Plains Cree Language

The Plains Cree language is spoken in several dialects over a very large geographical area in Canada, and in the United States in the state of Montana.

The Eastern Cree and closely related Montagnais and Naskapi are spoken on the east coast of Canada throughout Labrador and on the eastern side of Hudson Bay & James Bay respectively.

Attikamek Cree or the “R” dialect is spoken in Quebec.

The Moose Cree or the “L”dialect is verbalized in Ontario along the James Bay and Hudson’s Bay region.

The Eastern Swampy Cree is also oralized within the region just mentioned and through much of North Western Ontario.

The Swampy Cree dialect as a whole is known as the “N” dialect, differences between the eastern and western Swampy Cree, in Ontario and Manitoba regions are substantial.

Plains Cree or the “Y” dialect is spoken in southern Saskatchewan and through central Alberta.

The woods Cree, sometimes worded as the Rock Cree, is spoken in Manitoba and in north-eastern Saskatchewan, it is referred as the “Th” dialect.

The Cree language is also spoken in parts of north-eastern British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and in the state of Montana.

There are three dialects of Cree spoken in Saskatchewan, the ‘th’, ’n’ and the ‘y’.

Lac La Ronge Cree Nation, Montreal Lake Cree Nation, and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation speak the Woodland Cree. There is a strong influence of the Woodland Cree spoken in Sturgeon Lake and the surrounding First Nations reserves within Prince Albert area.

The Swampy Cree is spoken by the members of Red Earth First Nation, Shoal Lake First Nation, and Cumberland House Cree Nation. The most influential Swampy Cree speakers are of the Shoal Lake Cree Nation.

The Plains Cree, known as the ‘y’ dialect, is spoken throughout South Central Saskatchewan. There are approximately 45 First Nations reserves in Saskatchewan that speak the plains Cree dialect.

Some speakers of the plains Cree are Ahtahkakóp, Big River, Canoe Lake, Little Pine,Makwa Sahgaeihcan, Pelican Lake, Sweet Grass, and Witchekan Lake. The Woodland Cree refer themselves as ‘níhithawak’, the Swampy Cree refer their language identity as ‘néhinawak’, the Plains Cree being true to their dialect refer to being ‘néhiyawak.

The Cree language is a sister language to Saulteaux and Blackfoot, which belong to the Algonkian linguistic family group. The Algonkian linguistic family group consists of the Miq’mak, Naskapi, Montagnais, Algonquian, Chippwa and Ojibwa.

The Algonkian linguistic family is widely spread throughout North America. South of the Canadian border there are relations of the Algonkian language family. They are: Fox, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kickapoo, Menomini, and Miami. There is also a distant family grouping that consists of the tribes Lumbee, Wiyot, and the Yurok.

The origination of the word ‘Cree’ comes from the short form of a cross variation of the Ojibwa word “kistanowak”(people of the north) and the Jesuit equivocal word ‘kristinue’. This led to the néhiyawakbeing called the ‘kris’ (Crees).

The earliest glimpses of the Cree in the historical literature occur in Jesuit Relations. The intrepid Jesuits were the first whites to see the Cree and their reports begin the story of almost three centuries of contact and relations.

In the early records they were known by several variants of the Ojibwa name for them; the Kristineaux, Kiristinous, and the Kilistinous.

The Plains Cree called themselves Nehiawak, a term which cannot be etymologized.

In 1640 the term Kinstinon was mentioned and repeated at frequent intervals in reports over the following twenty years. The priests had not met any tribesmen, however they learned from other Indians that the Cree were a very powerful people.

Aside from being nomadic hunters, the Jesuits learned that the Cree fought the Nadouessis and Dakota.

From 1656 to 1658, four geographical subdivisions of the Cree were named. The geographical boundaries were Lake Nipigon, west of James Bay, between Lake Nipigon and Moose River, and along the East Main River.

This is consistent with the Eastern Cree boundaries outlined in 1656, as defined by Skinner, who visited them some two hundred and fifty years later.

The Jesuits being trained in the European alphabet used their alphabet to try and write the sounds as they heard it spoken in the Cree language. The Jesuits had some success by turning their attention to a consonant-vowel combination syllabre.

