Verbs are usually characterized as the action words of a language.
In actual fact, verbs not only convey actions (e.g. pimipahtā “run”) but also states (e.g. nipāw “s/he is sleeping”, kāmwātan “it is calm”) and, in the case of Algonquian languages (which lack a distinct class of adjectives), verbs also attribute qualities (e.g. apisīsisiw “s/he is small”).
In Cree, as in Algonquian languages in general, Verbs are divided into four distinct verb classes: VII, VAI, VTI, and VTA. The criteria for this division, plus some additional inflectional categories important for understanding the basic Plains Cree Verbal Paradigms, will be discussed in the following pages:
- Transitivity – all Cree Verbs are divided into two main types based on whether they refer to one participant alone (i.e. Intransitive) or at least two distinct participants with a transfer of action from actor (or subject) to goal (or object) (i.e. Transitive).
- Animacy – all Cree Verbs are characterized by the gender or Animacy (i.e. Animate or Inanimate) of the one or two most important participants referred to by the verb.
- Participants – all Cree verbs must be marked for agreement with the Person and Number of the one or two most important participants referred to by the verb, resulting in full Person and Number Paradigms.
- Order – all Cree verbs can be placed in the Independent and Conjunct Orders. Verbs with animate actors can also be placed in the Imperative Order.
- Mood or Illocution – Cree verbs can be used to express Declaratives (i.e. Statements), Interrogatives (i.e. Questions) and Imperatives (i.e. Commands). This in part overlaps with the grammatical category of Order.
- Verb Stems – all of the preceding categories contribute to the basic verbal paradigms that are built around verbal Stems that fit into the four main classes of VII, VAI, VTI, and VTA. Each main class of Verb Stem can be subclassified by regularities (or irregularities) of their paradigms, or by the forms of the Stems themselves.
Some additional categories that can be marked within verb paradigms to expand them greatly (see also Preverbs), or which are combined with verbs in phrases or clauses, include the following:
- Tense – Cree verbs can be marked for the category of Tense, which indicates when an action occurs (e.g. past, present, future).
- Aspect – Cree verbs can be marked for the category of Aspect, which indicates “aspects” of the internal timeframe of the action, event or occurrence (e.g. ingressive, progressive, egressive; prospective, perfect, etc.).
- Modality – Cree verbs can be marked for the category of Modality, which indicates either 1) the speaker’s assessment of likelihood of a statement (e.g. may, possibly, etc.; called “epistemic modality”), 2) obligations or permission (e.g. have to, must; called “deontic modality”), or 3) abilities or desires of the participants (e.g. can, want to, try to; called “participant-oriented modality”).
- Negation – at the extreme end of epistemic modality is the ability to state that something is NOT the case, and this is accomplished by Negation.
Finally, Verbs Stems themselves are most frequently derived by means of combining two or more meaningful elements together through the process of Derivation. Verb Derivation creates new verb stems which will occur within their own paradigms. There are many ways in which new verbs stems are formed in Cree, and some of these patterns will be explored.