Reading Plains Cree in SRO

Note: This introductory lesson closely follows Chapter 3 of How to Spell it in Cree (The Standard Roman Orthography) written and published by Jean Okimāsis and Arok Wolvengrey in 2008. Where the original chapter addresses inter-dialect issues, this version (edited by Arden Ogg), reflects only the Plains Cree, or “y” dialect. Permission to adapt this work for the purposes of the Cree Literacy Network is gratefully acknowledged.

The Sounds of Cree

There are 10 distinct consonants in Plains Cree. Standard Roman Orthography (SRO) uses one distinct symbol for each consonant.

Consonants: c, h, k, m, n, p, s, t, w, y

The consonants h, m, n, s, w, and y are all pronounced virtually the same as their English counterparts.

Click here to hear Solomon Ratt pronounce each of the consonant sounds of SRO.

The consonants c, k, p, and t each have their own Cree pronunciation.

c varies in pronunciation from community to community, but the variation does not change the meaning of words. In many areas, it is pronounced like the “ts” in the English word “cats.” In other areas, it may be closer to the English “ch” sound in “catch.” Speakers may pronounce the sound according to their own dialect, but only one symbol is needed.
k is pronounced like the sound in English “skill.” Its sound is somewhere between the “k” in “kill” and the “g” in “gill” but this is not an important difference in Cree. Only the symbol “k” is needed.
p is pronounced like the sound in English “spill.” Its sound is somewhere between the “p” in “pill” and the “b” in “bill.” As with “k,” the difference is not important for Cree, so only the symbol “p” is needed.
t is pronounced like the sound in English “still.” Its sound is somewhere between the “t” in “till” and the “d” in “dill.” The Cree sound may vary between the two English sounds, but the difference is not important for Cree, so only the symbol “t” is needed.
Initially Medially Finally
cēskwa ‘wait!’ akihcikē ‘count!’ anohc ‘now/today’
kīspin ‘if’ akihcikē ‘count!’ nikik ‘otter’
pēhin ‘wait for me! pēw ‘man’ sīsīp ‘duck’
tāpwē ‘truly/really’ āta ‘although’ nisit ‘my foot’

The English consonant symbols b, d, f, g, j, q, r, v, x and z are never used in writing Cree in SRO, and all letters are written in lower case. No upper case letters are used in SRO.

Vowels a, i, o, ā, ē, ī, ō

Click here to hear Solomon Ratt pronounce each of the seven vowel sounds of SRO.

Plains Cree has seven distinct vowel sounds, each of which is given its own symbol in SRO. The vowels can be divided up into short and long pairs. The short vowels are left unmarked; the corresponding long vowels are marked with an accent. The accent symbols most often used for long vowels are the macron (a horizontal bar above the character; e.g. ē) or circumflex (sometimes called a hat; e.g. ê). Less commonly, some writers may even use an acute accent (like that on French é). It makes no difference in SRO which symbol is used to mark long vowels, only that it is used consistently.

In English, the same five vowel symbols are pronounced in dozens of different ways whether they appear alone, or in combinations. Many of these pronunciations are unpredictable, and readers must learn them by memorization. The English symbol u is never used in SRO.

Short Vowel Sounds a, i, o

a sounds like English “a” in “about” and “u” in “up”
i sounds like English “i” in “in” or “fit,” never as in English “fine” or “fight.”
o sounds like the English “o” in “occasion” or the “oo” of “book,” or the “u” of “put.” Note the many different ways that this sound is spelled in English. In Cree, this sound is o, and only o.

 

Initially Medially Finally
awas ‘go away/ get out!’ āstam ‘come here!’ otina ‘take it!
iskwēw ‘woman’ nisit ‘my foot’ nahapi ‘sit down!’
otina ‘take it!’ kotak ‘another’ nikamo ‘sing!’

