Forming words in Cree

This post began as an aside to the last, but ended up fascinating me so much that I figured it would be easier to split it off.  This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion about word formation in Cree…I just wanted to point out some cool things in the context of telling kids to go wash their hands and faces.

Don’t forget…I am not a linguist, merely a rank amateur who is completely obsessed with my language!

Talking about parts of the body in Cree

Body parts in Cree are not stand alone words.  You don’t have an equivalent for just ‘hand’ or ‘face’.  Not that you can actually use in a sentence like “Wash your hands”. Instead, Cree makes body parts dependent on whose body parts they are (yours, mine, his).

Take a look:

  • micihciy [hand] (MI-tsih-tsee)
  • mihkwâkan [face] (MIH-gwaa-gun)

These are the ‘floating’ words for body parts.  Written or said like this, they have no context.  They belong to no one, they are merely the idea of a hand or a face, existing only in the abstract.  Then again, you couldn’t just shout “HAND!” and have anyone understand what you wanted in English either.

To give them context, you can assign them to someone.  First of all, you have to zero on in the part of the word that means ‘hand’, or ‘face’.

  • micihciy loses the mi to become –cihciy.

The mi- was really just there as a place holder, to let you know where you have to put on the descriptive prefixes.  Now you can add on possessive markers to show who that hand belongs to.

  • nicihciy [my hand]
  •  kicihciy [your hand]
  • ocihciy [his/her hand]

But that’s not the coolest part! We can also take the -cihciy and add prefixes to it that help describe the hand in question.

  • cimicihciy [short hand]
  • kinocihciy [long hand]
  • ocikicihciy [scarred hand]
  • wîpicihciy [dirty hand]

Oh yeah, I can hear that light bulb exploding in your head.  Look at those cool prefixes just describing up the place and creating better nouns!

Well nouns are great, but we’ve been working more with verbs, specifically as commands, so let’s go back to those.

  • kâsîcihcê(k) [wash your hands]
  • kâsîhkwê(k) [wash your face]

Now, instead of -cihciy we’ve got -cihcê, and instead of -hkwâkan (for face) we’ve got -hkwê.  Confusion reigns!!!  Well, it doesn’t really. The words above are verbs, not nouns and the morpheme (part of the word) that means ‘hand’ and ‘face’ has stayed the same (I’ll get to this later) but has been added to for the verb form.

Let’s take a look at what happens when we describe a hand, but do it in a verbal form.  So instead of saying just ‘dirty hand’ for example, we’re going to look at the root verb which means to have a dirty hand, etc:

  • cimicihcê [to have a short hand]
  • kinocihcê [to have a long hand]
  • ocikicihcê [to have a scarred hand]
  • wîpicihcê [to have a dirty hand]

You’ll notice the prefixes (cimi-, kino-, ociki-, wîpi) haven’t changed. They’re nice like that.  You should also be noticing that these words all end with an ê, which is very common for these kinds of verbs.  The ê is important, because it helps make these words into verbs instead of nouns, but it isn’t the part that tells us ‘hand’ or ‘face’.

Hey, let’s check this out:

  • wîpicihciy [dirty hand]
  • wîpicihcê [to have a dirty hand]

Both words contain cihc!  Well hello, hello pretty little morpheme that apparently means ‘hand’!

As we’ve already seen, this handy little morpheme (I couldn’t resist) doesn’t like to hang out on its own.  You are never going to be able to use it by itself and impart meaning to someone.  It needs to be wrapped up in possession, or description and given noun or verb form.  So what use is cihc you may ask?

Really, it’s about getting you used to seeing these morphemes squished into words, so that when you encounter an unfamiliar word you can try to pick it out and understand that at least…it’s something to do with hand, or face, or whatever.  Cree is FULL of little morphemes doing wacky things and sneakily imparting all sorts of meaning.  When you realise that, new words suddenly appear less capricious and confounding.

Oh but I’m not done yet.  Go back again to those two commands:

  • kâsîcihcê(k) [wash your hands]
  • kâsîhkwê(k) [wash your face]

By now you’ve figured out that -cihc is telling you something about ‘hand’ and -hkw is something to do with the face.  So what’s with the kâsî?

It isn’t a simple prefix you can just go around slapping on to the beginning of other morphemes making words as you go.  Not quite. The verb kâsîha means to wipe or wash something.  The word really implies the wiping, rubbing motion as something is cleaned or washed.  The beginning of that verb kâsî- shows up in many verbs describing various cleaning and wiping acts:

  • kâsîhiyâkanê [to wash dishes]
  • kâsîyâpi [to wipe one’s own eyes]
  • kâsîcihcê(k) [wash/wipe your hands]
  • kâsîhkwê(k) [wash/wipe your face]

There are other prefixes in Cree that describe washing and that could also be used here to describe how someone washes.  This is why you have variations on the commands:

  • kâsîcihcê [to wash your own hands]
  • kisîpêkicihcê [to wash your own hands]

Both verbs can be translated to mean washing your hands, but again kâsî- suggests a rubbing and wiping kind of motion, while kisîpêki- sort of suggests using soap or laundry detergent or some other substance (including water) to get something clean.  This is just how I view the differences by the way and a real linguist would probably be able to break down the words down into tiny morphemes better describing the meaning being constructed.

