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The Genesis of Michif:

A First Hypothesis

University of Amsterdam

Michif as a Mixed Language

Since Richard Rhodes read thefirstpaper on Michif at the Eighth Algon-
quian Conference in 1977, m u c h work has been done on the language. A
number of additional papers have been read at the Algonquian Conference
(Weaver 1983; Rhodes 1985, 1987; Papen 1987) and others have been pub-
lished elsewhere (see Bakker 1989c for a bibliography). Most of this work
focussed either on description or on the problem of genetic classification
that this language poses. Michif remains an unusual language, with its
verb phrase from Cree and its noun phrase from French. Does the language
have two half grammars, and two phonological systems? Is it a Romance
or an Algonquian language, or a Creole, a pidgin, a mixed language, or
whatever? These are the questions that people have tried to answer.
It is n o w probably agreed that Michif is a mixed language. It is a
convincing case, even for those linguists w h o maintain that mixed languages
do not exist. Its mixture is also unique: Michif has (Plains) Cree verbs and
French nouns. N o other language has a similar distribution of elements
from two different languages.
Nobody thus far has attempted to explain its genesis, although this is
one of the more intriguing problems this language poses. In this paper1
I will present a preliminary answer to this question. T h e problem can be
phrased as consisting of two sub-questions:first,w h y is Michif a mixed
language? Second, w h y is the language mixed in this particular way? T o

Fie dwork on Cree and Michif were made possible with a Canadian Studies
Graduate Student Award in 1987-1988. This research was also supported by the
foundation for Linguistic Research, which is funded by the Netherlands Orga-
nization for Scientific Research, N W O . I also thank the people who helped m e
doing m yfieldwork,and Pieter Muysken for his comments. All mistakes remain
my own.


answer this, I willfirstpresent some facts that are not widely known from
the study of sociolinguistics and languages in contact, giving examples of
several other mixed languages, m a n y of them unknown among linguists.
These languages all appear to be of the same type, though Michif still
appears to be very different from these. Then a brief typology of situations
of multilingualism will be given. O n e of these will lead to the birth of
mixed languages. Michif atfirstsight seems very different in its mixture
from the other mixed languages, but I will show that in fact it is the same
social forces and the same linguistic process that lead to the genesis of
these mixed languages, including Michif. If we accept this, a number of
hitherto unexplained structural aspects of Michif can be explained with
this hypothesis, such as the appearance of Cree obviation suffixes with
French nouns, and the Cree demonstratives in the French noun phrase. I
will conclude with some general remarks.
French and Cree are given in standardized French and Cree spelling
rather than a phonetic spelling. Cree spelling follows Wolfart and Ahenekew
(1987). Most of the data cited are from the Turtle Mountain dialect and
are taken from Laverdure and Allard (1983), although some are from m y
o w n fieldwork in Saskatchewan. In the Michif examples, the Cree elements
are set in italics.

Some Other Mixed Languages

A number of clearly mixed languages have emerged on all continents. These
languages can be considered as belonging to language family A as well as
belonging to language family B, with the same amount of justification.
Here I will deal with a number of these. In these examples, the elements
from one of the contributing languages (those that contribute grammatical
elements) will be in italics.
T h efirstone is spoken in a number of mestizo communities in Namibia
and South Africa called Basters (B), Oorlamse and Griquas. These people
have Afrikaner and N a m a Hottentot/Khoikhoi ancestry. Their history is
very similar to that of the Canadian Metis (Kienitz 1983). In the mixed
language spoken by these people, w h o also speak Khoikhoi and Afrikaans,
the content words are Afrikaans, a semi-creolized derivative of Dutch (D),
and the grammatical elements are N a m a (Khoikhoi or Hottentot) (K). The
mixed language is used as an intragroup language. The following is an
example (Besten 1988:26):
(1) B: natuur-a-xu bedorven-/e
K: Hoaraga-se ub-a-xu gau-he
totally-ADV nature-CAS-P rotten-PASS

D: Van nature helemaal bedorven

'totally rotten in nature'
It can be observed that the syntax and the bound morphemes are identical
to Khoikhoi and that all the lexical morphemes are identical to Afrikaans.
T h e second example is from South America. T h e language is called
Media Lengua ( M ) or Utilla Ingiru ('little Quechua'). It is spoken in several
dialects both as afirstlanguage and as a second language by Ecuadorian
Amerindians w h o form a geographical and cultural buffer group between
the Quechua-speaking Indians in the mountains and the Spanish-speaking
Europeans in the towns (Muysken 1981). It is spoken alongside Quechua
(Q) and Spanish (S), both as a mother tongue and as a second language.
This language is a mixture of Spanish and Quechua. T h e content words
are Spanish and the g r a m m a r is Quechua. S o m e examples:

(2) M: dimas-fa llubi-pi-ga, no i-sha-chu

Q: yalli-da tamia-pi-ga, mana ri-sha-chu
too-much rain-SUB-TO, not go-lFU-NEG

S: Si llueve demas, no voy a ir.

'If it rains too much, I won't go.'

(3) M : miza despwesitu kaza-mu i-naku-ndu-ga, ahi-fci buda da.-naku-n

Q: miza k'ipa wasi-mu li-naku-pi-ga, chi-bi buda ku-nafcu-n
mass after house-to go-PL-SUB-TO there-LOC feast give-PL-3

S: Yendo a la casa despues de la misa, ahi dan una boda.

'Going home after mass, they give a wedding feast there.'

