Combining Sounds

The 17 distinct sounds of Plains Cree do not occur in isolation.

There are a number of very important ways in which sounds are combined (also known as Phonotactics) which can impact on how the individual sounds are produced. Furthermore, the way that sounds interact can change from community to community and this is largely what gives rise to dialectal differences (e.g. the different ways that the same word might vary slightly in pronunciation from one community to the next).  The following descriptions are by no means meant to be comprehensive, and much work remains to be done in the description of the precise patterns of dialectal variation in Cree.

Vowels plus Glides (h, w, y)

When the vowels occur next to one of the three consonants known as “glides” or “semi-vowels” (h, w, y), various modifications can occur in the pronunciation of the basic vowel sounds.


The effect of an “h-consonant” cluster (hC or “pre-aspirated” consonants, where “C” stands for any consonant, e.g. hp, ht, hc, hk; see below) on the preceding vowel is very important for, in most cases, the distinction between long and short vowels is neutralized. In other words, it is usually very difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between long and short vowels before a combination of “h” and another consonant. Before hC, long and short vowels seem to merge into a single vowel which is short in duration, but closer to the quality of the long vowel. Hence:

ahC and āhC

– both sound as in English “fa” (like ā), but shorter in duration (like a).

ihC and īhC

– both sound as in English “beat” (like ī), but shorter in duration (like i).

ohC and ōhC

– both sound as in English “boat” (like ō), but shorter in duration (like o).

This description of the effect of h on preceding vowels holds for Plains and some areas of Woods Cree. In other areas of Woods Cree and many areas of Swampy Cree speech, however, a different sound change is occurring. Instead of causing long and short vowels to neutralize (as essentially short vowels), it is more common in these varieties for the h to disappear between a vowel and consonant, and for the vowel to become long. In essence, Plains and some Woods Cree dialects are neutralizing vowel-h-consonant (VhC) sequences to short vowel-hC sequences, while some Woods and Swampy Cree dialects are neutralizing VhC sequences to long vowel-C.


When following a vowel, w often sounds something like the short o or long ō vowels. It is very similar to these vowels for they are all similar in the place and manner in which they are produced in the mouth, including “rounding” of the lips. w has the following effects:


– as in Canadian English “about”.


– as in English “wow”, but please note, it is never spelled “ow” in Cree.


– like a combination of English “ay-oo”, and hence the common attempt to spell Cree words like nāpēw (“man”) as “Napayo” in English.


– this combination varies in pronunciation from a sound similar to that in English “new”, to the sounds of Cree short o, or long ō. The w effectively “rounds” the vowel, making it sound more like the round vowels (o and ō).


– like a combination of English “ee-oo”.


– this combination sounds very much as in English “know”, and it is difficult to tell the difference between short o and long ō. Before w, both vowels sound long. By spelling convention, when no dialect-internal means are available for determining the length of the vowel before w, the vowel is spelled as short o (e.g. manitow “spirit”). Such examples are found mostly in nouns.


– this combination sounds very much as in English “know”, and it is difficult to tell the difference between short o and long ō. Before w, both vowels sound long.

As can be seen from the descriptions above, it can be particularly difficult to tell the exact vowel qualities of i, o, and ō when occurring before w. Therefore, in determining the best spelling of such vowels for the standard roman orthography, it is best, if possible, to find examples of the vowel without the presence of the following w, as exemplified with the verbs given in (1).

(1) Vowel before /w/ Vowel elsewhere


“s/he sits”


“I sit”




“s/he sings”


“I sing”




“s/he stand up”


“I stand up”


“Stand up!”

Though the exact length of the vowel before w may be difficult to determine in the first examples of each set, it becomes obvious in the second and third examples. Thus, the verb api “sit” is always spelled with a short vowel i, nikamo “sing” is always spelled with a short o, and pasikō “flee” is always spelled with a long vowel ō whether a w follows these vowels of not.


