Beginning a collection of Cree idioms

We talk sometimes about idiom, and the difficulty involved in translating English idioms into Cree. Our collection of idioms that start out in Cree is just getting started, so the examples are always interesting. The thing is, we can really only discover them in the usage of truly fluent speakers, and it also takes a truly fluent speaker to appreciate and recognize – and explain to the rest of us! – their deeper meaning.

To help “put the shoe on the other foot” (so to speak), here are a handful of Cree idioms – expressions in Cree that don’t mean what they literally appear to mean, and the challenges they present in interpreting them in English.

1. namôya nânitaw

namôya nânitaw is commonly taught as the correct response to “tânisi?” meaning “I’m fine” because that’s what English politeness dictates in response to “How are you?” which is what tânisi literally means.

The itwêwina dictionary provides several meanings:
– fine, I’m fine, all right, okay, nothing wrong
– insignificant, of little account
– not anything
– nowhere
– I’m fine; or nowhere.

But there’s nothing in namôya nânitaw, that refers directly to oneself, or to “fine” or “good”. Taken literally, we have namôya meaning no/not, and nânitaw for which we also find half a dozen English equivalents in the itwêwina online dictionary:
– simply
– something
– something bad
– somewhere
– anyhow
– in that place

Taken together, namôya nânitaw, really (really) can’t be translated literally from Cree to English. Certainly not as, “I’m fine.” But that’s how idiom works. So if we look for a less idiomatic interpretation, what do we find?

  • namôya nânitaw itêyihtam meaning “He thinks nothing of it.” Here we might match namôya nânitaw, up with an English expression like “Think nothing of it”.
  • Another more literal interpretation (in response to tânisi? as “How are you?”) might be “Not much [new]”. Maybe that’s not even out of line with English “I’m fine” which gets used so often as a social convention.

Taken at the literal level, this kind of mismatch adds just too many wrinkles into teaching basic greetings to small children. So the practical solution (as we see in Brian MacDonald’s tânisi song) is to match Cree idioms with equivalent English idioms.

2. mîna mîna

mîna mîna might literally mean “also again” (which doesn’t mean much in English), but Sol reports his mother using it (we’re not going to guess how often) at moments when she observed him being a bit of a “slow learner” (another English idiom) – in the sense of “when will you learn?” As Sol nods wisely and paraphrases in retrospect, mîna mîna  might also “mess around and find out.”

3. namwâc kika-pîhik pîsim

namwâc kika-pîhik pîsim comes from Robin McLeod, reflecting on the English idiom, “Time waits for no one”. Robin comments, “Time is tipahikan which literally translates to measurement. But the real measurement of time is with the sun. My dad use to say this a lot: namwâc kika-pîhik pîsim “the sun won’t wait for you”. (This one shows up in the FaceBook group Nêhiyawêwin (Cree) Word/Phrase of the Day).

4. wîtha mâni mâka

Solomon Ratt says, “We have a saying in th-dialect Cree that’s applicable here: wîtha mâni mâka. It’s hard to translate but it means ‘no matter what anyone says they will continue doing what they do because that is the way s/he is.’ It doesn’t work as a literal translation in English, but it might be paraphrased with the English idiom “it’s his funeral.”

5. mâka mîna pisisiniw

Solomon Ratt seems to have been the target of a number of interesting idioms in Cree. mâka mîna pisisiniw Solomon literally means ‘As usual Solomon has something in his eye.’ But idiomatically, it means “As usual Solomon has his eyes on someone (a woman).”

6. ni-tîpi-kiyokâkawisin 

ni-tîpi-kiyokâkawisin is our final example – for the moment – and comes to us from Simon Bird. It literally means “I feel visited enough” – and it’s the implication that makes it funny. Simon says, “I can say this to another fluent speaker and they’ll just laugh, but get the “hint.”

As an English speaker, I grew up with equivalent, elliptical English idioms (not literal translations) that seem far less gracious than Cree (though they’re usually used jokingly):
– “Come again when you can’t stay so long!”
– “Here’s your hat; What’s your hurry?”
(If you – as a fluent speaker – have additional Cree idioms you’d like to add to this collection, please feel free to write them in a comment below. I believe the English idiom is something like, “Operators are standing by!”)

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