Person and Number: the Possessive

When the three basic Person divisions interact with singular and plural number-marking, a basic six-way division of person and number can be established as follows:


Basic Person and Number

singular plural
1s first person singular 1p first person plural
2s second person singular 2p second person plural
3s third person singular 3p third person plural


Thus, first person can be divided between a sole or singular speaker (1s) (e.g. English “I” or “me”; Plains Cree niya) and the first person plural (1p) (e.g. English “we”; Plains Cree niyanān) which thus typically includes the sole speaker and at least one other person.  Some languages, like Cree, can make finer distinctions as we will see below.  Similarly, the second person can be and usually is divided between a single addressee (2s) (e.g. Plains Cree kiya) and more than one person being spoken to (2p) (e.g. Plains Cree kiyawāw).  Note, however, that the standard dialect of English has lost this distinction between singular and plural addressees and we must use the pronoun “you” whether I am speaking to one of “you” or to two of “you”, many of “you”, all of “you”, etc.  This lack of a distinction is somewhat exceptional across the world’s languages and many speakers of different dialects in English are trying to correct this lack by re-establishing this distinction.  This is why it is normal in some English speech communities to hear a distinction between singular “you” and plural “youse” or “y’all” (i.e. “you all”).

The third person as well is normally divided into singular and plural forms (e.g. Plains Cree wiya and wiyawāw respectively).  Some languages will make even further distinctions based on other criteria important to the grammar of each specific language.  This is why English divides the third person singular into three distinct forms (e.g. masculine “he”, feminine “she”, and neuter “it”) on the basis of gender, as discussed above.  However, English does not make this same division for third person plural, where the pronoun “they” can refer to males, females, a mixed group, or more than one non-human referent without any distinctions.  Taking into account the distinctions that English does and does not make, the English person and number paradigm looks like this:


English Person Divisions

singular plural
1s first person singular I 1p first person plural we
2s/2p second person  you
3ms third person masculine singular he 3p third person plural they
3fs third person feminine singular she
3ns third person neuter singular it


or more simply as:

(10) English Personal (Subject) Pronouns
singular plural
1s I 1p we
2s/2p   you
3ms he 3p they
3fs she
3ns it


Cree does not make all of these same distinctions, but in fact some additional ones not found in English are important for Cree.  We have already mentioned above that Cree does not make the same gender distinction that English does, so there is no division of different third person singular (3s) forms (i.e. wiya can be “he” or “she”).  But we have also noted that Cree does, unlike standard English, make a distinction between second person singular (kiya) and second person plural (kiyawāw).  Additionally, Cree dialects all make a very important distinction involving the first and second person plural forms that is not made in English.  When an English speaker says “we” or “us”, the intent is for the speaker to include at least one other referent, making the first person plural.  However, in English, the additional referent(s) might include the addressee or not.  Thus “we” is ambiguous between “me and you (and possibly others)” and “me and others, but not you”.  In contrast, Cree always makes this distinction explicit and has two different forms depending on whether the speaker is including or excluding the addressee.  If the speaker is referring to him or herself and others but not the addressee, this is referred to as the first person plural exclusive (1p; i.e. niyanān “we (I and at least one other person but not you)”).  If the speaker is referring to him or herself as well as the addressee(s), this is referred to as the first person plural inclusive (21; i.e. kiyānaw “we (I and you (and possibly others))”).  The difference between exclusive and inclusive, then, is based on whether the speaker includes the addressee or not.  In English, if I say “we are going to go eat”, then I might be including you or not.  In Cree, such ambiguity is not possible but must instead be made explicit, and so the speaker can say either niwī‑nitawi‑mīcisonān “we (but not you) are going to go eat” or kiwī-nitawi-mīcisonaw “we (including you) are going to go eat”.  In comparison with the English person and number paradigm, then, we can represent Cree personal pronouns in the following paradigm:


Plains Cree Person Divisions

singular plural
1s first person singular niya 1p first person plural exclusive niyanān
2s second person singular kiya 21 first person plural inclusive kiyānaw
2p second person plural kiyawāw
3s third person singular wiya 3p third person plural wiyawāw


or more simply as:


Plains Cree Personal Pronouns

singular plural
1s niya 1p niyanān
2s kiya 21 kiyānaw
2p kiyawāw
3s wiya 3p wiyawāw


