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Swampy Cree language

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Swampy Cree language

Swampy Cree
ᓀᐦᐃᓇᐍᐏᐣ / Nêhinawêwin
Native to Canada
Region Ontario
Native speakers
85  (2011 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 csw
Glottolog swam1239[2]
Linguasphere 62-ADA-ac, 62-ADA-ad
Linguistic subdivisions in Canada

Swampy Cree (variously known as Maskekon, Omaškêkowak, and often anglicized as Omushkego) is a variety of the Algonquian language, Cree. Swampy Cree is spoken in a series of Swampy Cree communities in northern Manitoba, central northeast of Saskatchewan along the Saskatchewan River and along the Hudson Bay coast and adjacent inland areas to the south and west, and Ontario along the coast of Hudson Bay and James Bay . Within the group of dialects called "West Cree", it is referred to as an "n-dialect", meaning that the variable phoneme common to all Cree dialects appears as "n" in this dialect (as opposed to y, r, l, or ð; all of these phonemes are considered a linguistic reflex of Proto-Algonquian *r).

It had approximately 4500 speakers in a population of 5000 as of 1982 according to the 14th edition of the Ethnologue. Canadian census data does not identify specific dialects of Cree (i.e., all estimates now current rely on extrapolations from specific studies), and, currently, no accurate census of any Algonquian language exists.[3]

The Grammar and examples used on this page were taken from Ellis's Second Edition (1983) of "Spoken Cree." [4]

Dialects of Swampy Cree

A division is sometimes made between West Swampy Cree and East Swampy Cree.

Communities recognized as West Swampy Cree include: Shoal Lake; The Pas; Easterville [Chemawawin Cree Nation]; Grand Rapids Barren Lands; Churchill; Split Lake; York Factory; Fox Lake; Shamattawa, and God's lake Narrows,. (all in Manitoba); and Fort Severn, Ontario.

Communities recognized as East Swampy Cree are: Weenusk, Ontario; Attawapiskat, Ontario; Albany Post, Ontario; and Kashechewan, Ontario; and Fort Albany, Ontario.[5] The Cree spoken at Kashechewan also shows Moose Cree influence.[6]

This page reflects the forms found in Albany Post (now Kashechewan) Ontario.



The consonant inventory for Swampy Cree contains 11 phonemes. A twelfth phoneme /l/ is not native, but has entered the language via loanwords and influence from Moose Cree.

  Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal   m  /m/   n  /n/      
Stop   p  /p/   t  /t/     k  /k/)  
Fricative     s  /s/   š  /ʃ/     h  /h/
Affricate     c  /t͡s/    
Approximant   w  /w/     y  /j/    
Lateral Approximant     (l)  /l/    

Voicing Voicing does not cause phonemic contrast in Swampy Cree. According to Ellis, however, stops often undergo voicing intervocalically when preceded by a stressed long vowel or nasal. For example, "māci" is pronounced [māːd͡zi], while "maci" is pronounced [mat͡si].

Phonemic Aspiration Preaspiration of stops creates a phonemic distinction. For example, "pētāw" (he brings it) is not the same as "pēhtāw" (he waits for it).

Non-phonemic aspiration In emphatic words that contain an initial vowel, [h] is often inserted before the vowel. This is not a phonemic distinction, but simply an indicator of stress. Similarly, word-final vowels are often followed by moderate aspiration, which does not mark any change in meaning. Postaspiration is not phonemically distinctive, either.

Palatalization of /h/ The consonant /h/ is occasionally pronounced as [j] (as in English "yes") intervocalically.

Assimilation of Nasals When a short vowel is dropped, leaving a nasal next to a stop, the nasal assimilates to the same place of articulation as the stop. For example: "nipāskisikan" becomes "mpāskisikan."

Long-Distance/non-Contiguous Assimilation In words such as ocawāšimiša, the [c] is actually an underlying /t/ that has been assimilated due to preparation for the articulation of the two [š]. In fact, pronunciation with a [t] is perceived as baby-talk.

Word-Final /t/ --> [š] In word final position, /t/ becomes [š].


   Short   Long 
 Front   Back   Front   Back 
 High (close)  i  /i/ o  /u/ ī  /iː/   ō  /oː/
 Mid  a  /a/ ē  /eː/
 Low (open)  ā  /aː/

Vowels in Cree can experience a great deal of variation while remaining one phoneme. Long /ō/ varies between [ō] and [ū], while remaining one single phoneme. Long /ā/ varies between approximately [æ̃] (as in "hat") and [ɑ̃] (as in "hall"). Short /i/ varies between [ɪ] and [ɛ]. Short /o/ varies between approximately [o] and [ʊ]. Short /a/ has the widest variation, ranging from [æ] to [ʌ] and [ɛ] as well, when it proceeds the approximant [j].


