Innu-aimun: the Language of the Innu in Labrador
Content provided by: Marguerite MacKenzie, Department of Linguistics, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Innu-aimun is the Language of the Innu people in Labrador. Aimun, the word for language, is derived from the verb aimu 's/he speaks'. Innu-aimun belongs to a nation wide continuum of Cree/Montagnais/Naskapi dialects from the Canadian prairies to the two Innu communities of Labrador, Sheshatshu and Natuashish, where two distinct dialects are used. Linguists refer to the dialects of Natuashish as Naskapi and that of Sheshatshu as Montagnais. When speaking Innu-aimun, the terms Mushuau-aimun and Sheshatshu-aimun can be used. Montagnais Innu-aimun is spoken by over 10,000 people in seven Quebec communities, while Naskapi Innu-aimun is spoken in only one other community of 600 people in Quebec.

The writing system of Innu-aimun is based on French, since it was French missionaries who promoted literacy among the Innu from the 1700s on. This means that the letter 'w' and 'y' are not used, but 'u' and 'i' are used instead. Thus the word iame 'goodbye' is pronounced, but not written written yame as in an English-based system and the word for 's/he sees someone' is not written wapamew but as uapameu. Many other English letters are not needed, so the Innu consonants are p, t, tsh (=English 'ch'), k, m, n, ss, sh. The vowels sounds are a, e, i, u and can be pronounced long (a as in 'at', e as in 'ever', i as in 'eat' and u as in 'oops'); or short (a as in 'up', i as in 'it' and u as in 'put').

A distinctive feature of Innu-aimun grammar is the grouping of nouns as ones referring to animate beings and ones referring to inanimate things, each group being marked by a different plural suffix (with slightly different pronunciations used in each village). A small number of non-living nouns are still given animate gender in the grammar.

Animate Nouns Inanimate Nouns
Sheshatshu Natuashish Sheshatshu Natuashish
auass-at auass-ats Children mashinaikan-a mashinaikan-a books
shiship-at shiship-ats ducks mit-a mit-a firewood
ashtish-at ashtish-ats mittens massin-a massin-a mocassins
ushpuakan-at ushpuakan-ats tobacco pipes

Since Sheshatshu and Natuashish are more or less neighbouring communities there are many similarities but also a number of differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The following words show some differences. Words in the closest neighbouring Quebec dialects are given for comparison.

Quebec Naskapi Natuashish Naskapi Sheshatshu Montagnais Quebec Montagnais
all misiwe mishue kassinu kassinu
it snows piuan piuan mishpuan mishpuan
mountain pishkutinau pishkutinau utshu utshu
axe akataskw akatashku ushtashku ushtashku
far wayu wanu kataku kataku

A grammatical difference between Natuashish and Sheshatshu occurs in the way that simple verbs are made negative. The verb for 'he sleeps' is nipau. In Natuashish, to make the negative statement 'he does not sleep' a particle ama is used before the verb: ama nipau. In Sheshatshu, however, a different particle apu is used and, in addition, the verb ending is changed: apu nipat 'he does not sleep'.

Among speakers in the village of Sheshatshu there exists a great deal of variation in the way people pronounce words and even in the vocabulary they use. Because a language is continually changing, differences are found between age groups; because language reflects social situations and relationships, difference can be expected between formal and informal contexts, the speech of men and women and between speakers who have originated from different geographic areas. Certain variations of pronunciation can be used in more than one situation, as is the case of the pronunciation of sh as h in the following words:

Older/Formal More recent/casual Even more recent/more casual
stone shash shah hah
small bird pineshish pinehîsh pinehih
a little apishîsh apihish aphih

Webmaster Login