Nouns name things.  They refer to people, places and things.  These are a couple of the definitions we commonly encounter for “nouns”, and they are correct as far as they go.  Nouns are words that allow us to refer to things: both concrete, physical objects and abstract, mental concepts.  They are “referring expressions”.  But most of these definitions are quite abstract in themselves.  It is therefore also desirable to have a more concrete means of determining exactly what constitutes a noun in any given language.  The two best tests for noun status have to do with how a noun is formed as a word (its morphology), and how it is used together with other words (its syntax).  In these pages, we will primarily be concerned with the word form or morphology of nouns, and specifically Plains Cree nouns.

Gender: Animate and Inanimate

In Cree, all nouns are divided into two separate and extremely important noun classes, called the Animate and Inanimate.  In traditional Linguistic terminology, such a noun classification would be referred to as a Gender distinction.  This term has been adopted from European languages in which noun classification is often tied in part to the biological distinction between male and female, or “masculine” and “feminine”.  This is the case, for instance, in the difference between the English pronouns he (referring to males) and she (referring to females), or to the “gender” agreement of the French articles le (as in le garçon “the boy”) and la (as in la fille “the girl”).  Other languages, such as German, add a third distinction of the “neuter” (as in English it) which can be used when gender is indeterminate between masculine and feminine (as with German das Kind “the child”) or when the referent is inanimate.  Even in these languages where noun classification seems to have some basis in natural gender, there are a great many nouns, the majority in fact, which might appear to be arbitrarily assigned to one or another noun class, regardless of any relation to natural gender.  This can be easily demonstrated with a couple of examples from French and German, both of which have gender systems marking masculine and feminine nouns:

(1)                     masculine                                         feminine

French:            le soleil           “the Sun”                   la lune             “the Moon”

German:          der Mond        “the Moon”                die Sonne        “the Sun”

Note that the Sun and Moon are both assigned to genders in these two European languages, but that they are assigned to opposing categories.  The Sun is masculine in French, but feminine in German, and the Moon is feminine in French but masculine in German.  In English, both are typically referred to by the neuter/inanimate pronoun it, since English has lost virtually all noun classification or gender distinctions except those referring specifically to natural gender.  Thus, the term gender as used linguistically is misleading, and should only be taken to refer to the presence of a noun classification system.

There are two types of Nouns in Plains Cree, Animate (NA) and Inanimate (NI).

In contrast to gender in these European languages, the Cree noun classification system does not make any distinction along the lines of natural gender.  Even the third person Plains Cree pronoun wiya refers to any third person, male or female, and thus can be translated as “he” or “she” depending on appropriate context.  In Cree, then, the gender or noun classification system does not refer to the biological distinction between male and female at all.  Instead, most nouns are classified by their reference to living or non-living things, and hence the terms that have been applied to this are animate and inanimate.  Even in Cree, though, this distinction can at times appear arbitrary as many items that an English speaker would consider to be non-living can be classified as animate (for instance, compare animate asikanak “socks” with inanimate maskisina “shoes, moccasins”).  Just as the linguistic use of terms like masculine, feminine and neuter in the description of European languages should not be taken too literally, the terms animate and inanimate in use for Cree nouns should be viewed merely as useful names for the two noun classes of Cree.  Any attempt to find one single criterion for classifying all animate nouns will not meet with success.  It is simply a fact that not all animate nouns refer to living beings.  However, it might be more appropriate to describe the class of animate nouns in Cree as those nouns which are marked as special in one way or another.  We could then further suggest that one of the most important factors that will mark something as special is its association with and/or importance to life in general.  The animate classification need not then be boiled down to a single concise definition, but can be characterized by a number of different criteria, including: the actual possession of life (as with all living things or “animates”: people, mammals, fish, birds, insects, trees, etc.), the contribution towards creating life (as with terms for the reproductive organs), the contribution towards sustaining life in difficult conditions (as with terms for items of clothing worn only in winter), and the contribution to spiritual life (as with such items as the pipe, stone, and feather, among others).  As always, in the pursuit of an explanation for this culturally-based classification, the Elders can teach us much.