  • /Cw/ + /i/ yields /Co/
  • /aw/ + /i/ yields /ā/


Stress is not distinctive in Swampy Cree. In other words, there are no minimal pairs of words that are distinguishable only by stress.


Swampy Cree is a polysynthetic language that relies heavily on verbs. That is to say, many things that would be expressed in English through nouns or adjectives are expressed as verbs. In fact, Swampy Cree has no adjectives at all. Instead, they use an intransitive form of a verb. For example, instead of saying "He is strong" in Cree it is closer to something like "He strongs".


Nouns in Swampy Cree have both free and bound stems, the latter being used in combination with other morphemes. Compounds are common and can be formed from other nouns, verb stems and particles.

Swampy Cree does not have gender in the Indo-European sense (masculine, feminine and neuter). Rather, it differentiates between animate and inanimate (see Animacy). While no living things are within the "inanimate" class, there are some non-living things (socks, kettles, stones, paddles, etc.) that are within the "animate" class.

Personal possessor prefixes

Possession is also expressed via affixation. Note that the first and second person prefixes are the same as for verbs.

  Singular Plural
First Person   ni-......-(a)     ni-......-inām  
Second Person   ki-........-(a)     ki-.....-iwāw  
Third person   o- ....... -(a)     o- ....... -iwāw(a)  
Obviative   o- ....... -iliw    

There are groups of nouns that have a dependent stem and must occur with some sort of possessor. These include relatives, body parts and things that are regarded in Algonquian tradition as extremely personal items, such as hunting bags. Possession is also occasionally marked by the suffix /-im/ (known as the possessed theme), which occurs inside the suffix for plurality when it does occur. The /(a)/ suffix is added when the possessed item is animate.

With plural nouns (as opposed to the possessors), the suffix /-ak/ (for animate) or /-a/ (inanimate) is added after all other suffixes.

Obviative is marked on animate nouns as the suffix /-a/ and on inanimate nouns as the suffix /-iliw/. Animate obviative nouns do not mark number so it is unknown whether an obviative noun is singular or plural. Inanimate obviative nouns are marked for plurality. Surobviative nouns show neither the number of the noun itself nor the number of the possessor.


While person and possession are often expressed by affixation in Cree, there are separate personal pronouns, which are often used for emphasis.

  singular plural
First Person   nīla     nīlanān  
Inclusive We     kīlanānāw (kīnānaw)  
Second Person   kīla     kīlawāw  
Third person   wīla     wīlaww  


    Third Person     Obviative  
    animate     inanimate     animate     inanimate  
  singular plural singular plural singular plural singular plural
This one   awa     ōko     ōma     ōho     ōho     ōmēliw     ōho  
That one   ana     aniki     ani(ma)     anihi     anihi     animēliw     anihi  
This/that selfsame   ē'ko (for ēwako)     ~rarely occurs~  
Another one   kotak     kotakiyak     kotak     kotakiya     kotakiya     kotakīliw     kotakiya  

There is a further distinction in the Fort Albany region between "kotak" (another) and "kotakīy" (another one of two).


As stated above, Swampy Cree relies heavily on verbs to express many things that are expressed in other ways in languages such as English. For example, noun incorporation is quite common in Cree.

Both transitive and intransitive verbs in Swampy Cree change their endings (and occasionally even their stems) depending on animacy. Intransitive verbs rely on the animacy of their subjects while transitive verbs rely on the animacy of their objects.

There are multiple forms of the verbs. The Independent Order of the verb is the set of verb forms that are used in the main clause. The Conjunct Order consists of the forms used in other types of clauses. Additionally, Swampy Cree has suffixes for direct action as opposed to inverse. These labels do not refer to the quality of the action, but rather which person is acting on which other grammatical person. For example, "I see him/her" (ni...wāpam...ā...w) is a direct action because the first person is acting upon the third, while "He/she sees me" (ni...wāpam...ikw...w) because it is the third person acting upon the first. In Cree, the order of "directness" is second person, first person, third person.

Transitive Inanimate Verbs and Animate Intransitive Verbs also have the option of relational or non-relational forms. Relational forms are for when the verb is carried out in relation to another person. A famous example from the translation of the Pilgrim's Progress is kici-pēci-itohtē-w-ak, which comes from "Evangelist bid me come hither," but literally translates to "that I come hither (in relation to him)".