There is a similar language called Callawaya (C) or Machaj-Juyai, spo-

ken as a ritual language by Amerindian curers in Bolivia, which is our third
example. T h e language is a mixture of Quechua and Pukina, an extinct
language formerly spoken in the area. Basically the lexicon is Pukina and
the grammar is Quechua (Stark 1972).

(4) C: lurisitu-ga yani k'ata-pun: Pedro-manto k'i:-hti-n

Q: Luwisitu-qra aswan hatun-puni Pedro-manta ka-sa-n
Luis-TOP more big-EMPH Pedro-ABL be-DUR-3
'Luis is bigger than Pedro.'

An example from Asia is Senkyoshigo (S), a mixture of English and

Japanese which is the in-group language of American M o r m o n missionaries
w h o work in Japan (Smout 1988). A n example:

(5) S: Hey dode, have you benkyo-ed your seitens for our shukai today vet
companion study scripture meeting

toda COm|,anin' have you studied vour

scriptures for our meeting

Here, again w e see that the grammatical system is English and the lexicon
is mostly Japanese.
Comparable, but not exactly identical examples are reported from Aus-
tralia, where most aboriginal communities have a taboo language which is
used in presence of certain in-law relatives, apart from the normal language.
Both languages have separate names. T h e two languages are identical in
structure, but differ in the shape of the lexical morphemes. A n example
from the Dyribal community, where the languages are called Guwal (G)
and Jalnuy (J) (Dixon 1980:62-63):

(6) G: jaban-^u bayi wagay-mam'-nt/tim:, wuurba-nyu

J: balbiji-pu bayi nyirrinda-rrj-nyum:', wuyuba-rn'-nyu
'He was saying that he'd been spearing eels.'
Finally two examples from Europe. Both are Romani dialects spoken
by Gypsies. T h efirstexample is the dialect of Britain, called Poggedi Jib
'broken tongue' (P) or Angloromani by linguists (Hancock 1984):
(7) P: ma: roka, you dlv, the gD:ja' shun-in'
N E G speak you fool the non-Gypsy is listen-ing
'Don't speak, you fool, the non-Gypsy is listening.'
The grammatical elements are English, the content elements are Romani.
The second is the (now almost extinct) language of Gypsies in the Basque
Country, called Motzaileen Hizkuntza 'sheep-shearers' language' by the lo-
cal Basques and Basque Romani (R) by linguists (Ackerley 1929; Bakker
1990). It was spoken alongside Basque (B), but probably most of its speak-
ers, after 1850 at least, did not know standard Romani.
(8) R: xaua, goli keau-2afc, mol but-ei-ago akhin-en
child-DET sing-IMP wine m u c h - C O M P - C O M P have-FUT
B: Haurro, kanta zak, arno gehiago ukanen duk.
'Child, sing, you will have more wine.'
There are other cases of Romani mixing with the languages of the host
country, a m o n g others in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Armenia, Spain and
France. In all these mixed Romani dialects, and in the other languages
mentioned above, the pattern is identical: the lexical material is from one
language, and the grammatical material is from another language. Those
elements that have lexical and grammatical meaning (personal pronouns,
demonstratives, question elements, etc.) show some variability. These ele-
ments can be in either of the two languages, or in both.

W e see that the languages in contact are typologically very diverse.

There are relatively isolating languages such as English or Swedish, and
somewhat heavilier inflecting languages such as Romani and Spanish, lightly
agglutinative language as Nama/Khoinkhoi and highly agglutinative lan-
guages such as Quechua, and heavily inflecting/agglutinative languages
such as Basque. Whatever their language-typological properties, the re-
sult is the same: there is a rigid separation of grammatical and lexical
material. Clearly this is the unmarked way to create a new language. A
mixed language is created using elements from both languages: the gram-
mar is taken from one language and the lexicon from the other language.
The language spoken in the immediate surroundings usually provides the
grammar (phonology, morphology, syntax) since the new language is of-
ten intended to sound like this language. In this way one can give the
impression of speaking the local language, and still remain unintelligible.
Several grammatical distinctions seem to play a role in the formation
of these languages:first,the distinction bound morphemes versus free mor-
phemes. Bound morphemes tend to be in language A, free morphemes
tend to be in language B. Second, the distinction grammatical morphemes
vs. lexical morphemes: bound grammatical morphemes tend to be in lan-
guage A, whereas free grammatical words (also called function words) can
be in A or B or both, whereas lexical morphemes (content words) and lexi-
cal stems tend to be in language A. As there is variation among the mixed
languages concerning language sources in the free grammatical morphemes
in several of the languages, both distinctions (free vs. bound; grammatical
vs. lexical) must play a role in this process of language mixture, in degrees
that have not yet been established.
T w o more language typological properties also seem to play a role. The
separatability of a bound morpheme from the word must influence the na-
ture of the mixed language. In agglutinative languages, which by definition
have no morphonological processes that could make the morpheme bound-
aries vague, the separation of morphemes from other morphemes must be
easier than in some types offlectionallanguages (fusional languages), where
it is often impossible to draw precise boundaries between morphemes.
Also the phonological distance between the two languages must be
important. Most of the mixed languages have one phonological system,
namely that of the language that contributes its grammar, but some have
mixed systems. W e may expect problems where languages with a large
number of phonemes are integrated into a system with a small number of
phonemes. This would create an undesirable amount of ambiguity. Also
when two languages have very different phoneme systems (e.g., a large num-
ber of clicks in one language vs. a purely egressive phonological system)
we may expect consequences for the phonological system of the mixed 1

