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The Ojibwa Element in Michif

University of Amsterdam

1. Introduction
Michif, one of the languages spoken by the descendants of the Red River
Metis, is k n o w n as a mixture of Plains Cree and French in the linguistic
literature. This paper will only deal with the Algonquian part of the lan-
guage, which is the verb phrase, the demonstratives and some adverbial
expressions.1 T h e language has been described as consisting of Cree verbs
and French nouns (Rhodes 1977). Its speakers, however, sometimes describe
the language as a mixture of Cree, French and Saulteaux. Saulteaux is the
n a m e for the Ojibwa language in Canada, with some distinctive dialectal
features. Field research in different Michif-speaking communities confirm
that there is indeed a small but constant Saulteaux/Ojibwa stratum. This
is not only the case in the communities where Ojibwa is spoken alongside
Michif,2 but even in communities where no Ojibwa is spoken.
This is important for the origin of Michif. In thefirstplace it appears
that the Cree part of Michif is different from other dialects of Cree. W h a t
implications does this have for Cree dialectology? In the second place these
Saulteaux elements m a y point to a certain geographic origin of the ancestors
of the present day Michif speakers. Is it possible to use linguistic data to
point to an area where this Proto-Michif originated? In the third place,

i-This research was supported by the Foundation for Language Research, which
is f u n d S b^The Netherlands Organization for Research, N W O . Fieldwork was
carried out L the summer of 1990 in North Dakota, Manitoba Saskatchewan and
Sberta I want to express m y sincere gratitude to all m y Metis friends for their
^osphality, their help with m y research and for feeding m e rababu, la galet, les
beignes and wild meat and other food. ,.... , !,

c ITheY/Dtk s^r "rrwSf 2zfiift ISMS

significant. Considering these facts, this influence wdl be no surprise.


French and Cree are mixed in several Metis communities, in sometimes

different ways. Is any mixture of French and Cree to be called Michif. Did
the language arise separately in different areas or is there one Proto-Micnii.

2. The Language Facts

As said above, the verb phrase in Michif is almost identical to the verb
phrase in Plains Cree. In this section we will discuss the major differences.
For comparison we also give Saulteaux forms in most cases,3 since Michif
appears to side with Saulteaux whenever there are differences from Plains
Cree. There are differences on the phonological, morphonological, morpho-
logical and lexical level.

2.1. Phonology

a. PA *s and *s: On the phonological level, there are a number of differ-

ences between Plains Cree and Michif Cree, the most striking involving the
reflexes of Proto Algonquian *s and *$. In Ojibwa, including the Saulteaux
dialect, this *s/*s contrast is preserved, presumably in all dialects. In Plains
Cree, however, the two phonemes merged into /s/. In Michif Cree too, the
contrast is lost, but they merged into //. Michif Cree shares this with the
eastern dialects of Cree from the westcoast of James Bay eastward (Rhodes
and Todd 1981). Related with this, the reflex of P A *c is /c/ in Michif and
/c/ in Plains Cree.

b. Nasal vowels: Plains Cree has no phonemic nasal vowels, whereas

Michif Cree shows nasal vowels in a number of Cree words. S o m e of the Cree
words which are systematically nasalized in Michif are ohi (demonstrative
animate obviative or inanimate plural) and some other demonstratives, the
question element ci, and some lexical elements like metawe- 'to play' Nasal
vowels in Michif Cree are /u:/, // and /!:/ (and /a:/ ?) - all long vowels.
This might be an influence from either Ojibwa or French Both French
and Ojibwa have nasal vowels; in French high vowels are not nasalized In
Ojibwa all vowels can be nasal. As /,/ can be nasalized in Ojibwa but not
in French Ojibwa influence ,s more plausible. The equivalents of the Cree
words with nasal vowels sometimes have nasals in Saulteaux (e g Michif
v 6-
ohi, Saulteaux ono). '
c. The voiced/voiceless opposition: In Plainc rv*.
ve I. the, ^ L . So m , X ^ ^ X ^ ^

Voorhis (1977) is my source for Saulteaux.

