We all use words, but we might find it harder to define exactly what a word is, or what qualifies as a word.

Often we might simply think of words as the parts that occur between spaces in writing. Using that criterion, for instance, the following English sentence has 11 words.

(1)    We were going to go visit our great-grandchildren at the University.

But why do we leave the spaces where we do? And why do we write the approximate Plains Cree translation in (2a) with only three words?

(2)    a)  nikī-wī-nitawi-kiyokawānānak nicāpānisinānak kihci-kiskinwahamātowikamikohk.

Why don’t we instead write it as in (2b), or as a single word (as in (2c)), or divide it further into 8 “words” (as in (2d)), or 13 “words” (as in (2e)), or as 31 syllables (as in (2f)), etc.?

(2)    b)  *  nikīwīnitawikiyokawānānak nicāpānisinānak kihcikiskinwahamātowikamikohk.

c)    * nikīwīnitawikiyokawānānaknicāpānisinānakkihcikiskinwahamātowikamikohk.

d)    * nikī wī nitawi kiyokawānānak ni cāpānisinānak kihci kiskinwahamātowikamikohk.

e)    * ni kī wī nitawi kiyokaw ānānak ni cāpānis inānak kihci kiskinwahamāto wikamik ohk.

f)     * ni kī wī ni ta wi ki yo ka wā nā nak ni cā pā ni si nā nak kih ci kis ki nwa ha mā to wi ka mi kohk.

The answer is not simple. But the structure of each language is unique and will dictate what constitutes a word and therefore where we place the spaces or word-breaks in our writing system. In this section of the grammar, we will first define Plains Cree words by the ways in which they are formed and will thus only gradually come to a definition of the word in Plains Cree. As a starting point, however, we will begin by introducing the main types of words or Parts of Speech. In Cree, we can divide all words into these four main parts of speech:

Parts of Speech Initial Definition Examples

Words used to name things and thus identify them as the participants, settings, etc. within the discourse.

Identifiable by marking for Number (plural, obviative), Person (possession) and Case (locative).


















Words used to indicate the actions or states of the participants (e.g. Nouns) within the discourse.

Identifiable by marking for Person and Number (actor and/or goal), Tense (past, future), Aspect, Modality, Mode, etc.











“choose, vote”

“hit it”

“help him/her”

“be windy”


“be happy, celebrate”


Words which serve to modify Nouns or Verbs or specify relations between words within the discourse.

Identifiable by the fact that they occur in only single indeclinable forms.








“up, above”





“no, not”


Pronouns Words (usually quite short) used as shortcuts to refer to the participants (e.g. in place of Nouns or Noun Phrases) within the discourse.






“I, me, my”

“this (animate)”



“that aforementioned”

These four word classes can in turn be divided into subclasses of their own, each of which will also be introduced as we describe them in increasing detail. The Parts of Speech page lists all of the classes and subclasses which are identified by parts of speech codes found in the nēhiýawēwin / Plains Cree Dictionary and described within these grammar pages.

Returning to the notion of the “word”, Linguists define the word as the smallest meaningful unit of speech that can stand by itself. However, what this actually means in any given language can vary considerably. For instance, in English, most words consist of a single element of meaning (i.e. “morpheme”), like dog or happy, but they can consist of more than one morpheme, like dogs or unhappinessDog, dogs, happy, unhappy, happiness and unhappiness are all words in English as each of these can stand alone as an utterance. But meaningful forms like -s (“more than one”), un- (“not”) and -ness (“the state or quality of X”) cannot stand alone (i.e. they are “bound morphemes”) and must always be attached to other meaningful pieces in the formation of words.



English Morphemes
free bound
dog dog  
dogs dog -s
puppy pup -y
small dog small, dog  
my dog my, dog  
happy happy  
unhappy happy un-
happiness happy -ness
unhappiness happy un-, -ness

English has a limited amount of these bound morphemes, while other languages, like Cree, might use bound morphemes much more commonly to form words. For instance, in Plains Cree, words like atim “dog” and api “sit” are free morphemes which can stand alone as words. But each of these can also be modified to create longer words with additional meaning by adding bound morphemes.  Cree even allows words to be built entirely of bound morphemes, such as the two elements in nitēm “my dog”. Neither ni- nor -tēm can be uttered in isolation as words, but together they form a single word. This is very rare in English, but very common in Cree.

Plains Cree


Plains Cree Morphemes
free bound
atim                “dog” atim(w)  
atimwak         “dogs” atim(w) -ak
acimosis      “puppy” atim(w) -isis
nitēm        “my dog”   ni-, -tēm
api                                       “sit” api  
nitapin                               “I sit” api nit- -n
nikī-apin                           “I sat” api ni- -n, kī-
nikī-nōhtē-apin    “I want to sit” api ni- -n, kī-, nōhtē-

The words listed here are Nouns (built on atim or -tēm) and Verbs (built on api). In the sections which follow, these word classes, as well as Particles and Pronouns will be introduced and then described in increasing detail. You can make do with the basic introductions, or go as deep into the grammatical detail as you please.