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:
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.
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 is provided with its own 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 NI and NA Stems.