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Linguistic Variation zn the French

Component of Mtif Grammar


Universit du Qubec Montral

Mtir is the name given to a contact language spoken in and around

the Turtle Mountain Reservation in north-central North Dakota as weil as
in a number of Mtis communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It is
also probably still spoken in the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in eastern
Montana and possibly in various areas of Alberta and in the Northwest Ter-
ritories. In very broad terms, the grammatical structure of :Mtif is made
up in more or less equal parts of French and Cree. More specifically, the
noun phrase is mostly in the domain of French grammar while the verb is
by and large in the domain of Cree. 2 Rhodes (1977) was the first to give a
structural sketch of Mtif. The title of his paper, "French Cree - a Case
of Borrowing", reflected his position at that time. The language was thus

1 Mtif, pronounced [mieif], has been spelled in a variety of ways: Rhodes (1977)
spelled it "Mitchif", Crawford (1983) spells it "Michif", while Rhodes (1985) uses the
spelling "Mtchif". The term "Mtir' cornes from a Middle French dialectal form mestij,
mestive meaning 'of mixed parents'. lt was the lexical rival of the modem-day form
"mtis, mtisse". The latter term effectively won out and replaced the former in the
late 18th century, but not before the form "Mtir' had already gained a foothold in
Canada. In Mtif, high-mid vowels are regularly raised to high position; dental stops
are affricated and palatalized before high front vowels and vowels tend to become laxed
and somewhat centralized in unstressed position or in stressed consonant-final syllable,
where the consonant is voiceless. These three phonological processes produce the surface
form [miif]. lt should be noted that the term is not known or used by ail Mtif speakers.
Sorne use the term to refer to the French dialect spoken by the Mtis. Others refer to
Mtif as "Broken Cree", "Bad Cree", "Mixed Cree", "French Cree", etc.
2The French referred to is obviously not 20th-century Standard French but rather
a distinct dialect of French, that spoken by the Mtis in western Canada. The dialect
is closely related to and is presumably derived from earlier stages of rural Qubcois
French. See Papen (1984) for further details.

248 R O B E R T A. P A P E N

considered to be a dialect of Cree, albeit with heavy French borrowing. In

a more recent paper (Rhodes 1985), he alters his position somewhat and
attempts to show that Metif should be viewed as a mixed language, since
in order to correctly describe the phonological component of Metif, one is
forced to posit two essentially separate phonological systems, one function-
ing for the French component and a different one for the Cree component,
with a relatively minor degree of convergence. However, Rhodes does not
extend his discussion to other areas of linguistic structure, and it is not
obvious whether he considers it necessary to posit two partial but distinct
grammars in order to correctly describe the structure of Metif.
It is not m y purpose in this paper to discuss the question as to whether
Metif is or is not to be regarded as a new dialect of Cree. Instead, I hope
to provide more information about the language than has heretofore been
given, particularly on the French component, in the hope that this analysis
m a y shed more light on the structure of this rather unique language.
T h e relatively scant published information available on Metif tends to
give the impression that the language is fairly uniform across speakers. This
impression is to be expected since the articles in question are mostly of the
structural sketch type. In fact, however, as might be expected, given the
particular nature of the language, Metif is highly variable. Nevertheless,
Crawford (1983), in his survey of four quite widely scattered Metif-speaking
communities, shows that there exist enough similarities in the speech of his
informants to correctly claim that they were, in effect, speaking the same
A realistic w a y of looking at Metif is to consider that it represents a
continuum with French and Cree at the opposite poles. Speakers of Metif
can be placed at various points on the continuum depending on the relative
amount or frequency of use of French or Cree grammatical structure. For
example, a given speaker m a y effectively possess a m u c h greater part of
the French nominal lexicon than another speaker. T h e latter, on the other
hand, m a y possess a m u c h better knowledge of the corresponding Cree
forms. Thus, for a given semantic concept, a speaker might readily k n o w the
correct French term but not the correct Cree term; other speakers m a y k n o w
neither the French nor the Cree term and be obliged to resort to definitions
or circumlocutions. But even in such cases, a given speaker m a y tend to use
more French and another more Cree.3 Given our present lack of knowledge
of m a n y of the controlling factors, it is difficult to determine w h y a given

