Number: Singular and Plural

The majority of all nouns are count nouns.  This means that the entity that the noun represents can be counted, and that we can refer to just one of that entity, or to two of them, or three, or eighty-seven, etc.  In most if not all languages, there is also a small class of nouns which cannot be counted.  These are generally referred to as non-count or mass nouns.  Such nouns will typically only occur in the singular without plural forms.  For instance, in English, words like sand and furniture act as non-count nouns.  We do not normally talk about sands (although we can in the specialized sense of different varieties of sand), nor can we pluralize furniture as *furnitures (and please note that the use of an asterisk * marks an unacceptable or “ungrammatical” word, phrase or sentence in a particular language).  Similarly in Cree, nouns like yēkaw “sand” and kōna “snow” are mass nouns which cannot be marked as plural.

When a noun is a count noun, we can specify the number of the entity, but most languages also mark the inflectional category of Number by having distinct forms for singular and plural.  Singular forms are used when there is only one of the noun, while plural forms are used to indicate that there are more than one.  Both English and Cree mark the category of number, and specifically the plural.  In English, the most common plural marker is the suffix –s. However, other, more irregular patterns, such as vowel-changes, also occur in English:

(2) Regular English Plurals (–s) Irregular English Plurals
fox          → foxes ox           → oxen (–en)
cat          → cats child       → children (–ren)
horse      → horses deer       → deer (no change)
can         → cans man        → men (vowel change: a > e)
house     → houses mouse    → mice (vowel change: ou > i)
noose     → nooses goose     → geese (vowel change: oo > ee)


In Cree, the marking of number is integrally linked with the gender distinction, such that the plural marker differs whether the noun being marked is animate or inanimate.  As will be described in the appropriate sections below, there are some variations in the exact form of the plurals suffixes, but the regular form of the animate plural is –ak, and the regular form of the inanimate plural is –a.


Regular Animate Plurals (–ak)

Regular Inanimate Plurals (–a)

sīsīp     “duck”    

sīsīpak      “ducks”

akohp      “blanket”    →

akohpa       “blankets”

asikan  “sock”    →

asikanak   “socks”

maskisin  “shoe”      →

maskisina   “shoes”


In both English and Cree, plural-marking must be used whenever more than one is being referred to, even if other elements (such as numerals or quantifiers) are also present:


Cree number-marking

English number-marking




    singular, with a numeral:

pēyak sīsīp

one duck




    plural, with a numeral

nīso sīsīpak

two ducks


    (cf. *nīso sīsīp)

    (cf. *two duck)

    plural, with a quantifier

mihcēt sīsīpak

many ducks


    (cf. *mihcēt sīsīp)

    (cf. *many duck)


This may seem natural to speakers of both Cree and English, but some languages only use the plural marker if no other means of indicating number (such as a numeral or quantifer) is used.  But as stated above, there will be some non-count or mass nouns that can never take plural-marking (as the asterisk * again indicates):


Plains Cree mass noun

English mass noun





— (*kōnak)

— (*snows)


One further complication to Cree number marking involves the category known as obviation.  As the obviative in Plains Cree chiefly affects animate noun morphology, detailed discussion of this important category will be left for the appropriate sections under animate nouns.  Nevertheless, it is important to know that the obviative also interacts with the category of person-marking, in that its main purpose is to help distinguish different referents in Cree discourse.  Though this is a very complex matter of Cree syntax far surpassing the purpose of this basic introduction, some reference to obviation will thus be made in the following sections on person-marking.