Setting aside further attempts to explain Cree noun classification, we will now simply take for granted the division of all Cree nouns into the two classes of animate and inanimate and concentrate only on showing how this system impacts on the actual forms of Cree nouns.  Since animacy remains the most important classificatory criterion, we will deal with each type in separate sections.  However, we will also see that both Animate Nouns (NA) and Inanimate Nouns (NI) can be further divided into subclasses on the basis of evidence provided by at least four different categories of endings that can be added to each noun.  These endings or suffixes add important information to each noun, marking the important inflectional categories of number (i.e. plural marking), person (i.e. possessive), and case (e.g. locative), as well as the derivational category of the diminutive.  Each of these categories will be given a brief introduction, while the actual noun subclasses and the effects the respective subclasses have on the suffixes will be discussed in more detail on separate pages, for both NIs and NAs.

Number: Singular and Plural

The majority of all nouns are count nouns.  This means that the entity that the noun represents can be counted, and that we can refer to just one of that entity, or to two of them, or three, or eighty-seven, etc.  In most if not all languages, there is also a small class of nouns which cannot be counted.  These are generally referred to as non-count or mass nouns.  Such nouns will typically only occur in the singular without plural forms.  For instance, in English, words like sand and furniture act as non-count nouns.  We do not normally talk about sands (although we can in the specialized sense of different varieties of sand), nor can we pluralize furniture as *furnitures (and please note that the use of an asterisk * marks an unacceptable or “ungrammatical” word, phrase or sentence in a particular language).  Similarly in Cree, nouns like yēkaw “sand” and kōna “snow” are mass nouns which cannot be marked as plural.

When a noun is a count noun, we can specify the number of the entity, but most languages also mark the inflectional category of Number by having distinct forms for singular and plural.  Singular forms are used when there is only one of the noun, while plural forms are used to indicate that there are more than one.  Both English and Cree mark the category of number, and specifically the plural.  In English, the most common plural marker is the suffix –s. However, other, more irregular patterns, such as vowel-changes, also occur in English:


(2)       Regular English Plurals (–s)              Irregular English Plurals

fox       →        foxes                           ox        →        oxen                (–en)
cat       →        cats                              child    →        children          (–ren)
horse   →        horses                          deer     →        deer                 (no change)
can      →        cans                             man     →        men     (vowel change: a > e)
house   →        houses                         mouse →        mice    (vowel change: ou > i)
noose   →        nooses                         goose   →        geese   (vowel change: oo > ee)

In Cree, the marking of number is integrally linked with the gender distinction, such that the plural marker differs whether the noun being marked is animate or inanimate.  As will be described in the appropriate sections below, there are some variations in the exact form of the plurals suffixes, but the regular form of the animate plural is –ak, and the regular form of the inanimate plural is –a.

(3)       Regular Animate Plurals (–ak)                      Regular Inanimate Plurals (–a)
            sīsīp    “duck” →    sīsīpak     “ducks”           akohp     “blanket” →  akohpa     “blankets”
            asikan “sock” →    asikanak  “socks”           maskisin “shoe”      →  maskisina      “shoes”


In both English and Cree, plural-marking must be used whenever more than one is being referred to, even if other elements (such as numerals or quantifiers) are also present:


(4)                                                       Cree number-marking                      English number-marking

singular:                                     sīsīp                                                        duck
singular, with a numeral:            pēyak sīsīp                                             one duck
plural:                                         sīsīpak                                                   ducks
plural, with a numeral:                nīso sīsīpak                                            two ducks
–                                                   (cf. *nīso sīsīp                                         cf. *two duck)
plural, with a quantifier:              mihcēt sīsīpak                                        many ducks
–                                                   (cf. *mihcēt sīsīp                                    cf. *many duck)

This may seem natural to speakers of both Cree and English, but some languages only use the plural marker if no other means of indicating number (such as a numeral or quantifer) is used.  But as stated above, there will be some non-count or mass nouns that can never take plural-marking (as the asterisk * again indicates):

