Verbal Suffixes in nêhiyawêwin – âpihtawikosisân

I started writing this at 5:30 a.m. because as usual I couldn’t sleep. This is going to be a nerdy language post, so feel free to disregard if you aren’t obsessed with nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree)! If you are a fellow nêhiyawêwin nerd, please leave all the comments and thoughts you have!

nêhiyawêwin, like most Indigenous languages, is a polysynthetic language, which means words are composed of many morphemes – word parts with independent meaning that may or may not be able to stand alone. It’s why you get long verbal phrases like kikî-nohtê-nihtâ-wîcinêhiyawêmitin, which means “I wanted to be good at speaking Cree with you.”

I want to gather together some things I’ve learned about how to add even more nuance to verbs, in the form of verbal suffixes. This post is mostly for people already learning nêhiyawêwin, because I’m not going to explain how to do conjugations or anything like that, just how to use verbal suffixes to add shades of meaning. I’ll provide some explanations along the way, just bare-bones stuff to demonstrate my thinking here, and to help learners who have covered these parts of the language follow along. Feel free to skip the parts you already know well. Also, I am not a linguist, and I don’t approach this as a linguist, so the terms I use might not be “correct” according to that discipline.

A quick review/run-down of nêhiyawêwin verb types

There are four classes of nêhiyawêwin verbs depending on the animacy of an actor, and whether that actor transfers their action onto an object, which in turn can either be animate, or inanimate. Three classes of verbs have animate actors: animate intransitive (AI), transitive inanimate (TI), and transitive animate (TA). One class has an inanimate actor: inanimate intransitive (II).

AI verbs have an animate actor doing an action, but it doesn’t transfer on to anything. That’s why it’s intransitive. Verbs like: mîciso (to eat), nikamo (to dance), pimohtê (to walk), etc. ANIMATE ACTOR —> ACTION —> NO OBJECT

II verbs have an inanimate actor doing an action – or better said, generally existing in a state – that doesn’t transfer to anything. Again, this is why we call these verbs intransitive. Verbs like : osâwâw (the inanimate object is yellow), pîkopayin (the inanimate object is broken), etc. INANIMATE ACTOR —> ACTION —>NO OBJECT

TI verbs have an animate actor that transfers an action onto an inanimate object. “Transitive” indicates this transference of action. Verbs like wâpahta (to see NI), or mîci (to eat NI). ANIMATE ACTOR —> ACTION —-> INANIMATE OBJECT

TA verbs have an animate actor that transfers an action onto an animate object. Verbs like wâpam (to see NA), or môw (to eat NA). ANIMATE ACTOR —> ACTION —-> ANIMATE OBJECT

Looking up verbs in the dictionary

When you look up nêhiyawêwin verbs in a dictionary, either the physical Arok Wolvengrey volumes, or the online itwêwina, they are presented in a third person singular (3s) conjugated form in the independent mode, or its equivalent. Since there are no gendered pronouns in nêhiyawêwin, we get sort of awkward translations: pîkiskwêw: he/she/they(sg) speaks; mîcisow: he/she/they(sg) eats etc.

Verbs are presented this way because there are rarely any spelling changes in 3s that we have to worry about, so all we need to do is “deconjugate” the verb to use it in other forms. pîkiskwêw, deconjugated, is pîkiskwê. As long as you know the various spelling rules (AI verbs change the final ê –> â in all 1st and 2nd person conjugations in the independent for example), then you’ve basically got a usable root form.

I said “or its equivalent” because it’s a bit more complicated than this. AI and TI verbs are presented in 3s conjugated forms, so a third person is doing the action. TA verbs are presented in a 3s–>3′ form, or third singular to third obviate (sometimes listed in the online dictionary as 3s–>4). For example, wâpamêw, which means a third person sees an obviate person. (If you don’t know what obviacy is, that’s another discussion, but the short version is, when it comes to third persons in a sentence, it’s like the Highlander. There can only be one.)

II verbs are presented in a singular object form, because there is no animate actor.

What are verbal suffixes?

Verbal suffixes cannot stand on their own. Once you attach them to the verb, that’s it, it’s stuck! You’ve created a new verb with a new meaning.

