Stress Patterns

A very important aspect of any language, and one rarely if ever represented in spelling, is the stress or intonation pattern.

The Plains Cree stress pattern differs considerably from that of English and can present many problems for the non-speaker, especially since stress is not overtly marked in Cree spelling. However, there are some clues to Cree stress in the Standard Roman Orthography (SRO), and this makes the SRO all that much more valuable. In the examples that follow, the syllable with primary stress in the Cree word will be underlined and boldfaced, while in the rough English pronunciations given in curled brackets, primary stress is indicated by boldfaced full capital letters and secondary stress (where shown) is indicated by unboldfaced caps.

2-Syllable Words

In two-syllable words, the final (or ultimate) syllable is typically given the main stress:

(1) Cree rough English pronunciation translation


{wuh TSUSK} “muskrat”


{ah STUM} “come here”


{kuh YAAS} “long ago”

{see PEE} “stretch!”

You will note that the final-syllable stress holds regardless of the length of the vowels in each syllable. If you try to say these words with the stress on the first syllable (as is common in English), they will simply sound incorrect to a Cree speaker.

Note also that if you write a word with only two syllables, but the stress actually is on the first syllable, chances are very good that the word has been collapsed in spoken Cree and a vowel has been lost from the middle syllable. There are, however, some exceptions, so care must be taken (see immediately below).

3-(or more)-Syllable Words

In words of three or more syllables, the third last (or antepenultimate) syllable receives the main stress, while the final syllable also receives some secondary stress:

(2) Cree rough English pronunciation translation


{MUSS kiss SIN} “moccasin; shoe”


{muss KISS sin NUH} “moccasins; shoes”

This is not a common pattern in English, but it does occasionally occur as in the following examples (though without the secondary stress in the final syllable):

(3) English rough English pronunciation


{MED dis sin}


{med DIS sin nul}

However, this pattern won’t hold for English if the second last (or penultimate) syllable is heavy or long (i.e. contains a tense or complex vowel or a vowel plus at least one consonant in that same syllable):

(4) English rough English pronunciation


{uh MEE buh},  ( NOT {UM me buh} )


{um BREL luh}, ( NOT {UM bruh luh} )

In contrast, antepenultimate stress does hold in Cree regardless of the length of the vowel of the penultimate:

(5) Cree rough English pronunciation translation


{UH waa SIS} “child”


{PEE yay CEASE} “bird”


{pee YAY see SUK} “birds”

This pattern can be particularly difficult for English speakers to adjust to since the long (or tense) vowel in English speech tends to attract stress. However, it is very important when speaking Cree to keep vowel length and stress separate. Pronouncing piyēsīs as {pee YAY cease} is just as incorrect in Cree as pronouncing “syllable” as {sil LAB bull} in English.

In Cree words of more than four syllables, the antepenultimate retains the primary stress, but there are also secondary stresses which generally tend to occur every second syllable to the left or right (with secondary stresses in unboldfaced caps):

(6) Cree rough English pronunciation translation


{SAY way PIT tsig GUN} “phone”


{say WAY pit TSIG gun NUH} “phones”


{KISS kin WUH hum MAA toe WICK kum MICK} “school”

The placement of stress can have several effects on the pronunciation of syllables and words. Perhaps the most common effect in Cree is the complete loss or deletion of unstressed short vowels and, thus, the syllable to which they belong. This is also a process which should be quite familiar to speakers and spellers of English. For instance, the word “laboratory”, despite being spelled as if it had five syllables (as it originally did), is commonly pronounced with only four (e.g. {LAB bret TOR ree} in North America, or {lub BOR ret TREE} in Britain). In this case, one consistent spelling helps unite the word for all English dialects despite pronunciation differences. Some SRO spellings accomplish this same purpose by ignoring certain features of surface pronunciation. In Cree, vowel or syllable loss occurs most commonly when the unstressed vowel is a short “i” [ı] (as in English “pit”), but this vowel is retained in spelling, even when it is rarely, if ever, pronounced:

(7) Cree rough English pronunciation translation


{TAAN sih} “how; hello”


{TAAN tay} “where”

The SRO spelling of these examples often strikes fluent speakers as odd because of the presence of the “silent-i” after the “n”. However, there are some very sound reasons for including the “i” vowel in the spelling. For instance, we can find evidence for the presence of the vowel in the way the words in question have been formed. These particular examples, tānisi and tānitē, are made up of an initial question or interrogative particle /tān-/ (which never occurs alone) plus the particles isi (indicating manner, i.e. “so, thus”) and itē (indicating location, i.e. “there; where”). These latter two particles can occur alone, but never without the initial vowel [ı]. Thus, the derivations of these two words are as follows:

(8) Root           +      Particle                                           = Compound Particle
tān-  “?; what” isi   “so, thus, in such a manner” tānisi  “in what manner; how”
tān-  “?; what” itē   “there, in such a place” tānitē “in what place; where”

Hence, we have evidence based on the word structure for the inclusion of the “silent-i”. More importantly for our discussion here, though, is the stress pattern indicated in these examples. In the rough pronunciations, there appear to be only two syllables in each, but the stress does not fall on the final syllable, as predicted by our earlier rule. This suggests the stressed syllable is really the antepenultimate (or third last), at least in origin, and that the unstressed syllable has simply been deleted. Thus, the SRO spelling helps to indicate the origin of these words as three-syllable words, both explaining and indicating the proper stress pattern. If, in contrast, these words were really just two syllable words, spelled without the “silent-i”, we might expect the following stress patterns and pronunciations:

(9) misspelled Cree rough English pronunciation translation
“tānsi” {taan SIH} “??”
“tāntē” {taan TAY} “??”

Pronouncing these words in this way in isolation is simply incorrect and, thus, no sensible translation can be given. Taken together, the evidence from both phonology (the sound system; in this case, stress) and morphology (word formation) argue very strongly for the SRO spelling, despite the predictable feature of vowel loss in the spoken language. This “silent-i” rule in Cree spelling is very similar to the “silent-e” in English: both sounds are unpronounced in their respective languages, but they both give an important clue to the pronunciation of the word.

Conclusion (SRO or SCA)

Spelling need not represent just sounds. It can represent the beauty of a language’s entire structure. And that is why the Standard Roman Orthography (SRO) or the Standard Cree Alphabet (SCA) is one of the best spelling systems in use for any language throughout the world today. It has been designed specifically for the Cree language. It is not a system which requires validation from the practices of English spelling, or the idiosyncracies of any other orthography. It is a very consistent system which has innumerable benefits. Its consistency goes beyond that cited in this short description.

Many times, the spelling may be in doubt because of dialect or regional differences or simply the difference in rapidity of speech. We can more easily control for such problem areas when we recognize that a word or morpheme with a single consistent meaning should likewise be spelled consistently whenever it is encountered, regardless of variation in pronunciation.