago Manual or Le Ramat provide written precedents for almost every situation. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Larousse represent centuries of dedicated lexicography. For Cree there is no authoritative style guide, nor is there a single dictionary that covers the complete spectrum of variants. Here’s why.

Fact: The term “Cree” defines both a language and a whole family of languages

The term “dialect” is often used for the various distinct forms that Cree may take. This usage is shared by almost everyone who speaks Cree, English or French, but linguists agree that they are, in fact, separate languages. Neighbouring languages within this continuum may be as closely related as English is to Dutch, or French to Italian. Within the vast geographical swath between the Rockies and Labrador, the deepest divide aligns roughly with the provincial boundary between Ontario and Quebec.

The most accurate current representation of Cree variants can be found in Wikipedia. From Ontario west to the Rockies, the map divides the language into four main subgroups: Plains Cree, Swampy Cree (called “Mushkegowuk” in some communities), Woods (Woodlands or Rock) Cree, and Moose Cree. Some speakers recognize a further subdivision of Plains Cree into southern and northern variants. The most common label that speakers in the west use to refer to their language is, simply, “Cree.”

In Quebec and Labrador, subdivisions include Innu-Aimun (the contemporary name for Montagnais and Naskapi), Atikamekw, and Northern and Southern variants of James Bay Cree (also known as East Cree). As in the west, many eastern speakers also refer to their language simply as “Cree.”

The editor’s first responsibility is to determine which member of the Cree language family is being used. If it seems confusing, consider that all these labels were first applied to the language not by the speakers themselves, but by outsiders—ultimately passing into English from French. It’s a little like Columbus referring to indigenous North Americans as “Indians.”

Fact: Reliable contemporary dictionaries for many varieties of Cree are readily available

Often, misconceptions drive a laisser-faire attitude towards Indigenous languages in print. The most common of these? “It doesn’t really have a written form; just write it like it sounds.” Until the arrival of the printing press, and the emergence of authoritative dictionaries, the same description might have applied to English or French. With many variants of Cree endangered, Cree can’t afford the luxury of a slow evolution of writing standards. Editors encountering Cree words and phrases in English or French texts have a unique opportunity to help promote written language standards. They can begin to do so by making use of readily available resources, such as the following:

Do you have experience writing or speaking the Cree language? What resources would you recommend to learners or editors?

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

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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Another really useful online dictionary currently under development at the University of Alberta includes complete verb paradigms: http://sapir.artsrn.ualberta.ca/itwewina/

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