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Geography and dialects

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Innu is part of the Algonquian language family. Algonquian languages belong to the Algic supra-family, which has two branches: Algonquian and Ritwan. The Ritwan branch includes two languages of California, Wiyok and Yurok. Wiyok is extinct and Yurok has only a few native speakers left. The Algonquian languages, on the other hand, are split into two branches: the Eastern and the Central. Three other Plains languages complete the inventory.

►The Eastern branch includes a number of languages, some of which are extinct. The best known are:

  • Micmac, spoken in Gaspesia (Quebec), in the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island;
  • Maliseet-Passamaquoddy, spoken by the Malecites in New Brunswick and the Passamaquoddy of Maine;
  • Eastern Abenaki, also known as Penobscot, is now extinct;
  • Western Abenaki is close to extinction at Odanak, Quebec;

The Central Algonquian languages are spoken over a wide territory. They include:

  • Shawnee (spoken in Oklahoma);
  • Fox, also known as Meskwaki (sometimes spelled Mesquakie or Meskwahki) (spoken in Iowa, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas);
  • Kickapoo is closely related to Fox (spoken in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and in Coahuila, Mexico);
  • Miami and Illinois are two dialects of the same language, now extinct. It was spoken over a wide territory, including Indiana and Illinois;
  • Potawatomi is still spoken in various Midwestern states (Wisconsin, Kansas, Indiana, Michigan) and in Oklahoma;
  • Ojibway, also known as (A)nishinaabemowin, constitutes a vast dialect complex, spoken by several thousand speakers in Canada and the USA. It is spoken in Quebec by the Algonquins, in Ontario by the Odawa as well as in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and further north, in Southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where the language is called Saulteux (also spelled Saulteaux, Salteaux, etc.) in Canada but Chippewa in the USA.
  • Dialects of Cree are spoken from Labrador to the Rockies in Alberta and thus cover all of Northern Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The languages of the Plains group are: Arapaho, Cheyenne and Blackfoot. This group is quite varied since these languages are as distinct from one another as they are from the other Algonquian languages:

  • Cheyenne is spoken in Montana and in Oklahoma;
  • Arapaho is spoken in Wyoming and in Oklahoma;
  • Blackfoot is spoken in Alberta and in Montana.

Innu and other dialects of Cree

Innu belongs to the Central branch of Algonquian and also belongs to the great dialectal complex (a sequence of dialects) known as Cree, and is spoken from Labrador to Alberta.

The various dialects of Cree are distinguished according to how /l/ is pronounced and according to whether the dialect has undergone what is called ‘palatalization’. Proto-Algonquian /l/ is used to distinguish the various dialects of Cree. This sound is variably pronounced /l/, /n/, /y/, /r/ or /θ/ (like the soft ‘th’ in English), according to the dialect in question. We thus distinguish ‘l dialects’, ‘n dialects’, ‘r dialects’, ‘y dialects’ and ‘θ dialects’. Thus, in the Innu pronoun, niǹ ‘me’, final /ǹ/ corresponds to Proto-Algonquian /l/.

This pronoun is therefore pronounced differently according to the various dialects: nil (or nila) in the ‘l dialects’, nin (or nina) in the ‘n dialects’, niy (or niya) in the ‘y dialects’, nira in the ‘r dialects’ and niθa in the ‘θ dialects’.

Since these correspondences are quite systematic, one can generally predict what sound will correspond to /l/ of a given word in the various dialects. Figure 1 illustrates the dialect breakdown.

  • In the extreme West, Plains Cree is a ‘y dialect’; further east, in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Woods Cree is a ‘θ dialect’; still further east, in Manitoba and around Hudson’s Bay, in Ontario, Swampy Cree is a ‘n dialect’.
  • Next to Swampy Cree in Ontario, at the bottom of James Bay, Moose Cree is a ‘l dialect; in Quebec, Cree dialects are all ‘y dialects’; further south, in Upper Mauricie, the Atikamekw dialects are ‘r dialects’; Naskapi is spoken east of Cree and north of the Innu area. We distinguish Western Naskapi and Eastern Naskapi; both are ‘n dialects’.

According to the same logic, dialects of Innu (Montagnais in Figure 1) are divided into two dialect areas: the Western dialects are ‘l dialects’ (Pessamit, Mashteuiatsh) and the others, sometimes called the Eastern dialects, are ‘n dialects’ (Sept Îles, Matimekush, Ekuantshit, LaRomaine, Pakuat-Shipu, Sheshatshiu).

“Palatalization”

            In Quebec, the Cree, Innu (Montagnais) and Naskapi dialects, with the exception of Atikamekw, have all undergone an important historical change: the sound k ([k]) becomes tsh ([tʃ]) before the vowels /i/ (long or short, including the phoneme /y/ ([j])) and /e/. This major change distinguishes the Cree-Innu-Naskapi dialects of Quebec from those of Ontario and Western Canada. The former are considered to be “palatalized” dialects and the latter are “non-palatalized”.

The second person pronoun will this be pronounced:

INNU: tsh

NASKAPI: tshin

QUEBEC CREE: tshiy

ATIKAMEKW: kira

MOOSE CREE: kila

SWAMPY CREE: kina

WOODS CREE: kiθa

PLAINS CREE: kiya

For more information, consult La grammaire de la langue innue, by Lynn Drapeau (in press), Quebec, Presses de l’Université du Québec.