Some Minimal Pairs from Solomon Ratt – With Audio

Another miniminal pair from Solomon: tânisi nîci-môs - hello my fellow moose; tânisi nîcimos - hello, my sweetheart

Another miniminal pair from Solomon: tânisi nîci-môs – hello my fellow moose; tânisi nîcimos – hello, my sweetheart

This great collection of minimal pairs from Solomon Ratt brings together words in Cree that differ by only one sound, some of which are commonly confused.

Minimal pairs allow us to confirm for ourselves which sounds can change the meaning of words. These distinctive sounds are called “phonemes”. Both SRO and the syllabic writing system are based on the phonemes of Cree: that is, only those language sounds that can make a difference to the meaning of a given word.

English is loaded with minimal pairs, like these:

  • pat – bat
  • fit – sit
  • fat – fit
  • pot – pit

In Cree, the most common minimal pairs (or sets) are those that appear in pronouns, or in verb sets. In these cases, the first sound in each set makes the difference between first, second and third person:

  • nîsta – me too (PR)
  • kîsta – you too (PR)
  • wîsta – her/him too (PR)
  • nitohcîn – I am from (VAI-1st person singular)
  • kitohcîn – You are from (VAI-2nd  person singular)
  • nititahtopiponân – I am of that age (VAI-1st person singular)
  • kitihtahtopiponân – You are of that age (VAI-2nd person singular)

Aside from these most obvious examples, minimal pairs are harder to find in Cree, but may be even more important when they help us recognize that short and long vowels are different phonemes in Cree, and may therefore change the meaning of words. They also show us the value of macrons or other length marks in our writing, to help make sure our meaning is clear. Here are some good examples to read and hear:

nahapi – sit down (VAI)
nahâpi – see clearly (VAI)
maskosis – a bear cub (NA)
maskosîs – a small piece of grass (NI)
asam – feed someone (VTA)
asâm – a snowshoe (NA)
maskisin – a shoe (NI)
mâskisin – s/he is crippled (VAI)
pisiw – a lynx (NA)
pêsiw – bring someone (VTA) 
ôta – here (PR)
ôtê – over here (PR)
niya – me/I (PR)
niyâ – lead/go ahead (IPC)
nitomisin – I have an older sister/s (VAI)
nitômisin – I am greasy/oily (VAI)
nîsta – me too (PR)
nîstâ – my brother-in-law (vocative)
pôsiw – s/he gets on board (VAI-3rd person)
pisiw – a lynx (NA)
pasow – s/he smells it (VAIt)
pâsow – s/he dries up (VAI)
sâkinêw – s/he holds it out (VTA)
sakinêw –s/he holds onto it (VTA)
kisik – and also (IPC)
kîsik – the sky (NI)
iskwêwasâkay – a woman’s dress/coat (NI)
iskwêwasakay – a woman’s skin (NI)
itapi – sit it that way (VAI)
itâpi – look that way (VAI)
tahkon – carry someone (VTA)
takon – add to it (VTA)
pêhêw – s/he waits for s.o. (VTA)
pihêw – a grouse (NA)
atotêw – s/he makes a request of someone (VTA)
âtotêw – s/he tells a story about someone (VTA)
kinosêw – a fish (NA)
kinosiw – s/he is long (VAI)
pâskisam – s/he shoots at it (VTI-1)
paskisam – s/he cuts it (VTI-1)
miskon – liver (NI)
mîskon – feel s.o. (VTA)
pimotêw – s/he shoots arrows at s.o. (VTA)
pimohtêw – s/he walks (VAI)
pimisin – s/he lies down (VAI)
pîmisin – s/he lays sideways (VAI)
paskinam – s/he breaks s.t. off (VTI)
pâskinam – s/he uncovers s.t. (VTI)
êkâwiya – don’t
okâwiya – her/his mother
pimiciwan – there is a current (VII)
pîmiciwan – there is a cross-current (VII)
sêkihêw – s/he scares s.o. (VTA)
sâkihêw – s/he loves s.o. (VTA)
nîci-môs – fellow moose (NA)
nîcimos – sweetheart (NA)

In addition to these minimal pairs that show contrast between long and short vowels, there are also quite a few “near minimal pairs” that show the importance of writing “pre-aspiration” (the “h” before consonants) that often occurs in Cree. Here are the examples:

acâhk – star (NA)
ahcahk – spirit (NA)
niyânan – five
niyanân – us
akik – mucous (NA)
âhkik – seal (NA)
ohcîw – s/he is from (VAI-3rd person)
ôcêw – a housefly
itôta – do s.t. (VTI-1)
itohta – take s.o. some place (VTA)
otah – defeat s.o. (VTA)
ôta – here (PR)

p.s.: A minimal pair sentence from Solomon:

“Uh oh, these two sentences in Th-Cree look the same except for the last vowel:
nipihtawâw awiyak î-matwîsikît – I heard someone shooting in the distance, and nipihtawâw awiyak î-matwîsikit – I heard someone peeing in the distance.”

About Arden Ogg

Arden Ogg is Director of the Cree Literacy Network, a not-for-profit in its seventh year of gathering and curating Cree language literacy materials on the web and creating connections between students, teachers, speakers and linguists across the Cree dialect-and-language continuum.
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