This sound, when following a vowel, often has a quality much like the short i or long ī vowels, since these vowels and y are very similar in the place and manner in which they are produced in the mouth. In nouns and names, y usually only follows short vowels, and it has the following effects:


– as in Canadian English “bite”.


– this combination sounds very much like the long ī, and it is not possible to tell the difference between short i and long ī before y. Before y, both vowels sound long. By spelling convention, where no dialect-internal means are available for determining the length of the vowel before y, the vowel will always be spelled as a short i. Such examples are generally only found in nouns (and, as a side-effect, the “iy” spelling at the end of words can be used to signal the occurrence of a noun in opposition to any other part of speech.


– this combination is similar to the sound in English “boy” or “buoy”.

Long vowels may also precede y when a suffix beginning with y (e.g. -yān) is added to a verb stem ending in a long vowel. In such cases, y has less effect on the preceding vowel, though again short i and long ī tend to sound the same before y. In verbs, however, it is always possible to determine the length of the vowel by listening to forms of the verb in which y does not follow:

(2) Vowel before /y/ Vowel elsewhere


“(as) I sit”


“I sit”




“(as) I flee”


“I flee”



Though the exact length of the vowel before y may be difficult to determine in the first examples of each set, it becomes obvious in the second and third examples. Thus, the verb api “sit” is always spelled with a short vowel i and tapasī “flee” is always spelled with a long vowel ī, whether a y follows these vowels of not.

The combinations of vowel plus glide will also prove very important in characterizing certain subclasses of Nouns (i.e. NA2 and NI2) and Verbs (i.e. VTA2).

Consonant Clusters

A consonant cluster is a combination of two or more consonants in a row. There are actually a very limited number of consonant clusters in Cree, with many restrictions as to which sounds can occur together. There are two basic types of two-consonant clusters:

  • consonant-[w] clusters (abbreviated as Cw; e.g. [kw], [pw], etc.)
  • fricative-stop clusters (e.g. [sk], [hc], etc.)

A third even more restricted type simply combines these two types into three-consonant clusters:

  • fricative-stop-[w] (e.g. [skw], [hpw], etc.).

(Note: the term fricative here refers to the h and s sounds of Cree).

Each of these types of clusters are restricted to certain positions within Cree words, as will be described below.

Two-Consonant Clusters

In the first type, the consonant-[w] (Cw) clusters, we see that the [w] sound can follow all other consonants. However, these clusters are only found in certain positions in the word. For instance, nw, sw, hw, and yw never occur at the beginning of a word, and no Cw clusters ever occur at the end of a word (compare atim with atimwak).


initially   medially   finally  



“she is pregnant”





“land, alight”


“say it!”  





“ask him/her”  



“small water hole in ice”


“small word”  





“it is calm”  




“long time”  




“s/he cooks it (animate)”  




“s/he hits him/her”  




“it is good”  

Additionally, some of these clusters are being further reduced cross-dialectally.  For instance, /cw/ is very rare and generally will only occur if a /tw/ cluster is diminutivized (e.g. twāhipānis “water-hole in the ice” becomes cwāhipānis “small water hole in the ice”); /mw/ is often reduced initially (cf. mwākwa ~ mākwa “loon”), etc.  Simplification of these clusters usually means dropping the /w/.  However, the Plains Cree /yw/ cluster often just sounds as if it is a /w/ alone. The corresponding form of this cluster in other dialects (e.g,. Woods Cree thw ([ðw]) and Swampy Cree nw) may also lose the /w/ (e.g. just sound like /ð/ or /n/).

The second type, the fricative-stop clusters, come in two subtypes, /h/-stop and /s/-stop. These are also very restricted as none of them can ever start a word, and some of the s-stop clusters don’t occur at the ends of words (i.e. word-finally) either.


initially   medially   finally  




“jump up”












“she is sick”


“pail; kettle”






“now, today”



initially   medially   finally  








“place it (there)”






“up to there; until”






“small mitt”  

Some areas of Woods Cree would also have “thk” ([θk], with devoicing of the [ð] (of “this”) to the [θ] (of “thin”)) as in mithko “blood”, in place of misko (or Plains Cree mihko) but this is not common.