A typical example: when asked what the term for 'wrist' was in Metif, one informa
readily gave the form poignet; another gave the Cree form piskukanan 'joint'; a third
did not know the correct French form but provided entre le bras puis la main 'between
the arm and the hand'; and yet a fourth gave ita ka: la main puis le bras napwamucik
'where the hand and the arm are joined'.

speaker is placed at a given point on the continuum; that is, w h y a given

speaker is Cree- or French-dominant. It is likely that speakers will vary
the amount of French and Cree according to a particular communicative
situation. It seems to be the case that the relative use, or lack of use.
of French structural elements depends crucially on whether the speaker
in question speaks or understands French, or at least whether those from
w h o m he or she learned Metif spoke French. T h e same seems to be the case
for the Cree end of the continuum; those speakers w h o admit to knowing
some Cree or whose parents or grandparents spoke Cree will normally tend
to be Cree-dominant.
This variability does not necessarily invalidate the general structural
principle of Metif: the N P will tend to be French, the verb will tend
to be Cree. A Cree-dominant Metif speaker will still use French-derived
nouns with their accompanying determiners, marked for French gender and
number, 4 and a French-dominant speaker will also use Cree-derived verb
forms with their associated complex inflectional structures. It is a question
of degree. T h e essential difference is that for French-dominant speakers,
the French component of Metif is not limited to the N P . For these speak-
ers, all grammatical categories, including the verb, m a y be French-derived.
In fact, under the correct structural circumstances, whole sentences in an
otherwise Metif conversation m a y be exclusively in French. Conversely,
Cree-dominant speakers will tend to limit their use of French to the N P
and all, or at least most other grammatical categories will be derived from
Cree. For both French-dominant and Cree-dominant speakers, a sentence
having only pronominal referents will generally be exclusively Cree, due to
the specific nature of Algonquian verbs.
In the rest of this paper, I propose to provide typical examples of the
above; that is, I will briefly discuss data which show that any grammatical
category of Metif m a y be of French origin.5 T h e following is a typical
sentence in Metif in which all the N P s are French while the verb and the
general sentential syntax is Cree:

Demonstratives are Cree-derived and thus maintain the Cree animate/inanimate
The data come primarily from the dictionary compiled by Crawford (Crawford,
ed. 1983). The material for the dictionary was provided by Patline Laverdure and Ida
Rose A Hard, both native speakers of Metif, with editorial assistance from John Crawford.
Henceforth, we will refer to this work as the "dictionary". In this dictionary, Metif
equivalents for a large number of English terms or expressions are given. Each Metif
term is then used in at least one complete Metif sentence. In most cases, two or more
terms are given, often one being French, the other Cree; or more than one example
sentence is given. Invariably, these sentences reflect the variability discussed above. One
of the native speakers consistantly uses more French than the other. The material is
quoted here in a broad phonetic transcription.

(1) la piliin ci: kit- u:tin a:wak e:- ka:-

the pill Q 2 take T A 2-3 N E G C O M P

liz afa si- uya:w- acik

the P L child C O M P have C O N J T A 2-3P

'Do you take pills not to have children?'

