Are East Cree vowels “long” and “short” or “tense” and “lax”?

East Cree is closely related to other dialects of Cree, including Plains Cree. In Plains Cree (and in many dialects of Cree), “long” vowels sound long and “short” vowels sound short. That is, long vowels take about twice as much time to produce as short vowels. In Plains Cree, then, it makes sense to call vowels “long” and “short”.

In contrast, “long” vowels in East Cree are not necessarily long. If you listen to the East Cree words in the following table, you will notice that long [iː] in Plains Cree corresponds with tense [i] in East Cree; as well, short lax [ɪ] in Plains Cree corresponds to a short lax [ɪ] sound in East Cree. The main difference is that the first vowel in niiso in Plains Cree sounds longer than the first vowel in Plains Cree nisto; in contrast, the vowels in niishu and nishtu in East Cree sound equally as long.

Number Plains Cree Northern East Cree
2 Click here to hear this word niiso [niːˈso] ᓃᔓ Click here to hear this word niishu [ˈniʃʷ]
3 Click here to hear this word nisto [ˈnɪsto] ᓂᔥᑐ Click here to hear this word nishtu [ˈnɪʃtʷ]

The sound files are from the Cree-lnnu linguistic atlas. The speakers are Leda Corrigal (Plains Cree) and Margaret Cox (East Cree).

At one point in time, before Plains Cree and East Cree diverged into separate varieties, Cree vowels were either long or short. Today, the main distinction in East Cree is between tense and lax vowels. The tense vowels can be long, but they are not alway so. In addition, the lax vowel are usually short, but sometimes they sound long.

In these Southern East Cree examples, the first vowel AA in the first word is short-sounding, while the first AA in the second and third words sound longer. (The duration of these vowels is shown in the table.)

ᐋᑯᑖᓱᐙᑲᓄᐎᑦ Click here to hear this word aakutaasuwaakanuwit aa-ku-taa-su-waa-ka-nu-wit [ a – kʊ – taː – su – waː – kə- ˈnu – ʷɪtʰ] 0.077 seconds
ᐋᑯᔦᑲᐦᐄᑲᓐ Click here to hear this word aakuyekahiikan aa-ku-ye-ka-hii-kan [ – ku – jɛː – kʰ – ˈhi – kɪn] 0.141 seconds
ᐋᐸᐦᐄᑲᓐ Click here to hear this word aapahiikan aa – pa – hii – kan [ – pʰ – ˈhi – kɪn] 0.110 seconds

In the following Northern East Cree examples, the short vowel U in the middle of the first word sounds short, while it sounds longer at the beginning of the second word.

ᐊᒥᔥᑯᔑᔥ Click here to hear this word amishkushish amish – kushish [ a̝mʃ – ˈkʊʃː ] seconds
ᐅᑎᐦᑉ Click here to hear this word utihp u-tihp [ ˈʊː – tʰpʰ ] seconds