(Updated Feb 24, 2021)


Preverbs are small words in Cree which may appear before a verb. They are called “preverbs” because of the position they occupy: they come before (pre-) the verb. For example, ᒌᐦ chiih (past tense) is a preverb.

ᒌᐦ ᒥᓂᐦᒀᓐ ᑏ nichiih minihkwaan tii ‘I drank some tea.’

If the verb has a person prefix, as is the case here (ᓂ ni), the preverb follows the person prefix.

There are two types of preverb, grammatical and lexical. A preverb like ᒌᐦ chiih belongs to the grammatical class because it adds grammatical information (past tense) to the verb it combines with. Lexical preverbs are more "wordy" and can mean things like 'good/well' or 'bad/badly', concepts which in English would be conveyed by adjectives or adverbs; for example, the preverb miyu means 'good/well'.

ᐋᐸᑎᓰᐤ aapatisiiu 'he or she works'
ᒥᔪ ᐋᐸᑎᓰᐤ miyu aapatisiiu 'he or she works well'

There are about 20 preverbs which are commonly used in Cree. You can see a list of these for Northern East Cree at the preverbs section of


We have looked in some detail at how the youngest child in the study, Ani, started using preverbs. Ani's study began at age 2 years, 1 month, and continued until she was 4 years, 3 months. During this period, she was using increasingly complicated constructions involving preverbs. One thing that we know, then, is that Cree children begin using preverbs when they are quite young - at least by around age 2, and perhaps earlier than this. The full details of Ani's study are published here: 

2021. Brittain, Julie & Rose, Yvan. "The development of preverbs in Northern East Cree: A longitudinal case study." In First Language Special Issue, The Acquisition of Complex Predicates. Edited by Hannah Sarvasy. Pp. 1-30. DOI:

In sections 3 nd 4 below, we summarize these findings.


32 video recordings were made with Ani over the 30 months of the study. Each video was about 40 minutes long. Of course, we missed many more preverbs in 30 months than we captured on video, but the videos do give a little window into her language skills each time she was in front of the camera. In these 32 videos, Ani used a preverb 48 times. She used 9 of the 20 or so types of preverb commonly used by adults. While it isn't easy to say which preverbs are simpler to use compared to others, we think that the preverbs she uses at first may be the simpler ones, and that as she gets older she adds the harder to use preverbs to her inventory.

Two clear patterns emerged in Ani's data. First, she only uses the grammatical preverbs. This is not too surprising, perhaps, because we think that these are also the most commonly used preverbs and so they are likely to be the type she most often hears. We know from studying child language acquisition in other languages that word frequency (how often a word is used) is a contributing factor in learning: words which are used very frequently (e.g., English youwhatthanks) may be learned more easily (be acquired at a younger age) than words which are used less frequently. Second, Ani starts using preverbs with independent verbs, and not until age 2 years, 11 months does she begin to pair preverbs with conjunct verbs.

Conjunct verbs and independent verbs have different endings and are used in different types of sentences. Cree verbs listed in dictionaries provide the independent form of the word as these are considered to be the most basic, as in the following example: 


ᐃᔨᐦᑎᐤ iyihtiu 'he/she does it'

The third person singular ('he or she') -u shown in bold is an independent suffix  The next example shows the same verb (ᐃᔨᐦᑎᐤ iyihtiu) with a third person singular conjunct suffix -t:


ᑖᓐ ᒑ ᐃᔨᐦᑎᑦ  Taan chaa iyihtit? ‘What is he/she going to do?’  

A conjunct ending is required in this example because it is a content question. Content questions contain question words (such as ᑖᓐ taan 'what'). Conjunct verbs are also required in subordinate clauses, relative clauses, and in a number of other kinds of constructions.

Conjunct verbs are also frequently affected by initial change, the term used to refer to the change that happens to the first vowel in a conjunct verb. In the following example, the first vowel of the verb ᐃᔨᐦᑎᐤ iyihtiu changes to ᐋ aa:

ᑖᓐ ᐋᔨᐦᑎᔨᓐ Taan aayihtit? 'What is he/she doing?'

A fuller explaination of this process appears in the initial change section of Initial change is one of several reasons why we think conjunct verbs could be more challenging for the learner compared to independent verbs. When Ani first started using preverbs, she used them with independent verbs, and this may be because they are less challenging. More generally, we know that she used a greater proportion of independent verbs in the earlier videos (at a younger age). More details of this can be found at:

Rose, Yvan and Julie Brittain. 2011 "Grammar Matters: Evidence from Phonological and Morphological Development in Northern East Cree." In Proceedings of the 4th Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition in North America (GALANA), edited by Mihaela Pirvulescu. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, pp. 193-208. 


Here are the nine types of preverb Ani used, presented with the age at which she first used each (the first token). The notation 2;03, for example, means 2 years and 3 months. We've already talked about independent versus conjunct verbs. In addition to these, in East Cree, verbs take  distinct suffixes if a command is being given, as in ᑭᓂᐧᐋᐱᐦᑦᐦ kiniwaapiht-h 'look at it!'. These are imperative verbs.  

The first preverb Ani used was ᐹᒋ paachi, at age 2 years, 3 months, and she used it with an imperative verb. The next three preverbs she used were all combined with independent verbs: at age 2 years, 4 months, ᑭ ki (future), at age 2 years, 7 months, ᒌᐦ chiih (past) and at age 2 years, 9 months, ᐐᐦ wiih (‘want’). To the best of our knowledge, ᑭ ki may only be used with independent verbs. ᒌᐦ chiih and ᐐᐦ wiih, however, can be used with either independent or conjunct verbs.

An interesting pattern in Ani’s preverb usage is that, even if a given preverb can be used with more than one type of verb - see the far right column, ᐐᐦ wiih can, for example, be used with either conjunct or independent verbs - she continued throughout the period of study to combine a given preverb with just one kind of verb ending. We think this may be a simplification strategy. There is good evidence, if we look at the details of how children learning any of the world's languages, that they tackle the huge puzzle that is grammar by breaking the job down into small doable chunks. So what we think Ani was doing was learning to use each preverb with just one kind of verb, just to start out.  

Next in the timeline, she started to use the so-called “conjunct preverbs”: ᒑ chaa at age 2 years, 11 months, ᑳ kaa at 3 years, 1 month, and ᐋᐦ aah at 3 years, 8 months. She correctly paired these with conjunct verbs. Given that she used, in general, more independent than conjunct verbs when she was very young, when filming for the study began, it’s not surprising that the conjunct preverbs turned up in the later videos; as she uses a greater propertion of conjunct verbs, so she starts to use the conjunct preverbs.

Finally, at 4 years of age, Ani used ᒌᐦ chiih (‘able to’), and ᐅᐦᒋ uhchi (past, negative). These two preverbs are quite complicated to use, for reasons we will not explore here (but which are explored in the full study), suffice to say it’s possible this is why they turned up a bit later in her speech samples.

We are now in the process of examining how Daisy, an older child in the study, uses preverbs. Daisy was 3 years, 8 months at the start of the study and 5 years, 7 months on its completion. Our examination of Daisy’s use of preverbs provides us with many more examples because she joined the project when she was older and her language skills were consequently more developed. She uses a greater variety of preverbs, and she combines them, as adults frequently do. (Two, three or even more preverbs can be used with a verb.) We hope to be able to post a summary by summer, 2021.