So what’s a macron anyway?

For people learning to read and write in Cree, macrons — those little bars that appear over vowels — are often a bit of an irritant. Here’s what they are, and why they’re useful.

“Macron” is the technical name of the bar that appears above a vowel to show that the vowel is “long”. It can change the meaning of words in Cree if a vowel is “short” or “long”, and the macron helps readers to tell the difference.

Here are the seven vowels of Cree, with macrons showing the long vowels:

a, ā, ē, i, ī, o, ō

One example of a word where vowel length changes meaning is

nipiy ‘water’  versus  nīpiy ‘leaf’

Of course, macrons can be difficult to type, even on computers, so sometimes different symbols are used. Some writers use the “acute” accent. Most of the Cree written on this site uses “circumflex,” which is also referred to as a “hat” or a “roof” because of its pointy shape. Some people even refer to it in Cree as ascocinisa ‘little hat’.

Here are the seven vowels again, this time with circumflexes (or hats, or roofs, or ascocinisa, if you prefer):

a, â, ê, i, î, o, ô

So what’s the difference between a macron and a circumflex? They both do exactly the same job. If we think of the circumflexes as “hats,” maybe we can think of macrons as “head bands.” All that really matters here is that long vowels in Cree need matching head gear!  

Here are four more small, useful points:

1. “Pointed” syllabic writing uses a dot above the character to show vowel length exactly the same way.

2. Ojibwe/Saulteaux uses the same set of seven vowels, but often writes double vowels to indicate that they are long.

3. Some Cree spelling systems omit the length mark over the e because it doesn’t have a partner in long/short contrast. In SRO e is always marked as long (because it reflects the linguistic structure of the language).

4. In the spirit of the Three Musketeers, every long vowel within a document wears the same kind of hat. (All for one, One for all!)

5. Learn more about reading in SRO by clicking the Beginning to read Plains Cree link here or above.

2 Responses to So what’s a macron anyway?

  1. Arok says:

    In the minimal pair of water and leaf, you have the word for leaf misspelled. The pair is:
    nipiy “water” – nîpiy “leaf”
    The final /i/ is written short preceding the /y/, as the /y/ predictably makes the /i/ sound long in that position.

  2. Pingback: Why the French can throw away their hats – But we still need them for written Cree! | Cree Literacy Network

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