The sole exception to these patterns which can occur as a two-consonant cluster in Plains Cree is the very rare combination of /hý/, as in aw “far away” or piēw “prairie chicken”.  This cluster can only occur medially, and is now quite rare even in that position, since it is commonly simplified to just /h/ or just /y/ (e.g. piēw is commonly said as either pihēw or piyēw; cf. Woods Cree pithīw and Swampy Cree pińēw).  In some words, the /ý/ of the old /hý/ cluster has been lost in (almost?) all Plains Cree speech communities, such as forms of the word ahēw “s/he places it (animate) there”, which comes from an older form aēw.  In other dialects  as can be seen by Woods Cree athīw and Swampy Cree ańēw, which have instead simplified the cluster by dropping the /h/.

There are additional clusters which will occur in rapid speech, but these are the result of predictable contractions due to vowel deletions – usually the loss of an unstressed /i/ (see also Stress). Thus, combinations of the nasal consonants (/m/ and /n/) with a following consonant (e.g. [mp], [nt], [nk], [ns]) will be heard in Cree speech, but this will always be the result of the loss of a vowel, as exemplified in (3):

(3) Contraction Full SRO form   Contracted form
  /mip/ > [mp]


“run!” [pimpahtā]
  /nit/ > [nt]


“where?” [tāntē]
  /nik/ > [nk]


“they sing” [nkamowak]
  /nis/ > [ns]


“how; hello” [tānsi]

The full form is always written in the SRO despite these predictable contractions.

This same kind of contraction can also result in additional combinations of [st] clusters.  It can be difficult to tell which [st] clusters come from an underlying /st/ (e.g. nisto “three”), and which appear because of a contraction of a short vowel (e.g. sitanaw “twenty” > [nīstanaw]; ninisitohtēn “I understand” > [ninstohtēn]).  In such cases, the SRO will usually restore the missing vowel, but certain common words have come to be written frequently without it since writers are not always aware of this contraction if they have never heard the uncontracted form.

Three-Consonant Clusters

The final example given above illustrates that we can occasionally hear three-consonant clusters in Cree speech as well. Sometimes these also are due to contractions (e.g. [nst] in ninisitohtēn > [ninstohtēn]).  However, there are actually eight three-consonant clusters in most dialects of Cree, all beginning with [s] or [h] and all ending in [w]. They are in fact combinations of the two main types of two-consonant clusters and they only occur in the middle of words, never at the beginning or end.


initially   medially   finally  




“s/he makes them (e.g. ducks) fly up”  




“how many times?”  




“pails, kettles”  







initially   medially   finally  








“three times”  








“cottage cheese”  

Some areas of Woods Cree would also have “thkw” ([θkw], with devoicing of the [ð] (of “this”) to the [θ] (of “thin”)) as in mithkwáw “it is red”, in place of miskwāw (or Plains Cree mihkwāw) but this is not common.

Other than the clusters demonstrated above, no other clusters occur. If you find yourself writing any combination of sounds other than those listed above, you are missing a vowel (usually a short i sound; remember: nisi, not [tānsi]; the combination of [ns] is never spelled this way!). Part of the reason for this has to do with the Stress Patterns of Plains Cree, which will be discussed in the final section on sound.

Before leaving the discussion of phonotactics, or the combination of sounds, we can and should look at the particular combinations of sounds that form full syllables. The structure of syllables is a very important aspect of the sound system of every language. This is especially obvious for languages which can be written using a “Syllabary” or a writing system that uses symbols that can represent entire syllables rather than individual consonants (C) and vowels (V). A fair number of distinct syllabaries are used for writing some of the world’s languages, including those used for Japanese, Cherokee, Inuktitut, Ojibwe, and Cree. The latter three, in fact, are all written with variations of a particular system sometimes known as Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, or more specifically, the Cree Syllabary or Cree Syllabics. The structure of syllables and the use of Syllabics to write the Plains Cree language will be the focus of a subsection on Syllables and the Cree Syllabary.