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?

  • 7
    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. Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 8:42
  • 5
    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”? Commented Mar 23, 2021 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. Commented Mar 23, 2021 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
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 15:31

3 Answers 3


In nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree) and other languages in the family, the "words" are as you say, more like "phrases".

The concept of "is" doesn't exist in the same way in nêhiyawêwin, it's often encoded in the verb itself, and the language (along with many Indigenous languages) have been called "verb-based" as opposed to "noun-based". Being "verb-based" (if we can describe it this way), the concept of "is" can often combined with what would be considered the "adjective" to come up with what you will see in the dictionary:

apisîsisiw - s/he is small
cimisisiw - s/he is short
iyinisiw - s/he is smart

(Note: that there aren't gendered pronouns in nêhiyawêwin, "s/he" really actually means "that one", however this is the definition you'll generally find in the dictionaries)

Further, verbs in the language will do what you expect, describe what the person is doing, or who they are interacting with:

atoskêw - s/he is working
mîcisow - s/he is eating
nipâw - s/he is sleeping

To further complicate matters, there is an intersection of "transitive" verbs (involving more than one person/object) and a "gender" of nouns that have been (for better or worse) classified as "animacy". Generally speaking, "living things" can be called "animate" and "non-living things" can be called "inanimate" (though there are many exceptions here), and the breakdown ends up creating four different verb classifications:

transitive verb + animate noun = VTA 
transitive verb + inanimate noun = VTI
intransitive verb + animate noun = VAI
intransitive verb + inanimate noun = VII

Here's another view of the intersection of these concepts:

intersection of animacy and transitivity in Plains Cree

Here is an example of each:

wâpamêw [VTA] "s/he sees s.o."
wâpahtam [VTI] "s/he sees s.t."
wâpiw [VAI] "s/he sees; s/he has sight"
wâpan [VII] "it is dawn"

Now these forms are only so useful, because you aren't always just talking about the 3rd-person, so in order to talk about yourself, you need to inflect the verb to mean "me", for example:

nitatoskân "I work"
kitatoskân "you work"
atoskêw "that one works" (dictionary form)
atoskêwak "they all work"
nitatoskânân "we all work (but not you)"
kitatoskânâwâw "all of you work (but not me)"
kitatoskânaw "we all work"
atoskêyiwa "that (other) person works"

So. To answer your original question:

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?

They are really phrases, and the form that has been selected for the "lemma" (or "dictionary form") is generally the 3rd-person form, meaning the form you will generally see in the dictionary is usually "that one does XYZ", for consistency, and presumably also simplicity. In the case of transitive forms, you'll see the 3rd-person form again for VTI verbs, and the 3s -> 3' (third-person singular to fourth-person [or 'obviate']) form for VTAs. Further, verb inflections have have complex inflections and meaning, for instance:

ka-nakiskamohtahihcik (X actor -> 3p) "to be introduced to them by someone unspecified"

Coming from nakiskamohtahêw [VTA] "s/he introduces s.o.", the above is possibly a poor choice for the lemma entry.

To also circle back to your earlier question:

Does Plains Cree not have infinitive verbs?

There is an infinitive inflection, again that could be specific to you or me (or anyone else) depending on the specific conjugation:

(once again using the "work" verb)
ta-atoskêyân "to work (me)"
ta-atoskêyan "to work (you)"
ta-atoskêt "to work (that one)"
ta-atoskêcik "to work (those ones)"
ta-atoskêyâhk "to work (all of us but not you)"
ta-atoskêyêk "to work (all of you, but not me)"
ta-atoskêyahk "to work (all of us)"
ta-atoskêyit "to work (that other person)"

An example of these used in-context might look like:

nimiywêyihtên ta-atoskêyân "I like to work"
[I like s.t.] [to work (me)]

One of these (infinitive forms) potentially could have been selected for use in the dictionary, but ultimately the form that is used currently (3rd-person singular independent conjugation) is the one that offers the most consistent experience for learners when attempting to utilize a verb within the conjugation paradigms, which exist for each verb type.

For that VAI verb above (atoskêw "s/he works"), here is an example of the possible inflections, not including "tenses":

enter image description here

For VAI verbs, there are only a couple dozen inflections (before tenses) but getting into the VTA paradigms, there are several hundred possible inflections, further underscoring the need to have a consistent entry for the dictionary.

You can view these conjugations on the itwêwina dictionary being developed by the University of Alberta.

  • Is there a particular reason it’s called VAI instead of VIA? VII is of course ambiguous, but in VTI and VTA it’s transitivity before animacy, but in VAI it’s the opposite… Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 22:16
  • I recall reading about it somewhere, and there are some references to VIA as opposed to VAI (though they mean the same thing). I think one just "stuck" and that is what is used now 🤷‍♂️
    – aaronfay
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 4:45
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I seem to remember it has something to do with whether the transitivity marker is before or after the animacy marker. But it's been a while since I looked at Cree morphology so I could be wrong Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 12:27
  • @aaronfay what is an infinitive inflection? Is it a different thing from the conjunct? Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 12:31
  • @OmarL the "infinitive" form is part of the conjunct "order" of clauses (as per Wolfart 73), it is still a subordinate clause. The "ta- infinitive" form still falls under the "changed conjuct" iirc and mainly adjusts the meaning of the clause from "as" to "to".
    – aaronfay
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 15:53

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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