Three Michif languages
Métis have been multilingual since the birth of the Métis Nation, speaking the languages of their neighbours and trading partners in addition to their own. This multilingualism allowed the Métis to prosper during the fur trade era, and language remains an important part of Métis identity in contemporary times. You may have heard of Michif, a language spoken among some Métis throughout the homeland; in fact, “Michif” has come to refer to any of three unique languages that formed alongside Métis culture: Michif French, Heritage Michif, and Northern Michif.
It is important to note that these are in fact distinct languages, not dialects of one another. The word “dialect” implies mutual intelligibility despite differences in vocabulary or pronunciation; in other words, a speaker of dialect ‘A’ can understand most of what a speaker of dialect ‘B’ says (think Canadian English vs. British English). This is not the case for Michif: someone who only speaks Michif French cannot understand Northern Michif, and vice versa; even someone who speaks Heritage Michif would have difficulty comprehending if they were not familiar with the other two languages. Nevertheless, they are all known as “contact languages,” because they arose from contact between French explorers and Algonquian-speaking peoples (e.g., Cree and Ojibwe).
The information below describes each Michif language in more detail; bear in mind that while they were all traditionally spoken in fairly specific regions, the reality of contemporary times is such that you may find speakers of any Michif language spread throughout the homeland and indeed the rest of Canada.
Michif French is spoken in certain communities stretching all the way from western Ontario to central Alberta, with St. Louis being a notable community where it is spoken in Saskatchewan. It may have originated on the eastern edge of the Métis homeland around the Great Lakes, from which a number of Métis families migrated to the Red River Settlement and beyond.
From a linguistic perspective, it may be considered a dialect of French, though it is so different from other dialects that it may not always be easy to understand for speakers of other varieties – a point borne out in the lived experiences of many speakers of Michif French. This is because a great deal of its vocabulary and grammar stems from the old dialects of French spoken among the early voyageurs, which is no longer found in many modern varieties of French. For example, the word for ‘window’ is fenêtre in Québécois French, but shawsi in Michif French. Furthermore, owing to the blended heritage of the Métis, the language shows a great deal of influence from Algonquian languages, such as using the word chi to indicate a yes/no question:
Standard French: Michif French:
As-tu faim? Ta chi fin?
‘Are you hungry?’ ‘Are you hungry?’
Heritage Michif is spoken mainly from western Manitoba all the way to central Alberta, in addition to Northern North Dakota and Montana. It originated among the bison-hunting Métis who lived on the plains. In Saskatchewan, it is spoken especially in the Yorkton, Cypress Hills, Qu’Appelle Valley, and Round Prairie/Saskatoon areas.
Linguistically, it is considered quite unique among the world’s contact languages and is often described – somewhat simplistically – as a blend of French nouns and Cree verbs. The French element of Heritage Michif comes from Michif French, with the Algonquian element coming from Plains Cree and Western Ojibwe (Saulteaux). That said, Heritage Michif has solidified into its own language: it contains elements from its source languages, but also has characteristics that are unique to it alone. A good example of this is the way in which some French elements are “sandwiched” in Cree grammar, like the French noun le vieux (‘old man’) becoming a verb in phrases like ni maachi li vyeu-iwin (‘I am getting old’).
Northern Michif is primarily spoken throughout northern Saskatchewan and parts of Northern Alberta; notable communities in Saskatchewan include Green Lake, Meadow Lake, Beauval, Île-à-la-Crosse, and Buffalo Narrows. It is considered by some to be a dialect of Cree, but with a substantial French influence.
The language appears to have come into existence independently, evident in the fact that Old Ones and speakers of the language say that the French borrowings in Northern Michif were introduced by the clergy and school system rather than coming from Michif French. As missionaries and voyageurs followed the river systems from Red River to Northern Saskatchewan, Cree was the language they heard. They learned how to speak Cree and substituted French nouns mainly in the domestic domains, so while the language has French words like marsī (‘thank you’), l’zasiyet (‘plate’), or l’mak̹azān (‘store; shop’) animal names and numbers are all from Cree, which contrasts with the other Michif languages. Nevertheless, the French influence in Northern Michif sets it apart from other dialects of Cree enough that some speakers have reported difficulty in being understood by speakers of other dialects.