Subjects and objects in Cree

                                     (Updated March 13, 2021)

In Cree and related languages, words can contain a lot of information. Verbs in particular can be complex. One reason for this is that they contain information about the subject (the one doing an action) and, if there is one, the object (the one on the receiving end of an action). In (1), the subject is 'Annie' and the object is the 'coat'

(1)  ᐊᑯᐦᐱᔨᐅ  ᑭᔅᒋᒀᑎᒻ  ᐊᓂ    Akuhpiyiu kischikwâtim Annie.      

                                                    coat             sew                 Annie

       ‘Annie is sewing the coat’

But (2) is also good because, if we know we’re talking about 'Annie' and a 'coat', we can “drop” both subject and object.

(2)  ᑭᔅᒋᒀᑎᒻ   Kischikwâtim.   

      ‘She is sewing it (inanimate).’

The verb ending tells us the subject is a third person ('he'/'she') and the object is something inanimate (such as 'coat'). (In Cree, all nouns fall into one of two groups, animate or inanimate.)

When the subject is 'I' and the object is animate, for example, the verb form is different.

(3)  ᓂᑭᔅᒋᒀᑖᐅ   Nikischikwaataau.   

       ‘I’m sewing it (animate).’

So subjects and objects in Cree (and in many other of the world’s languages) may be “dropped” when everyone in the conversation knows who or what is being talked about. This is another area of the grammar which children have to acquire mastery of.  To get an idea of when this part of the grammar is acquired, we looked at five videos from Billy's study, covering the age range of 4 years, 6 months to 5 years, 10 months. This study showed that Billy was already using subjects and objects in a pattern that was just like that of his adult conversation partner - this was, in other words, an area of Cree grammar that he already had mastery over by the time the study began. Before looking at the results, let's consider the three main ways a subject or object can be represented in Cree:

  • Using a noun, like in (1)
  • Not using anything, like in (2) (subject or object is dropped)
  • Using a pronoun, like niiiyi in (3), or uuchii in (4)

(3) ᐋᑯᑖᐦ ᒑ ᐊᐱᔮᓐ ᓃᔨ   Aakutaah, chaa apiyaan, niiyi.  

'Okay, I’ll sit here.'

(4)  ᒥᒄ ᐙᔥ ᐆᒌ ᒌᐦᑎᐎᒡ ᓂᒫᐦ  Mikw waash uuchii chiihtiwich, nimaah?

       ‘These are the ones that work, right?

In the table below, N= the number of nouns, pronouns or dropped subjects/objects we found in the speech samples we examined for both child and adult. The % column represents these numbers as a percentage. In the five videos we considered, the adult represented subjects or objects 188/793 times using a noun and 63/793 times using a pronoun. She dropped a subject or an object 542/793 times. Considering these numbers as percentages, 23.7% of the adult's subjects/objects were nouns, 8% were pronouns, and 68.3% were dropped.  

The child's pattern is very similar to that of the adult. Billy represented subjects or objects 119/525 times using a noun and 51/525 times using a pronoun. He dropped a subject or an object 355/525 times. Considering these numbers as percentages, 22.7% of his subjects/objects were nouns, 9.7% were pronouns, and 67.6% were dropped.