Kevin Brousseau launched yet another exquisite Cree language project yesterday as OldCree.com, and it’s fascinating to stop and explore. As he writes on the website,
Old Cree is a proto-language, a postulated ancestral language reconstructed on the basis of a systematic comparison of a number of related languages thought to have descended from it. In the case of Cree, these so-called languages are referred to as dialects by convention and contemporary Cree as a whole is referred to as a dialect continuum.
Kevin has begun this index of “lexical roots” – the smallest parts of meaning that make up words – by assembling, aligning and analyzing data from many different Cree dialects. He has compared each of these roots across roughly 35 dictionaries of various forms of Cree published as early as the 1680s, and as recently as 2022. Beginners may be a bit overwhelmed by the attention to detail, but word nerds will glory in its depth and clarity. And his collection of just over 1100 lexical roots (each with three or more corroborative citations) has barely begun to grow.
Cree language reclamation has made the idea of etymology increasingly popular. The study of the history of words is catnip to those of us who like to play with language. What’s not always understood is the difference between the linguistic science of etymology (that follows evidence through word forms across dialects), and popular or “folk” etymology that reinterprets words through ideas that are more familiar (but not necessarily factual). Through reinterpretation, words can take on new connotations (that may never have been there in the first place), and speakers adopt these reinterpretations and accept them as truth.
One of my favourite examples of folk etymology in English comes from my own sons when they were very small, trying to make sense of the world. I confess, I didn’t even try to correct them when they ordered “Boy cheese sandwiches” for lunch. They misheard and transposed the “r” and “l” sounds in “grilled” in a process linguists call “metathesis”. And they weren’t taking chances eating food intended for girls! If their misinterpretation had become popular and spread, they might have launched a full-blown folk etymology and a complete reinterpretation of the grilled cheese sandwich.
I saw another interesting example (created by grown-ups) in an ad campaign for an American company that claimed to put the “USA” in “sausage”. We see pretty quickly how they’ve created an advertising slogan. Without going into the real etymology of “sausage” it’s clear that “usa” is not a meaningful part of the word. Many, many folk etymologies are formed through less intentional misinterpretation.
Since fully fluent master speakers of Cree enjoy playing with their language as much as anyone, developments like these are only natural. A good folk etymology can be hard to shake. If it seems to make sense, if it’s repeated enough (especially by a respected speaker), and if people come to accept, believe, and repeat it, the made-up interpretation can take on a life of its own. But when we examine evidence – as Kevin does in this dictionary – we begin to see which interpretations are based on historical linguistic facts, and which others are created out of speculation.
A couple of quick points to mention for those who dive in:
- The asterisk (*) is used by linguists to label words in their “proto” form – to remind us that these are reconstructions, not necessarily correct contemporary forms.
- The letter “r” is used as the “proto-phoneme” that corresponds to the contemporary phonemes y/n/l/th/r: the sounds we rely upon to distinguish the various western dialects.