It should be noticed that the main verb kitu:tina:wak is marked as a

transitive verb with a second person singular agent and a third person plural
goal even though the objet N P is marked for singular (la piliin). T h e correct
Cree form would be kitu:tina:w. Nevertheless, it must also be noted that
the correct Cree gender has been assigned to the object N P , that the correct
French sandhi variant of the plural definite article is used with the noun in
the lower clause, and that the Cree verb is marked for animacy agreement
with its goal in both clauses (piliin, like afa, has animate gender). It should
also be noted that the word order is typically Cree since the interrogative
marker ci: is placed immediately after thefirstlexical item, the correct
form of the conjunct verb paradigm is used in the lower clause, triggered
by the C O M P si-, and,finally,the object N P is typically in sentence initial
or topical position.
French and Cree are not the only two languages involved in the struc-
ture of Metif. English nouns are also frequent. These invariably take French
determiners, though it is not immediately evident on what basis gender is
assigned. W e thus find feminine gender forms such as la rises 'the recess'
where the equivalent French word, la recreation, is also feminine, but la
kusin 'the cushion' where the equivalent French word, le coussin, is mas-
culine. W e also have masculine gender assigned to words like U st af 'the
stuff' where the equivalent French word, la maiiere is feminine, but li trak
'the truck', where the equivalent French word, le camion, is also masculine.
Cree nouns, when used at all, most often do not have French determiners
although some speakers m a y use them: mu 'my earnings', la 'the writing', li 'the garbage', en a:mu 'a bee',
It should be noted furthermore that the gender assigned to French-
derived nouns in Metif does not always correspond to Standard or even
Quebecois French gender. Below are a number of typical examples:

(2) Fr, masc; Me, fern Fr, fern; Me, masc

batu 'stick' but 'hill'
kwatii 'cotton' sevr 'goat'
bol 'bowl' grif 'claw'
mask 'mask' m u s 'fly'
kviti 'county' sum 'whitewash'

O n e possible reason for the above gender confusion is that in unstressed

position, vowels tend to become lax and some of them are also centralized.
Thus i of li (< le) and a of la are easily confused.
A s Rhodes (1977) noted, determiners in Metif come from French, with
the exception of the demonstratives, which are Cree. However, when the
latter are used, the French definite determiner must also be used. Since Cree
demonstratives are marked for the Cree animate or non-animate gender and
French articles are marked for masculine or feminine gender, a Metif speaker
must be able to correctly assign any noun to both gender categories. Some
typical examples are:

(3) awa li garsii 'this boy' (PROX-ANIM-MASC-SING)

awa la fiy 'this girl' (PROX-ANIM-FEM-SING)
u:ma li papyi 'this paper' (PROX-INANEvl-MASC-SING)
u:ma la bwet 'this box' (PROX-INANIM-FEM-SING)

French-dominant speakers also use a form of the French demonstra-

tives (*)st(i) (< Popular French c'te). This form is used either in temporal
expressions such as:

(4) wi:- wi:wi- w st- aton

F U T INTENT marry AI3 D E M fall

'She'll get married this fall.'

or it may be used to express the notion 'such an X' as in:

(5) nu si ki:- tut- aman st- afer

N E G C O M P PAST do CONJ TI2 D E M thing

'You shouldn't do such a thing.'

The possessive determiner in Metif is French for both Cree-dominant

and French-dominant speakers. These determiners show all the sandhi vari-
ants of both singular and plural forms, as in Standard French:6

Sing PI
Masc Fern /v 10 /v
Is m u ~ m u ma mun mi~mi miz
2s tu~tu ta tun ti~ti tiz
3s su~sii sa sun si~si siz
lp not not not nu nuz
3 P 15 15 15 15 loz

1 was unable to obtain second person plural forms.
252 R O B E R T A. P A P E N

Adjectives are French and these obey the positional rules of French,
although some adjectives which in French m a y both precede and follow the
noun, such as grand, cher, etc., seem to have only one positional possibility,
and only one associated meaning, in Metif. Prenominal adjectives show
French sandhi variation such as pci, pcit, pciz 'little', bu, bon, buz and bonz
'good'. Quantifiers are derived from both French and Cree. Whenever a
Cree quantifier is used, the French definite determiner must also be used;
if a French quantifier is used, the determiner m a y co-occur, but it is not

(7) Cree French

mistahi li mazi a lof food' kat bebi four babies'
api:sis la sup a bit of soup jis li garsu 'ten boys'
kuhki:yu: liz afa all the children' yek ciikz or 'only a few hours'
a:tiht 1 arza some of the money' a mas la sup 'a lot of soup'
ikuyikuhk la pwi enough rain' e pci bre li pe 'a bit of bread'