position, but they are always voiceless in initial position.4 In Saulteaux,

the voicing of intervocal stops is more frequent, but still voicing is not
phonologically distinctive. In Michif, the situation is quite different from
Plains Cree and Saulteaux. Stops are rarely if ever voiced between vowels.
Cree maka 'but', for instance is phonetically [maga] in Plains Cree, but
[maka] in Michif Cree.
A second difference concerning the stops is the following situation. Ini-
tial stops in Michif can be voiced following a vowel elision rule: thefirstand
second person prefixes can lose their vowel between two consonants, subse-
quently leading to a conflation of the two adjoining consonants. Plains Cree,
Saulteaux and Michif can be said to represent three stages in a development.
Plains Cree Saulteaux Michif
ni-k- ng- g-
ni-t- nd- d-
ni-p- mb- b-
ni-s- ns- ? z-
ni-c- nc- ? dz-
Most speakers of Michif are not aware that e.g., thefirstsyllable in gi:-
wa.pama.w 'I saw him' is underlyingly ni-ki:-wa:pama:w, which is the way
it is pronounced in Plains Cree. Furthermore, the second person prefix fa-
disappears before verb stems or other prefixes starting with k-. Thus Plains
Cree ki-ki:wa:n 'you go h o m e ' appears as kki:wa:n or ki:wa:n in Michif. A s
a result, the Cree part of Michif is unusual a m o n g the Algonquian languages
in distinguishing between voiced and unvoiced stops, e.g., in gaskihta:n 'I
a m able' vs. kaskihta.n 'you are able' (Plains Cree: ni-kaskihta:n vs. ki-
But neither the Saulteaux prenasalized consonants nor Michif voiced
consonants are unique in this. W e find these same developments in some
other dialects of Central Algonquian languages (Rhodes and Todd 1981:59-
60) I suspect that there is a connection between the loss of optional voicing
in intervocal position and the presence of the feature voice in initial stops
in particular contexts. With the vowel elision rule, the contrast between
voiced and voiceless stops became phonologically distinctive, which led to
making stops in intervocal positions unvoiced.
A further point to be mentioned briefly is morphophonology^ T h e
rules for vowel coalescence and insertion stated for Plains Cree in Wolfart
(1973:79-83) seem to differ partly in Michif. This aspect has not ye been
studied in detail. Wolfart (1989) shows that there is morphophonological
variation in Plains Cree too.

'Sometimes the rule also works over word boundaries, especially between
closely connected words and in rapid speech.

2.2. Morphology
The inflectional morphology of the verb differs in a number of aspects from
that in Plains Cree in ways not reported in Rhodes's (1977) description
of Michif Cree verb morphology. T h e forms found until n o w which differ
systematically from Plains Cree are, (all in the independent m o d e ) :
Plains Cree Michif Saulteaux
1. 21 indep. lri-(na:)naw ki-na:n ki-na:n
2. 2/lpl T A pi. obj. ki-(na:)nawak ni/ki-na:nik ni/ki-na:nik
3. ind. inv. 3'-3 -ik -iku5 -igu6
4. conj. prefixes e:-, ka:-, (ki)ta:- e:, ka:, ci- e:-, ka:-, ci:-

This is of course not a significant portion of the verb morphology of Cree.

Nevertheless it is striking that we find these deviant forms in apparently all
Michif speaking communities. In all these forms, where Michif differs from
Plains Cree, the morphology appears to be identical to that of Saulteaux.

2.3. Lexical differences

The Michif verb lexicon is very close to that of Plains Cree. But there are
some Michif verbs which consistently differ from that language. S o m e of
the non-Plains Cree forms in Michif are:
Plains Cree Michif Saulteaux
to dance ni:mihito- ni:mi- ni:mi-
to write masinahike:- usipe:hike:-7 osipi:ke:(n)-
girl iskwe:sis kwezes8 (ik)kwe:ze s
to be called isiyihka:so- isinihka:so- isinikka:so
eat with someone wi:cimi:cisom- wituspam- wi:toppam-
my namesake nikwe:me:s gweme ?

In some cases the only difference is a reflex of Proto-Algonquian */ (e c

form d " S ^ C h i f " ' S a U U C a U X m t h C f U r t h - a m p l e ' T a de ved

form used with the same meaning. In other cases the stem is different

m^l^Z^trsZeZi. "*--*. -* in both
'Z SnbZddi^CtS "T niWaabami U
> ^^m,gu, waabam.gun.
Uavid Pentland (personal communication) comments tU * u L J
a t h e h a d rec
an identical form from Swampy Cree SDeakP !f r ! P orded
Swampy Cree informants (North Central ManHoba)uTe,? ^anitoba- M y
Plains Cree. lannoba) use the same form as used in
Note that neither /z/ or /s/ are nrt nf tu~ u .
part of Michif. '' f t h e Phoolog,cal system of the Cree

Again where Michif words differ from Plains Cree, they appear to be
virtually identical to the Saulteaux forms. Michif nouns w h k h are nol
French or English are often Saulteaux rather than Cree. I suspect the last
form in the list will have a Saulteaux equivalent too. There are some more
differences between Plains Cree and Michif Cree, mostly of a quantitative
nature. I will discuss these in further work that is currently in progress.