Long Vowel Sounds ā, ī, ō, ē

ā sounds something like the “a” in “fa” (as when singing “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do”). As the long counterpart to short a, it is actually not a sound commonly found in most dialects of English. If, however, you were to pronounce “father” with an Irish accent, this would be much closer to the Cree sound than most English pronunciations of “father.”
ī sounds like the English “i” in “machine,” never as in “shine.” This so-called “e” sound has so many different spellings in English (for example: e, ee, ea, ei, eo, ie, i, y, etc.) but one and only one in Cree: ī. It is the long counterpart to short i.
ō usually sounds like the English “o” in “so” or “oa” in “boat” (or better yet, “oo” in German “Boot” “boat”). It can, however, vary in pronunciation, so that some speakers may use a sound closer to English “oo” is “moose.” These variations do not represent an important, meaning-altering difference in Cree so only a single symbol is all that is needed. Long ō is the counterpart of short o.
ē sounds like the English “ay” in “hay” or “ai” in “main.” This sound has no short counterpart. It is always long, and therefore it is always marked as long with the macron (ē) or circumflex (ī) just as the other long vowels are. Sometimes, as has been common in Alberta, this vowel is written without the length mark; however, this leaves a bare “e” symbol which can be quite misleading, often resulting in confusion over its use between the ē and ī sounds. Spelling it with the length mark not only marks this vowel as long, but sets it apart as if to say, This is not the English “e”!
Initially Medially Finally
āstam ‘come here!’ tānisi ‘how, hello’ nipā ‘sleep!’
ī ‘yes’ (Woods Cree) cīki ‘near’ tapasī ‘flee!’
ōki ‘these’ pōna ‘make a fire’ pasikō ‘get up!’
ēsis ‘shell’ mēkwāc ‘presently’ kīwē ‘go home!’

Sound Combinations

The seventeen distinct sounds of Cree do not occur in isolation. When sounds are put together in words, the combinations can affect the way the individual sounds are produced. These sound changes are most obvious when vowels occur with glides.

Vowels with Glides h, w, y

When the vowels occur next to one of the three consonants known as “glides” or “semivowels” (h, w, y), modifications often occur in the pronunciation of the basic vowel sounds. Fortunately for readers and speakers of Cree, these changes occur naturally in the mouth so they don’t require special attention. The following description of these effects is important, though, for speakers learning to write the language. When h appears before another consonant (which we may write for short as hC), we can describe the consonant as “pre-aspirated.” In most cases, vowels that appear before the hC cluster lose the distinction between long and short. Instead, we hear a vowel which is short in duration, but closer to the quality of the long vowel.

So:

ahC and āhC both sound as in English “fa” (like ā), but shorter in duration (like a).
ihC and īhC both sound as in English “beat” (like ī), but shorter in duration (like i).
ohC and ōhC both sound as in English “boat” (like ō), but shorter in duration (like o).

When SRO is used to write Plains Cree, h may never appear after another consonant. Digraphs (two-letter combinations such as ch, th and sh) are not permitted. Rules for other dialects will be described elsewhere. When w follows a vowel, it often sounds something like short o or long ō. All three sounds are produced in the mouth using a similar place and manner, including rounding of the lips. w has the following effects:

aw as the “ou” in English “about”
āw as the “ow” in English “wow”
ēw like the combination of English “ay-oo” or the vowels in “may you.” (This explains the common non-SRO spelling of Cree words like nāpēw ‘man’ as “Napayo”)
iw this combination varies in pronunciation from a sound similar to that in English “new,” to the sounds of o or ō described above. The w “rounds” the i, making it sound like o.
īw like the vowel sequence in English “ee-oo” or the vowels in “see you“.
ow before w, both o and ō sound long, much as in English “know.” The SRO rule is that when no other evidence is available for determining the length of the vowel before w, the short vowel is written (e.g., manitow ‘spirit’). Examples like this appear mostly in nouns.

When y follows a vowel, it has a quality much like the short i or long ī. All three sounds are produced in the mouth using a similar place and manner. In nouns and names, y usually follows only short vowels, and has the following effects:

ay as in English ‘bite’
iy before y, both i and ī sound long. The SRO rule is that when no other evidence is available for determining the length of the vowel before y, the short vowel is written. Such examples generally occur only in nouns.
oy similar to the sound in English “boy” or “buoy.”

Stress Patterns

Cree stress patterns differ considerably from those 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 stress built into SRO, which makes SRO even more valuable. In the examples that follow, the syllable with primary stress in the Cree word is underlined; in rough English pronunciations, primary stress is indicated by boldface full capital letters and secondary stress (where shown) is indicated by boldface.

2-Syllable Words

In two-syllable words, the final syllable is typically given the main stress:

Cree SRO translation rough English pronunciation
wacask ‘muskrat’ {wuh TSUSK}
atim ‘dog’ {uh TIM}

If you write a word with only two syllables, but the stress is on the first syllable, chances are 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.