Prepositional phrases are by and large French since the great majority
of prepositions are derived from French and N P s are nearly all French. T w o
Cree postpositions are used in Metif: uhci 'from, out of, about' and isi 'like,
as'. French prepositions in Metif include the following:

(8) aler (< en l'air) 'above' ziiskata (< jusqu'a temps) 'until'
adwhu (< en de haut?) 'above atur (< entre) 'between'
anaryer (< en arriere) 'behind' ara (< au ras) 'next to'
alatur (< a l'entour) 'around' lutbor (< l'autre bord) 'across'
atsur (< en dessous) 'under' ludr (< le long de) 'along'
ukiitr (< contre) 'against' akuti (< a cote de) next to'
atsii (< en d ess us) 'on top of disur (< dessous) under'

Occasionally both a French preposition and a Cree postposition occur

in the same prepositional phrase:

(9) U magaze-d-bwesu me:kiwak li butey di bwesii d e sasi uhci.

'The liquor store hands out bottles of liquor through a window (lit. from a window
out of)'.

Adverbs are fairly equally divided between French and Cree. Typical
examples are:

(10) Cree French

mituni 'completely' dime (< demain) 'tomorrow'
ne:te: 'yonder' bumate (< bon matin) 'early'
tapwe: 'very much' la la) 'presently'
na:sku:t 'perhaps' tulta (< tout le temps) 'always'
ka:wa:t 'hardly' tedbe (< peut-etre bien) 'perhaps'
uta 'here' kamem (< quand m e m e ) 'nevertheless'

wi:pat 'soon' zame (< jamais) 'never'

sema:k 'immediately' kazima (< quasiment) 'almost'

Coordinating conjunctions may also be either Cree or French:

(11) Cree French

e:kwa 'and' pi (< puis) 'and'
mi:na 'and' i (< et) 'and'
ma:ka 'but' mi (< mais) 'but'
ki:spin 'if si (< si) 'but'

Adverbial subordinating conjunctions are mostly French. Invariably,

these require either a Cree C O M P (e:- or si ~ ci) or the changed form of
the conjunct verb:

(12) a. pe:hta- 0 ziiskata ci- takusini- ya:n

wait I M P AI2 until C O M P arrive C O N J All

'Wait until I arrive.'

b. ki: wa:pat- am ava ci- ispe:- yik

P A S T see TI3 before C O M P happen C O N J 114

'He foresaw it before it happened.'

c. ga- pimatisi- n ziiskata ka:- nipu- ya:n

F U T 1 live All until P A S T die C O N J All

'I will live until I die.'

However, if the subordinate clause contains a French verb form (see

below for discussion), the French C O M P k(i) (< que) will occur:

(13) a. gi:- me:tawe:- na:n u lu kat k u 1-iti liz afa

P A S T 1 play All at wolf when C O M P we were the children

'We played tag when we were children.'

b. li polis ka u:ti:niw- e:wak akuz k i 1-a rob-i

the poUce F U T arrest TA3P-4 because C O M P he P A S T rob

'The police will arrest someone for having robbed.'

As stated earlier, the verb in Metif is in the domain of Cree. In fact,

Rhodes (1977:8) categorically states that there are no true verb forms from
French in Metif, with the possible exception of the use of the French copula
254 R O B E R T A. P A P E N

in place of some corresponding Cree verbs in equative clauses, i.e., la plum

tl i ruz instead of la plum mihkusiw 'the pen is red'. However, in light
of abundant data to the contrary to be found in the dictionary, the above
statement does not hold for a number of French-dominant speakers.
T h e French copula m a y appear in a variety of tenses. T h e paradigms
of the copula are as follows:7

(14) Present Past Future

Is 7A~7A swi z it-e TA va yet
2s ti t it-e ti va yet
3s 41 i, s i i 1-it-e, s(i)t-e i, sa va yet
3s' ul-i u 1-it-e u va yet
3p i sii(t) i siit-e i vii yet

Also, the French verb avoir is quite commonly used, both in its neutral
meaning and in a variety of verbal expressions:

(15) a. z a pa-t savu

'I have n o soap.'

b. z a bizwe en plas
'I need a board.'

c. ila ji-set a anus

'He's 17 years old today.'

d. il-ave pa-t sasu da la nos

'There were no songs for the wedding.'

