How to Use a Cree Dictionary

Languages like Cree present particular problems for making dictionaries because the words are exceptionally complex. Unlike languages like English – where dictionaries were largely developed – Cree does not have a simple ‘word’ to place in the dictionary. For example, the word ‘see’ in English corresponds to as many as 500+ ‘words’ in Cree (niwâpahtên, wâpamêw, wâpamâw, ê-wâpamaci, etc.).

Rather than put all 500+ words in the dictionary, Cree linguists have decided to follow the example of classical languages like Greek and Sanskrit (which also have huge numbers of verbs) and simply give you one form for each word. It is up to you, the user, to know how to turn this word into the form you want. For example, in Classical Greek, if you want to know how to say “I will be seen,” you will find only “I see” in the dictionary. The same applies to Cree. If you want to look up the word ‘see,’ what you will find in most dictionaries is the form ’s/he sees him/her.’ You will then have to sort out how to change that into the form you want (e.g. ‘I see him,’ etc.).

There are essentially no irregular verbs in Cree, so some of the problems encountered with a language like Greek (where many, many verbs are irregular) are not present. If you know one form of any Cree verb, and you know how to build verbs properly, you will immediately be able to built all other forms. The only potential exception is some unusual sound alternations that happen with verbs that contain very old segments. For example, pîkiskwât- ‘talk to’ has a ’t’ on the end that used to be a different consonant, in the ancient language. This ancient difference shows up when we put -it on the end. Normally, t just stays as a t (cf. kitôtit ’s/he speaks to me’), but in the case of pîkiskwât-, the t changes to an s: pîkiskwâsit. I don’t know of any dictionary that includes these irregular forms in it. Technically, if the classical model was being followed, we should expect these to be included.

So the dictionary is only useful to you if you already know how to (de)construct good Cree words. This may seem surprising to someone used to dealing with Spanish or English or French, but it’s hardly unusual. Most languages that have complex words end up having to make these kinds of decisions – or else your dictionary would be 900,000 pages and weigh 80lbs.

1. Alphabetizing: Dictionaries always use the ‘short’ vowel (w/o the hat) first.

apiw comes before âpiht, etc.

Just think of there as being two vowels in the dictionary: one with the ‘hat,’ one without.

2. Animacy Classes, Noun Abbreviations

Nouns are always put in the dictionary in the singular form. You will also not find the diminutive or locative forms, unless they have some particular, funny meaning. The only possessed nouns that show up in the dictionary are the ones that always have to be possessed.

NA: Animate Noun

Example: atimw: dog, NA.

Add -ak for plural.

NI: Inanimate Noun

Example: maskisin: shoe, NI

Add -a for plural.

NDA: Dependent Animate Noun

Example: nikâwiy: my mother, NDA.
Alternate: -kâwiy: mother, NDA.

NDI: Dependent Inanimate Noun

Example: nicihciy: my hand, NDI.

Alternate: -cihciy: hand, NDI.

Note on NDA/NDI in dictionaries:

In some dictionaries, all NDA, NDI are listed with ni- or mi- on the front.

nicihciy: my hand, NDI

micihciy: a hand, NDI

To get just the noun itself, you have to remove the person prefix (i.e. ni- or mi-).

3. Verb Classes, Verb Abbreviations

Verbs are always placed in the dictionary in the Independent Order and involving only 3rd persons. Preverbs are not included, and must be looked up separately. Typically, complex versions of the verb (e.g. the diminutive with -si-, e.g. atoskêsiw ’s/he works a little’) are not included, although habitual versions ending in -ski often are (e.g. atoskêskiw ’s/he works habitually, is a worker’).

VAI: Verb Animate Intransitive

Example: atoskêw: s/he works, VAI.

VII: Verb Inanimate Intransitive

Example: yôtin: it is windy, VII.

VTA: Verb Transitive Animate

Example: wâpamêw: s/he sees him/her, VTA.

