Nouns and their affixes

Updated Feb 17, 2021

Nouns, prefixes, and suffixes

This document summarizes findings from: Henke, Ryan E. (Ph.D. dissertation). 2020. “The first language acquisition of nominal inflection in Northern East Cree: Possessives and nouns”. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.


Language acquisition is the process of learning a language, which includes learning the meanings of words as well as how to use pieces to change the meanings of words. Like many languages, the Cree language uses nouns to refer to people, places, things, and ideas, and the meanings of nouns can be changed by adding pieces such as prefixes and suffixes.

For example, the noun ᐊᐧᐋᔑᔥ awaashish means ‘child’. Adding the suffix -ich makes the noun plural: ᐊᐧᐋᔑᔑᒡ awaashishich ‘children’. As another example, the noun ᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ misinihiikin means ‘book’. This kind of noun uses a different plural suffix, so adding the suffix -h makes the plural: ᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐᐦ misinihiikinh ‘books'.

Cree nouns can use many other kinds of prefixes and suffixes when they are used in possessive expressions, which are words and phrases that indicate something which belongs to someone.

For example, the noun ᓂᑎᐙᔑᔒᒥᒡ nitiwaashishiimich means ‘my children’. This word contains the noun ᐊᐧᐋᔑᔥ awaashish ‘child’, along with three important pieces:

  • The prefix nit- means ‘my’
  • The suffix -iim indicates that the noun belongs to someone; and
  • The suffix -ich creates a plural meaning.

This summary provides an overview of the following areas:

  1. How nouns, prefixes, and suffixes are used in speech to children (section 2 below); and
  2. How children learn to use these nouns, prefixes, and suffixes (section 3).


Child-directed speech (abbreviated here as CDS) is the type of language used with children from birth until about age six. CDS is important because it gives children special exposure to a language and its patterns. 

Through CDS, children hear hundreds of different types of nouns—such as ᐊᐧᐋᔑᔥ awaashish ‘child’ and ᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ misinihiikin—and they hear these nouns used thousands of times. Some English nouns are also used in Cree, such as daycare and bus, but the vast majority of nouns are Cree.

CDS provides children with very rich exposure to the full collection of Cree prefixes and suffixes. Children love to talk about their belongings and the belongings of their families and friends, so CDS uses hundreds of nouns in possessive expressions. These nouns give children the chance to hear all of the noun prefixes and suffixes in the language, which helps children learn where and when to use them. Certain types of nouns, prefixes, and suffixes are especially frequent as well, which provide important models for children.

For example, one of the most common nouns in CDS is ᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ misinihiikin ‘book’. CDS uses many forms of ᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ misinihiikin that involve several different combinations of prefixes and suffixes, such as:

ᓂᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ nimisinihiikin ‘my book’
ᓂᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓂᓈᓐ nimisinihiikininaan ‘our book (not yours)’
ᒋᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ chimisinihiikin ‘your book’
ᒋᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓂᓂᐤ chimisinihiikininiu ‘our book (and yours)’
ᐅᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ umisinihiikin ‘her/his book’
ᐅᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓂᐙᐤ umisinihiikiniwaau ‘their book’

In fact, certain nouns which are useful and relevant to talking about the interests and lives of children—such as ᐧᐄᒡ wiich ‘her/his home’, ᐐᒑᐙᑭᓐ wiichaawaakin ‘friend’, and ᐊᑯᐦᑉ akuhp ‘coat’—get used frequently with different combinations of prefixes and suffixes. These combinations are important because they let children compare and contrast forms of the same noun, which helps them figure out where prefixes and suffixes are used and what they mean.

Certain prefixes and suffixes also are used more frequently than others in CDS. For example, prefixes such as chi- ‘your’ and u- ‘his or hers’ are much more common than the prefix ni- ‘my’. This difference can be explained by the fact that adults use CDS not to talk about themselves but about the children’s belongings and those of the children’s friends and families.

Overall, CDS provides children with many examples of nouns, prefixes, and suffixes. These examples involve all possible combinations of prefixes and suffixes, and they give children all of the necessary clues to figure out what each piece of a word means and where and when to use it.


Children will start to use nouns at a young age, and they may begin by producing nouns that are missing prefixes and suffixes. For example, a child may intend to say ᐅᐱᔨᒌᓯᒻᐦ upiyichiisimh ‘her pants’ but instead say ᐱᔨᒌᔅ piyichiis ‘pants’, leaving off the prefix u-, the suffix -im, and the suffix -h. In our research, we have seen one child do this until she is about three-and-a-half years old. This is typical behavior in language acquisition: Children learning many kinds of languages, including English, often delete prefixes and suffixes from words. It is a normal part of the language-learning process.

Additionally, children may commonly use words like ᐆ uu ‘this’ and ᐊᓐ an ‘that’ instead of nouns in possessive expressions. For example, children may say something like ᓃᔨ ᐆ Niiyi uu ‘This is mine’ before they start to use nouns to refer to things that belong to them, such as ᓃᒋᓈᓐ niichinaan ‘our home’.

As children develop over time, they use nouns with prefixes and suffixes in a manner that looks more like adult speech. Our research focuses on three children between the ages of two and six, and it appears the children show adult-like usage of most prefixes and suffixes with nouns by around age four.

The children generally appear to be most adult-like in using nouns with prefixes and suffixes that also occur in CDS. In other words, the children are very good at identifying patterns in CDS and applying them in their own speech. For example, one child at age four is very skilled at using every noun prefix and suffix except the ones that are rarely used in CDS. The children also tend to use nouns most frequently that relate to their own lives and interests—such as ᐊᐧᐋᔑᔥ awaashish ‘child’, ᑰᐦᑯᒻ kuuhkum ‘grandmother’, ᓃᒡ niich ‘my house’, and ᐲᐲ piipii ‘baby’.

Each of the three children uses a higher number of English nouns than what is found in CDS. This signifies an increasing presence of English for the younger generation. However, the children’s speech also indicates that English words are being “Cree-ified”: The children will often use Cree prefixes and suffixes with English nouns. For example, the children will use words like nifriendim ‘my friend’, which has the Cree prefix ni- ‘my’ and the suffix -im. This indicates that English is being brought into their Cree language, and this kind of mixing pattern is actually a testament to the skill and mastery each child attains with the Cree language.

Overall, children are expert language learners who start with small pieces of the Cree language and build up to bigger words over time. This is typical of children learning any language. Cree has many different prefixes and suffixes for nouns, some with complicated rules for usage, and children are very skilled at identifying patterns in what they hear from adults and applying those patterns in their own speech. By about age four, it seems children show knowledge of most patterns that are frequent in CDS as well as useful and relevant to communicating about themselves and their own interests.