guage. It is possible that other factors also play a role in forming constraints
in the mixture of the languages.
It is clear that thefirstgeneration of speakers must have been fluent
bilinguals, speaking both languages that contributed to the genesis of the
new language. T h e process that lead to these mixed languages is sometimes
called "relexification" (cf. Muysken 1981; Bickerton 1988), as it seems that
the languages borrowed lexical items so extensively that apparently the
complete lexical stock is replaced by foreign words. This term m a y not
be correct. T h e process seems to be more or less conscious and sudden,
whereby the lexicon of one language is combined with the grammar of
another. From the perspective of one language it is relexification, from
the perspective of the other language it is regrammaticalization. These
are the two sides of the same coin. If one thinks it is relexification, it
would be hard to explain that w e have approximately ten dialects spoken by
former speakers of R o m a n i where the grammar is not Romani, but another
language. If it were relexification, one would expect dialects of Romani
with R o m a n i g r a m m a r but a borrowed lexicon. The latter do not exist,
although all dialects of Romani borrowed extensively from the surrounding
languages (cf. Boretzky 1989). Furthermore even among the languages that
have borrowed lexical items most extremely, there are no cases where this
exceeds 4 0 % of the total vocabulary. A n d in cases where there is extreme
lexical borrowing, the language will not borrow basic lexical items to the
same extent as non-basic lexical items. Whereas in these mixed languages,
over 9 0 % of the basic lexical stock has been replaced by borrowed lexical
Summarizing, w e can say that certain social conditions of bilingualism
can lead to the formation of mixed languages. In principle, the grammatical
system of one language (A) will be mixed with the lexical stock of another
language (B). T h e languages will be mixed in the following way:
(1) bound morphemes (always of a grammatical nature) are in language A
(2) free lexical morphemes are in language B
(3) free grammatical morphemes can be in either language
(4) syntax is that of language A
The result is a mixed language. T h e social conditions in which these lan-
guages emerge are discussed in the next section.

Sociolinguistic Typology of Situations of Multilingualism

The sociolinguistic situation in which these languages came into existence
was one of multilingualism, but it seems to differ in some respects from
other sociolinguistic situations of multilingualism. A bi- or multilingual

situation can be of several types, which are not always as neatly classifiable
as I will do here:

Type I: the community is in the process of shifting from language A to la

B. The oldest generation speaks A, the youngest generation speaks B, the
middle generations are bilingual. Language B is dominant in the society, is
taught in school and its knowledge is required for succeeding in the society.
Language A has no prestige, it will probably disappear. This is the situ-
ation with many Amerindian languages and immigrant languages in North
Type IT. T w o or more languages are used, but in different situations. Both lan-
guages have different functions. One could call this diglossia (in the wide
sense of the word). It is a situation of stable bilingualism, in which most
individuals speak both languages. Examples: Occitan at home and among
farmers, French in other situations in southern France.
Type III: T w o languages are used in practically all situations. The languages
do not have specific functions. The people identify as being bilingual, and
they have two identities. These are situations in which code-switching and
code-mixing are very frequent. The people who mix codes, express their dual
identity by using the two languages at the same time. Examples are Puerto
Ricans in N e w York, or French/English in some parts of Canada.
Type IV: People speak two languages A and B, but for some reason these people
do not want to identify either with the group speaking A or with the group
speaking B, or they intend to remain unintelligible to speakers of language A
or B. A m o n g each other they speak a mixture of A and B which we will call
C, which is a new language more or less consciously created. The people have
a new identity C. N o language is dominant. If there is no use for continuation
of speaking A or B, these languages may disappear, leaving C as the only
language in the community, or as spoken beside either A or B.

It is clear that all of the mixed languages mentioned until now, have
come into being under the conditions mentioned under T y p e IV, having the
key terms: new identity, in-group language, desire to remain unintelligible,
mixed language, no norms imposed from outside. These are the conditions
under which these new languages develop. This is apparently the case for
all of these mixed languages including Michif. W h y then does Michif look
so different from the other mixed languages? W h y does Michif have verbs
from one language, and nouns from another? W h y doesn't it combine the
affixes of one language with the lexicon from another? A n answer will be
proposed in the next section.

Why is Michif Different? The Problem and a Possible Solution

As the languages that contributed to these mixed languages dealt with

above are of diverse types, and still yield the same result, one wonders
w h y Michif does not combine the lexicon of language A and the g r a m m a r

of language B. T h e sociolinguistic circumstances were such that one would

expect a mixed language just as in the other cases. However, when we try to
compare French and Cree, taking the grammar from either and the lexicon
from the other languages, w e are left with problems: what is grammar and
what is lexicon in Cree?
In order to combine French grammar with Cree lexicon, thefirstprob-
lem is: h o w are the Cree lexical items stripped of their grammatical mor-
phemes to get to the lexical stems? For nouns this is not difficult. The main
inflectional affixes for nouns are the locative -ihk, inanimate plural/animate
obviative -a, the animate plural -ak and the possessive prefixes and suffixes:

(9) a. maskisin
'a shoe, the shoe'
b. maskisin-ihk
'on, in the shoe'
c. maskisin-a
d. ni-maskisin
' my-shoe'

(10) a. napew
'a man, the man' (proximate)
b. napew-a
'the (other) man, the (other) men' (obviative)
c. napew-ak
'men, the men' (proximate)
The unmarked, proximate form is usually identical to the noun stem. Only
in the case of dependent stems (nouns which obligatorily have possessive
affixes), it is difficult to say where the noun ends and where the affix starts.
In these cases, stem and affix form an organic whole:

(11) nistikwan 'my head'

*(i)stikwan 'a head, someone's head'
mistikwan 'a head, someone's head'
Thus, apart from the dependent stems, separating the stem from its affixes
poses no problems for nouns.
A s for the French nouns, though, there is a problem: spoken French
nouns have no inflectional affixes of any kind. Thus, combining Cree nouns
with French nominal affixes would lead to Cree nouns without affixes, which
could lead to undesirable ambiguities.

