Cree Language

The Cree language (also called Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi) is spoken in many parts of Canada, from the Rocky Mountains in the West to Labrador in the East. Cree is also spoken in northern Montana in the United States. Often written in syllabics (i.e., symbols representing a combination of consonant and vowel, or just a consonant or vowel), Cree is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in Canada. In the 2016 census, 96,575 people reported speaking Cree.

Cree Hymn Book
Rev James Evans translated the hymns, invented the letters, cast the letters himself and printed the hymnary on birch (courtesy Victoria University Library, Toronto).

The Language and Its Dialects

The Cree language is often described by linguists as a dialect continuum (a series of dialects that change gradually over a geographical area), also called Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi. This dialect continuum belongs to the Algonquian linguistic family, and is spoken across Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to Labrador. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada).

This map shows some areas where the Cree language is spoken.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

From the west to the east, these dialects include:

  • Plains Cree, also known as the y-dialect (spoken in much of Alberta, central Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and northern Montana)
  • Woods Cree, also known as the th-dialect (spoken in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan)
  • Swampy Cree, also known as the n-dialect (spoken in northern Manitoba and Ontario)
  • Moose Cree, also known as the l-dialect (spoken in northern Ontario)
  • James Bay/Eastern Cree (spoken mainly on the lower east coast of Hudson Bay and the east coast of James Bay). James Bay/Eastern Cree has a northern and southern dialect
  • Attikamek (Atikamekw) also known as the r-dialect (spoken in central Québec)
  • Montagnais (spoken in north-central Québec and on the north shores of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence)
  • Naskapi (northeast Québec and northern Labrador)

Some of these dialects, including Plains Cree and Eastern Cree, have their own subdialects.

Cree dialects differ in phonology and grammar. Most commonly, dialects will alternate sounds — and the spelling of those sounds — in various Cree words. For example, Plains Cree speakers call their language nehiyawewin (using the letter y), whereas the Swampy Cree say nehinawewin (using the letter n instead of y). Due to the differences among dialects, Cree speakers in one part of the country might not understand Cree speakers in another.

The Cree language has influenced other Indigenous languages, including Oji-Cree and Michif. While both of these languages include elements of Cree, they are typically considered distinct.

Syllabics: Writing Cree

In the pre-colonial era, Cree was orally transmitted and did not have a writing system. In 1840, a missionary at Norway House in present-day Manitoba, Reverend James Evans, devised a syllabics system for the Cree, probably in collaboration with Indigenous Cree-speaking people. Syllabics are symbols that represent a combination of consonant and vowel, or only a consonant or vowel. Evans produced considerable printed material in syllabics, including hymns and portions of the New Testament (see Christianity). Cree people initially learned the syllabics system in mission schools. Over time, the Cree modified this system to adapt to local dialect variation and to increase its phonetic accuracy (i.e., correspondence of sound to alphabet symbol).

Syllabics are written and read horizontally from left to right. Each character indicates a consonant sound, and, when flipped, also denotes an attached vowel. For example, in the Eastern Cree dialect, the syllabic for p (ᐯ) is rotated to indicate the following vowels:

pwe

pe

pi

pii

pu

puu

pa

paa

pwaa

Not all Cree dialects use syllabics. Attikamek, Montagnais and Eastern Naskapi typically use the Roman alphabet instead. Plains Cree, Woods Cree, Swampy Cree, Moose Cree and Eastern Cree can also take the Roman alphabet.

Current State of the Language

Cree is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada. In the 2016 census, 96,575 people reported speaking Cree, the majority of which (27.8 per cent) live in Saskatchewan.

An additional 6,600 people identified as Attikamek speakers, and 11,360 as Innu/Montagnais. While Statistics Canada identifies these as distinct from Cree, many linguists identify them as part of the same dialect continuum.

Despite its status as a widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada, Cree is still a declining mother tongue. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that Saskatchewan — the province with the most Cree speakers — had 28,340 people identifying as having an Indigenous language as their mother tongue. This was less than the number of speakers from 2011 (30,895). Many cultural and educational institutions strive to preserve and promote the language.