You know a tree by its fruit…I mean, root.

There are a stunning number (for me) of responses to recent blog posts that I have not yet had time to digest and respond to so I wanted to preface this post with two things: my thanks for the comments that have been made and;  a commitment to address those comments when I can.

I have been discussing social injustices and cultural struggles a lot lately which might give you the wrong idea about what I spend a lot of my time doing…which is being a complete and utter language geek!  Well today I’ve decided that I’m going to share some of that geekiness.

One of the things I love the most about Cree is the way in which words are formed.  I’m just going to go ahead and show you an example so you can squeal in delight and jump up and down with me.  You know, or not.

  • cîkahikê – to chop
  • cîkahikan – an axe
  • cîkahikanâhtik – axe handle

One example might not be enough to get you jumping so here is another:

  • masinahikê – to write
  • masinahikan – a book
  • masinahikanâhtik – a pencil

Isn’t that freaking AWESOME!?????

Okay okay, I’ll back it up a bit.  Once again, you have some sort of root that affixes (prefixes or suffixes) are added to in order to form new words.  English does this as well of course.

  • kind
  • kindness
  • unkind
  • kindly

What I love about Cree suffixes is the way they specify the properties of the root they are being added to.  Take a look at the two verbal roots above.  To chop (cîkahikê) and to read (masinahikê).  You build on those root meanings by adding suffixes that have a particular meaning of their own.

  • -kan is a tool suffix
  • -âhtik is a wood suffix

These suffixes alter the meaning of the root to include the idea of ‘tool’ and ‘wood’.  So you have cîkahikan, which is formed by the root cîkahik (chop) + kan (tool).  You will never find doubled letters in Cree, so only one ‘k’ is kept.  An axe is literally a chopping tool.

The other example might confuse you a little.  masinahikan?  A reading tool, huh?  Well it may not be as immediately intuitive, but it remains consistent.  A book truly is a tool for reading.  You might argue that no, glasses are tools for reading…but glasses are really intended to sharpen your eyesight and help you see better regardless of what it is you are seeing.

When you add the wood suffix to these new words, cîkahikan and masinahikan, you aren’t saying merely that they are made of wood.  It is more like the words are being imbued with the concept of wood and this concept of wood can alter words in different, intuitive ways.  Of course, what is intuitive for one group of people might not be as intuitive for others which is why understanding the way these words are ‘built’ can give you amazing glimpses into the Cree way of seeing the world.

This is how I think of these words:

cîkahik+kan+âhtik – chop + tool + wood: wooden part of chopping tool

masinahik+kan+âhtik – read + tool + wood: wooden tool used to create something that can be read

These suffixes are very versatile.  You may not be able to encounter a brand new word using one of these suffixes and immediately grasp the meaning of the word, but I have found that once you break it down and have it make sense, the word stays with you forever.  I’ll give you some more examples:

mîcisowinâhtik = mîciso (to eat) + win (noun suffix) + âhtik (wood suffix)

Eat+noun+wood, huh?  Well, when you add a noun suffix, you are changing a verb into a noun.  So “to eat” as a noun would become “something you eat” = food. mîcisowin is food.  Therefore what you really have is food+wood.  Wooden food?  What, like a bowl of wooden apples or something?  That makes no sense!

No, it doesn’t make sense. mîcisowinâhtik means table, or as I like to think of it, “a wooden thing you eat food off of”.  But here is something else that I love about Cree…the variations!  I am familiar with this term, mîcisowinâhtik for table, but another term that is used in some communities is atôspowinânâhtik. atôspo means to eat off something.  atôspowin is “the thing you eat off of” and the wooden suffix specifies that this object is made out of wood.  The wooden eating-off thing, a table.

Both words mean table, but if you just encountered these two terms without any context you might be left really scratching your head.  After all, in English, we just have the word ‘table’!  Sure, we might describe it as round, or long, or wooden, or metal, or whatever…but the main word ‘table’ is going to be there no matter what, providing context.  That same ‘context’ is not provided by the two terms mîcisowinâhtik and atôspowinânâhtik.  There is no morpheme shared in these words that just means ‘table’.  That is what makes it so important that you be able to understand the constituent parts of the word in order to grasp its meaning.

I’ll give you another example of one of these wicked suffixes to show you how you can indeed puzzle out meaning when you have to.  This is an important skill not only for the sake of your own comprehension, but also because it allows you to build your own words in Cree that if not ‘standard’ in the community you are in, are at least understandable.

– wikamik

My favourite suffix of all is the ‘building’ suffix, -wikamik.  This little beauty can be added to a verb to describe where that action takes place.  The second you see -wikamik on the end of a word, you know immediately that a building is being discussed.  All you have to do then is figure out what action is being described and you can quickly puzzle out what kind of building it is.

