Derivation: the Diminutive

The categories that have been discussed thus far – gender, number, person, and case – are all considered to be inflectional categories which mark individual nouns for use in phrases, clauses and sentences.  In other words, these categories help situate nouns within the syntax of Cree noun phrases and clauses.  Prior to the addition of inflectional morphology, languages also use morphology to build more complex words in the first place, which are only then marked by inflection.  The most common patterns of word-building morphology cross-linguistically are derivation and compounding.  In both types, words are built by combining simpler elements already found in the language.  Here we will briefly introduce derivational morphology.

In derivation, a more basic meaningful element or word is modified by adding an affix (prefix or suffix) thus creating a new word, often with both a change of meaning and a change of word class.  The process of derivation is exemplified for English in (22) and for Cree in (23).


Verb  +  -er  →  Noun

Noun/Adjective  +  -ize  →  Verb

work  +  -er  →  worker

winter   +  -ize  →  winterize  “make ready for winter”

jump  +  -er  →  jumper

private  +  -ize  →  privatize  “make private”



Verb  +  -win  →  Noun

mētawē-  “play”  +  -win  →  mētawēwin  “game”

Verb  +  -(i)kan  →  Noun

pahkwēs-  “cut off a piece of s.t.”  + -ikan  →  pahkwēsikan  “bannock”

Noun  +  -ihkē  →  Verb

maskisin-  “shoe”               +  -ihkē  →  maskisinihkē  “make shoes”

pahkwēsikan-  “bannock”  +  -ihkē  →  pahkwēsikanihkē  “make bannock”


An exceptionally common derivation that affects Cree nouns is the creation of diminutives.  A diminutive noun is one that refers to something smaller than the norm and this can productively be done with any and all nouns in the language.  In addition to indicating smallness, diminutives can also be used to express endearment or even denigration, depending on the context.  Though more precise details of the diminutive derivation will be given in the appropriate sections below, a few examples can be shown here.  The general means of creating a diminutive is to add some version of the diminutive suffix –is (or –isis), as in (24).


maskisin-     “shoe”

+  -is   →

maskisinis    “small shoe; child’s shoe”

pahkwēsikan-   “bannock”

+  -is   →

pahkwēsikanis    “small piece of bannock”

sīsīp-    “duck”

+  -isis   →

sīsīpisis    “duckling”


In words that include one or more /t/ sounds, the diminutive derivation is accompanied by a process known as sound symbolism, in which the /t/ sound changes to /c/, as in (25).


astis-  “mitt”

+  -is   →

ascisis  “small mitt; child’s mitt”

tēhtapiwin-  “chair”

+  -is   →

cēhcapiwinis  “small chair, baby chair, highchair”


When a noun is marked with the diminutive suffix, this creates an entirely new noun, which can in turn be marked for all of the inflectional categories already introduced above.



Diminutive Noun





“small shoe”





“small shoes”



“my shoe”


“my small shoe”



“in my shoe”


“in the small shoe”


As such, we can consider basic nouns and diminutive nouns to be separate words rather than simply forms of the same word, and thus diminutive nouns can be listed separately in the dictionary.  However, it should be noted that the diminutive derivation is extremely productive and predictable, and thus acts very much like inflection in this respect.  In practice, then, not every possible diminutive noun will typically be found in the dictionary, but this does not mean that speakers can not and do not freely create new diminutives as needed.

There are additional suffixes that, like diminutives, seem to skirt the divide between derivation and inflection, including the extra possessive marker –im and the absentative –ipan.  These, however, are less predictable and less productive, and will only be mentioned in the appropriate sections below.