Writing in North America — Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics

In 1827, an English-Canadian missionary and linguist set foot onto Rice Lake, Ontario. By the turn of the 20th century, virtually all Cree speakers were literate in a new writing system. From the Nunavut Inuktitut languages in the north to Ojibwe and Cree in eastern Canada, this writing system certainly has made its mark, and continues to do so today.

Unlike the name suggests, the Canadian syllabics are not technically syllabaries. They are classified as an abugida, or an alphasyllabary. The primary distinguishing characteristic is, syllabaries have a separate character for each of the consonant-vowel syllables in the language, much like Japanese hiragana and katakana, or as previously discussed, the Cherokee syllabary. Abugidas, however, feature a modification in the base consonant to attach a certain vowel value, as seen in many writing systems used in the Indian subcontinent — Devanagari, Tamil and Gujarati, for instance. Unlike these writing systems, where the base consonant character is modified by the addition of marks or diacritics, Canadian syllabics attach vowel values by changing the orientation of the base consonant character.

In 1840, James Evans, a missionary, and MistanΓ’skowΓͺw (α’₯ᐒᑕᓇᐒᑯᐁᐧ᐀), a Cree, set out what would be the writing system for the speakers of Cree. Evans was enthralled by the success of Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary down south in the United States and his problems with Latin alphabets. He would eventually use it as inspiration, combined with those form the Devanagari writing system and Pitman shorthand, to devise a comprehensive, simple system which would later be adopted and adapted to suit the phonetic inventories of many languages in Canada.

However, his journey did not start with Cree. In 1827, he studied eastern Ojibwe, and later found himself in a committee tasked with developing a writing system for Ojibwe. The Latin alphabet was used, and as he later realised, was clunky and difficult to learn. Ojibwe was polysynthetic, had few distinct syllables, and this made words really long. A Latin alphabet was not going to cut it. Yet, he continued using his Ojibwe orthography he developed, for his work in Ontario, at least.

To understand the creation of the Canadian syllabics, one has to look at what Ojibwe sounds like. It has 18 consonants, including six voiced-voiceless consonant pairs, and the glottal stop. There were generally seven oral vowels, which can be distinguished by length, and other qualities. Taking these into consideration, Evans created the first rendition of the writing system, consisting of only 10 base symbols, with their respective four orientations to reflect vowels. Additional stand-alone consonants represented the final consonants in a syllable. The result was a chart, detailing every letter that could be written in the script. There were variations in writing this, and further adaptations made it usable for all dialects of Ojibwe.


The Ojibwe Syllabics. Can you spot some similarities with the Devanagari characters?

Later, this was used for Cree, with Evans starting from Swampy Cree dialect, although some have argued that the Cree have already adopted the writing system from the Ojibwe before Evans started his work on Cree. Cree phonology was slightly different. Its consonants could be voiced or voiceless depending on the environment. Similarly, in 1841, he published his work, featuring 10 base consonants, including the character representing the consonant cluster /sp/, which is no longer used today. Long vowels were distinguished by “breaking” the character, making it look like it was written in dashed lines. This was later changed to marking a dot above the letter, something like the Ojibwe syllabics shown above.


The Cree Syllabics as published by Evans in 1841.

The Cree syllabics, like the Ojibwe syllabics was easy to learn, and gained a lot of interest in the speakers of the communities. In fact, this propelled the Cree to having one of the highest literacy rates in the world at that time. Evans was later nicknamed by the Cree as “the man who made the birch bark talk”, owing to the use of birch bark as a writing medium, given the scarcity of paper in the region.

The Cree script eventually spread north into Nunavik, found in publications like selections from the Gospels translated to the Little Whale River dialect of Inuktitut. This spurred the movement for the adaptation of Cree syllabics to the Inuktitut language in 1865. Like the languages discussed prior, Inuktitut had easily distinguishable consonant-vowel syllables, it is polysynthetic, which would make the Latin alphabet quite clunky to use given all the long words. For instance, to express “I’ll have to go to the airport”, one word is used, qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga, and in Inuktitut syllabics, is “α–ƒα–“α‘•α“²α’ƒα‘―α••α’»α’¨α•†αŠα–ƒα“›α–…α‘α–“”. However, Inuktitut was slightly more phonologically rich than Cree and Ojibwe, some might argue, and needed more letters to represent its consonants. Horden, Watkins and the Inuktitut speakers eventually worked to modify the Evans system to suit the needs of the Inuktitut language. Across Nunavut, Nunavik and Labrador, the script spread, and by the turn of the 20th century, the Inuktitut community were propagating this writing system.


The Inuktitut syllabics. Tusaalanga also has materials on how to read and write this writing system.

The spread of these writing systems leave many to wonder, what its use is like today. These syllabics were lumped together to one group, as the title suggests, Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, or Canadian syllabic writing. Since its inception, there was much resistance from colonial and European authorities. In spite of this, the simplicity and ease of use in reading and writing attracted many to learn this writing system, ensuring its continued survival. Beyond Ojibwe, Cree and Inuktitut, some have adapted it for Blackfoot and the other Athabaskan languages like the Carrier language spoken by the Dakelh in British Columbia.

Some writing systems succeed and some fail. While in towns like Iqaluit, one could see street signs printed in Inuktitut syllabics, the Carrier syllabics fell into disuse in the 1930s. Some got replaced by the Latin alphabet. The 1950s and 1960s saw a turning point in the use of the Ojibwe and Cree syllabics. The integration policies laid out by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs led to the decline in usage of these writing systems, forcing speakers to adopt the Latin alphabet to represent their languages. Despite these setbacks, these writing systems continue to be used and taught today, making its way into the digital age, with the adoption into the Unicode standard in 1999 as the Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, and given its extension in a later version. Today, even though the syllabics are generally regarded as a European missionary invention, the speakers of Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibwe have incorporated it as part of their cultural and linguistic identity, forming great attachments to these writing systems.


About six years ago, I started learning the South Qikiqtaaluk dialect of Inuktitut, which is spoken in Iqaluit, one of the major towns in the Nunavut territory. It was a great experience taking a departure from the Indo-European languages many people would prefer to learn. Exploring the Eskimo-Aleut languages led me to think about where distinctions should be drawn between word and sentence, given its polysynthetic grammar. As I learnt later, the writing system I had previously often associated with Inuktitut was also used for other languages. This post, second in the series, continues to show how the various speakers of languages in North America eventually had their own writing system to culturally identify with, and document their worlds and experiences that their ancestors could only pass down orally.

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