The paradigms for avoir are as follows:

(16) Present Past

za z av-e
t a t av-e
i, sa 1-a 4, sa 1-av-e
ii 1-a ii 1-av-e
i, sa 1-u. 4, sa 1-iiv-e

Finally, a relatively large number of sentences in the dictionary contain

French verbs conjugated for a wide variety of person subjects and tenses.

The /- appearing in some of the 3rd sing, forms below is a linking /- which occurs
whenever a vowel-final pronoun is used with a vowel-initial verb form. This is typical
of Quebecois French usage. For these forms it is difficult to determine whether the 1-
belongs to the pronoun or to the verb. Notice also that sa ga) m a y refer to both
animate and inanimate entities in Metif, contrary to Standard French usage, where it
m a y refer only to inanimate ones.

T h e majority of these are found in independent or main clauses. They

occur in sentences that are totally French-derived as well as in those that
are partially French and partially Cree. In fact, in a few cases both French
and Cree as well as English lexical forms are to be found:

(17) a. u fe pa 1 arza avik not magaze

'We're not making money with our store.'

b. li zarde d cwizin i furni tut li zardinaz8

'The kitchen garden provides all the vegetables.'

c. i m a ufer 1 ed
'He offered m e help.'

d. i \u riklami li tere

'They will claim the land.'

Mixed sentences may simply involve Cree adverbs or pronominal forms

as in:

(18) a. kinwas- isi si suyi i 1-u jiiri

longtime so his shoes they lasted

'His shoes lasted a long time.'

b. i s-a-sakri-be pur anihi

he care less for those

'He couldn't care less for those things.'

or a French-based sentence may be conjoined to a Cree-based one:

(19) u 1-a pecuri liz atel pi gi:- tu:min- e:na:n li harnwe

we painted the yokes and P A S T oil T U P the harness

'We painted the yokes and oiled the harness.'

Mixed sentences may also be complex. In most cases, the French verb
is in the main clause, in which case it usually triggers a Cree C O M P and,
most often, the Cree conjunct form of the verb in the subordinate clause:

This sentence provides an example of subject reprise, where a pronoun copy of the
subject appears between the subject and the French verb. This phenomenon is obligatory
in Metif. It occurs in a number of French dialects (Cajun French, Quebecois French)
and in some French-based Creoles (Seychellois Creole). It most probably derives from
early popular French usage.

(20) a. zi vudra pa ci puhkisini- ya:n da li snelyi

' I would want N E G C O M P fall C O N J All in the hawthorn

'I wouldn't want to fall on a hawthorn.'

b. zi pase e:- nipa: yan kin was

I thought C O M P sleep C O N J AI2 long time

ka:ya e:- wuyiwi:- yan

N E G C O M P go out C O N J AI2

'I thought you went to hibernate.'

c. i va boki ka:- wixihiwe:- t

he F U T buck past help C O N J AI3

'He will rebel at having to help.'

However, the French verb may also appear in the subordinate clause, in
which case one of three possibilities will occur. Either the embedded verb
is an infinitive, as in:

(21) u kart ni- me:tawe:- na:n pur pasi li ta

at cards 1 play All to pass the time

'We play cards to pass the time.'

or the French verb is controlled by a French adverbial conjunction:

(22) s-ite en brav la fiy apre k i 1-a suvi li bebi

it was a brave the girl after C O M P she saved the baby

'The girl was considered a heroine after she saved the baby.'

or the French verb is introduced by the French COMP k(i) (< que):

(23) nistawi- (i)na:kusi- w k i 1-4 pa kuta

evident appear 113 C O M P he is N E G happy

'It appears obvious that he is not happy.'

