The Plains Cree Dictionary has things like this:

ᐋᐦᑕᐦᐅᐤ âhtahow VAI-1
s/he flies to another place

The VAI (animate intransitive verb) page doesn't have a description.

In English we have verbs "in the infinitive form" like "to fly". But his says "s/he flies". Does Plains Cree not have infinitive verbs? It states:

In actual fact, verbs not only convey actions (e.g. pimipahtā “run”) but also states (e.g. kāmwātan “it is calm”) and, in the case of Algonquian languages (which lack a distinct class of adjectives), verbs also attribute qualities (e.g. apisīsisiw “s/he is small”).

From a programming standpoint, I don't know how to model these. I am used to infinitive verbs which is an "action" in the most general sense, but what are these "states" and "qualities"? The state appears to be "[something] [verb:is] [adjective]", and the quality "[agent] [verb:is] [adjective]". Why don't they leave these out of the dictionary and just have the adjectives in the dictionary instead, and have "is" be in the dictionary as an infinitive verb?

To me it feels like these "words" are really phrases or sentences. So I don't understand why they are included in a "dictionary". Can you please help me understand why?

Other examples I don't see why they are included in the dictionary:

ᐯᑐᐁᐧᑯᑌᐤ pêtowêkotêw VII-2v
it comes noisily flying

ᐱᒥᐦᐋᒪᑲᐣ pimihâmakan VII-2n
it flies

And there doesn't appear to be a "to fly" at all. Why not?

  • 6
    Why do Latin dictionaries state "I praise" instead of "to praise" (as the main entry, other forms are normally included)? Why does the old Czech dictionary by Jungmann do the same? You cannot really deduce that these languages do not have an infinitive from such a fact. Perhaps Cree does not have it, but you have to actually check the morphology of the language.
    – Vladimir F
    Mar 23 '21 at 8:42
  • 4
    Which form of a word is used as the dictionary lookup form is entirely arbitrary and down to convention and practicality. In Germanic and Romance languages, it’s the infinitive; in Latin and Greek, it’s the first person singular present active; in Irish, it’s the imperative; in Semitic languages, it’s usually third person singular past masculine. Your quote says that Algonquian languages (such as Plains Cree) do not have adjectives, so how exactly would you expect them to “just have the adjectives in the dictionary instead”? Mar 23 '21 at 8:50
  • Hebrew dictionaries usually have the third person male past/perfect form of the verb, generally because it is the simplest. Even if it wasn't the simplest, it's a convention - verbs are given in that form because that's just how Hebrew speakers talk about verbs, באמת. Mar 23 '21 at 10:30
  • 1
    Sanskrit does have infinitives, but in the dictionaries the verbs are given as roots which cannot be used by themselves, you've got to modify them in a way in order to produce any verb form. Not every language has adjectives, not every language has the word classes we'd like it to have.
    – Yellow Sky
    Mar 23 '21 at 15:31

The state appears to be "[something] [verb:is] [adjective]", and the quality "[agent] [verb:is] [adjective]". Why don't they leave these out of the dictionary and just have the adjectives in the dictionary instead, and have "is" be in the dictionary as an infinitive verb?

Just because that's how English syntax works, doesn't mean it's how any other language's syntax works. Some languages indicate qualities with something "noun-like", and use the same syntax for "I am tall" as "I am a person"; others indicate qualities with something "verb-like" and use the same syntax for "I am tall" as "I write". Some languages do both: Japanese has separate classes of "verb-like adjectives" and "noun-like adjectives", often called -i and -na adjectives respectively. Swahili has an open class of "adjectives" that act like nouns, and a smaller closed class of "adjectives" that are their own thing, not acting like anything else in the language.

In Plains Cree, if I understand right, qualities are "verb-like", and there's no verb form that we would call an "infinitive". That's just how the language works; there's no better "why" than that.


As for the question asked in the title, "s/he flies" means that some animate referent flies. Cree only makes an animate versus inanimate distinction, and "s/he" is one way of neutralizing English "he" and "she".

As for the question of infinitives, the answer depends on exactly what you mean by "infinitive", but probably under most definitions of "infinitive", Cree doesn't have them. But that doesn't answer the question that you really seem to be asking, which is why this is the form used to present this particular verb. Cree is a highly inflected language where any root can have thousands (millions?) of specific rule-governed word forms, and you really don't want to list every single possible word of the language (ask a separate question if that is not obvious). So for any highly-inflected language, the question is, what is the best way to list a given lexical entry? It depends on why you are listing lexical items in the first place.

A very common reason is to assemble the information that is crucial to enable a reader to generate / interpret any morphological variant of that morpheme. Obviously you have to understand the grammar of the language in order to actually do this. One approach is to give an abstract underlying form, the product of a contemporary hi-tech theoretical analysis. The problems with that approach are (1) high-tech theoreticians disagree even with their earlier selves as to what the underlying form is and (2) the concept "underlying form" is too abstract a concept for untrained users. Regardless of your Anglocentric perspective on what counts as a "word", these are words in Cree, and words are things that people can handle. So from the user's perspective it is a highly functional way to convey information.

I don't mean that it is completely impossible to embed linguistic information in a linguistic theory and present it to non-linguists. Verbs in classical Arabic are lexicographically presented as consonantal roots that expand to certain specific forms (so that you know the vowels, and what happens to the glides). But this is not practical in Algonkian languages. If you want a "semantic" dictionary of a language (like Cree), you can learn the language and create one: most dictionaries are primarily organized around word forms, and secondarily meanings.

You might study the Giellatekno lexicon for North Saami. In their approach (hidden behind the scenes in the database), roots are indexed with an "analogy indicator" – for example

vearál:vearáld GAHPIRLONG ;

Their concern here is with form-generation. If you have a different purpose, you'd use a different data structure. If your question is what the traditional terminology of Algonkian means, you could read some traditional grammars such as Bloomfield's The Menomini language or Eastern Ojibwa.

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