Noun Stem Subclassification

The inflectional categories (Gender, Number, Person and Case) and the Diminutive derivation discussed above apply to virtually every noun in Cree.  However, the exact form taken by these suffixes depends on further subclassification of Cree nouns.  The most important classification, between animate and inanimate nouns, has already been introduced.  Cross-cutting the gender distinction, though, is a further subclassification of noun stems.  Both Animate Nouns and Inanimate Nouns can be divided into four main stem classes, and the criteria for this subclassification are the same regardless of gender.

The first of the four subclasses for both animate and inanimate nouns are those with regular stems (N1). This means that when endings for the plural, possessive, locative or diminutive are attached directly to the stem, the regular form of these suffixes appear without any changes to the singular stem form.  The subclass of regular stems is the most common type of both NI and NA, which will thus be abbreviated NI1 and NA1.  The other subclasses all display certain differences from the regular patterns.  We might refer to these differences as “irregularities”, except that even these apparent irregularities are in some ways regular and predictable.  For instance, nouns of the second subclass (N2) all end in a combination of a vowel plus a glide (i.e. /w/ or /y/).  Such nouns take regular plural endings but both the noun stem and the suffixes undergo certain changes when the possessive, locative or diminutive is added.  The third subclass (N3) consists of noun stems which end in a combination of a consonant and a /w/.  This /w/ is absent in the singular but shows up in the plural and results in changes to the other suffixes.  The fourth subclass (N4) consists of single-syllable stems.  These are the most “irregular” since they require special singular forms.  Additionally, single-syllable stems can also act much like either regular or consonant-/w/ stems, so that we will further subdivide single-syllable stems as N4 and N4w respectively. Finally, there are a very few irregular or exceptional inanimate nouns which we can group as a fifth subclass (NI5). Thus, the full list of these Noun stem subclasses is summarized here, with links to descriptions of each subclass.

(27)     Noun Stem Subclassification
Stem Subclasses Inanimate Nouns Animate Nouns
Regular Stems NI1 NA1
Vowel-Glide Stems NI2 NA2
Consonant-/w/ Stems NI3 NA3
Single-Syllable Stems


(and NI4w)


(and NA4w)

Irregular Stems NI5


Each of these subclasses and their own particular peculiarities will be described in the appropriate sections.  The regular stems, as indicated above, will be given the fullest description, with the descriptions of the other subclasses merely pointing out the main differences between them and regular stems.

All of this may seem, at first glance, like a great deal to learn, but it must be remembered that even these subclasses exhibit a great degree of regularity compared to some of the large number of exceptional and completely irregular patterns to be found in English grammar.  English nouns, for example, exhibit a great variety of (often completely irregular) plural forms.  The following show just three patterns for nouns ending in “oose”:








Ø (no change)




oo → ee





Nothing in the language allows one to predict the form of the plural of these and many other examples; they simply must be learned.  In Cree, the patterns tend to be more predictable and therefore, hopefully, more easily learned.

Stem Types: Independent and Dependent

One additional distinction among Cree nouns that must be recognized, however, is the difference between independent and dependent nouns. The majority of Cree nouns are considered to be independent stems. This means that they are nouns which can stand alone as words without any additional marking. The singular form of each noun is generally taken as the basic form of the word, while modifications can be made in order to mark the plural, possessive and/or locative forms of a stem. Diminutives are also created by modifying noun stems, but in the case of diminutives the change simply creates another (regular) noun stem which can be further marked for the plural, possessive and/or locative. All of the nouns and patterns exemplified thus far have been independent stems.

In contrast to the independent stems, there are also a fair number of dependent stems in Cree. These are nouns which cannot stand alone as words, but must take possessive marking in order to be considered complete. Dependent nouns, therefore, are those which refer to things which are not typically referred to outside of a possessive relationship. Such things include body parts (most of which are classified as inanimate), and kinship terms (all of which are animate nouns), as well as a few additional special items (which may be animate or inanimate). Both types of noun stems will be described in their own webpages here, thus including the Independent stems (Inanimate Nouns (NI) and Animate Nouns (NA)) and the Dependent Noun Stems, specifially Dependent Inanimate Nouns (NDI) and Dependent Animate Nouns (NDA).

Indeclinable Nouns (INM)

There are times when other parts of speech or entire phrases are used in place of Nouns in order to name people or things. When something other than a Noun or a Pronoun is used for this purpose, it typically acts something like an indeclinable particle (IPC) in that it has one fixed form and cannot be inflected (at least not like a regular Noun). As such, these constructions are referred to as Indeclinable Nominals (INM), and a short description of these is offered on its separate page.