hay hay – A grateful Thanksgiving rant for our Cree Language Warriors!

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful to the Cree language warriors who continue to promote and support nêhiyawêwin as a genuine 21st Century language by using the tools (like SRO) that will allow speakers of Cree to develop as readers and writers so they can share their ideas all across the Cree dialect continuum. We all need more of the connections that bring us together, and fewer petty barriers that create confusion and keep us apart!

Maybe a good start might be agreement about how to spell some really basic words. It’s hard for people to learn to read when the words look different every time. One little word that seems to get a great deal of spelling creativity is “hay hay” (in some communities, “ay hay”).  It’s even being used these days in places like the Alberta Legislature. And we really want its usage in môniyaw institutions to be honoured with recognizable spelling (right?)

hay hay is a common, simple word, but everyone tends to spell it their own way. They usually begin with what they know about reading English. Of course, English is full of silent letters, and spells the same vowel sounds half a dozen ways each. It’s a terrible model for spelling anything!

We continue to struggle with English (with varying degrees of resentment), because the same system has been used for 500 years. And here’s the thing: It’s awful, but we’re used to it! That’s what makes it work, whether you’re reading in Canada, or England, or Australia, or anywhere else in the world. English spelling is standardized. It is consistent and predictable (whether we like it or not). And consistency and predicability are keys that we need to use for Cree to help it thrive in the 21st century. And to help language learners use it with fluency and competence, and confidence!

We often see hiy hiy, aiy haiy, hîy hîy, and many, many original creations from people who resent being corrected. They say they “like their own spelling”. People who try to promote SRO for Cree get called language bullies. It’s really not fair. Since when has “liking” your own spelling helped anybody else understand what you mean? Surely the most important test of anything we write is whether it can be understood!

So here are some notes Arok Wolvengrey posted in the Facebook group Nêhiyawêwin (Cree) Word of the Day quite some time ago, trying to explain *why* we write hay-hay as we do:

hay-hay sounds like English “hi hi” or “high high”, NOT English “hay hay”

This is a way of giving thanks. Some Cree speakers do not use this. Others restrict its use to accepting something given, ceremonially or otherwise. Others use it simply as equivalent of English “thanks”.

Because it sounds like English “hi hi” or “high high”, many are writing it here as “hiy hiy”. This is, however, not a standard roman orthography (SRO) way of writing this Cree expression. In the SRO, the combination of “ay” sounds like the “i” in “bite” or “ice”, because it is a combination of [a] and [y]. [a] in Cree words like atim [ut TIM] sounds the “u” in “but”, and the [y] is more like the “y” at the end of “pretty” (like “ee” in English). Thus “ay” is /a+y/ (or like a rapid pronunciation of English “uh+ee”. So, a Cree word spelled naniway is usually pronounced [NUN nih why] (though it may start to sound like [NUN nih way] in some dialects – and it if does, this doesn’t change the spelling! it just means that [ay] is being simplified and pronounced more like Cree [ê])

In contrast, the Cree spelling “iy” represents a sound equivalent to the long [î] sound (like “ee” in English). This is usually used at the end of Cree nouns like sîpiy [see PEE] “river”, nipiy [nip PEE] “water”, nîpiy [nee PEE] “leaf”, miskwamiy [MIS kwum mee] “ice”, etc., and sometimes in the middle of words like niya [nee YUH] “I, me” or derivatives of /miyw-/ “good” like miyo- [mee YO] “good”, miywêyihtam [mee WAYH tum] “s/he likes it”, miywâsin [MEE waa sin] “it’s good”, etc.

What all this means is: when you write “hiy hiy”, it looks like something that should be pronounced “hee hee”. To represent something that sounds like English “high high” in the Cree SRO, we write “hay hay”. English and Cree spelling are very different. Cree spelling respects Cree sounds, not English ones.

hay hay, Arok. And hay hay to all the rest of the wonderful Cree language warriors who continue to fight for language revitalization! hay hay, hay hay! I, for one, an grateful to all of you!

kinanâskomitinâwâw! (That’s thank you to a group. But that’s a Thanksgiving rant for another day!)

2 Responses

  1. Interesting. Thanksgiving reference included with that statement. As a Plains Cree citizen I’ll continue using hiy hiy as I am never comfortable with any academic breakdown couched in concern for ‘our’ culture. I think my comfort levels lie with my family and Elders schooling me (read: people I trust with actual knowledge giving me lessons out of legitimate cultural foundations). A ho and best of luck with your endeavours. My regards from Waterhen Lake Treaty #6 as a citizen of that Nation. You are fighting a good fight. Just not mine.

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