Swampy Cree has two types of imperatives: Immediate Imperative and Future Imperative. As the name implies, the Immediate Imperative is for actions that should be carried out immediately, while Future Imperative is for actions that should be carried out after a lapse of time.

Order of affixes

1) Person: There are two "subject" prefixes for Cree Verbs for first person (/ni(t)-/) and second person (/ki(t)-/). Third person is unmarked. These prefixes are used simultaneously with suffixes that express number, animacy and transitivity.

2) Tense: Future tense is expressed by a prefix /-ka-/ in the first and second person and /ta-/ in the third person. The future tense marker is inserted after the person marker (if any). In casual speech in is often contracted with the person marker (ex: nika- becomes n'ka-).

Completed action is often expressed by a prefix /kī-/ (in affirmative utterance) and /ohci-/ (in negative utterances) and is commonly used to refer to the past. For example, /itohtēw/ means "he goes (there)" while /kī-itohtēw/ means "he went (there)".

4) Aspect

There is a potential prefix /kī/ (can, be able to) which precedes the root, but follows both person and tense prefixes.

The prefix /ati-/ indicates gradual onset (as opposed to sudden beginning)

4*) Some prefixes have more freedom in where they go, such as /pēci/ (in this direction, towards speaker).

5) Location emphasis: When a locating expression is used at the beginning of a sentence, the verb contains a prefix /iši-/ as a sort of emphasis and agreement (approximately "thus" or "so"). Ellis describes it as being approximately "At the store do you there work?" If the locating expression does not precede the verb, /iši-/ is not used because it is relative root (meaning it refers to something that precedes it in the phrase).

6) Root

7) Reciprocal action

Reciprocal action is expressed by the suffix /-ito-/, occurring between the stem and the normal inflection.

8) Inflectional suffix

9) Causative: the causative suffix /-hēw/ can be added to verbs in order to change it to a causative verb. For example, itohtēw means "He goes there," while ihotahēw means "He takes him there."

Animate intransitive verbs

Animate intransitive verbs are intransitive verbs that have an animate subject.

Independent Indicative
  singular plural
First Person   -n     -nān  
Second Person   -n     -nāwāw  
Inclusive We   -nānaw  
Third person   -w     -wak  
Obviative   -liwa  
indefinite, passive   -(nā)niwan  
Conjunct Indicative
  singular plural
First Person   -(y)ān     -(y)āhk  
Second Person   -(y)an / -yin     -(y)ēk  
Inclusive We   -ahk  
Third person   -t / ~k     -cik/ ~kik (-twāw / ~kwāw)  
Obviative   -lici  
indefinite, passive   -(nā)niwahk  
Conjunct Subjunctive
  singular plural
First Person   -(y)ānē     -(y)āhkē  
Second Person   -(y)anē / -yinē     -(y)ēkwē  
Inclusive We   -ahkwē  
Third person   -tē / ~kē     -twāwē / ~kwāwē  
Obviative   -litē  
indefinite, passive   -(nā)niwahkē  


    non-relational     relational  
  singular plural singular plural
Second Person     -k     -w     -wāhk  
Inclusive We   -tā(k) / -tāw     -wātā(k)  

Inanimate intransitive verbs

These verbs are often the equivalent of the English construction that begins with the empty subject "it" (ex: it is raining, it is snowing, it is day, it is poison, etc.). For example:

  • tahk (cold) --> tahkāyāw (it is cold)
  • tipisk (night) --> tipiskāw (it is night)
  • kīšik (sky) --> kīšikāw (it is day)

Some of the elements, such as "tahk-", cannot stand on their own, while others are free morphemes, such as "kīšik."

Unsurprisingly, first and second person never appear in this context, leaving only the third person and obviative forms.

Independent Indicative
  singular plural
Third person   -w     -wa  
Obviative   -liw     -liwa  
Conjunct Indicative
  singular plural
Third person   ~k     ~ki (~kwāw-)  
Obviative   -lik     -liki (~likwāw-)  
Conjunct Subjunctive
  singular plural
Third person   ~kē     ~kwāwē  
Obviative   -like     ~likwāwē  

Transitive animate verbs

Transitive animate verbs are verbs whose object is animate, keeping in mind that not all nouns that are part of the "animate" gender are animate in the traditional sense of the word. For example, "wharf" is animate. ("wīpac ka-wāpamāw āšokan" --> "you will soon see the wharf"). It's important to note that the distinction between "transitive" and "intransitive" in Cree is not the same as in English. For example, thinking and coughing always take an object ("itēlihtam" --> "he thinks (it)" and "ostostotam" --> "he coughs (it)").