W h a t if we analyze Cree and French verbs? If w e want to strip Cree

verbs of their affixes, we are confronted with numerous and serious prob-
lems. Take an average Cree verb form like:
(12) nohte-wap-am-ito-w-ak
'They want to see each other.'
Where is the boundary between stem and affixes? It is clear, if we start
from the right of this verb form, that the morphemes -ak and -w- are
bound, inflectional morphemes, thus belonging to the class of grammatical
elements, not lexical elements. T h e m o r p h e m e -ito- is also clear: it is a
productive derivational m o r p h e m e marking reciprocity, also a grammatical
From then on it is unclear: is -am a lexical element or a grammatical
morpheme? T h e traditional analysis is that it is part of the stem, since
it has different stems for animate and inanimate objects, viz. wdpam- for
animate objects and wdpaht- for inanimate objects. But one can also say
that these are a kind of agreement morpheme. Both -am and -aht also
occur in other verb stems for animate and inanimate verbs. The inflectional
morphemes that follow also differ according to the animacy or inanimacy
of the object or subject:
(13) a. wapam-ew
'He sees him.'
b. wapaht-am
see-INAN-3-4 (inan)
'He sees it.'
In this (as in most cases of Cree verbs) it is clear that these stems are
etymologically related. But other verbs have completely different stems for
animate or inanimate subjects or objects:
(14) a. ni-wi-mow-aw kinosew
l-VOL-eat-AN-3 fish(an)
'I am going to eat fish.'
b. ni-wi-mict-n wiyas
l-VOL-eat-INAN-3 meat(inan)
'I am going to eat meat.'
Therefore it is best to consider the verbs wdp-am- and wdp-aht- as paired
stems, one for animate objects and one for inanimate objects. In some cases
parts of these stems show similarities in shape with inflectional morphemes.
The next element in the verb form (12) is wdp-. Superficially it looks
hke a lexical element with the meaning 'to see'. But actually this could

also be considered as a formative with a more or less abstract meaning

visibility, clearness'. W e find the same element in verbs and nouns like:
(15) a. wap-iw e. wap-oho
'he sees' (i.e., he is not blind) 'white owl'
b. wap-an f. wap-iskaw
'it is dawn, east' 'it is white'
c. wap-ahki g. kit-apam
'tomorrow' (i.e., when it gets light) 'he observes it'
d. wap-os h. kimot-apiw
'(white tailed) hare' 'he looks secretly'

It could therefore be argued that wap-, -am- and -aht- are all grammatical
more than lexical elements. Even if one considers them to be lexical ele-
ments, still it is clear that these morphemes can never be used in isolation.
These elements do not have independent meaning. At least two have to be
combined to create lexical stems.
A probably clearer example is that of some movement verbs. All these
verb stems consist of two (bound) morphemes, often with little or no lexical
meaning if taken by itself, but most of these can be freely combined:
(16) pim- along' -paht- run
papam- about' -ohte- go'
most- on foot' -asi- sail'
sipwe- away' -iwi- take with'
it- someplace' -iha- fly'
is- in such a way' -payi- start,
wak- curved' -pici- move oneself
wayawi- outside' -iska- on water'
paci- wrong' -isi- be'
kimoti- in secret' -atisi- live'

The verb stems must therefore consist of two or more formatives, that only
in combination m a k e up the stem.
T h e last element to be discussed in the Cree verb of example (12) is the
m o r p h e m e nohte- 'want', which precedes the stem wdpam- in (12). This is
one of a number of preverbs that can be placed before the core stem of the
verb. These can often be equated with auxiliaries in European languages.
These, again, express grammatical rather then lexical meaning, and again,
these elements cannot be separated from the verb stem, with the exception
of other preverbs. Tense and m o o d prefixes, and person prefixes (for first
and second person) m a y precede these preverbs.
T h e structures discussed are very typical of Cree (or Algonquian) verbs.
Virtually all Cree verb stems consist of two or more bound morphemes (tra-

ditionally called initials, medials andfinals)that are grammatical elements

rather than lexical elements. These stems must consist of at least two of
these elements, none of which can be used in isolation. T w o common ex-
amples of Cree verbs, with initial, medial andfinal(examples from Wolfart

(17) a. paw-apisk-ahw-ew
brush-metal-with tool-he him
'He brushes him (pipe, stove) with or as metal.'
b. pim-ap-am-ew
along-see-AN-3 3
'He sees him pass.'