I use kâsîcihcê because smaller words are easier for me to remember, and for the kids to repeat.  I stick with the one word so that I’m not confusing them with a variety of commands all meaning essentially the same thing.  Nonetheless, I appreciate how descriptive Cree is, and how the meaning of words can be so specifically altered.  Being able to break words down a little like we’ve done here helps to understand those subtle differences of meaning.  I may have to use a more ‘standard’ Cree chosen for ease of use in my household right now, but that will hopefully not always be the case as our family fluency increases.

And now you know what I do for fun in my spare time!

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Categories: Language learning, Morphemes, Parts of language, Plains Cree, Prefixes

4 Responses to Forming words in Cree


  1. SoWiBi says:

    That was one of the coolest linguistic articles I read in a long time – and I read a lot of those, mind. Way to go!

    What I wondered though: How would you go about mixing/adding the indicators for personal possessive and qualitative features? As in, I now know how to say “my hand” and “dirty hand”, but now I want to say “my dirty hand” (and, when I’m feeling extra adventurous, “wash my dirty hand” (yes, I live such a life of luxury that I can confine myself to solely writing leisurely comments on websites and have mundane tasks such as hand-washing be done for me).

    • The answer depends on whether you want to form a noun, or a verb. In the former case, it’s pretty easy. The possessive markers just get slapped on the front.

      For example: wîpicihciy [dirty hand]

      The hand in question is not owned by anyone. It’s still an abstract thing, the concept of a dirty hand.

      niwîpicihciy [my dirty hand]
      kiwîpicihciy [your dirty hand]
      owîpicihciy [his/her dirty hand]

      Of course, nouns don’t make much happen. Verbs are where the action’s at! 😛

      kâsîcihcênê is the verb meaning “to wash someone’s else’s hands”.

      Compare:
      kâsîcihcê [to wash your own hands]
      kâsîcihcên [to wash someone else’s hands]

      But now you’re really complicating things, because there are different categories of verbs in Cree and I haven’t even begin to get into conjugation beyond the very simple imperative form.

      kâsîcihcê is in a verb category called ‘Animate Intransitive’ and takes a certain conjugation. These verbs are ‘self contained’ in a sense and don’t require an object. If you want to say “I wash my own hands”, you say: nikâsîhkwân (ni-GAA-seeh-gwaan). There are rules involved here I won’t go into yet.

      kâsîcihcên is in a different verb category called ‘Transitive Animate’. These are verbs where one actor is acting on or towards an animate object. In Cree, an animate object can be other people, or animals…but we also consider bread and stones to be animate. Think of it like ‘gender’, in that it does not necessarily mean that Cree people think bread is alive, it’s merely in the category ‘animate’.

      Anyway, the conjugation rules for these verbs is much more complex. If you wanted to say, “I wash her hand” it would be nikâsîcihcênâw. To say “I wash your hand”, it is kikâsîcihcênitin. What I’m bolding for you shows that conjugation involves wrapping the conjugation around the root verb itself.

      As for specifying that someone is to wash your dirty hand, well…hmm. If someone is washing your hands it’s probably for a good reason (i.e. they are dirty) so I’m just going to relax on this one for now, Ms. Complicated 😀

      • ‘Animate’ and ‘inanimate’ are a real bitch to explain based on the English labels. They’ve been misleading people for a long time, methinks. The way I understand it, ‘animate’ is just a general kind of noun. It includes things that CAN think/speak/feel but it also includes all kinds of other things. It’s a grammatical class, like you said. The other category, called ‘inanimate’ only includes things that CAN’T think/speak/feel. So, they’re kind of lopsided.

        It’s caused A LOT of confusion in the academic world, because of the labels, basically. Listening to speakers carefully, though, it’s pretty clear that the label ‘animate’ is misleading. It’s basically ‘noun’ and the other one is ‘inanimate.’ But somehow we academics really want a matched pair of category labels. So we label them symmetrically, where we shouldn’t.

        Rocks COULD speak/think/feel, of course. But they could in English, for English speakers. The grammar of Cree doesn’t constrict the speaker’s worldview – it frees them to convey whatever meaning they want. They’re free to make a rock feel/think/talk, or free to make it a mindless object. Whatever they want – the grammar’s there to help.

        At least, that’s my two cents. 😉 I’ve been slogging through this issue for years – ever since I was unlucky enough to run into it as a major part of my dissertation… So far, I have no adherents to my view that I know of. 😉

  2. You did a very nice job for being a ‘rank amateur’! 🙂 You’re doing great!

    I actually wrote my first generals paper for grad school in that slippery little mi- morpheme you’re wondering about there. It’s a really beautiful thing. All the Algonquian languages have a variation of it (it kind of looks like Beothuk did, too, but I’ve only seen a handful of words there). You could work on that morpheme the rest of your life, actually. There’s enough packed in there.

    It shows up in stories quite a bit – you can manipulate mi- vs. o- to change perspectives in a story. For example, when someone in the story doesn’t know whose hand it is, while the narrator DOES know. Have a look at the Rolling Head Story told by Coming-Day, published in the Sweet Grass texts edited by Leonard Bloomfield.

    There’s a great Menominee story about an unfaithful wife having sex with her secret lover through a hole in the wall of the house at night. The husband yanks her away at one point and hacks off the offending *ahem* appendage. The lover runs off and dies.

    When the woman’s point of view is being represented, the *ahem* appendage has o- on it. When the husband’s is represented, it’s got the Menominee form of mi- instead. Pretty sweet, huh?

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