They are different than preverbs, which work sort of like adverbs, and come before a verb to add meaning. They can’t stand on their own, they only modify verbs. nohtê- is a preverb meaning “to want to” and if you add it to pîkiskwê, which means “to speak” then you get nohtê-pîkiskwêw: he/she/they(sg) wants to speak. The kind of verb I’m using, which here is a AI, doesn’t change.

Verbal suffixes can alter the verb, turning it from an AI into a TA, or a TA into an AI, and so on. Or it can stay an AI, just with some added layers of meaning. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

Prepping verbs for verbal suffixes

In order to use the verbal suffixes I’m going to list – and hopefully add to when I have more time – you have to “deconjugate” the verb as its presented in the dictionary to get to the root verb, the part that stays mostly consistent. For this first bit I’m only going to work with AI verbs as the root, so I just need to strip the final -w, which is the 3s conjugated ending.

The verbal suffixes I know

I was taught some verbal suffixes, and there is a decent amount of information available about them in various nêhiyawêwin textbooks. They are as follows:


-ihkê/-hkê – changes a noun to an AI verb, with the meaning to make that object, or to organize or arrange an event. For example, pahkwêsikan (bread) becomes pahkwêsikanihke: AI to make bread; or maskihkîwâpoy (tea) becomes maskihkîwâpôke: AI to make tea (when a word ends in a semi-vowel, w or y, and you want to add a suffix to it, quite often that means dropping the semi-vowel, lengthening the preceding vowel, and adding the suffix, hence the difference).

But with words like nîmihitowin, which is formed from the AI verb to dance, and the nominalizer suffix -win, that turns that verb into a noun (here meaning a dance), adding -ihkê gives the meaning of organizing or arranging the event. nîmihitowinihkê: AI to arrange/organize a dance.


-nâkosiw (AI suffix) /nâkwan (II suffix) – to seem like. These two suffixes are often presented pre-conjugated. -nâkowsiw is conjugated to 3s, and -nâkwan is conjugated to a singular inanimate object, O. These suffixes are often used with colours for objects, but you can add this suffix to a variety of different kinds of words or word-parts. For example, wâpiskiw (AI, the animate object is white) becomes wâpiskinâkosiw: the animate object is off-white, like a white colour. Or you can take miyo- which can be a prenoun or a preverb, or part of its own verb, and carries the meaning of good/nice, and it becomes miyonâkwan (II, the inanimate object looks nice, looks good).


-wîci_m/wît_m is a bit different because there is a prefix and a suffix. You wrap these around an AI verb to turn it into a TA verb that means “to do the action with someone (animate)”. There are two options based on whether your AI verb begins with a consonant or a vowel. For example, take pimohtê (AI, to walk), and wrap wîci_m around it: wîcipimohtem, TA to walk with someone (animate). Or api (AI, to sit). We wrap wît_m around it because we never want two vowels sitting next to one another in nêhiyawêwin: wîtapim, TA to sit with someone (animate).


-sta/maw is added to the end of AI or TI verbs according to specific rules, creating a TA verb that means to do the action for the benefit of someone (animate). All AI verbs will take the complete -stamaw suffix, for example, pîkiskwê (AI, to speak) becomes pîkiskwêstamaw: TA to speak on behalf of/for the benefit of someone (animate).

TI verbs have two options. TI verbs relating to something abstract, like feelings or emotions, will take the full -stamaw suffix. So for example miyweyihta (TI to be happy about or to like an inanimate object). By the way, feelings, thoughts, actions, all of these things are considered abstract, and in Cree that means they are inanimate. There is a slight spelling change where the final -a changes to an ê before taking the suffix, so miyweyihtestamaw: TA to be happy for someone (animate), on someone’s behalf.

For TI verbs that are more concrete, they take only the -maw suffix. If the TI is regular, and ends in a short -a, there’s no spelling change. So natohta (TI to listen to something inanimate) becomes natohtamaw: TA to listen to something (animate or inanimate now) for someone (animate). If the concrete TI ends in a long -â, like kohcitâ (TI to try something inanimate, either concrete, or abstract like an action), the long -â is changed to a short -a, kohcitamaw: to try something for/on behalf of someone (animate).