Thus, every Cree verb stem can be analyzed as consisting of a numb

smaller units which are bound morphemes. There are many hundreds of
these elements. Native speakers can combine most of these morphemes
freely to create new verb stems with subtle shading of meaning. Cree
nouns on the other hand are not necessarily complex (although some can
be). They can even consist of some of the same elements as used in the
verb. For nouns, however, (and usually not for verbs) it is always possible
to mark afirmboundary between the noun and the affixes.
As a conclusion concerning Cree verbs we can state that it is impossible
to separate the affixes from their stem, since the stem also consists of de-
pendent elements that can be taken to have grammatical meaning. Taken
in isolation, these smallest formatives beyond the phoneme have a rather
abstract meaning, but when several of these are combined, a meaningful
stem can be the result.
For this reason it is impossible to combine Cree verb stems with French
verb affixes. For Cree nouns, though, it is possible to separate affixes from
the stem, and therefore it must in principle be possible to combine French
noun stems with Cree affixes.
Above we discussed the possibility of combining Cree stems with French
affixes, which was found to be impossible. It is obvious that we would face
the same problems if we tried to combine Cree verb affixes with French
verb stems: in thefirstplace, it would be impossible to decide where the
verbal affixes start and where the stem ends. Are the elements -am- and
-aht- agreement morphemes, or a part of the suppletive stem recurring
in some other verbs? Furthermore, there are hardly any verb suffixes in
spoken French either that could be added to these stems. This would
require a major restructuring of the languages to be combined, as so many
grammatical relations are expressed in the verb that would get lost if these
affixes are lost. Therefore, we conclude, it is impossible to combine the Cree

verb stems or affixes with the affixes or stems of other languages (with the
possible exception of other Algonquian languages).
It would be better if w e consider the whole Cree verb as consisting of
bound morphemes, perhaps on a sliding scale of inflectionality, derivation-
ality and lexicality. T h e n the logical step, if we want to combine lexicon A
(French) with g r a m m a r B (Cree), would be that the whole Cree verb would
belong to the grammatical part of the language and not to the lexical part.
Thus, if w e would combine Cree grammar with French lexicon, the result
would basically be Cree verbs and French nouns. That is exactly what
Michif looks like. Therefore Cree should be the language that provides the
grammar, including the whole verb complex, and French the language that
provides the lexicon. It is a form of relexification as in the other cases
dealt with above, but due to the peculiar structure of the Cree verb, the
grammatical part includes the whole verb complex.
In the remainder of this paper I will illustrate m y point with a number
of structural peculiarities of Michif which corroborate this analysis.

Michif Structure and the Relexification Hypothesis

The hypothesis suggested above can be formulated as follows: Michif struc-
ture is the result of the combination of Cree grammar with French lexicon, a
process sometimes called relexification. T h e grammatical/bound elements
are Cree and the lexical/free elements are French. The verb is Cree because
the verb consists only of grammatical/bound elements.
This hypothesis about the lexical and grammatical structure of Michif
predicts a number of things concerning the language. First, as Cree nomi-
nal affixes can easily be separated from the noun itself, we should expect to
see Cree nominal affixes attached to French nouns. These affixes are: the
animate obviative singular/inanimate plural suffix -a and the animate plu-
ral suffix -ak, the preterite suffix -ipan 'deceased', the prefixed 'adjective',
the possessive affixes, the locative suffix -ihk and the diminutive suffix -is.
These will be discussed in the section entitled "French nouns and Cree af-
fixes". Second, where Cree nouns appear in Cree verbal forms, e.g., verbal-
izations of nouns, w e would expect to have French nouns in a construction
with Cree verbal affixes in Michif. W e can think of the suffix -iwi-, which
is added to nouns, roughly meaning 'to be a . . .', the suffix -ihke- meaning
'to make . . .' and incorporation of nouns into verb stems. These will be
dealt with in the section "French nouns as part of Cree verbs".
Third, w e would expect Cree grammatical elements that are not bound
morphemes to appear also in Michif, possibly beside French elements. This
is discussed in "Cree free grammatical morphemes".
Fourth, where a French verb has no equivalent verb stem in Cree, we

would expect French verbs to have Cree derivational and inflectional affixes.
This is discussed in the section "French verbs with Cree verb affixes .

French nouns and Cree affixes

Obviation/plural: Obviation and plural cannot be clearly distinguished

in Plains Cree. Only animate nouns can be marked for obviation, with the
suffix -a. T h e obviation is neutral for number. Animate proximate plural
is marked with the noun suffix -ak. Inanimate plural is marked with the
suffix -a on the noun, and the same suffix also marks animate obviative.
T h e animate plural m o r p h e m e -ak and the inanimate plural -o are
not combined with French nouns in our material. Both -a and -ak are
found as plural markers of Cree nouns, though. T h e French plural marker
prefix les (/li:/) is used to pluralize French nouns. T h e French indefinite
plural marker des is only used infixedFrench expressions, so that it can be
said that les is the only productive plural marker, used for both animate
nouns and inanimate nouns (see also the section "French articles with Cree
T h e Cree obviative suffix -a is also used in Michif where it is added to
both French nouns and Cree nouns in all dialects. But its use seems to be
more restricted in Michif ( M ) than in Plains Cree (C). In thefirstplace,
it is not used after a third person possessive construction, where its use is
obligatory in Cree:
(18) a. C: o-temw-a (*o-tem)
b. M: son chien (*son chien-a)
'his dog'
In first (and second) person possessive constructions, the obviative is not
used in either Cree or Michif:
(19) a. C: ni-stes nipa-w
my-brother is sleeping
b. M : mon frere nipa-w
'My brother is sleeping.'
The obviative subject agreement m o r p h e m e -yi- still shows up in the verb:
(20) a. C: can o-stes-a nipa-yi-w
John his-brother-OBV sleep-OBV-3
b. M: Baptiste son frere nipa-yi-w

c. Baptiste son frere-a nipayiw

'John's brother is sleeping.'