The syllabre came together when the Jesuits and the Cree people taught each other their culture and language. The Cree being more artistic than literal, communicated to one another by drawings, symbolic writing on birch-bark and pictograph cliff drawings.

The Jesuits fathers were more literal, reading the gospel to the Cree people. When they had lived with the Cree for a long period of time, the Jesuits began learning the Cree language. The Jesuits and the Cree people combined their communicating styles with each other, and this was how the  syllabry was created.

Methodist missionary James Evans developed the Cree syllabic writing system in the 1840s. Syllabic writing was made popular among the Crees (Iiyiyuuschii) in the last few decades of the 19th century. This was a direct result of religious texts being translated into Cree syllabics under the direction of Rev. John Horden.

After a year, Rev. John Horden had 40 native students, and about half could read English. Evans himself was becoming familiar with the local languages.

Aside from writing in Ojibway, in 1830 Evans was preaching sermons in the local Ojibway language.

By 1831, Evans had produced an original orthography and paved the way for the beginning of a writing system for Native languages.

Through his study of the language, Evans realized that the Ojibway language could best be represented through just nine sounds. The nine sounds represented are: a, ch, k, m, n, p, t, s, and y all of which can be combined with the basic vowels in four variations; ai, chi, ki, mi, ni, pi, ti, si, yi. The same can be done with the vowels e, i, o, u.

It was probably also around this time that Evans first considered a new syllabic writing system as being the ideal way to render the Algonkian languages.

The syllabic writing style was used to translate the bible into Cree. This opened the door for syllabic writing to be adopted by other languages (Dene, Inunituk, Blackfoot) as a means to translate the bible into their Native tongue.

In Saskatchewan, most of the missionary schools were located south of Prince Albert. This had a strong influence on the Plains Cree.

Children were placed in residential schools where they were taught the English alphabet and how to read English text.

99.9% of the language taught to the children was not of their mother tongue. An important fact to recollect is that geologists who were searching for minerals would write and name landmarks and waterways as they heard it spoken in Native languages.

In most occurrences Native people acted as guides for geologists. The guides would pass on the information in their Native tongue via names of certain waterways and landmarks. This information was recorded in the roman characters of the English alphabet.

Anthropologists studying native cultures would also have informants of Native descent providing them with information, which would also be recorded in roman characters.

The syllabic writing system was used in church environments, as well as by Native people who were familiar with the syllabary. Meanwhile in schools, stores and government offices, the English alphabet was apparent. 

The syllabic system was not being taught in schools. Native children soon started to write their native languages in the writing system that they were taught in. Ultimately the roman orthography writing system emigrated.

There have been a number of roman orthography writing styles being used, from using the double vowel (‘oo’) to represent long vowel sounds, use of voiced phonemes (g for k), to a combination of constant clusters (htk, mwh,ch,gt).

The end result is that of the standard roman orthography (SRO), which is now being taught in schools where the Cree language and other native languages are taught.

Listen to Cree pronunciation by a native Cree speaker.


Article Index:

Atikamekw, A Cree language of Canada


Three isolated communities on reservations of Manuane, Obedjiwan, Weymontachie, between La Tuque, Quebec, and Senneterre, Quebec, 200 to 400 km north of Montreal in south central Quebec, along the upper reaches of the St. Maurice River.

Cree language to go online with new Internet dictionary

Miyo Wahkohtowin Community Education Authority (MWCEA) and Dr. Earle Waugh Dir. Center for Culture & Health Family Medicine, University of Alberta (U of A) are partnering to develop a web based interactive First Nations language portal with dictionary and curriculum based resources to further the development for Cree language in Canada.

A new Cree dictionary, containing more than 30,000 words, plus audio and video recordings is going online.

East Cree, Southern: native american language of Canada


Quebec, southeastward from James Bay, inland to the height of land (watershed) east of Lake Mistissini. Coastal communities of Waskaganish, some speakers in Eastmain. Inland, in Mistissini, Waswanipi, Nemaska, and Ouje-Bougoumo.

Moose Cree is an indigenous language of Canada
Northern East Cree is an indigenous language of canada
Plains Cree, an indigenous language of Canada and the US
Swampy Cree is an indigenous language of Canada
Woods Cree is an indigenous language of Canada