3. Discussion

These facts presented above raise a number of questions, both of a com-

parative linguistic nature and of an historical nature. Is any mixture of
French and Cree spoken by Metis people a dialect of Michif? Where does
the Saulteaux influence influence come from? W h a t is the position of Michif
a m o n g Cree dialects? D o the dialectal features of Michif give us anv indi-
cation as to w h e n and where Michif originated? In the literature Michif has
been described as a mixture of Plains Cree and French. W e have seen above,
that Michif differs from Plains Cree in a number of ways. Although it is
only marignally different, it is consistently so in all Michif-speaking areas.
However, in some areas mixed languages consisting of French and Cree ele-
ments are reported which do not seem to share these these features. These
are Buffalo Narrows ( H o g m a n 1981) and Lac la Biche (Douaud 1985).

3.1. How many Michifs?

T h e above analysis suggests that not all mixtures of French and Cree9 are
Michif. In the Metis communities in areas like Northwestern Saskatchewan
and Lac la Biche, Alberta speakers mix French and Cree, but the Cree el-
ements of these other mixtures suggest an independent development or at
least a radical rearrangement of the Cree part in a time beyond memory of
the living speakers. In neither of these do we find any of the Michif features
mentioned above, as I will show in later work. They just happen to have
similarities in what is Cree and what is French. Furthermore, in North-
western Saskatchewan, the Cree dialect is Northern Plains Cree (in which
/e/ and /i/ merge into /i/). This independent development is confirmed
by Metis oral history: some Metis elders distinguish Michif (as described in
this paper) from French-Cree, which is said to be Cree mixed with French
from the missionaries10 and altogether different from Michif.

For an overview see Pentland (1982).
The fact that Metis French phonology is phonologically very similar in all
Metis communities, and at the same time readily distinguishable from all other
French dialects (including Quebecois and Western Canadian French), raises the
question as to how these Metis French dialects can be so similar if some are the
result of missionary activities. Also in some French-Cree speaking areas, French

Northwestern Saskatchewan French-Cree is (Northern) Plains Cree with

nominal borrowing from French. French borrowings are almost exclusively
introduced items (household items, domestic animals, tools, etc). Lac La
Biche and central Western Saskatchewan Metis dialects (and some speak-
ers in Northwestern Saskatchewan) are probably French-Cree code-mixing.
Speakers in these areas arefluentin both Cree and French.
If we confine the use of the n a m e Michif to those mixtures of Cree and
French which show the features mentioned above, we can limit the existence
of Michif in 1990 to the following areas:

North Dakota: in and around Turtle Mountain Reservation

Saskatchewan: Fort Qu'Appelle Valley; Yorkton area; some in Deb-
den/Big River
Manitoba: Camperville and Duck Bay; area near Saskatchewan
border from St. Lazare north to Duck Mountain
Park; possibly T h e Pas; south of Winnipeg

In a number of Metis communities (e.g., Batoche, Duck Bay, Willow-

bunch) the language is extinct. There are also pockets of speakers in M o n -
tana and probably in Alberta, but not m u c h is known about these areas.
Of course many speakers of Michif migrated to other areas. Probably the
number of Michif speakers in cities like Winnipeg, Brandon, Saskatoon and
Regina outnumbers the speakers living in their original rural communities.
This does not mean that Michif is a consistent and coherent language
is all communities, however. There is a good deal of variation between
and within communities. In m a n y cases, we find the same variants in all
communities. For instance, in all Michif-speaking communities there are
speakers w h o have preaspirated stops as in Plains Cree ituhte.w 'he goes
there'; but there are also speakers w h o replace the aspiration with /s/ as in
ttuste:w.u I a m not aware of any Plains Cree dialects with this variation.