In the second place, the use of the obviative seems to be more restricted
even w h e n distinguishing subject and object in the sentence. Although in
Plains Cree the obviative seems to be used for all animate nouns in Michif it
participates in a kind of obviation hierarchy. It is obligatory with personal
names, often (but not always) used with humans, sometimes with animals
and never with inanimates.

(21) Peter le bon Dieu-wo ki-pimicisahw-ew

Peter the good G o d - O B V PST-follow-3 3'

'Peter was a disciple of Jesus.'

(22) le prisonnier(-wa) ki-pe-ndt-ew le marechal

the prisoner-OBV PST-come-fetch-3 - 3'

'The marshall came after the prisoner.'

(23) Pete il va dompter le marron-wa

Pete he goes tame the wild-horse-OBV
'Pete is going to tame the wild horse.'

Suffix -ipan 'deceased': The suffix -ipan can be added in Cree to nouns
denoting h u m a n s w h o are no longer alive:
(24) ni-musum-ipan
'my deceased grandfather'
This affix is also used productively in Michif, added to French nouns:
(25) m o n vieux-ipan
'my deceased husband'
It is even used occasionally with English nouns when speaking English: his
first wife-ipan.

Prefixed adjectives: Cree has no separate categories of adjectives. Words

corresponding to adjectives in other languages are either verbs, functioning
as a kind of relative clause, or modifying elements prefixed to the noun.
These Cree relative clauses, being verbal forms, exist in Michif too as ex-
pected, and, as predicted, there are also examples of Cree quasi-adjectives
prefixed to French nouns, especially in the more Cree-oriented dialects of
northwestern Saskatchewan. S o m e examples:
(26) napafo'-le-poisson (cf. Cree napakaw 'he is flat')

(27) a. mtsi-la-maison (cf. Cree misaw 'it is big') ( N W Saskatchewan)

'big house'
b.fcayds-le-chemin(cf. Cree kayas 'long time ago') ( N W Saskatchewan)
'the old road'
Possessive prefixes: dependent and independent stems: Cree possessives
can be of two kinds: those with suffixes that are added to dependent stems
and those having suffixes added to independent stems. Dependent stems
are mostly inalienable possessions such as body parts and kin. There are
three grammatical differences between dependent stems and independent

i) Dependent stems have an obligatory possessive prefix and occur

only with such prefixes; independent stems do occur with or with-
out the prefix:

(28) ni-stes 'my brother'

(29) a. ni-pdskisikan 'my gun'

b. paskisikan 'gun', 'a gun', 'someone's gun'

ii) Dependent nouns have a separate prefix mi- marking non-possession,

whereas independent stems have no such prefix:

(30) a. ki-stikwan 'your head'

b. mi-stikwan 'a head, someone's head'

(31) a. ki-pdskisikan 'your gun'

b. paskisikan 'gun', 'someone's gun'

iii) Dependent stems beginning with a vowel do not have an epenthetic

consonant between the prefix and the vowel, whereas independent
stems which begin with a vowel do have a -t- between the prefix
and the stem:

(32) n-ohkum 'my grandmother'

(33) a. astotin 'cap'

b. ni-t-astotin 'my cap'

For independent stems, one would expect possessive prefixes to occur

with French nouns in Michif. There are, however no such examples. In
northwestern Saskatchewan, however, I recorded some hybrid forms such
as ton oncle-inaw'ouT uncle (inclusive)', where -maw is a Cree suffix added
to the Cree second person singular to indicate plural inclusive possession

Further it is striking that with French nouns whose Cree equivalents

would be dependent stems, a possessive prefix is obligatory in Michif. A
question like " H o w do you say 'head'?" in Michif, is answered either with
"It depends whose head", or with one of the following: ma tele, ta tete, sa
tete, but never la tete or tete which would be the answer given by speakers of
French. Apparently the alienable/inalienable distinction is still important
in Michif, despite the disappearance of the Cree stems. T h e possessive
element might function as a prefix in Michif rather than a separate element,
as it is in French.
Locative marking: -ihk and da: Cree has a locative marker -ihk, with an
allomorph -ohk. O n e would expect this to be added to French nouns, but
this is not the case. Instead the preposition da from French dans 'in' is used.
There are two remarkable aspects of Michif locatives, however, that show
Cree influence. T h e word da is used as a general locative preposition in
Michif, meaning 'in, on, at', whereas dans in French can only m e a n 'in'. T h e
preposition da apparently copied the wider functions of the Cree locative.
In the light of the following, there does not seem to have been a process
of generalization of meaning. T h e da preposition in Michif is sometimes
combined with other Cree or French adpositions in Michif, which is an
impossibility in French. A n example:
(34) en arriere da le char
in back in the car
'behind the car'
Note that this can be French too, but in French it would m e a n 'in the back
of the car', and not 'behind the car' which would be derriere la voiture.
T h e more Cree-oriented dialects of northwestern Saskatchewan show
exactly the same features, although they use Cree adpositions rather than
French prepositions to combine with French da:
(35) dans le fridge ohci
L O C the fridge from
'out of the fridge'
(36) utahk da le char
behind L O C the car
'behind the car'
Although this might seem strange atfirstsight, this is obviously a direct
copy of the Cree construction, where a number of locative adpositions gov-
ern nouns in the locative case, e.g.:
(35r) tahkascikan-ihk ohci
fridge-LOC from