So I’m just going to give you some verbs first:

  • mîciso – to eat
  • atâwê – to buy/trade
  • ayamihâ – to pray
  • minihkwê – to drink
  • kiskinohamâkosi – to learn

Alright.  So, what words are formed when we add the building suffix, –wikamik?  See if you can figure it out!

  • mîcisowikamik
  • atâwêwikamik
  • ayamihâwikamik
  • minihkwêwikamik
  • kiskinohamâkosiwikamik

Well?  How would you translate these words into English?  Literally of course you’ve got ‘the building that eating happens in’, and ‘the building that praying happens in’.  I think most people looking at these words, understanding what the verbs mean, can figure out English equivalents quite quickly:

  • mîcisowikamik – restaurant
  • atâwêwikamik – store
  • ayamihâwikamik – church/house of worship
  • minihkwêwikamik – bar (‘drinking building’)
  • kiskinohamâkosiwikamik – school

You can also add this suffix to nouns, if a verb simply does not fit your descriptive needs.  Again the great thing about this is that even if a community does not use a particular term, you can still communicate your meaning through the descriptive nature of the word you construct.  Here are some nouns:

  • pâhkahâhkwân – chicken (domestic)
  • maskihkîwâpoy* – tea
  • maskisina – shoes
  • pihkatêwâpoy* – coffee

Turn these into buildings, and what do you get?

  • pâhkahâhkwâniwikamik
  • maskihkîwâpôwikamik
  • maskisinawikamik
  • pihkatêwâpôwikamik

Now if you’re a keener, you’ll notice that there were some things added or changed to stick this suffix on.  I’m rusty on the rules here, but for me, these changes maintain the flow of the word.  Not something you have to worry about too much.  So?  How would you translate these words?

This is what I’d do:

  • pâhkahâhkwâniwikamik – chicken coop
  • maskihkîwâpôwikamik – tea house
  • maskisinawikamik – shoe store
  • pihkatêwâpôwikamik – coffee shop/cafe

Other people might think of these words differently.  Perhaps the tea house would instead be a place where tea is stored.  More specific words could be constructed to convey that meaning as well.  Perhaps the coffee shop is where coffee is produced.  Regardless, the general idea is transferred…an activity or a thing, and a building related to that activity or thing.  Neat, hey?

-âpoy

* maskihkîwâpoy and pihkatêwâpoy have similar endings because another suffix is at play here, the ‘liquid’ suffix –âpoy.

  • maskihkî (medicine) + âpoy (liquid) = maskihkîwâpoy (tea)
  • pihkatê (to burn) + âpoy (liquid) = pihkatêwâpoy (coffee, literally burned liquid)

The ‘w’ is in there to provide that ‘glide’ in the spoken Cree, but it may also be there in the conjugated form in pihkatêwâpoy, as pihkatêw means “s/he is distorted/burned by fire”.  Either way, it wouldn’t sound right to have two vowels next to one another without something in the middle to smooth it out.

These are just some of the cool suffixes you’ll find in Cree.  There are others of course, for metal, for fake things, for fabric, for organising events and so on.

I almost forgot!  What inspired this post in the first place was the word takwahiminâhtik, chokecherry tree.  takwaha (crush it) + imin (berry suffix) + âhtik (wood suffix).  You know this tree by its fruit!

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Categories: Building suffix, Fluency, Language learning, Liquid suffix, Plains Cree, Suffixes, Tool suffix, Wood suffix, Word lists

4 Responses to You know a tree by its fruit…I mean, root.


  1. Emo says:

    Quick question:
    There’s a great website for swampy cree (Omushkego) with both audio recordings and fully-typed-out transcription over here:
    http://www.ourvoices.ca
    e.g.
    http://www.ourvoices.ca/filestore/pdf/5/0/0/1/5001.pdf
    Do you know of anything similar for plains Cree? It’s really the combination of audio recording and transcription that I’d value… normally “personal autobiography” is a useful subset of “oral history” for pure language learning (but, admittedly, stories that are told very clearly for children are pretty good for beginners like myself, too).

    • Wow, what a great resource! I find Swampy Cree is close enough that it’s not too difficult to understand the bulk of what is being said, and it’s great to hear such high quality recordings! Yes, the transcription is great to have as well, though I struggle a bit with the syllabics compared to the RSO. Thank you for sharing this, I’ve put it ‘on the list’. I am not aware of anything similar in Plains Cree, but that does not mean it isn’t out there…it just means I haven’t found it yet!

  2. Eric says:

    i have some distant Plains Cree Heritage and find the language fascinating. I am thinking of getting a tattoo with the words “Spirit of the Wild” in it. I think it would great to get it in Plains Cree. Could you tell me how to make these words so they are correct for my tattoo. thanks!

    • No, sorry. If you find the language fascinating and want to learn more about your heritage, I wish you well on that journey. It is a worthwhile one. But I’m not here to provide people with meaningless symbols or encourage the tokenisation of the language.

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