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Cree is the most widely spoken Native language in Canada. It is not so much a language, as a chain of dialects, where speakers from one community can very easily understand their neighbours, but a Plains Cree speaker from Alberta would find a Québec Cree speaker difficult to speak to without practice. For that matter, there have also been differences of opinion over where Cree ends, and another language begins. Is the language spoken in Waswanipi: Cree or Innu (Montagnais)? Linguistically, that dialect may be closer to Innu, but the people call themselves “Cree” in English, and write in Syllabics (while Innu uses Roman orthography). Oji-Cree has also been lumped in with Cree, but this is a distinct language on its own, or at least a dialect of Ojibway. This dilemma stems from the fact that the idea of a concretely defined nation is an imported concept, and not terribly applicable to pre-contact northern hunter-gatherers. On this website, the important factor is what the people call themselves.

Traditionally, linguists have divided the dialects via their sound changes. In Proto-Algonquian (PA) (the reconstructed hypothetical language which separated over time into the modern Algonquian languages), there were two sounds which have different representations in modern Cree. PA *l has become, /y/ in Plains and East James Bay Cree, /ð/ in Northern Woods Cree, /n/ in Swampy Cree, /l/ in Moose Cree, and /r/ in Atikamekw Cree. There were formerly r-Cree dialects in northern Saskatchewan (around Île-à-la-Crosse, but it has subsequently changed to a y-dialect) and north-western Ontario (which has merged with the l-dialect). Much of this dialect information from Pentland 1978. The other PA sound which is useful when discussing Cree dialects is *š, which in western dialects has merged with *s into /s/, while eastern dialects have both sounds /s/ and /š/. This boundary cuts the n-Cree (Swampy Cree) territory in half, and follows just east of the Ontario-Manitoba border. There are many other phonological and grammatical means by which dialects can be divided, but the two above are the most popular. Atikamekw is usually considered a separate language (which uses Roman orthography, and where the second language is French rather than English), and will be treated in a separate section.

The dialects of the Cree langauge can be seen on the following maps: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, North West Territories, Ontario, Québec, Saskatchewan.

Cree is almost always written in Syllabics. More information about Syllabics is available on the Syllabics pages. Much as there are different spoken dialects, there are written “dialects” or ortholects. These are discussed on the Cree Syllabarium page. Please see the Syllabics pages as this is the appropriate writing system for Cree.

Linguists, missionaries, and others have over the centuries invented Roman orthographies for Cree, but none have been overly successful; Syllabics are more common. However, when Syllabics are transliterated into Roman letters, the system used is typically the Algonquianist (see below). Virtually all linguists working on Cree use this transliteration, and it is difficult to find linguistic publications or articles using Syllabics. Most of those who prepare curriculum materials, dictionaries, texts, etc. for publication are trained in linguistics. Furthermore, in many learn-to-speak Cree classes, English speaking students are taught in Roman orthography first, and it is only in the second or third level that Syllabics are introduced. Whether this is a good idea or not will not be discussed on this website.

Note: There are several Roman Orthography conventions on this site that may require further explanation. On the charts below, there is lots of phonetic terminology that may not be familiar to everyone.

The Canadian Census counts 99,950 Cree speakers in 2006, up from 97,230 in 2001. According to Howe and Cook, there are 80,000. There are 775 speakers in the United States (U.S. Census)

The word for “Cree language” is different in many of the dialects. Each dialect’s ISO 639-3 code is given in [square brackets]

  • ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ (Nēhiyawēwin) Plains Cree [crk]
  • ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᒧᐏᐣ (Nēhiyawēmowin) Northern Plains Cree [crk]
  • ᓀᐦᐃᖬᐍᐏᐣ (Nīhithawīwin) Woods Cree [cwd]
  • ᐃᓂᓃᒧᐏᐣ (Ininīmowin) Western Swampy Cree [csw]
  • ᐃᓂᓂᐎ ᐃᔑᑭᔗᐎᐣ (Ininiwi-Išikišwēwin) Eastern Swampy Cree [csw]
  • ᐃᓕᓖᒧᐎᓐ (Ililīmowin) Moose Cree [crm]
  • ᐄᔨᔫ ᐊᔨᒨᓐ (Īyiyū Ayimūn) Northern East Cree [crl]
  • ᐄᓅ ᐊᔨᒨᓐ (Īnū Ayimūn) Southern East Cree [crj]


ISO 639-3: cre

for dialect codes, see list above

Algonquianist Roman Orthography: Consonants (Syllabics)

  bilabial interdental alveolar affricate palatal velar glottal
voiceless fricative
voiced fricative

Vowels (Syllabics)

  front central back
i – ī
o – ō
a – ā


  • Woods Cree /ð/ is generally written ‹th› in Roman transcriptions.
  • The affricate can be either alveolar [ts], palato-alveolar [tʃ], or anywhere in between.
  • Symbols in parentheses are only found in certain dialects. The vowel /ē/ merges with /ī/ in Woods Cree, in Northern Coastal East Cree, /ē/ merges with /ā/.
  • Some linguists using Roman orthography prefer a circumflex ‹â› over a macron ‹ā› to mark long vowels. Others use an acute accent ‹á› (less common). Also, a diacritic on an ‹ń› or ‹ý› may be used to signify that this sound changes depending on dialect, whereas a non-accented ‹n› or ‹y› is always /n/ or /y/ in all dialects.
  • Hyphens are used to separate certain prefixes from verbs, e.g. ‹kiwī-itōhtān›, “You will go” or “You want to go”. Syllabics users may or may not put spaces where Roman orthography uses hyphens, e.g. ᑭᐐ ᐃᑑᐦᑖᓐ.


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Last Update: October 22, 2008