VTI: Verb Transitive Inanimate

Example: wâpahtam: s/hes sees it, VTI.

4. Other Important Abbreviations

IPC: Indeclinable Particle

Example: nânitaw: simply, something, something bad, somewhere, etc. IPC.

IPV: Indeclinable Preverb

Example: wî-: intend to, be about to, IPV

IPN: Indeclinable Prenoun

Example: kihci-: big, great, long. IPN.


Dashes indicate where another piece has to be added to the word in order to make it a complete, independent unit. For example, you can’t say kâwiy ‘mother’ by itself. You have to add a person marker on the front. So we write -kâwiy to show that.

5. Walkthrough

Suppose you come across the following sentence, and you want to know what it means.

kiwî-kîwêtahin sêmâk, mayaw pôni-nîmihitohki.

How do we use the dictionary to sort out these words?

It’s easiest to start with the little words – mayaw and sêmâk. If you look them up, you will find that they appear in a dictionary just as they are here.

mayaw: as soon as; straight, exact, on time. IPC.

sêmâk: right now, right away, at once, immediately. IPC.

IPC means that they are indeclinable particles, and therefore have nothing to add or take away from them. They are simple ‘words’ on their own.

Moving on to the first word, it is clearly a verb. It starts with ki- and wî-. ki-, as you know, is the second person prefix for ‘you.’ Looking up wî-, we get:

wî-: indent to, be about to. IPV.

Then we have a bit, long bunch of letters all strung together. How to do we figure out what part is the verb? Start at the left of it. Look up kîwê, for example. You get:

kîwê-: homeard, IPV.

We don’t want that, because this isn’t a preverb. But hang on to that meaning and keep looking down the list.

kîwêw: s/he goes home, VAI.

That looks related, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not the right word for us, quite, because we still have -tahin to account for. If it was the right word, we would have kiwî-kîwân ’you are going to go home.’ But we don’t. We have something longer. Keep looking.

kîwêtahêw: s/he takes him/her home, VTA.

Ah hah! That’s our word. How do I know? Because if you subtract the -ê-w, (which is always put on the end of all TA verbs in the dictionary), you get kîwêtah-. If you add -in to that, which means ‘you do it to me,’ you get kiwî-kîwêtahin. ‘You are going to take me home.’ Good!

Now, let’s look at the other big word there. pôni-nîmihitohki. Ouch. Well, chop off that front bit before the dash. It’s probably a preverb. Look it up.

pôni-: stop, terminate, cease, IPV.

Yes, it’s a preverb meaning stop. So now we are at the verb nîmihitohki. What could it mean? Let’s start looking for words that have as many of those letters in them as possible. The closest you’re going to find is:

nîmihitowak: ‘they are dancing together,’ VAI.

This is a plural verb, so we take the -wak off the end and we get nîmihito- ‘dance together.’ That’s pretty close. But what do we do with the -hki on the end? Well, the -hk is the impersonal form for AI verbs. (You can look that up in any grammar book). ‘There was dancing together,’ basically. The -i after that is what is called the ‘subjunctive’ (another piece you can look up in a grammar). Which gives you pôni-nîmihitohki. ‘should the dancing stop’

Altogether, then, the sentence means ‘You are going to take me home right away, as soon as the dancing should stop.’

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About Mr. Môniyâw

Age: 35 Lives: All over the place. Education: PhD, linguistics, UBC.
This entry was posted in education, grammar, morpheme, noun, order, orthography, particle, person, plains cree, plural, possession, prenoun, preverb, swampy cree, translation, verb. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Use a Cree Dictionary

  1. Arden Ogg says:

    Reblogged this on Cree Literacy Network and commented:
    Yet another reason that way that standard spelling helps: there’s a lot more to using a Cree dictionary than meets the eye! Thanks, Jeff, for putting this together!

  2. Pingback: How to Use a Cree Dictionary | Cree Literacy Network

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