Imperative constructions are also frequently expressed by a French im-

perative rather than by a Cree form:

(24) a. abras li bebi 'kiss the baby'

b. hut tii kapu 'take off your coat'
c. alii aler 'let's go upstairs'
d. tasi ajuri li pwe 'try (pi.) to endure the pain'

Even if the majority of verb forms are derived from Cree, it is worth
pointing out that numerous French (and more rarely, English) verbs, nouns
and adjectives m a y serve as Metif verb stems. For reasons not yet com-
pletely understood at present, these forms often, but not always, require
the singular definite French determiner and if a verb, thefirstconjugation
infinitive suffix -i (< -er), even if the verb stem in question happens to be
an English-derived form:9

(25) a. gi:- Ii gaz- i- n su li bre

P A S T 1 the bet INF All on the brown

'I bet on the bay (horse).'

b. tansi ka:- si- li dil- i- yan
how P A S T C O M P the deal INF C O N J AI2

'What kind of a deal did you make?'

Finally, a number of French expressions have taken on new meanings,

i.e. have been reanalyzed, in Metif. T w o particularly interesting examples
are akur (< encore) which has the general meaning of 'to wish' and magre
(< malgre) with the meaning of 'coerce, oblige' as in:

(26) a. akur nista pe:yak li plu miyor mud uja:w- ya:ni

wish myself one the more better people be there S U B J AI3

'I wish I were one of the elite people.'

b. sit asi magre ka:- kunawa:pi- hk

it is sufficient oblige P A S T look at C O N J AI3

'It's sufficient to attract attention'

A number of French impersonal verb expressions are also common in

Metif. These generally trigger a Cree C O M P or a changed verb form.
It would seem that these expressions have been reanalyzed internally as
adverbs since they behave like Cree adverbs:10

This along with the occurence of the definite determiner with the Cree demon-
stratives, seems to point to some kind of reanalysis of the determiner taking place in
1 would like to thank Richard Rhodes for having pointed out this possibility. O n
the other hand, the following sentence was obtained:
258 R O B E R T A. PAPEN

(27) a. sa-pra ka:- pimicah- amahk li lwe

it takes PAST abide CONJ TI21 the laws

'We have to abide by the laws.'

b. fule-be e:- kwe:paham- ahk

was necessary C O M P bail CONJ TI3

di 1u da li kanu uhci
some water in the canoe out of

'Water had to be bailed out of the canoe.'

c. sa-s-pura-be ci ispe- yik

it is possible C O M P happen C O N J 114

'It's possible it will happen.'

Other expressions used are sa ser d-arye (< ga sert de rien) which
expresses futility and pa moye (<pas moyen) which expresses impossibility.
Numerous French (and some English) adjectives introduced by s-i (< c'est)
are also c o m m o n . These can be in the present or in the past tense; they m a y
be positive or negative. S o m e examples: s-i bu (< c'est bon) 'fortunately',
s-i pa bu (< c'est pas bon) 'unfortunately'. English-derived examples are:
si fer (< c'est fair) 'fair' and s-i-t-izi (< c'est easy) 'easy'.

Mari sa-pra ci pu:ni- minihkwe:- t kispin

Mary it takes C O M P stop drink C O N J AI3 if

sa vi ke:nawe:ht- ahki
her life maintain S U B J TI3

'Mary has to stop drinking if she wants to stay alive.'

Where the adverb sa-pra is not in initial position as in all other examples and
presumably as is required by Cree syntax.

Crawford, John
1983 Speaking Michif in Four Metis Communities. The Canadian Journal of
Native Studies 3:47-55.

Crawford, John (ed.)

1983 The Michif Dictionary: Turtle Mountain Chippewa Cree. Winnipeg:
Pemmican Press Publications.

Papen, Robert
1984 Quelques remarques sur un parler frangais meconnu de l'Ouest canadien.
Revue quebecoise de linguistique 14:113-139.

Rhodes, Richard
1977 French Cree A Case of Borrowing. Pp. 6-25 in Papers of the Eighth
Algonquian Conference. William Cowan, ed. Ottawa: Carleton Univer-

1985 MetchifA Second Look. Pp. 287-296 in Actes du Dix-septieme congres

des Algonquinistes. William Cowan, ed. Ottawa: Carleton University.