Independent Indicative
    Third person singular     Third person plural     Obviative     Surobviative  
  singular plural singular plural singular plural singular plural
First Person   -āw     -ānān     -āwak     -ānānak     -(i)māwa     -(i)mānāna / -ih     -  
Second Person   -āw     -āwāw     -āwak     -āwāwak     -(i)māwa     -(i)māwawa     -  
Inclusive We   -ānaw     -ānawak     -(i)mānawa     -  
indefinite, passive   -āw     -āwak     -(i)māwa     -  
Third Person   -     -ēw     -ēwak     -imēw     -imēwak  
Obviative   -     -ēliwa  
Conjunct Indicative
    Third person singular     Third person plural     Obviative     Surobviative  
  singular plural singular plural singular plural singular plural
First Person   -ak     -akiht     -akik     -akihcik     -(i)maki     -(i)mkihci     -  
Second Person   -at     -ēk     -acik     -ēkok     -(i)maci     -(i)mēko     -  
Inclusive We   -ahk     -akihcik     -(i)makihci     -  
indefinite, passive   -iht     -ihcik     -(i)michi     -  
Third Person   -     -āt     -ācik     -imāt     -imācik  
Obviative   -     -ālici  
Conjunct Subjunctive
    Third person singular     Third person plural     Obviative     Surobviative  
  singular plural singular plural singular plural singular plural
First Person   -akē     -akihtē     -akwāwē     -akihtwāwē     -(i)makē     -(i)makihtē     -  
Second Person   -atē     -ēkwē     -atwāwē     -ēkwāwē     -(i)matē     -(i)mēkwē     -  
Inclusive We   -ahkwē     -ahkwāwē     -(i)mēkwē     -  
indefinite, passive   -ihtē     -ihtwāwē     -(i)mihtē     -  
Third Person   -     -ātē     -ātwāwē     -imātē     -imātwāwē  
Obviative   -     -ālitē  

Transitive inanimate verbs

Transitive inanimate verbs are of, basically, two types: Type 1 are those with a stem that ends in a consonant (ex: "wāpaht-am" --> "he sees it") and Type 2 are those where the transitive inanimate stem end in a vowel. These verbs take the same endings as their animate intransitive counterparts (ex: ayā-w --> "she has it"). There are also verbs that some Algonquian linguists describe as "pseudo-transitive" verbs. Ellis groups them with Type 2 transitive inanimate verbs because they also function like transitive inanimate verbs while taking animate intransitive endings (ex: "wāpahtam sīpīliw" --> "he sees the river").

Independent Indicative
  singular plural
First Person   -ēn     -ēnān  
Second Person   -ēn     -ēnāwāw  
Inclusive We   -ēnānaw  
Third person   -am     -amwak  
Obviative   -amiliwa  
indefinite, passive   -ikātēw  
Conjunct Indicative
  singular plural
First Person   -amān     -amāhk  
Second Person   -aman     -amēk  
Inclusive We   -amahk  
Third person   -ahk     -ahkik  
Obviative   -amilici  
indefinite, passive   -ikātēk  
Conjunct Subjunctive
  singular plural
First Person   -amānē     -amāhkē  
Second Person   -amanē / -yinē     -amēkwē  
Inclusive We   -amahkwē  
Third person   -ahkē / ~kē     -ahkwāwē / ~kwāwē  
Obviative   -amilitē  
indefinite, passive   -ikātēkē  


    non-relational     relational  
  singular plural singular plural
Second Person   -a     -amok     -am     -amwāhk  
Inclusive We   -ētā(k)     -amwātā(k)  


These are forms that are never inflected. Preverbal particles can be added to already independent verbs in order to add meaning. Some particles can only occur as preverbal particles, others can only occur as independent words and still others are preverbal with some verbs and independent with others. Some examples are:

  • ohcitaw = purposely (always independent)
  • pihci- = accidentally (always preverbal, dependent)
  • wīpac = early, soon (always independent)
  • pwāstaw = late (sometimes independent, sometimes dependent)


Conjunct order

Verbs in their conjunct form are the equivalent of English dependent clause. One use of the conjunct form can be used to express purpose. For example, Kī-pēc'-ītohtēw nā kici-otāpēt (Did he come to haul {wood}?)

Verbs in their conjunct form occasionally have other form of morphemes. For example, the aspect markers are as follows: /kā-/ = completed aspect/past time, /kē-/ = future time, /ē-/ = the verb in the dependent clause is going on at the same time as that in the main clause.

The negative particle used in Conjunct Order is /ēkā/.

Relative construction

Relative construction is expressed by the completive aspect marker /ka-/ with the verb in the Conjunct Order. For example, atāwēw (he trades), but kā-atāwēt (the one who trades --> a trader).

