The Innu language


Innu belongs to the Central branch of the Algonquian language family; it is part of the great dialect complex (a sequence of dialects) known as Cree and is spoken from Labrador to Alberta, Canada.

Typological profile

A TYPOLOGICALLY-based classification primarily aims to identify a language’s membership to a group of languages, based on similarities of internal linguistic organization. From this point of view, Innu is a POLYSYNTHETIC language, and from the point of view of constituent marking, it belongs to the so-called “head-marking” languages.

            Polysynthetic languages are mostly found in North America (Algonquian, Iroquoian, Wakashan, Salish, Sioux, Athapascan, Inuktitut and other Eskimo dialects, Nahuatl, etc.), in Siberia (Chukchi, Nivkh, Ket, etc.) and in the South Sea Islands (Yimas, Lenakel, etc.). They are also found in South America, in Australia and in the Caucasus. Polysynthetic languages present a group of common structural features, the most striking being the presence of complex verbs which would constitute complete sentences in other languages. For example, in Innu, the verb  tshikakunishkueuneshinu means ‘He’s lying down with his hat’. Reference can be found to the subject ‘he’ (final -u), to ‘his hat’ (akunishkueun), to the fact that he is wearing it (tshik-) and finally, to the fact that the subject is lying down (-shin-) rather than standing or sitting. This English sentence is therefore expressed by a single verb in Innu. A number of features of Innu are commonly found in polysynthetic languages; others are proper to Innu. Among the traits commonly found in other polysynthetic languages are:

  • holophrastic nature (complex verbs equivalent to complete sentences);
  • possibility of incorporating certain nouns into a verb root;
  • absence of distinction between adjectives and verbs;
  • possibility of incorporating certain adverbs into a verb root;
  • pronominal indexing on verbs;
  • relatively free word order;
  • possessor person marking on possessed nouns;
  • complex verbal derivational system allowing the modification (increasing or decreasing) of the number of participants the verb encodes;
  • absence of a copula (to be/to have);
  • great number of different items which fit into each other in word formation;


In a group of words forming a constituent, the HEAD is the word which determines the properties of the whole constituent and the DEPENDENT is the word which modifies the head. Thus, in a verb phrase, the verb constitutes the head; in a noun phrase, the noun is the head; in an adjective phrase, the adjective is the head, and so on. Dependents of the verb are its complements (open the door for Mary with a key); dependents of the noun are noun complements (an argument with Mary about politics; the presentation of a medal to the winner); the dependents of the adjective are adjective complements (angry about Mary; fond of chocolate), and so on.

            A language with “dependent-marking” is a language which adds a specific marker to the dependent, in order to indicate the nature of its relationship with the head of the constituent in which it appears. These types of languages are often referred to as “case languages”, since the marker on the nominal dependent is a case marker. Latin is a “dependent-marking” language. Thus, in a verb phrase, it is the complement noun which is marked, and in the noun phrase, it is the noun complement (the possessed element) which bears the dependent marker. English also marks possession on the dependent in possessive constructions (Mary’s book). Languages of Europe are generally “dependent-marked”. On the other hand, in “head-marking” languages, it is the verb which bears a mark specifying the nature of its complement and in possessive constructions, it is the possessor. Innu is systematically a head-marking language. This is why verbs are always marked for their complements, with which they agree in gender and number (nuapamauat ‘I see them (animate)’; nuapaten ‘I see something’), while in possessive constructions, it is the possessed element (the noun complement) which is marked for the possessor (Mali uminu shima ‘Mary’s cat’). The consequence of this feature of Innu is that dependents are not specifically marked; this is why the grammatical organization of Innu does not have case markers on nouns. The majority of indigenous languages of North America are “head-marking” languages. This is the reason why, in these languages, the verb occupies such a central position. It also explains the complexity of possessive constructions in Innu.

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