How to Use a Cree Dictionary

I’m not the only one who is deeply missing the contributions of Jeff Mühlbauer through his Moniyaw Linguist blog.

Although the blog and its content have been taken down, I was grateful to recover a portion of his piece on using a Cree dictionary (which is a whole lot trickier than you might believe!)

  • Languages like Cree present particular problems for making dictionaries because the words are exceptionally complex. Unlike languages like English – where dictionaries were largely developed – Cree does not have a simple word to place in the dictionary. For example, the word see in English corresponds to as many as 500 words in Cree (niwâpahtên, wâpamêw, wâpamâw, ê-wâpamaci, etc. Rather than put all 500 words in the dictionary, Cree linguists have decided to follow the example of classical languages like Greek and Sanskrit (which also have huge numbers of verbs) and simply give you one form for each word.
  • It is up to you, the user, to know how to turn this word into the form you want. For example, in Classical Greek, if you want to know how to say I will be seen, you will find only I see in the dictionary. The same applies to Cree.
  • If you want to look up the word see, what you will find in most dictionaries is the form s/he sees him/her. You will then have to sort out how to change that into the form you want (e.g., I see him, etc.)
  • There are essentially no irregular verbs in Cree, so some of the problems encountered with a language like Greek (where many, many verbs are irregular) are not present. If you know one form of any Cree verb, and you know how to build verbs properly, you will immediately be able to built all other forms.
  • The only potential exception is some unusual sound alternations that happen with verbs that contain very old segments. For example, pîkiskwât- talk to has a t on the end that used to be a different consonant, in the ancient language. This ancient difference shows up when we put -it on the end. Normally, t just stays as a t (cf. kitôtit s/he speaks to me ), but in the case of pîkiskwât-, the t changes to an s: pîkiskwâsit. I don t know of any dictionary that includes these irregular forms in it. Technically, if the classical model was being followed, we should expect these to be included. So the dictionary is only useful to you if you already know how to (de)construct good Cree words. This may seem surprising to someone used to dealing with Spanish or English or French, but it s hardly unusual. Most languages that have complex words end up having to make these kinds of decisions – or else your dictionary would be 900,000 pages and weigh 80lbs. education, grammar, morphem …


Yet another reason that way that standard spelling helps: there’s a lot more to using a Cree dictionary than meets the eye! Thanks, Jeff, for putting this together!

2 Responses

  1. That blog has been blocked for a while now. What happened to Mr. Mulbauer? I really learned a lot from his posts

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