(5)                                                  Plains Cree mass noun            English mass noun

singular:                                  kōna                                        snow
*plural:                                   — (*kōnak)                              — (*snows)

One further complication to Cree number marking involves the category known as obviation.  As the obviative in Plains Cree chiefly affects animate noun morphology, detailed discussion of this important category will be left for the appropriate sections under animate nouns.  Nevertheless, it is important to know that the obviative also interacts with the category of person-marking, in that its main purpose is to help distinguish different referents in Cree discourse.  Though this is a very complex matter of Cree syntax far surpassing the purpose of this basic introduction, some reference to obviation will thus be made in the following sections on person-marking.

Person: First, Second and Third

In grammar, the term person generally refers to one of three possible types of referent as defined by the role one plays in a speech act.  In other words, person identifies 1) who is speaking, 2) who is being spoken to, and 3) who (or what) is being spoken about.  This three-way division minimally allows for a basic person paradigm (or set of forms) as follows:


(6)                                                           Person Divisions

1 first person speaker (or person speaking)
2 second person addressee (or person spoken to)
3 third person person spoken about


In any speech act, there is a speaker, the one speaking, and we refer to the speaker as the first person, generally abbreviated simply as 1.  In English, “I” and “me” are first person pronouns; in Plains Cree, niya is a first person pronoun.  Usually, the speaker is speaking directly to one or more people or “addressees”.  The addressee or person spoken to is referred to as the second person, generally abbreviated as 2.  In English, “you” is a second person pronoun, and in Plains Cree, the second person pronoun is kiya.  Together, the first and second persons are the speech act participants or “local” referents.  They interact and take turns alternating between being speaker and addressee.  In addition to the speech act participants, we can also refer to others who are neither speaking nor being spoken to.  The third person is the person being spoken about, and this is generally abbreviated as 3.  In English, “she” and “he” are third person pronouns, divided also by gender as discussed above.  In Cree, there is no natural gender distinction made, so the Plains Cree third person pronoun is wiya.  We can compare these person forms for both Cree and English in the following paradigm:


(7)                                Basic Person Divisions in Plains Cree and English

  Plains Cree English
1 niya I; me
2 kiya you
3 wiya she/he; her/him


The basic three-way division of person illustrated thus far does not take into account the important category of number discussed above.  Normally, the categories of person and number interact to create a more detailed person paradigm which includes both singular and plural persons.  This interaction will be discussed next, allowing us to introduce possessive marking on nouns.

Person and Number: the Possessive

When the three basic person divisions interact with singular and plural number-marking, a basic six-way division of person and number can be established as follows:


(8)                                                    Basic Person and Number

singular plural
1s first person singular 1p first person plural
2s second person singular 2p second person plural
3s third person singular 3p third person plural


Thus, first person can be divided between a sole or singular speaker (1s) (e.g. English “I” or “me”; Plains Cree niya) and the first person plural (1p) (e.g. English “we”; Plains Cree niyanān) which thus typically includes the sole speaker and at least one other person.  Some languages, like Cree, can make finer distinctions as we will see below.  Similarly, the second person can be and usually is divided between a single addressee (2s) (e.g. Plains Cree kiya) and more than one person being spoken to (2p) (e.g. Plains Cree kiyawāw).  Note, however, that the standard dialect of English has lost this distinction between singular and plural addressees and we must use the pronoun “you” whether I am speaking to one of “you” or to two of “you”, many of “you”, all of “you”, etc.  This lack of a distinction is somewhat exceptional across the world’s languages and many speakers of different dialects in English are trying to correct this lack by re-establishing this distinction.  This is why it is normal in some English speech communities to hear a distinction between singular “you” and plural “youse” or “y’all” (i.e. “you all”).