'out of the fridge'


(36') utahk otapanask-ohk

behind car-LOC
'behind the car'
W e conclude that da in Michif has exactly the same function as -ihk in Cree:
a general locative marker instead of an inessive, and a kind of case marker
for some adpositions. Apparently the suffix -ihk relexified into French da.
T h e reason w h y is not clear. It might have to do with the fact that there
are two allomorphs for the Cree locative, but this does not seem to be a
sufficient reason.
Diminutive -is and petit: T h e final nominal affix used in Cree is the
derivational suffix -is (allomorph -os) which is the diminutive suffix. Con-
trary to our expectations, there are no instances of -is used with French
nouns in any dialect of Michif. T h e only thing one can notice is the rela-
tively frequent use of the French adjective petit, which m a y have taken over
the function of the Cree diminutive. T h e same element is also frequently
used in French based Creole languages with a similar function.
Summary: If we summarize this overview of the use of Cree nominal end-
ings with French stems, w e see that three Cree affixes are used extensively in
Michif with French stems, though all in fewer contexts than in Cree (obvia-
tive, -ipan, prefixed adjectives). Three Cree affixes have French equivalents
that have taken over the functions of the Cree affixes (dependent possessive
prefixes, diminutives, locatives). O n e could say they are French in shape,
but Cree in function. Only one Cree affix is not used in Michif with French
elements (plural markers), but here again the French element m a y have
taken over Cree functions, as no distinction is m a d e between definite and
indefinite plurals.

French nouns as part of Cree verbs

I proceed with the use of Cree nouns with verb affixes in verbalization
constructions, in which case I predicted the possibility of replacing these
Cree nouns by French nouns.

N + -iwi-: In Cree, the suffix -iwi- can be added to nouns, meaning

something like 'to be a X'. A Cree example:
(37) ka-nehiya-wi-yahk
'we who are Cree'
This suffix is used productively in Michif too, but only with French nouns
(and adjectives):

(38) le temps fcd-le-roi-ttv-tt

the time REL-the-king-BE-3.AN
'the time when he was king'

(39) la-brume-tu;-an
'It is foggy.'

(40) le-sale- iw-an

'It is dirty.'
This is very productive in Michif (although apparently not in north-
western Saskatchewan). It is striking that all examples in our data have
French nouns and adjectives but no Cree nouns. A s nouns normally occur
in almost any Cree sentence, this cannot be due to a supposed rarity of
nouns in Cree. It seems that only French nouns can combine with this
verbalizing suffix -iwi-.
N + -ihke-: The suffix -ihke can be added to nouns in Cree to form a
verb 'to m a k e X', e.g:
(41) maskisin-ihke-w
'(S)He makes shoes.'
This is possible with French nouns and adjectives in Michif too:

(42) mina fca-le-boudin-7j&e-w

again FUT-the-sausage-make-3
'She will be sulky again.' (lit. 'she will make sausage again')

(43) miyoweyihtam alentour sa maison e-le-joli-iMe-t

she-likes-it around her house COMP-the-nice-make-3
'She likes to make her garden beautiful.'

Incorporated nouns: Nouns can be incorporated into verbs in Plains Cree,

but not m u c h is k n o w n about the constraints and possibilities of noun
incorporation in this language as this is only little studied (Wolfart 1971;
for a theoretical approach see Mellow 1989a, 1989b). It is m y impression
that it is m u c h less productive n o w than it was in the 30s or in the 19th
T h e prediction that incorporation will be possible in Michif is not borne
out by the facts. T h e only example that I have come across so far, which
only vaguely resembles incorporation, is:

(44) un canard kd-le-veit-istikwan-e-t

a duck REL-the-green-head-3

'a duck that has a green head, mallard'

In this example the incorporated noun is Cree, but it is modified by a

French adjective.
Mellow's (1989) study of incorporation in Cree argues that it is a syn-
tactic process. M a n y of his arguments are sound, but there are important
arguments against such a syntactic analysis: it seems to be of very limited
productivity in contemporary Cree, and furthermore the incorporated form
of the noun is often not identical to the free form of the noun, which also
makes the full productivity of noun incorporation (and a syntactic analysis)
doubtful for contemporary Cree. For example, although iskwew 'woman'
has an identical incorporated form -iskwew-, the noun mohkomdn 'knife'
has the incorporated form -hkomdn-, and atim 'dog, horse' has an incor-
porated form -astimw-. These two factors together m a y be an explanation
for the fact that French nouns cannot be incorporated into Cree forms.

Cree free grammatical morphemes

T h e presence of Cree demonstratives in otherwise French noun phrases
is noteworthy in Michif, particularly since it seems to be the only major
exception to the observation that the verb phrase is Cree, and the noun
phrase is French. S o m e examples:
(45) anima le livre
that-INAN the book
'that book'

(46) ana l'homme

this-AN m a n
'this man'
These demonstratives agree in number and animacy (of the original Cree
noun) with the nouns they modify. A s demonstratives, especially those that
show agreement as in Cree have more grammatical meaning than lexical
meaning, it is not at all surprising that this category is drawn from the
language providing the grammatical part of the language.
It will come as no surprise that other free grammatical elements can
be ol Cree origin as well, especially in the more Cree-oriented dialects of
northwesterri Saskatchewan, such as adverbs, conjunctions, particles with
various functions, etc.

