Hearing East Cree vowels

If you are an East Cree speaker, you really don’t need to read this page! Your ‘ear’ is already trained to hear (or classify) East Cree sounds properly. In contrast, if you are an English speaker listening to East Cree vowels, you will hear

  • vowels that sound in-between one vowel and another
  • vowels that sound completely different, yet East Cree speakers classify (and spell) them as the same.

Vowels that sound ‘in-between’

Vowels in East Cree may sound ‘in between’ to your ear. A good example is the way tense UU sounds in the Northern East Cree word ᓲᑉ Click here to hear this word suup.

Does it sound like the [ u ] in soup or like the [ o ] in soap? In Northern East Cree UU is more like a short [ o ] or lowered [ u ̞] sound.

In East Cree, the distinction between the [ u ] sound in soup and the [ o ] sound in soap is not important.

By ‘not important’, we mean that the difference between [ u ] and [ o ] does not convey any differences in word-meaning, (the way it does in English with soup and soap or boot and boat).

Since East Cree does not make a distinction between [u] and [o], East Cree speakers can also use a vowel that is part-way between a [ u ] and an [ o ] sound. Technically speaking, it is more like a lowered [ u ̞] sound.

You can hear many more examples of in-between vowels on the pages describing vowel sounds.

Vowels that sound completely different

… yet East Cree speakers classify (and spell) them the same.

If you have listened to the pages describing vowel sounds, you will have noticed that East Cree speakers accept a wider range of pronunciations than do English speakers, particularly for the lax vowels I, U, and A. For example, recall that lax A can sound like [ ɛ ] (the vowel in end), or like [ ɪ ] (the vowel in fish), like [ ɨ ] (the last vowel sound in dishes), or like [ ʌ ], the vowel in hum.

A can sound like any of the following: [ɪ, ɛ, ə, a, ɨ, ʌ].

Northern Syllables IPA
  Click here to hear this word amiskw amiskw  
  Click here to hear this word anichikw ani – chikw  
  Click here to hear this word anichikw ani – chikw  
  Click here to hear this word asaamich a – saamich  
  Click here to hear this word atihkw atihkw  
  Click here to hear this word atim a – tim  

For an English speaker, the [ ɛ ] sound in end and the [ ɪ ] in fish are completely different vowels. These sounds can signal a difference in meaning: for example, pen [ pʰɛn ] is different from pin [ pʰɪn ] (at least in many varieties of English.)

In contrast, for an East Cree speaker, the [ ɛ ] and [ ɪ ] sounds — as well as the [ ə] sound in about, and the [ ʌ ] sound in hum — all count as instances of the vowel A. In other words, these four sounds are classified as being ‘the same’ in East Cree. While East Cree speakers can hear the difference between these sounds, they do not exploit this difference in order to signal differences in word-meaning.

Why the differences?

One of the reasons for these differences between East Cree and English vowels is that East Cree has fewer vowels than English does.

  • In languages with relatively few vowels, vowels can sound in-between. For example, since East Cree does not make a distinction between the [ u ] sound in boot and the [ o ] sound in boat, East Cree UU can sound in-between [ u ] and [ o ].
  • In languages with relatively few vowels, a letter such as A can stand for a relatively greater range of vowel sounds. For example, since East Cree speakers do not use vowels like the ones in pin, pen, and pun, to signal differences in meaning, any of these sounds can be used interchangeably in a given word that contains the letter A.

In summary, the practical implications of the above discussion are that:

  • Some East Cree letters stand for vowels that sound in-between two English vowels.
  • In contrast, some East Cree letters can stand for a range of vowels that seems to be too big a range for an English speaker.