The third person as well is normally divided into singular and plural forms (e.g. Plains Cree wiya and wiyawāw respectively).  Some languages will make even further distinctions based on other criteria important to the grammar of each specific language.  This is why English divides the third person singular into three distinct forms (e.g. masculine “he”, feminine “she”, and neuter “it”) on the basis of gender, as discussed above.  However, English does not make this same division for third person plural, where the pronoun “they” can refer to males, females, a mixed group, or more than one non-human referent without any distinctions.  Taking into account the distinctions that English does and does not make, the English person and number paradigm looks like this:


(9)                                                     English Person Divisions

singular plural
1s first person singular I 1p first person plural we
2s/2p second person  you
3ms third person masculine singular he 3p third person plural they
3fs third person feminine singular she
3ns third person neuter singular it

or more simply as:

(10)                                         English Personal (Subject) Pronouns

singular plural
1s I 1p we
2s/2p   you
3ms he 3p they
3fs she
3ns it


Cree does not make all of these same distinctions, but in fact some additional ones not found in English are important for Cree.  We have already mentioned above that Cree does not make the same gender distinction that English does, so there is no division of different third person singular (3s) forms (i.e. wiya can be “he” or “she”).  But we have also noted that Cree does, unlike standard English, make a distinction between second person singular (kiya) and second person plural (kiyawāw).  Additionally, Cree dialects all make a very important distinction involving the first and second person plural forms that is not made in English.  When an English speaker says “we” or “us”, the intent is for the speaker to include at least one other referent, making the first person plural.  However, in English, the additional referent(s) might include the addressee or not.  Thus “we” is ambiguous between “me and you (and possibly others)” and “me and others, but not you”.  In contrast, Cree always makes this distinction explicit and has two different forms depending on whether the speaker is including or excluding the addressee.  If the speaker is referring to him or herself and others but not the addressee, this is referred to as the first person plural exclusive (1p; i.e. niyanān “we (I and at least one other person but not you)”).  If the speaker is referring to him or herself as well as the addressee(s), this is referred to as the first person plural inclusive (21; i.e. kiyānaw “we (I and you (and possibly others))”).  The difference between exclusive and inclusive, then, is based on whether the speaker includes the addressee or not.  In English, if I say “we are going to go eat”, then I might be including you or not.  In Cree, such ambiguity is not possible but must instead be made explicit, and so the speaker can say either niwī‑nitawi‑mīcisonān “we (but not you) are going to go eat” or kiwī-nitawi-mīcisonaw “we (including you) are going to go eat”.  In comparison with the English person and number paradigm, then, we can represent Cree personal pronouns in the following paradigm:


(11)                                               Plains Cree Person Divisions

singular plural
1s first person singular niya 1p first person plural exclusive niyanān
21 first person plural inclusive kiyānaw
2s second person singular kiya
2p second person plural kiyawāw
3s third person singular wiya 3p third person plural wiyawāw

or more simply as:

(12)                                             Plains Cree Personal Pronouns

singular plural
1s niya 1p niyanān
21 kiyānaw
2s kiya
2p kiyawāw
3s wiya 3p wiyawāw


Personal pronouns have been used to demonstrate these differences of person (and number) because we do not normally think of nouns in terms of first, second or third person.  However, we can and do mark person and number categories in connection with nouns in order to indicate possession (e.g. “my book”) or relationship (e.g. “my mother”).  In this case, it is the person and number of the possessor that is being indicated.  In English, possession is marked by using possessive pronouns (e.g. “mine”, “yours”, etc.) on their own, or by placing possessive determiners (e.g. “my”, “your”, etc.) before a noun (e.g. “my book”, “your book”, etc.).  Alongside the personal pronouns of English, it is possible to represent the possessive pronouns (13) and the possessive determiners (14) in similar paradigms:


(13)                                               English Possessive Pronouns

singular plural
1s mine 1p ours
2s/2p  yours
3ms his 3p theirs
3fs hers
3ns its


(14)                                             English Possessive Determiners

singular plural
1s my 1p our
2s/2p  your
3ms his 3p their
3fs her
3ns its


In Cree, rather than using independent possessive pronouns, it is most common to attach specific prefixes (and suffixes) to nouns to represent the person (and number) of the possessor.  Thus, alongside the personal pronouns, a basic paradigm of person markers can be given here, followed by an example of how these affixes work:


