The exact boundaries of the Cree language are difficult to map due to the difficulty in defining what exactly is meant by “Cree”. The name itself is not a traditional indigenous name, but rather appears most likely to be a shortening of French Cristenaux (“like Christians”) to Cris and hence Cree. In its broadest application, “Cree” is the term applied to a wide dialect continuum ranging from northeastern British Columbia and communities in the southwestern Northwest Territories, through much of north and central Alberta, south-central Saskatchewan, central Manitoba, and northwestern Ontario across James Bay and Hudson’s Bay on into central and northern Quebec and Labrador (see Algonquian Linguistic Atlas). The Cree language (or Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi dialect continuum), thus broadly defined, is part of the much larger Algonquian language family and shares a genetic affinity with Ojibwa, Fox, Menominee, Blackfoot, Micmac, and many other languages similarly descended from their common ancestor language known only through reconstruction as Proto-Algonquian.
Within the Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi dialect continuum, those groups occupying the easternmost territories are generally treated as separate, both culturally and politically if not always linguistically, from Cree proper. The names Montagnais and Naskapi have both been used for the Innu of Quebec and Labrador, such that these names are most commonly (mis)understood as dialects of innu-aimun, a language separate from, albeit closely related to, Cree. The less commonly delineated “East Cree” or “East Main Cree”, as spoken in western Quebec along the east coast of James Bay, is similarly part of this eastern dialect continuum. All three share the feature of /k/-palatalization. In contrast, the Atikamekw of south-central Quebec, which do not share /k/-palatalization with the other easternmost dialects, have most recently also been listed as a distinct language group (cf. Canada census data, 1996: http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/ index-eng.cfm), but have historically been referred to as the “R-dialect” of Cree (cf. Rhodes and Todd 1981). All “Cree” groups to the west of Quebec are consistently referred to as dialects of a single Cree language, though subdivided by features of the sound system and rough geography. The primary feature used to differentiate these Cree dialects is the reflex of Proto-Algonquian */r/ which has five main variants including the /r/ of Attikamek, as well as /l/, /n/, /ð/ and /y/.
Speakers of the “L-dialect” or Moose Cree (ililīmowin) occupy a relatively small area around Moose Factory and Moosonee on the southwest coast of James Bay (cf. Ellis 1995:xii-xiv). To the north and west through much of northwestern Ontario and central Manitoba even unto Cumberland House in Saskatchewan is the large area occupied by the Swampy Cree or speakers of the “N-dialect” (ininīmowin). However, additional features of dialect divergence, by no means always well-documented, are evident throughout this vast territory. For instance, Ellis (1995:xiii-xiv) indicates that “Kashechewan Cree” appears to be a sub-dialect of “mixed n-l usage” spoken at Albany Post, intermediate between the Moose Cree to the south and the Swampy Cree across the river and to the north. Additionally, a very important sound feature which differentiates eastern and western Cree dialects bisects Swampy Cree territory. Eastern dialects, including Montagnais-Naskapi, Attikamek and Moose Cree, as well as Eastern Swampy Cree as spoken in the more easterly Swampy Cree territory, make a distinction between /s/ and /ʃ/ as distinct phonemes. In the western dialects, however, including Western Swampy Cree, this contrast has been lost, so that no distinction is made and both sounds have merged to western /s/, usually pronounced as [s] but with variation between [s] and [ʃ] not infrequent.
To the north of the Swampy Cree in Manitoba, and westward through central Saskatchewan, the “TH-dialect” (nīhiðawīwin) is spoken. This dialect, delineated by the use of /ð/, is commonly referred to as Woods or Woodland Cree, though in Manitoba and some areas of northeastern Saskatchewan the term Rock Cree is often preferred. To the south of the Woods Cree in Saskatchewan, on the Plains and in the Parkland, the “Y-dialect” or Plains Cree (nēhiyawēwin) is spoken, and this dialect stretches furthest westward also spreading throughout central Alberta and even into northeastern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. Over this large territory, Plains Cree can be found in many regional forms which have not been exhaustively surveyed. For instance, Plains Cree as spoken at White Bear First Nation in southeastern Saskatchewan appears to be influenced somewhat by Saulteaux (or Plains Ojibwa) speech (cf. Bakker 1991, 1997; Rhodes 2008) and this is not surprising, for White Bear is a multilingual and multicultural reserve shared by the descendants of Cree, Saulteaux, Nakota, and Dakota speakers. In contrast, the Cree of Nekaneet First Nation in the Cypress Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan does not share this influence while exhibiting certain features of its own (Doreen Oakes, personal communication). Slightly different again is the Plains Cree speech of west-central Saskatchewan, such as in the Battleford area, and on into Alberta, as among the Maskwacis (formerly Hobbema) bands. Furthermore, many of the northwesternmost areas of Plains Cree speech in both Saskatchewan and Alberta are characterized by a sound change not otherwise found in Plains Cree but, in fact, shared with the Woods Cree dialect. The merger of /e:/ and /i:/ to /i:/ alone thus unites some speakers of the “Y-dialect” with speakers of the “TH-dialect” in opposition to other Plains Cree speech. Areas in which Plains Cree speech (nīhiyawīwin) exhibits this sound change are referred to as “Northern Plains Cree” in Saskatchewan, but merely as “Northern Cree” in Alberta (cf. Waugh 1998:xix).
Despite the sub-dialectal variation that is evident across the Plains Cree area, and which still requires detailed description, it is the southern “Y” or southern Plains Cree dialect, nēhiyawēwin, that will be central to the discussion of Cree Grammar in this work.
This brief introduction is modified from the introduction in:
Wolvengrey, Arok. 2011. Semantic and Pragmatic Functions in Plains Cree Syntax. Utrecht: LOT.
Bakker, Peter. 1991. “The Ojibwe Element in Michif.” 11-22 in William Cowan, ed, Papers of the 22nd Algonquian Conference. Ottawa: Carleton University.
———-. 1997. A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Metis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Canada census data. 1996: http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/ index-eng.cfm
Ellis, C.D. 1995. ātalōhkāna nēsta tipācimōwina / Cree Legends and Narratives from the West Coast of James Bay Told by Simeon Scott. Publications of the Algonquian Text Society. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
Rhodes, Richard. 2008. “Ojibwe in the Cree of Métchif.” 569-580 in Karl S. Hele and Regna Darnell, eds., Papers of the Thirty-Ninth Algonquian Conference. London: University of Western Ontario.
Rhodes, Richard, and Evelyn Todd. 1981. “Subarctic Algonquian Languages,” 52-66 in William C. Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians 6. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Waugh, Earle, ed. 1998. Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary / alperta ohci kehtehayak nehiyaw otwestamākewasinahikan. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press and Duval House Publishing.