Words with 3 (or more) Syllables

In words of three or more syllables, the main stress falls on the third-last syllable, and the final syllable receives some secondary stress. In the following examples of singular and plural nouns, we see that the main stress stays on the third-last syllable:

Cree SRO translation rough pronunciation Cree SRO translation rough pronunciation
awāsis ‘child’ {UH wah sis} asisak ‘children’ {uh WAH sis suk}
piyēsīs ‘bird’ {PEE yay cease} pisīsak ‘birds’ {pee YAY sis suk}
maskisin ‘moccasin; shoe’ {MUSS kiss sin} maskisina ‘moccasins; shoes’ {muss KISS sin nuh}

This is not a common pattern in English, where long (or tense) vowels tend to attract stress, but it does occur occasionally, as in the following examples:

medicine {MED dis sin} medicinal {med DIS sin nul}

It is important when speaking Cree to keep vowel length and stress separate. Pronouncing piyēsis as {pee YAY cease} is just as incorrect as pronouncing “syllable” as {sil LAB bull} in English.

In Cree words of more than four syllables, the third-last retains the primary stress, but secondary stresses generally occur every second syllable to the left or right (with secondary stresses in boldface):

Cree SRO translation rough pronunciation
sēwēpicikan ‘phone’ {say way PIT tsig gun}
ātayōhwina ‘legends’ {aa tie yoh KAY win nuh}
kiskinwahamātowikamik ‘school’ {kiss kin wuh hum maa toe WICK kum mick}

The placement of stress can affect the pronunciation of syllables and words. Perhaps the most common effect in Cree is the complete loss or deletion of unstressed short vowels and the syllable to which they belong. This is a fairly common process in reading English. For instance, the word “laboratory,” is spelled as though it had five syllables (as it originally did), but is commonly pronounced with only four. In North America, most speakers say {LAB bret TOR ree}; in Britain, {lub BOR ret TREE} is preferred. In this case, using the same spelling unites the word for all English dialects despite pronunciation differences. Consistently using SRO spellings for Cree can accomplish the same purpose.

The rule of Silent-i

Just as unstressed syllables disappear in English words, they may also disappear in Cree. The most common example of this involves the unstressed short i. In SRO, we retain it in spelling, even though it is rarely, if ever, pronounced:

Cree SRO translation rough pronunciation
tānisi “how; hello, how are you?” {TAAN si}
tānitē “where” {TAAN tay}

The SRO spelling of these examples often strikes fluent speakers as odd. However, the short, unstressed-i in both of these words appears in their derivation:

tān- ‘?’ + isi ‘so, thus, in a manner’ = tānisi ‘in what manner; how’
tān- ‘?’ + itē ‘there, in such a place’ = tānitē ‘what place; where’

Derivation provides evidence for the i, even though it is silent. Keeping the silent-i in SRO spelling supports the stress pattern rules outlined above. Written without the silent-i, but observing the rules of stress, these words would be mispronounced:

misspelled Cree translation rough pronunciation
tānsi ‘??’ {taan SI}
tāntē ‘??’ {taan TAY}

SRO spelling helps to indicate the origin of these words as three-syllable words, and allows readers to apply regular stress patterns in their pronunciation.

The “silent-i” rule in Cree spelling is very similar to the “silent-e” in English: neither sound is pronounced in their respective languages, but they both give readers an important clue to the pronunciation of the word.

Conclusion

Beginning to read SRO teaches us quickly that spelling can show us more than just sounds. It can represent the beauty of a language’s entire structure. It can be a tool that helps speakers learn more about their language as they read. Standard Roman Orthography is one of the best spelling systems in use today for any language in the world because it is very regular, and has been designed specifically for Cree. Speakers who read and write it consistently can safely ignore the rules of English spelling, or the idiosyncrasies of any other orthography.

Dialect, regional differences, and even the differences that occur in rapid speech all tempt us to spell words differently to reflect how they sound at the moment. But becoming a proficient reader is not possible when words look different every time we see them. If, instead, we keep the spelling consistent but understand that different circumstances cause pronunciation to change, readers and writers of Cree can recognize and convey meaning in writing easily and dependably, even across dialects.