(15)                                       Basic Possessive Affixes in Plains Cree

singular plural
1s ni(t)- 1p ni(t)- -inān
21 ki(t)- -inaw
2s ki(t)-
2p ki(t)- -iwāw
3s   o(t)- 3p  o(t)- -wāw
4   o(t)-      -iyiw


(16)                                  Example Possessive Paradigm in Plains Cree

singular plural
1s nicīmān my canoe 1p nicīmāninān our (excl) canoe
21 kicīmāninaw our (incl) canoe
2s kicīmān your canoe
2p kicīmāniwāw your (pl) canoe
3s   ocīmān his/her canoe 3p   ocīmāniwāw their canoe
4   ocīmāniyiw another’s/others’ canoe


You will note that an extra person division, not present among the personal pronouns, has been introduced to these possessive paradigms.  This is the so-called obviative person, abbreviated here as (though often in other grammatical materials it is marked as 3′ to indicate that it is a subtype of third person reference). In Cree and related Algonquian languages, third persons can be divided and differentiated on the basis of topicality.  When two or more distinct third persons are being talked about, one third person referent (singular or plural) is treated as more topical, salient or important in terms of the speaker and addressee than the other(s).  This more topical third person is known to linguists as the proximate, while the less topical third person is known as the obviative.  Another way to think about this division that you might find useful is to consider the more important proximate participant as the third person, and the less topical obviative particpant as a “fourth” person and hence the use of the abbreviation 4 here.  These concepts will be discussed in more detail in the appropriate sections below.

This is still not a complete representation of possessive marking in Cree, but it introduces the basic pattern which will be elaborated upon as we delve further into these grammatical patterns. However, one final important feature of Cree person marking will be noted here.  In contrast to the traditional division between singular and plural forms as represented in the person and number paradigms given thus far, some languages also mark a strong contrast between first and second person (speakers and addressees or speech act participants) on the one hand and third (and fourth) persons on the other.  Cree is one such language that marks this difference, although it is even more important for marking verbs than it is for nouns or pronouns.  As such, it has become traditional in describing Cree person and number to group all of the speech act participant forms (i.e. speaker and addressee) together, and separate them from the third person forms.  Thus, an alternative way to represent the Cree personal pronouns is as in (17), and this format will be followed in the subsequent sections dealing with possessive marking on nouns.


(17)                                            Plains Cree Possessive Paradigm

1s ni(t)-
2s ki(t)-
1p ni(t)-        -inān
21 ki(t)-        -inaw
2p ki(t)-        -iwāw
3s  o(t)-
3p  o(t)-        -iwāw
4  o(t)-        -iyiw

Case: the Locative

Possessive marking is fundamentally different in English and Cree.  In Cree, the same basic person prefixes that are used for the possessive, as in (18a), also function to mark the equivalent of subjects (18b) and objects (18c) on verbs, without any differences.


(18)       a) Prefix + Noun:            nicīmān                                               “my canoe”

ni-    +    cīmān

1s           canoe

b) Prefix + Verb:                nicīstināwak.                                      “I pinch them.”

ni-    +    cīstin-  +  -ā  +  -wak

1s            pinch       →      3p

c) Prefix + Verb:             nicīstinikwak.                                     “They pinch me.”

ni-    +    cīstin-  +  -ik  +  -wak

1s            pinch       ←       3p


In contrast, English generally uses completely different forms of the pronouns to represent differences between subjects, objects and possessors, as shown in the translations in (18), and the table in (19).  Differences of this kind are known as case-marking, since each pronoun (and/or noun, depending on the language) is, through its form, marked for the case or grammatical role that the person is playing in a particular context (e.g. subject, object, possessor, etc.).