French verbs with Cree verb affixes

There are a few French verbs that are always used with Cree verbal mor-
phology, which might seem to pose problems to our hypothesis. S o m e

(47) ni-nitaweyiht-dndn une batterie ifcd-le-charg-er-t

we(excl.)-need a battery REL-the charge-INF-3
'We need a battery charger.'

(48) m'-fci-le-gag-er-n sur le brun

1-PST-the-bet-INF-l on the brown
'I bet on the brown one.'
This also happens with some English verbs:

(49) kahkiyaw le-celebrate-er-tu-afc le quatre de juillet

all the-celebrate-INF-3-PL the four of July
'All celebrate the Fourth of July.'

I suggest as an explanation that these French verbs did not have a Cree
equivalent w h e n the French (or English) concept was introduced into the
Metis community. D u e to widespread knowledge of French a new Cree term
was not coined as in other Cree-speaking communities, but the French term
was borrowed. In some cases the Cree word with an equivalent meaning
is also used, but limited to the more native oriented activities. The mean-
ing of the French verbs (always used in the infinitive form) used in this
construction are: to bless in church, to arrange furniture, to embroider, to
witness in court, to stutter, to bet with money, to vote, to domesticate, to
mix plaster, to paint a house or furniture, to haggle, etc. T h e English verbs
thus used are: to celebrate, to haul, to settle a disagreement, to deal, to
save money, to can, to box as a sport, to gamble, to collect money.
These verbs all seem to denote activities associated with non-Natives.
Therefore these m a y be lexical borrowingsfillinglexical gaps, rather than
the result of relexification.
It is remarkable that always whenever French elements are used with
Cree verbal affixes, the French element is preceded by the French definite
article, whether they are nouns, adjectives or verbs. I have shown a number
of examples. Although this phenomenon is not yet fully understood, its
function might be to mark that what follows le or la must be interpreted
as a foreign, non-Cree item, and often its end is marked by the French
infinitive marker (even the English verbs). This explanation would parallel
Drapeau's (1980) explanation of the obligatory use of the French definite
article with French nominal borrowings into Montagnais. The infinitive

marker would function as a marker of the final boundary of the foreign

element. If not marked as such, the foreign element would be subject to a
Cree morphological analysis to make up its meaning, which is undesirable.
But this hypothesis is preliminary and requires closer investigation.

Some Apparent Counterexamples

T w o structural features of Michif deserve mention here as they might be
taken as counterexamples to the hypothesis suggested here.

No French verbs with Cree nominalizing suffixes

First we would expect the Cree nominalizing affixes -kan and -win to attach
to French verbs. This, however, does not happen. This might have to do
with the great amount of irregularity of the French verb, but this does not
seem to be a sufficient explanation.

French articles with Cree nouns

T h e second is the fact that Cree nouns (whether real nouns or nominalized
verbs) when used in Michif are frequently but not always preceded by French
articles or possessive markers, especially the less c o m m o n nouns:
(50) le wepin-ike-win
the throw-INTRANS-NOM

(51) une poyo-sk

a-FEM quit-ITER
'a quitter'

Preliminary explanation
This contradicts the prediction of m y hypothesis. O n e preliminary expla-
nation I could suggest at this m o m e n t is the fact that the result of the
relexification process was (unconsciously) analyzed by speakers of Michif
as having Cree verbs and French nouns, so that when Cree nouns were
used they were interpreted as belonging to the French noun phrase, thus
getting a French article. Another possibility is that one considers these
Cree nouns as borrowings into French; it is a fact that they often have the
article that would be required when the noun would have been French, with
the exception of the verbalized Cree nouns formed with the -win and -kan
suffixes, which are always masculine.


We have seen that the predictions of my hypothesis are partly corroborated

by the data, which show the existence of French lexical stems (both nouns
and verbs) with Cree grammatical affixes. In cases where the Cree affix
is not used, w e clearly find a French element which functions unlike its
French source, but exactly like the Cree element it replaces, with only few
exceptions. W e also find Cree grammatical elements when these are free
In conclusion I claim that Michif came into being via a process tenta-
tively called "relexification" (which is always accompanied by regrammati-
calization). Most often the result will be a language with the grammatical
system of language A and the lexicon of language B. Michif looks different
from the other cases because in Michif the whole verb complex must be
considered as consisting of only affixes, without a stem, so that the verb
must be Cree. Relexification is a process that occurs under certain specific
social circumstances. These are a bilingual community with no prestige
norms of either language and a group that chooses not to belong to any
the surrounding groups. This group has a separate identity. T h e mixed
language, which is the result of the relexification process, is used as an
intra-group language.
If these circumstances are such that a mixed language is needed, the
new language will have a lexicon which has an origin different from its
grammatical system. T h e results m a y differ according to what is part
of the lexicon and what is part of the grammar in these languages. If a
language has a verb that consists only of bound morphemes (such as the
Cree verb or the Basque auxiliary), these will be used in full. A n d if the two
languages are closely related genetically, the results will be different too. If
both languages are close to isolating, having few or no bound morphemes,
the result m a y be an arbitrary mixture of the two lexicons. But in the
other cases, the g r a m m a r will be from one language and the lexicon from
another. It is quite possible that some languages that are n o w considered
unmixed languages came into being in the distant past as the result of this
process. This can be shown only when both languages are known. In any
case the social facts thus precede the linguistic facts in relexification.


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