3.2. Historical evidence about Saulteaux

It has been shown above that there is a small, but consistent Saulteaux
element in Michif. The question must be asked: why the Cree part of Michif,
so similar to Plains Cree, differs from this dialect in some minor respects'
and shares some of those with Saulteaux? Is it the presence of speakers of
other languages, in particular Saulteaux, in the Red River settlement (or

was already spoken when the first missionaries arrived, being one of the ancestral
languages of the Metis nation.
" F o r speakers of these dialects, /./ and /./ are phonologically distinctive
although these phonemes do not correspond to their equivalents in Proto-A^gon

some other place where Michif m a y have come into being) that led to these
features? Or is there a substrate of an earlier mixed language consisting of
French and Ojibwa? There are arguments for both positions.
T h e presence of significant numbers of Saulteaux speakers in the Red
River settlement is well documented. These speakers m a y have had some
influence on Michif. Historical sources m a k e clear that the Saulteaux Indians
had frequent contacts with the Metis in the Red River Settlement. Peers
(1987) shows that there was a significant number of Saulteaux speakers
living in or regularly visiting the Red River Settlement. Contemporary
missionary sources confirm this (e.g., Turner 1851:82-112). S o m e Manitoba
Metis communities still have Saulteaux as their (only) aboriginal language,
especially those on the shores of Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba.
Furthermore, there is also an oral tradition of Metis in other communi-
ties knowing Saulteaux: m a n y elderly Michif speakers remember that their
parents or grandparents spoke Saulteaux alongside Michif. This Saulteaux-
Michif bilingualism must have been quite widespread. I recorded a short
song in four (slightly different) versions (Turtle Mountain, Fort Qu'Appelle,
Ste. Madeleine/Binscarth, Camperville) which is sung in a mixture of Sault-
eaux and Michif, or in some cases Cree. T w o of the singers told m e they
didn't understand what they were singing as they didn't know Saulteaux.
This song must date from an earlier period with rather widespread Michif-
Saulteaux bilingualism. Furthermore, in all Michif-speaking communities,
legends about the Ojibwa trickster Nanabush are part of the mythology
(besides the Cree counterpart Wisahkecahk). It appears possible, then,
that m a n y Metis spoke the Saulteaux dialect of Ojibwa in an earlier period,
alongside Michif, and that there is influence from Ojibwa culture.
Could this Saulteaux influence have preceded the period when m a n y of
the Metis lived (mostly) in and around the Red River Settlement? There
are some documents that point to the existence of a mixed language in
the Great Lakes area (Peterson 1981:178-179; Stobie 1971) prior to the
formation of the Red River Settlement. This language was supposedly a
mixture of Ojibwa (possibly the Saulteaux dialect) and French. This might
have been the language called "braillais"12 - a mixture of Ojibwa and
French mentioned in Stobie, w h o does not indicate her sources. If this
Great Lakes mixed language was one of the ancestors of Michif, this could
explain the Saulteaux elements. This would mean that the sources of Michif
would be somewhere north of the Great Lakes area. As further arguments
for the latter position, one m a y point to the fact that Michif shares some
features with eastern Cree dialects.

Braillais may be a Metis French variety of the word braguette 'breechclout'.
In modern Metis French, it also means 'diaper' and 'Indian .

3.3. Comparative Cree-Ojibwa

Our present knowledge of Cree and Ojibwa dialectology is fragmentary.
The most important gaps relevant here are the nature of the most west-
erly Saulteaux dialects (in eastern Saskatchewan) and the easternmost di-
alects of Plains Cree probably those spoken in the reserves around Fort
Qu'Appelle in Saskatchewan. It is possible that the Cree part of Michif
shows more similarities with these dialects than with the central and west-
ern Saskatchewan Plains Cree dialects.13 At this m o m e n t , w e only have the
western dialects of Plains Cree for comparison, and those might not be the
right ones.
If we try to give Michif Cree a place in the Cree dialect continuum, w e
find a number of unexpected results. Although Michif is basically Plains
Cree, most of its speakers live outside the Plains Cree area. Only in the
Fort Qu'appelle Valley there is some overlap.
W e saw above that Michif has // where Plains Cree has /s/ and
Saulteaux retains the Poto-Algonquian distinction /s/ vs. /s/. Michif Cree
shares this feature with Cree dialects east of Sault Saint Marie, Ontario
(Pentland 1978). Also, Attikamek Cree from Quebec (Cooper 1945) shares
with Michif some of the morphological properties discussed above. Michif
also shares its conjunct markers with more easterly Cree dialects, e.g., Moose
Cree (James 1987). Lack of access to the sources on Cree dialects on the
one hand and lack of knowledge of these dialects in general, m a k e it hard to
determine its precise connection with the Eastern dialects. I will discuss this
point in more detail in future work. It should also be kept in mind, that the
ancestors of the speakers of Plains Cree in Saskatchewan and Alberta must
have migrated there from the east as recently as a couple of centuries ago
(Mandelbaum 1979:15-45), possibly from the area between Lake Superior
and Hudson Bay.