(19)                               English Case-marked Pronouns and Determiners





Possessive Determiner
singular 1s I me my
2s you you your
3ms he him his
3fs she her her
3ns it it its
plural 1p we us our
2p you you your
3p they them their


Although Cree does not use case-marking to differentiate subjects, objects and possessors, whether on pronouns or nouns, there is one important way that nouns are marked in Cree to specify their role in a sentence.  When a noun is meant to indicate that it represents a place or location, the noun must be marked as a locative.  Although the specific details of locative marking will be discussed in detail in the appropriate sections of each verb type, the basic locative suffix is –ihk, as exemplified in (20a).


(20)     a)         sākahikan  +  -ihk       >          sākahikanihk

 “lake”            locative             “in/on/at the lake”

b) niwāpahtēn sākahikan.                       “I see a lake.”

c) niwāpahtēn sākahikanihk.                 “I see it in/on/at the lake.”

d) niwāpahtēn cīmān sākahikanihk.       “I see a canoe on/at the lake.”


The difference in meaning created by adding the locative ending is illustrated by comparing (20b) and (20c).  In (20b), the noun sākahikan “lake” occurs unmarked and therefore serves as the object of the verb niwāpahtēn “I see (it)”.  In (20c), however, the locative ending has been added to sākahikan to create the general locative sākahikanihk “in/on/at the lake”.  When this occurs, the “lake” can no longer serve as the object of the verb, but must instead be interpreted as the location where something else was seen.  (20d) shows that another noun can now be inserted to act as the object of the verb.

Normally, for a language to be described with a case-marking system, we expect to find ways of marking nouns for a variety of different roles (e.g. subject, object, possessor, locative, etc.).   Cree, however, does not have specific subject and object marking and so case-marking has not generally been considered an important feature of Cree grammar.  Nevertheless, the locative ending on Cree nouns does serve this important role just as do other case-markers in languages with more extensive case systems (e.g. Latin, Inuktitut or Finnish, which all have cases marking locatives and/or directionals).  In fact, there is even a second, more marginal pattern known as the vocative or address form which can also be thought of as case-marking.  The vocative only occurs with animate nouns and particularly kinship terms and as such will only be introduced as part of the discussion of dependent animate nouns (NDA).

Derivation: the Diminutive

The categories that have been discussed thus far – gender, number, person, and case – are all considered to be inflectional categories which mark individual nouns for use in phrases, clauses and sentences.  In other words, these categories help situate nouns within the syntax of Cree noun phrases and clauses.  Prior to the addition of inflectional morphology, languages also use morphology to build more complex words in the first place, which are only then marked by inflection.  The most common patterns of word-building morphology cross-linguistically are derivation and compounding.  In both types, words are built by combining simpler elements already found in the language.  Here we will briefly introduce derivational morphology.

In derivation, a more basic meaningful element or word is modified by adding an affix (prefix or suffix) thus creating a new word, often with both a change of meaning and a change of word class.  The process of derivation is exemplified for English in (21) and for Cree in (22).


(21)        Verb  +  -er  →  Noun               Noun/Adjective  +  -ize  →  Verb

work  +  -er  →  worker         winter   +  -ize  →  winterize  “make ready for winter”

jump  +  -er  →  jumper         private  +  -ize  →  privatize  “make private”


(22)       Verb  +  -win  →  Noun

mētawē-  “play”  +  -win  →  mētawēwin  “game”

Verb  +  -(i)kan  →  Noun

pahkwēs-  “cut off a piece of s.t.”  + -ikan  →  pahkwēsikan  “bannock”

Noun  +  -ihkē  →  Verb

maskisin-  “shoe”               +  -ihkē  →  maskisinihkē  “make shoes”

pahkwēsikan-  “bannock”  +  -ihkē  →  pahkwēsikanihkē  “make bannock”


An exceptionally common derivation that affects Cree nouns is the creation of diminutives.  A diminutive noun is one that refers to something smaller than the norm and this can productively be done with any and all nouns in the language.  In addition to indicating smallness, diminutives can also be used to express endearment or even denigration, depending on the context.  Though more precise details of the diminutive derivation will be given in the appropriate sections below, a few examples can be shown here.  The general means of creating a diminutive is to add some version of the diminutive suffix –is (or –isis), as in (23).


