Cree: Words

29 February 2012

“Cree: Words” / “nēhiýawēwin: itwēwina
Compiled by Arok Wolvengrey
Published by Canadian Plains Research Center
Reviewed by Chris Ewing-Weisz
$49.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-127-7

Words tell how people see the world. Not just by the things they’re used to say: words themselves, their history, the way they’re formed, the rules governing their use, speak volumes about the culture in which they originate.

That’s one of the things that makes Arok Wolvengrey’s Cree: Words so worthwhile. Its two volumes document the Cree language (primarily Plains Cree) as used by fluent speakers across Western Canada. Although its main function, as a bilingual dictionary, is to help speakers of English and Cree find the right word in each other’s language, it also provides a window into the strikingly different cultural assumptions that first met on this continent several hundred years ago.

The idea that the world is a web of relationships is embedded in every word a Cree speaker utters. To choose the right word you must think about whether your subject is animate (alive) or not. Some words, like those for family members, do not stand alone, but must be described in relation to someone else. You also have to consider whether the object of your action is animate or not. You don’t simply run around acting; you always have to specify context.

Over 15,000 entries in the Cree-English volume draw on a broad variety of oral and written sources. The dictionary also supplies information on the dialectical differences from the eastern shores of James Bay to northern Alberta. An extensive foreword sketches the pronunciation, spelling, and grammar issues needed to understand the entries.

In the English-Cree volume, entries (from Abandon to Zipper) are often long, showing the frequent impossibility of simple word-for-word translation. The volume also gives lots of space to items and concepts of First Nations cultural significance, further enriching the importance of this work.

Proceeds from Cree: Words go to the non-profit Saskatchewan Cree Language Retention Inc.


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