There are a few other suffixes I could talk about but I sort of want to get into these ones I’m trying to figure out.

The AI verbal suffixes I’m figuring out

Now I want to work through some verbal suffixes that I have come across, and try to suss out what they mean and how they are changing the verb they are added to.

Verbalsuffixpîkiskwêto speakmîcisoto eatpimohtêto walk-sia little, do the action in moderationpîkiskwêsito speak a littlemîcisosito eat a little, snack, nibblepimohtêsito walk a little-skia lot, do the action to the extreme, be a person who does the action to the extremepîkiskwêskito speak a lot, all the time, to be a chatterboxmîcisoskito eat a lot, all the time, to be a gluttonpimohtêskito walk a lot, all the time, to be a person who walks everywhere-hkâsopretend to do the actionpîkiskwêhkâsoto pretend to speakmîcisohkâsoto pretend to eatpimohtêhkâsoto pretend to walk–wamahcihoto feel like doing the actionpîkiswêwamahcihofeel like speakingmîcisowamahcihofeel like eatingpimohtêwamahcihofeel like walking

You should also be able to stack some of these suffixes, just as we stack preverbs (like ninohtê-nihtâ-nêhiyawân: I want to be good at speaking in Cree). I think you should be able to say mîcisohkâsosiw – he/she/they (sg) pretends to eat a little. I’m not sure if the “little” part refers to “eating little” or “pretending little” though, and I’m also not sure it matters. But the -si verbal suffix feels to me like a verbal form of the diminutive, and in nouns, the diminutive is usually the last suffix other than a plural or obviate marker, so it feels right that it would be last.

Not all the verbal suffixes I’ve come across make sense for every kind of verb though. Here’s an example of one I quite like:

Verbal suffixpîkiskwêto speakmîcisoto eatpimohtêto walk-payito do suddenly, burst into actionpîkiskwêpayito burst into speech, blurt out, speak suddenlymîcisopayito burst into eating, eat suddenly???pimohtêpayito burst into walking, to walk suddenly?

Obviously, this verbal suffix will work better with certain verbs, while others would just be weird to say. That’s okay though. I can imagine bursting into song, running suddenly, bursting into laughter, falling suddenly, all of which would use this verbal suffix.

Verbal suffixes turning TA verbs into AI verbs

Sometimes it’s clear that a verbal suffix has been affixed to a TA verb which then transforms that verb into an AI. I’ll show you what I mean in a second.

First, I said that there are 4 classes of verbs, and I want to show you how they work when they are expressing the same kind of action in different ways.

pîkiskwê (AI) animate actor, no objectto speakpîkiskwâta (TI) animate actor, inanimate objectto speak to inanimate objectpîkiskwât (TA) animate actor, animate objectto speak to animate objectpîkiskwêmakân (II) inanimate actor, no objectinanimate objects speaks

Also note, the way that the TA verb root is presented will vary depending on where you learn about it. Sometimes it’s presented as pîkiskwâs, where we know that final -s changes to a -t in a bunch of (but not all) conjugations, and elsewhere it’s pîkiskwât where that final -t changes to a -s sometimes. It’s easier to see how the verbal suffixes are added if we use the final -t spelling.

A TA verb involves two animates, the actor, and the object. Often those two animates are living beings, people or animals. Sometimes it’s animate objects like bread and spoons doing stuff, but let’s just think of it in terms of living beings for the following.

Verbal suffixpîkiskwât (TA)to speak to/about animate object-isodo action to self (reflexive)pîkiskwâtiso (AI)to speak to/about oneself-itothey do action to one anotherpîkiskwâtito (AI)to speak to/about one another(*this one obviously can only be used in plural forms, as the singular forms would use the above form instead)

So any action that you could do among animate beings, can be transformed with these verbal suffixes. If you can look at someone, you can look at yourself, or look at one another. Or you yell at yourself, or at one another, and so on. It seems like you take the TA because it’s set up to be about animate actors and animate objects, even when it’s reflexive.