Indirect speech

While Cree prefers direct reported speech, it is possible to make indirect speech constructions by using the aorist marker /e-/ in addition to other aspect markers.

The Changed Conjunct

The Changed Conjunct changes the vowels of the first syllable of a verb as follows:

  • /i/ becomes /ē/
  • /a/ becomes /ē/
  • /o/ becomes /wē/
  • /ī/ becomes /ā/
  • /ē/ becomes /iyē/
  • /ā/ becomes /iyā/

It can be used to express the difference between Present General and Present-Time Questions. This is the difference between "Do you speak Cree?" and "Are you speaking Cree?" respectively. Present-Time questions use the prefix /ka-/ without any vowel change. Present General questions use no prefix and change the vowel according to the paradigm above.

It can also be used in Vivid Narrative for effect, but it sounds outdated to modern-day speakers.

Grammatical cases

Swampy Cree nouns have three cases: nominative, vocative and locative (sometimes referred to as "mention-case","address-case" and "oblique case" respectively). The vocative case only remains as a form distinct from the nominative for a few words, such as nōhtā - (my) father. The locative case is expressed by the suffix /-ihk/, which means in/at/on/to.


Yes/no questions are formed by adding the question marker "nā" to the first full word of the sentence: "kimawāpin nā?" Are you visiting? "Tāpwē nā?" Really?

Content questions do not use "nā" and, instead, use a special form of the verb. The structure of the sentence then reads thusly: Question word - predicate (in conjunct form). Because verbs in their conjunct form don't use personal prefixes and, instead, express the subject as part of the suffix, the form of the sentence can be described as Question word - Verb - (Object) - Subject (where VOS is all one word).


The negative particle "mōla" is use before the person prefix of a verb and before any particles that directly modify and precede it: "Mōla nikihtohtān" I'm not going away. "Mōla māskōc wīpac nētē nika-ihtān" I shall probably not be there soon.

Indirect objects

In English, with verbs like "give, show, lend, etc," it is often said that the verb takes a direct and an indirect object, where the recipient is the indirect object. In Cree, the recipient is considered the immediate object. The object being given is then moved over one more "slot." This is of importance especially when dealing with two third person objects. In the sentence, "John gave Mary the book" Mary would be in the third person while the book would be in the obviative.

Verbs of being

The verb of being "ihtāw" (he is) is only ever used in the context of "he is in some location." Equational sentences often require no verb. However, the verbalizer /-iw/ the stem-vowel /-i/ (animate) or /-a/ (inanimate) and the inflectional /-w/ (animate) or /-n/ (inanimate) can be added to nouns in order to express "He/she/it is a something" or "He/she/it displays the characteristics of a something." For example, acimošiš" (puppy) + "iwiw" = "acimošišiwiw" (He is a puppy), while "cīmān" (boat/canoe) + "iwan" = "cīmāniwan" (It is a boat/canoe).


  1. ^ Swampy Cree at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Swampy Cree". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Keith Brown & Sarah Ogilvie, 2008, Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, Elsevier, p. 26.
  4. ^ Ellis, C. D., 1983
  5. ^ Rhodes, Richard and Evelyn Todd, 1981, p. 53, p. Fig. 1
  6. ^ Ellis, C. D., 1995, p. xiv


  • Ellis, Clarence Douglas. 1983. Spoken Cree. Second Edition. Edmonton: Pica Pica Press. ISBN 0-88864-044-7
  • Ellis, Clarence Douglas. 1981. Spoken Cree. Revised Edition. Edmonton: Pica Pica Press. ISBN 0-88864-044-7
  • Ellis, Clarence Douglas. 1995. âtalôhkâna nêsta tipâcimôwina: Cree Legends and Narratives from the West Coast of James Bay. Text and Translation. Edited and with a Glossary by Ellis, C. Douglas. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press. ISBN 0-88755-159-9
  • Rhodes, Richard and Evelyn Todd. 1981. “Subarctic Algonquian Languages.” June Helm, ed., The Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6. Subarctic, pp. 52–66. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution.
  • Wolfart, H.C. and Carroll, Janet F.. 1981. Meet Cree: A Guide to the Cree Language. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. ISBN 0-88864-073-0

External links

  • Native Languages: A Support Document for the Teaching of Language Patterns – Basic language patterns for Ojibwe (Manitoulin Ojibwe/Ottawa "CO" and Lac Seul Ojibwe "WO") and Cree (Swampy Cree "SC").
  • Path of the Elders – Explore Treaty 9, Aboriginal Cree & First Nations history.
  • OLAC resources in and about the Swampy Cree language
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