A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Métis

I obtained A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Métis by Peter Bakker from the Windsor Public Library via our interloans service. I was inspired to read more about Michif after reading the juvenile book Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer : l’Alfabet di Michif = Owls See Clearly at Night : a Michif Alphabet ten years ago. Bakker wrote an academic analysis of this intertwined language that mixes Cree and French (with some Ojibwe as well). This was not a lengthy academic read yet still took me over three weeks to finish. Academic reads are not written to be pleasure reading, a remark I have made in past book reviews, thus I realize the author’s intent was not to entertain me with a captivating page-turner. Nonetheless, although I found the 304 pages interesting as the subject matter is unique as a combined language, I still couldn’t get through more than ten pages in an hour. Repetition runs rampant in academic reads and this book was no exception. I have often felt that writers repeat themselves so often in attempt to pad their work. That said, although I hadn’t read any books about Michif aside from the juvenile title above, I felt that the scope of this book, published in 1997, provided the most thorough analysis of language history, formation, grammar, morphology, and current situation.

Note that in the excerpts of Michif I reproduced in my review of Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer : l’Alfabet di Michif = Owls See Clearly at Night : a Michif Alphabet I had no problem identifying the French components. I realize now–and what I did not know at the time–was that these components were all nouns, articles and prepositions. Their Michif orthography resembled French. The Cree component in the title, Nayaapiwak, was a verb. With few exceptions all Michif verbs come from Cree. Bakker broke down the morphemes and inflections of Cree polysynthetic verbs and how they compare to those in Michif, so now that I have read the book I recognize the -wak ending as a plural marker.

I rarely took notes during my read; in fact I took more notes after reading the eighteen-page bibliography in search of other titles about mixed languages. The notes I did take indicated entire paragraphs, which neatly sum up the history and current state of the language. I use the author’s own words to highlight the characteristics of Michif:

“In summary, we can say that Michif is a mixed language of Plains Cree and French words plus a few English ones. The French and Cree elements are about evenly distributed. English words intrude into Michif because that is the language mostly used by speakers of Michif. Verbs, personal pronouns, and demonstratives are always Cree; nouns, numerals, and articles are always French. Michif verbs have the same complexity as the Cree verbs. Michif nouns are used and categorized as in French. Word order mostly follows Cree, that is, almost completely free, but order in noun phrases is like that in French. The agreement system of Michif combines the agreement systems of French (masculine or feminine) and Cree (animate or inanimate). French nouns are classified as animate or inanimate as if they were Cree nouns and showed the appropriate gender agreement in the verb. Michif adjectives from French are used as are French adjectives, Cree adjectives in the Cree way. Other categories associated with noun phrases, such as prepositions, are often French. Adverbs can be Cree or French. A very few words have French stems and Cree affixes. Cree and French lost very little of their complexity in Michif. Michif has two phonological systems, one for the Cree part and one for the French part, each with its own rules. The Cree part is almost identical with Plains Cree, and the French part is almost identical with the Métis French dialect, which is a derivative of eastern Canadian French dialects.”

Bakker tried to find the origin of the Michif language and the specific idioms of Cree and French used to form it. We learned of the early European settlements of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and North Dakota. The consensus is that Michif was “crystallized” as a language in the Red River Settlement by the early 1800’s, yet there is evidence that it may even be older. The dispersal of the Métis after 1812 ensured that the language structure was crystallized wherever they resettled:

“It is a so-called intertwined language spoken by the Métis people. The Métis are a consequence of the Canadian fur trade, during which European men married Amerindian women. Their children were bilingual, and they more or less combined the grammatical system of the mother’s language with the lexicon of the father’s. From this combination the Michif language emerged, a language with Cree verbs and French nouns.”

The most surprising phenomenon of speakers of Michif is that they generally do not speak either of its two intertwined components:

“If we consider these Michif speakers as a kind of ‘random selection’ (whereby every Michif speaker who was willing and able to work on the questionnaire was automatically selected), we arrive at the striking result that the great bulk of the Métis people who speak the mixture of Cree and French called Michif actually do not speak either of these languages in a nonmixed form. Virtually none of them speaks Cree, and only one in three speaks French.
“This is very strong evidence that Michif is not an ad hoc mixture because its speakers do not know the languages they are supposed to mix. It is not code switching or code mixing since one must be bilingual to switch between languages. What it is is a mixed language, with two clearly separate components. This mixture of Cree and French is not haphazard but very systematic.”

Bakker was pessimistic about the future of Michif, foreseeing its demise by now, since the book was published in 1997:

“If the attempts to save the language do not succeed, it will effectively die out within one or two decades, as its speakers have exchanged their language for the all-encroaching English. It will not have survived two centuries.”

In my review of The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages, I wrote:

“Language extinction–and its more dramatic synonym, language death–can get me more worked up and emotional than learning about the extinction of an animal species.”

I am not alone. In his final sentence, Bakker wrote about Michif:

“It is a matter of deep regret that human languages that are threatened with extinction–especially those as unique as Michif–do not receive as much attention as animals in the same situation.”

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