The reflexive form is especially useful when thinking about a host of actions, like brushing your hair, teeth, washing up, and so on. At first I thought you could make these reflexive verbs using AI verbs, but it wasn’t working, and I think it’s because you need to begin with the TA.

One thing I notice with these verbal suffixes though, is a spelling change when the TA ends in the semi-vowel w. Watch.

Verbal suffixkiyokaw (TA)to visit someone,animate objectatoskaw (TA)to work for someone, to be employed by someone-isodo action to self (reflexive)This one doesn’t make sense to doatoskâso (AI)to work for oneself-itothey do action to one anotherkiyokâto (AI)they visit one anotherThis one doesn’t make sense to do

As in so many examples in nêhiyawêwin, it seems when the TA ends in a semi-vowel, we drop the semi-vowel, and lengthen the preceding vowel, then add the verbal suffix. In nêhiyawêwin, when there is a battle between vowels, as in which one do we keep, the short -i will always lose. So kiyokaw = kiyokâ + ito, -i loses, and it’s kiyokâto, or atoskaw = atoskâ + iso, -i loses, and it’s atoskâso.

Verbal suffixes turning AI verbs into TA verbs

This next category I am a little unsure about because of some of the spelling changes that happen, but I think I have a theory that works.

Verbal Suffixpîkiskwê (AI)to speakmîciso (AI)to eatpimohtê (AI)to walkatoskê (AI)to work– hto make someone dothe action, get someoneto do the actionpîkiskwêh (TA)to make someone speak, get someone to speak,to interview someonemîcisoh (TA)to make someone eat, give something animate to someone to eatpimohtahto make someone walk, to carry or guide someone along (walking), atoskahto make someone work, to employ or hire someone,

In the first two examples, using the AI root works, but why does the final -ê change to a short -a in the other examples? This doesn’t seem to be a blanket rule with AI verbs ending in -ê either. Why isn’t pîkiskwê turning to pîkiskwah? At first I thought the w was doing something there, but check out these other final -ê examples:

Verbal suffixsipwêhtê (AI)to leave, departmetawêminihkwêpîhtokwê– hsipwêhtah (TA)to take someone away, to leave, depart with someonemetawêhto make someone playminihkwahto make someone drinkpîhtokwah

I think that an AI verb ending in -wê will keep the -ê, UNLESS the AI verb ends in -kwê, in which case the -ê will turn to -a. I also think the other exception is that if the verb ends in -skwê, the way pîkiskwê does, it also keeps the -ê. I was only able to find one other verb with a -skwê ending, which is kîskwê, referring to someone being mentally disturbed. It changes to kîskwêh: TA to make someone mentally disturbed. I’ll keep an eye out for other examples down the road.

These are just some of the verbal suffixes I’ve sussed out and think are very useful for learning how to form more detailed or specific verbal structures in nêhiyawêwin. There are others I’m still trying to figure out.

Dreaming of resources for nêhiyawêwin learners

I’ve long thought that it would be amazing to have a few specific resources as a nêhiyawêwin language learner: a preverb dictionary, and a verb dictionary. But these things would have to be designed around nêhiyawêwin, rather than copying the way they exist in other languages like French, or Spanish.

Verb dictionaries in languages like French, usually compile a bunch of useful verbs in alphabetical order. The way nêhiyawêwin verbs work though, simply trying to list every possible combination of morphemes that create nuanced verbs would take up too much space, and sort of miss the point. If we can teach learners some of these verbal suffixes, then they can fit them together as needed when they want to be specific – and nêhiyawêwin, like many Indigenous languages, really works within specificity. The existing nêhiyawêwin dictionaries already list a bunch of verbs, but they don’t include all these possible variations with different suffixes, and they don’t need to.

So I guess I sort of imagining a verbal suffix resource, with a bunch of suffixes, the rules around attaching them, and examples of what they do to the verbs they are attached to. Along with a preverb dictionary – but I didn’t even really get into that in this long geeky post, so I’ll let it alone.

Anyway, if you know of more cool verbal suffixes, please feel free to share!

Source link

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

Compare items
  • Total (0)
Shopping cart