Personal pronouns have been used to demonstrate these differences of person (and number) because we do not normally think of nouns in terms of first, second or third person.  However, we can and do mark person and number categories in connection with nouns in order to indicate possession (e.g. “my book”) or relationship (e.g. “my mother”).  In this case, it is the person and number of the possessor that is being indicated.  In English, possession is marked by using possessive pronouns (e.g. “mine”, “yours”, etc.) on their own, or by placing possessive determiners (e.g. “my”, “your”, etc.) before a noun (e.g. “my book”, “your book”, etc.).  Alongside the personal pronouns of English, it is possible to represent the possessive pronouns (13) and the possessive determiners (14) in similar paradigms:


English Possessive Pronouns

singular plural
1s mine 1p ours
2s/2p   yours
3ms his 3p theirs
3fs hers
3ns its



English Possessive Determiners

singular plural
1s my 1p our
2s/2p   your
3ms his 3p their
3fs her
3ns its



In Cree, rather than using independent possessive pronouns, it is most common to attach specific prefixes (and suffixes) to nouns to represent the person (and number) of the possessor.  Thus, alongside the personal pronouns, a basic paradigm of person markers can be given here, followed by an example of how these affixes work:


Basic Possessive Affixes in Plains Cree

singular plural
1s ni(t)- 1p ni(t)-    -inān
2s ki(t)- 21 ki(t)-    -inaw
2p ki(t)-    -iwāw
3s o(t)- 3p o(t)-    -wāw
4                                        o(t)-     -iyiw



Example Possessive Paradigm in Plains Cree

singular plural
1s nicīmān my canoe” 1p nicīmāninān our (excl) canoe”
2s kicīmān your canoe” 21 kicīmāninaw our (incl) canoe”
2p kicīmāniwāw your (pl) canoe”
3s ocīmān his/her canoe” 3p   ocīmāniwāw their canoe”
4     ocīmāniyiw    “another’s/others’ canoe”


You will note that an extra person division, not present among the personal pronouns, has been introduced to these possessive paradigms.  This is the so-called obviative person, abbreviated here as (though often in other grammatical materials it is marked as 3′ to indicate that it is a subtype of third person reference). In Cree and related Algonquian languages, third persons can be divided and differentiated on the basis of topicality.  When two or more distinct third persons are being talked about, one third person referent (singular or plural) is treated as more topical, salient or important in terms of the speaker and addressee than the other(s).  This more topical third person is known to linguists as the proximate, while the less topical third person is known as the obviative.  Another way to think about this division that you might find useful is to consider the more important proximate participant as the third person, and the less topical obviative particpant as a “fourth” person and hence the use of the abbreviation 4 here.  These concepts will be discussed in more detail in the appropriate sections below.

This is still not a complete representation of possessive marking in Cree, but it introduces the basic pattern which will be elaborated upon as we delve further into these grammatical patterns. However, one final important feature of Cree person marking will be noted here.  In contrast to the traditional division between singular and plural forms as represented in the person and number paradigms given thus far, some languages also mark a strong contrast between first and second person (speakers and addressees or speech act participants) on the one hand and third (and fourth) persons on the other.  Cree is one such language that marks this difference, although it is even more important for marking verbs than it is for nouns or pronouns.  As such, it has become traditional in describing Cree person and number to group all of the speech act participant forms (i.e. speaker and addressee) together, and separate them from the third (and fourth) person forms.  Thus, an alternative way to represent the Cree personal pronouns is shown in (17), with the example paradigm recast in (18), and this format will be followed in the subsequent sections dealing with possessive marking on nouns.

       (17)    Plains Cree Possessive Paradigm

1s ni(t)-
2s ki(t)-
1p ni(t)-        -inān
21 ki(t)-        -inaw
2p ki(t)-        -iwāw
3s o(t)-
3p o(t)-        -iwāw
4 o(t)-        -iyiw


       (18)    Plains Cree Possessive Paradigm Exemplified

1s nicīmān my canoe”
2s kicīmān your canoe”
1p nicīmāninān our (excl) canoe”
21 kicīmāninaw our (incl) canoe”
2p kicīmāniwāw your (pl) canoe”
3s ocīmān his/her canoe”
3p ocīmāniwāw their canoe”
4 ocīmāniyiw another’s/others’ canoe”


These examples show the regular Inanimate Noun possessive singular forms. Further examples and description of possessive paradigms can be found in the individual descriptions of the different Noun stem types. In particular, there is an important distinction between the ways that possessive are marked with Independent Noun Stems, as exemplified here, and a special set of Dependent Nouns Stems, which will be described on their own separate pages.