4. Conclusions

The fact that the Cree part of Michif is different from Plains Cree shows
once more that Michif is a language in its own right and not a haphazard
mixture of French and Cree, which are languages the majority of speakers
of Michif do not speak or understand. Michif is not an ad-hoc mixture
of Plains Cree and French, but a distinct language. It also confirms the
comments by speakers w h o characterize their language as "a mixture of
Cree, French and Saulteaux".
The language must have jelled as a separate language, probably at the

fi ^TS thC ^ prfSenUtion f the P*Per, some people remarked that one
finds indeed nasal vowels in some Saskatchewan Plains Cree dialects.

latest in the first decades of the 19th century in the Red River area,14
combining the different languages spoken in the community. At that time,
there already was variability in the language. From there, the Metis took
Michif (alongside other languages) to different areas, where it fell into disuse
in a number of places, being substituted for by other languages.
T h e Saulteaux influence could date from this period, when there was
frequent interaction with Saulteaux speakers. It is also possible that the
mixture of Saulteaux and French spoken in the Great Lakes area influenced
Michif, when these speakers shifted to the mixture of Cree and French.
S o m e features Michif shares with more easterly dialects of Cree also point
to influences from Ontario. More dialectal and historical information is
needed to confirm this.

Cooper, John M .
1945 Tete-de-Boule-Cree. International Journal of American Linguistics
Douaud, Patrick C.
1985 Ethnolinguistic Profile of the Canadian Metis. National Museum of
Man, Mercury Series 99. Ottawa.
Hogman, Wes
1981 Agreement for Animacy and Gender in the Buffalo Narrows Dialect
of French/Cree. MASA: Journal of the University of Manitoba An-
thropology Students Association 7:81-94.
James, Deborah
1987 Complementizer Preverbs in Moose Cree. Paper read at the 19th
Algonquian Conference, Washington D.C.
Mandelbaum, David G.
1979 The Plains Cree. An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative
Study. Regina: University of Regina, Canadian Plains Research
Center. [1940.]
Peers, Laura L.
1987 Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggarman, Chief: Saulteaux in the Red River
Settlement. Pp. 261-270 in Papers of the Eighteenth Algonquian
Conference. William Cowan, ed. Ottawa: Carleton University.
Pentland, David H.
1978 A Historical Overview of Cree Dialects. Pp. 104-126 in Papers of
the Ninth Algonquian Conference. William Cowan, ed. Ottawa:
Carleton University.

A m a n born in the Red River Settlement in 1825 is remembered by
scendants as being a speaker of Michif. He was certainly not thefirst,but
the oldest born person about w h o m I could gather this information fror
oral historians.

1982 French Loanwords in Cree. Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics

Peterson, Jacqueline
1981 The People In Between: Indian-White Marriage and the Genesis of
a Metis Society and Culture in the Great Lakes Region, 1680-1830.
Ph.D. thesis, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Rhodes, Richard
1977 French Cree A Case of Borrowing. Pp. 6-25 in Actes du huitieme
congres des algonquinistes. William Cowan, ed. Ottawa: Carleton
Rhodes, Richard A., and Evelyn M. Todd
1981 Subarctic Algonquian Languages. Pp. 52-66 in Handbook of North
American Indians, Vol. 6: Subarctic. June Helm, ed. Washington:
Smithsonian Institution.
Stobie, Margaret
1971 The Dialect called Bungi. Canadian Antiques Collector, Nov./Dec.
1971, p. 20.
Turner, Sarah
1851 The Rainbow in the North. London: James Nisbet.
Voorhis, Paul
1977 A Saulteaux (Ojibwe) Phrase Book, Based on the Dialects of Mani-
toba. Brandon: Department of Native Studies.
Wolfart, H. Christoph
1973 Plains Cree: A Grammatical Study. Transactions of the American
Philosophical Society n.s. 63, pt. 5. Philadelphia.
1989 Prosodische Grenzsignale im Plains Cree. Folia Linguistica 23:327-