Writer in Residence

formal Cree, slangy Cree


nêhiyawêwin (Cree language) has a long history of being a written language. If we think of “written" in the widest sense possible, then the rock paintings along the mamâhtâwi-sîpiy (Churchill River) in Saskatchewan would be a an example: the depictions in red paint of the mêmêkwêsiwak (little people) and piyêsiwak (thunderbirds). These paintings become written icons not unlike Chinese characters.

Then, there is the widespread use of syllabics: cahkipêwasinahikêwin in some dialects and nêhiyawasinahikêwin in other dialects. There are different stories of its origin. Many nêhiyawak (Crees) credit mistanaskowêw (Badger Caller). Many nêhiyawak state that he was gifted with syllabics by the powers, ê-miyikowisit. There are also stories of how James Evans, a missionary, invented of syllabics.

The attempt to modernize and standarize Cree using roman orthography (e.g. the letters that we use in âkayasimowin) began with my late nôhkom. Her name is Ida McLeod- a descendant of Cree women healers, and Treaty leaders' brothers, and insurgents  of 1885. She was a powerful force in Cree language revitalization. I owe who I am to her. She is like a great, primordial wind from which I breathe. This movement to standardize Cree helped the modern written form emerge, and provides us a bank to drawn upon in our writing. Also, the work of the late Freda Ahenakew also played a pivotal role as well as the Cree dictionary compiled by Arok Wolvengrey.

mîhcêtawak kî-sôhkî-atoskatamwak ka-kanawêyihtahkik kinêhiyawêwinanâw (many have worked hard to preserve our Cree language). Of all of the Indigenous languages in Canada, Cree has one of the strongest foundations in written form: both with syllabics and also with the roman orthography. Moving to a written form has led to a written standardization of our language. What this means is not necessarily that one dialect is preferred, but rather that we have agreed to what the symbols mean in written form. The symbols represent the same sounds across dialects.

In this standardization process, this has meant that the compounded morphemes are elongated and in full form. All of the forms are written the long and complete form. The rationale is that we will them be able to see the full forms and will help with an understanding of how the language works.

The problem with this is that often the fully elongated forms are not how people actually talk. It is important to represent how people sound, the way they collapse morphemes because that helps create fuller and richer characters. It helps create a rhythm: it helps create a cadence.

In Neechie Hustle, I endeavoured to ensure linguistic accuracy and I had my nîciwakan Randy Morin, a rising force of nêhiyawêwin language revitalization, help edit the Cree of the book. However, I also made the decision to use collapsed forms at times in the book to represent real speech, the way Cree people would sound. For instance, namôya ê-kiskêyihtamân is collapsed to “môy “’skêy’tamân” (“I don’t know”). Also, “tânisi?” (“how are you?”) is collapsed  to “tânsi.” I think that to capture characters rhythm like this is important in creating authentic dialogue—one that could be read aloud and understood. I think that it is important to write the fully elongated forms of words, but it is also important to document conversation speech patterns as well.

This may seem like an obscure point for English speakers in Canada, but it is an important one for Cree speakers and Cree writers. I think that the fact that we can write our languages accurately to demonstrate elongated morpheme stems is important so that we can know the true meaning of compounded words (e.g. words with multiple stems). However, it also demonstrates to the vitality of nêhiyawêwin that we can take this a step further by also using collapsed forms in the written form. It is important though that we know the fully articulated forms, but “surface” representation can be more conversational which is important and essential in novel writing. For a long time, attention was put on recording the full forms. However, novel writing, with at times a more “slangy” approach to Cree, will become a powerful tool of language revitalization.

note: there is no capitalization in Cree

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.