Cree (also known as Cree–Montagnais–Naskapi) is an Algonquian language spoken by approximately 117,000 people across Canada, from the Northwest Territories and Alberta to Labrador, making it the aboriginal language with the highest number of speakers in Canada. Despite numerous speakers within this wide-ranging area, the only region where Cree has any official status is in the Northwest Territories, alongside eight other aboriginal languages.
Cree is believed to have begun as a dialect of the Proto-Algonquian language spoken 2,500 to 3,000 years ago in the original Algonquian homeland, an undetermined area thought to be near the Great Lakes.
The speakers of the proto-Cree language are thought to have moved north, and diverged rather quickly into two different groups on each side of James Bay, after which time, the eastern group began to diverge into separate dialects, whereas the western grouping probably broke into distinct dialects much later.
After this point it is very difficult to make definite statements about how different groups emerged and moved around, because there are no written works in the languages to compare, and descriptions by Europeans are not systematic.
Algonquian people also have a tradition of bilingualism and even of outright adopting a new language from neighbours.
A traditional view among 20th-century anthropologists and historians of the fur trade posits that the Western Woods Cree and the Plains Cree (and therefore their dialects) did not diverge from other Cree peoples before 1670 CE, when the Cree expanded out of their homeland near James Bay due to access to European firearms.
By contrast, James Smith of the Museum of the American Indian stated in 1987 that the weight of archeological and linguistic evidence puts the Cree as far west as the Peace River Region of Alberta before European contact.
The Cree dialects can be broadly classified into nine groups from west to east:
Plains Cree - Divided to Southern Plains Cree (Nēhiyawēwin) and Northern Plains Cree (Nīhiyawīwin or Nīhiyawīmowin).
Woods Cree (Nīhithawīwin) - Missinipi Cree (Nīhirawīwin). Also known as "Rocky Cree."
Swampy Cree (Nēhinawēwin) - Divided to dialects of Eastern Swampy Cree, together with Moose Cree, also known as "West Main Cree," "Central Cree," or "West Shore Cree," and Western Swampy Cree also known as "York Cree;" together with Northern Plains Cree and Woods Cree, also known as "Western Woodland Cree."
Moose Cree (Ililīmowin) - Together with the Eastern Swampy Cree, also known as "West Main Cree," "Central Cree," or "West Shore Cree."
Northern East Cree (Īyyū Ayimūn) - Also known as "James Bay Cree" or "East Main Cree."
Southern East Cree (Īynū Ayimūn) - Southern East Cree is divided between coastal (southwestern) and inland (southeastern) varieties. However, the people from the two areas easily communicate.
Naskapi - Divides into Western Naskapi (Kawawachikamach) and Eastern Naskapi (Mushuau Innu or Natuashish).
Montagnais - Western Montagnais (Lehlueun); also known as the "Betsiamites dialect" or Western Montagnais (Nehlueun), but sometimes called "Central Montagnais" or "Piyekwâkamî dialect;" and Eastern Montagnais (Innu-aimûn).
Atikamekw (Nehirâmowin) - Western Cree.
Cree is also a component language in two contact languages, Michif and Bungi. Both languages were spoken by members of the Métis, the Voyageurs, and European settlers of Western Canada and parts of the Northern United States.
Michif is a mixed language which combines Cree with French. For the most part, Michif uses Cree verbs, question words, and demonstratives while using French nouns. Michif is unique to the Canadian prairie provinces as well as to North Dakota and Montana in the United States.Michif is still spoken in central Canada and in North Dakota.
Bungi is a dialect of Scottish English with substrate influences from Cree and Ojibwe. Some French words have also been incorporated into its lexicon. This language flourished at and around the Red River Settlement (modern day location of Winnipeg, Manitoba) by the mid to late 1800s. Bungi is now virtually extinct.
Many Cree words also became the basis for words in the Chinook Jargon trade language used until some point after contact with Europeans.
Cree has also been incorporated into two other mixed languages within Canada. The Oji-Cree language (also Severn Ojibwe), spoken in parts of Manitoba and western Ontario, is a mixed language of Cree and Ojibwe, and the Nehipwat language, which is a blending of Cree with Assiniboine. Nehipwat is found only in a few southern Saskatchewan reserves and is now nearing extinction. Nothing is known of its structure.
Like many Native American languages, Cree features a complex polysynthetic morphology and syntax. A common grammatical feature in Cree dialects, in terms of sentence structure, is non-regulated word order. Word order is not governed by a specific set of rules or structure; instead, “subjects and objects are expressed by means of inflection on the verb."
Another distinct feature of the Cree language is what could be understood as gender, similar to the French language’s genders of male and female nouns. Cree defines nouns as being animate or inanimate. There is no distinct rule governing the classification of animacy or inanimacy, rather, it is learned through immersive language acquisition.
A Cree word can be very long, and express something that takes a series of words in English. For example, the Plains Cree word for "school" is kiskinohamātowikamikw, "know.CAUS.APPLICATIVE.RECIPROCAL.place" or the "knowing-it-together-by-example place."
In many areas, Cree is a vibrant community language spoken by large majorities and taught in schools through immersion and second-language programs. In other areas, its use has declined dramatically. Cree is one of the least endangered aboriginal languages in North America, but is nonetheless at risk since it possesses little institutional support in most areas.