(23)        maskisin-  “shoe”               +  -is     →  maskisinis  “small shoe; child’s shoe”

pahkwēsikan-  “bannock”  +  -is     →  pahkwēsikanis  “small piece of bannock”

sīsīp-  “duck”                        +  -isis   →  sīsīpisis  “duckling”


In words that include one or more /t/ sounds, the diminutive derivation is accompanied by a process known as sound symbolism, in which the /t/ sound changes to /c/, as in (24).


(24)        astis-  “mitt”             +  -is  →  ascisis  “small mitt; child’s mitt”

tēhtapiwin-  “chair”  +  -is  →  cēhcapiwinis  “small chair, baby chair, highchair”


When a noun is marked with the diminutive suffix, this creates an entirely new noun, which can in turn be marked for all of the inflectional categories already introduced above.


(25)                                  Noun                                                     Diminutive Noun

singular:          maskisin          “shoe”                         maskisinis         “small shoe”

plural:             maskisina        “shoes”                       maskisinisa       “small shoes”

possessive:      nimaskisin       “my shoe”                   nimaskisinis      “my small shoe”

locative:          maskisinihk     “in the shoe”               maskisinisihk    “in the small shoe”

As such, we can consider basic nouns and diminutive nouns to be separate words rather than simply forms of the same word, and thus diminutive nouns can be listed separately in the dictionary.  However, it should be noted that the diminutive derivation is extremely productive and predictable, and thus acts very much like inflection in this respect.  In practice, then, not every possible diminutive noun will typically be found in the dictionary, but this does not mean that speakers can not and do not freely create new diminutives as needed.

There are additional suffixes that, like diminutives, seem to skirt the divide between derivation and inflection, including the extra possessive marker –im and the absentative –ipan.  These, however, are less predictable and less productive, and will only be mentioned in the appropriate sections below.

Subclassification: N1, N2, N3, N4 (and N4w)

The inflectional categories and the diminutive derivation discussed above apply to virtually every noun in Cree.  However, the exact form taken by these suffixes depends on further subclassification of Cree nouns.  The most important classification, between animate and inanimate nouns, has already been introduced.  Cross-cutting the gender distinction, though, is a further subclassification of noun stems.  Both animate and inanimate noun stems can be divided into four main stem classes, and the criteria for this subclassification are the same regardless of gender.

The first of the four subclasses of both animate and inanimate nouns are those with regular stems (N1).  This means that when endings for the plural, possessive, locative or diminutive are attached directly to the stem, the regular form of these suffixes appear without any changes to the singular stem form.  The subclass of regular stems is the most common type of both NI and NA, which will thus be abbreviated NI1 and NA1.  The other subclasses all display certain differences from the regular patterns.  We might refer to these differences as “irregularities”, except that even these apparent irregularities are in some ways regular and predictable.  For instance, nouns of the second subclass (N2) all end in a combination of a vowel plus a glide (i.e. /w/ or /y/).  Such nouns take regular plural endings but both the noun stem and the suffixes undergo certain changes when the possessive, locative or diminutive is added.  The third subclass (N3) consists of noun stems which end in a combination of a consonant and a /w/.  This /w/ is absent in the singular but shows up in the plural and results in changes to the other suffixes.  Finally, the fourth subclass (N4) consists of single-syllable stems.  These are the most “irregular” since they require special singular forms.  Additionally, single-syllable stems can also act much like either regular or consonant-/w/ stems, so that we will further subdivide single-syllable stems as N4 and N4w respectively.  Each of these subclasses and their own particular peculiarities will be described in the appropriate sections.  This may seem, at first glance, like a great deal to learn, but it must be remembered that even these subclasses exhibit a great degree of regularity compared to some of the large number of exceptional and completely irregular patterns to be found in English grammar.  English nouns, for example, exhibit a great variety of (often completely irregular) plural forms.  The following show just three patterns for nouns ending in “oose”:


(26)                 singular                       plural                          change

moose                         moose                         Ø

goose                           geese                           oo → ee

noose                           nooses                         + –s


Nothing in the language allows one to predict the form of the plural of these and many other examples; they simply must be learned.  In Cree, the patterns tend to be more predictable and therefore, hopefully, more easily learned.

