‘100 Days of Cree’ plays with the language to coin new words


[Poet Neal McLeod is behind the “100 Days of Cree” book which debuts June 11. PHOTO: Neal McLeod]

A daily practice of posting Cree words to Facebook has turned one man’s love for the language into the new book, 100 Days of Cree.

Neal McLeod, a poet and associate professor in indigenous studies at Trent University, started sharing words in Cree to his online followers two years ago. He’d start by compiling a list of words, many of which he would modernize, which he would then send to his former colleague, linguist Arok Wolvengrey, before posting them online.

“He’d edit them a bit,” McLeod tells Yahoo Canada News. “I’d always try to push the language to the breaking point, especially when coining words. Arok would fine tune the words if I was trying to coin words too much, especially modern words.”

McLeod’s interest in evolving the most widely spoken indigenous language in Canada started when he was a child. He would often ask his late father, who was Cree, how to say words like “lightsaber” or “root beer.”

The core of the book’s inspiration came from a Cree elder named Mel Joseph from White Fish reserve in Saskatchewan, who was addressing university students at a round dance in 1997 that McLeod happened to catch.

“He told us he pitied the younger generation for not speaking as well as his generation did,” McLeod recalls. “He said ‘imagine if you could learn 10 words a day in Cree’…that always stuck with me, the idea that one could learn Cree in a gradual, systematic process.”

While the book is derived from his Facebook posts, McLeod was able to take more time and consideration into what words he would include.

“It’s kind of like a band who plays live, but when they go into the studio they tighten up a bit,” he says.

Each page has a word, along with an introduction, followed by the list of the term. (McLeod provided several illustrations for the book too.) Many of the words were coined in an effort to make them contemporary. Wi-Fi, for example is kiskêyihtamowinâstan, which literally translate to “knowledge wind.” Computer is mamâhtâwi-âpacihcikan, which roughly translates to “the amazing tool with special powers.”

Some of the words are derived from English slang terms, like “I realized something,” which equates to ê-kî-realizowiyân.

McLeod even included a section for Johnny Cash songs. (“God’s gonna cut you down,” one of Cash’s more popular songs, is kipâstâhon, which literally translates to “you have done something which you will experience a consequence.”)

He describes Cree as a polysynthetic language, which makes it easy to play with and transform.

“Cree is such a natural language to write poetry in and to try and coin new words,” he says. “All you have to do is combine words and stems that already exist to describe new things.”

On June 11, 100 Days of Cree comes out. The author royalties will go towards a scholarship to the top student at the University of Saskatchewan’s introductory Cree class.