Where to place the accent on Cree words

Updated March 5, 2021


An important part of learning any language is learning where words are accented (i.e., stressed, or emphasized). If a word has more than one syllable, generally one of those syllables will bear an accent. In English, for example, hotel has 2 syllables, ho.tel, and the accent falls on the second syllable, which is to say, the second syllable is a little more audibly prominent: we say ho.tel, not ho.tel. Here are some more English 2 syllable words that have the accent on the second syllable.

  • decide de.cide
  • begin be.gin
  • allow a.llow
  • forget for.get

Here are some that have the accent on the first syllable;

  • jury ju.ry
  • movie mo.vie

And here's how some longer English words are stressed:

  • beautiful  beau.ti.ful
  • unhappy un.ha.ppy
  • radio ra.di.o

Each language has its own patterns of accent placement, general rules as well as some exceptions to those rules. Learning this whole system is one of the things children do when they acquire a language. Let's take a look now at some of the word accent placement patterns for Northern East (NE) Cree.

2 syllable words tend to have stress on the first syllable:

  • chiimaan ᒫᓐ 'boat' chii.maan
  • nuhkum ᓄᐦᑯᒻ 'my grandmother' nuh.kum

In NE Cree, vowel length plays an important role in determining which syllable is accented. An example of a long vowel is ᐄ ii and ᐋ aa like in ᒌᒫᓐ chiimaan 'boat' and an example of a short vowel is ᐊ a and ᐃ like in ᐊᑎᐦᒄ atihkw 'caribou'.

In longer words, accent tends to fall on the first long vowel, counting from the end of the word (in a right-to-left direction). In this next example, the first long vowel from the end, in the syllable ᑳ kaa, is accented (resulting in second-syllable-from-the-end accent).  

  • kaahkaachiw ᑳᐦᒋᐤ 'raven' kaah.kaa.chiw

In the next example, the third long vowel from the end, in the syllable ᑖ taa, is accented (resulting in third-syllable-from-the-end accent). 

  • puutaachikin ᐴᒋᑭᓐ 'mouth organ' puu.taa.chi.kin

And then, because language is always full of exceptions to whatever general rules we find, there are words that have different accent placements again.

  • pwaachikii ᑆᒋᑮ 'bogeyman' pwaa.chi.kii
  • pihchihtin ᐱᐦᒋᐦᑎᓐ 'it falls, drops down' pih.chih.tin

The short answer to this question is, they start learning when they are very young. We looked at word accent placement in five videos for Ani, the youngest child in the study: at age 2;02 (2 years, 2 months), 2;08, 3;04, 3;06, and 4;01. At 2;02, she was already very accurate for words which have the accent on the final syllable (e.g., pihchihtin ᐱᐦᒋᐦᑎᓐ 'it falls, drops down').

  • At age 2;02 she correctly accented these words 92.9% of the time.
  • From age 2;08 onwards, she was 100% accurate.

For longer words like kaahkaachiw ᑳᐦᑳᒋᐤ 'raven', which follow a general rule based on vowel length, she was a little less accurate starting out but steadily improved over time.

  • At age 2;02, she correctly accented these words 62.5% of the time.
  • There was a steady increase in accuracy, reaching 84.6% by age 4;01

Longer words which were exceptions to the general rules, like pwaachikii ᑆᒋᑮ 'bogeyman', took a little longer to master.

  • At age 2;02, she correctly accented these words 14.3% of the time.
  • There was a steady increase in accuracy, reaching 75% by age 4;01

We haven't yet looked at word accent placement for Daisy or Billy.


You can read more in depth reports on accent placement in Northern and Southern East Cree in the following:

Rose, Yvan & 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), Mihaela Pirvulescu (ed). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, pp. 193-208 Click here to access this paper.

Swain, Erin. (2009). The Acquisition of Stress in Northern East Cree: A Case Study. M.A. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Dyck, Carrie, Brittain, Julie, & MacKenzie, Marguerite. (2006). "Northern East Cree Accent." In Proceedings of the 2006 Annual Conference of the Canadian Linguistics Association.

Brittain, Julie. (2000). “A metrical analysis of Southern East Cree.” International Journal of American Linguistics 66(2), pp. 181–217. Article DOI