Stem Types: Independent and Dependent

One additional distinction among Cree nouns that must be recognized, however, is the difference between independent and dependent nouns.  The majority of Cree nouns are considered to be independent stems.  This means that they are nouns which can stand alone as words without any additional marking.  The singular form of each noun is generally taken as the basic form of the word, while modifications can be made in order to mark the plural, possessive and/or locative forms of a stem.  Diminutives are also created by modifying noun stems, but in the case of diminutives the change simply creates another (regular) noun stem which can be further marked for the plural, possessive and/or locative.  In contrast to the independent stems, there are also a fair number of dependent stems in Cree.  These are nouns which cannot stand alone as words, but must take possessive marking in order to be considered complete.  Dependent nouns, therefore, are those which refer to things which are not typically referred to outside of a possessive relationship.  Such things include body parts (most of which are classified as inanimate), and kinship terms (all of which are animate nouns), as well as a few additional special items (which may be animate or inanimate).  Both independent and dependent noun stems will be described in their own webpages here.

Inflection versus Derivation

Finally, we must reiterate the distinction between two very important processes in the creation of Cree nouns used as words in Cree speech.  The majority of the wordforms discussed thus far are created through what is known as inflection.  These are modifications of the basic noun for use in specific grammatical circumstances.  Although we can inflect a noun for number, possession and/or locative, these are all wordforms of the same noun.  All the inflected wordforms of a noun fit into a paradigm or what in traditional grammar is called a noun declension (these are similar to verb paradigms or conjugation patterns).  As such, the inflectional paradigms for nouns will all include number (plural and/or obviation), person (possessive forms) and case (locative).

In addition to the inflectional patterns that surround nouns, the noun stems themselves can often be formed by regular processes of word formation as well.  Many nouns are underived and consist solely of single meaningful elements (or “morphemes”) or noun roots which cannot be further divided, such as the nouns in (27).


(27)        astis-        “mitt”

nikikw-     “otter”

pisiw-       “lynx”

For instance, we cannot divide a noun like astis and find smaller pieces (e.g. */as-/ or */-tis/) which combine to form the overall meaning of astisastis is a morpheme, a word, a noun root and a noun stem all in one.

In contrast, the nouns in (28) can be divided into two or more consistent, meaningful parts which have been combined to form each noun stem.


(28)        mōsokot                       “moose nose”   [mōsw- “moose” + -kot “nose”]

mistatim                      “horse”              [mist– “big” + atim “dog”]

pīsimwēyāpiy              “rainbow”        [pīsimw– “sun, moon” + –ēyāpiy “string, line”]

kisiskāciwan-sīpiy      “Saskatchewan River”   [kisiskā– “quick” + –ciwan “flow” + sīpiy “river”]


In some cases, one piece of the word is a free morpheme (i.e. it can stand alone as a word; e.g. atim, pīsim, sīpiy), while at least one other piece is a bound morpheme (i.e. it cannot stand alone as a word but must be combined with other morphemes; e.g. mist-, –ēyāpīy, –ciwan, etc.).  In traditional English grammar, word formation that combines free words with bound morphemes or affixes is referred to as derivation.  Sometimes, two or more free words can be combined (e.g. kisiskāciwan + sīpiy) and this is generally called compounding.  At yet other times in Cree word formation, all the morphemes present are bound (e.g. kisiskā– + –ciwan; mōsw– + –kot).  This last instance is very rare in English, such that there is no traditional English terminology for such a situation.  Even the English definition of compounding is problematical for a language like Cree in which not only affixes are bound, but many root morphemes (e.g. mōsw-, –kot) are bound as well.  For the sake of simplification, all word formation processes of these three types will be referred to as Derivation.