Writing in North America — Osage Script

This writing system is unlike those discussed previously. It did not arise in the 19th century, under the legacy of Sequoyah on the writing systems of North America. In fact, its writing system arose after the language was officially declared extinct in 2005, following the passing of Lucille Roubedeaux, the last native speaker of the language. The result of a 200-year-long decline, except that the story was not over. The extinction of a language brought people together to attempt revitalising it, and still do so today. This is the story of Osage, the language of the Mid-waters (Wazhazhe ie, 𐓏𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 𐒻𐓟).

The original home of the Osage lie in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, close to speakers of their sister languages, the Dhegihan Siouan languages. Conflicts with the Iroquois brought the people west of the Mississippi, and by the turn of the 18th century, had established a nation in the Plains region, extending to the present states of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas, earning great status among the hunting tribes of the Great Plains. However, this relative dominance in the region did not last long, for resulting interactions, clashes and diseases such as smallpox spelled demise for the Osage people, and subsequent laws imposed by the United States further restricted their territory. By the start of the 20th century, the entire people had been removed to the Indian Territory, now in Oklahoma. Nevertheless, the culture and language of the Osage still stuck with them, but it was not long before the dilution of the Osage language by European influences occurred. The 20th century had seen many Osage being forced to quit speaking their language in favour for English, a move which meant the steady decline of the Osage language.

Over this period, several revitalisation programs attempt to keep the language alive. A foundation for words, interest and some grammar bits have been laid out for anyone who wanted to learn it, but with limited success. The 21st century so far has garnered 15-20 second-language speakers of Osage, all of whom are elderly, but are able to communicate in meetings or various cultural activities. Tremendous progress had been made to revive this language, with now 300 enrolled in Osage classes, and five students who have made progress to attain Osage fluency. To date, the Osage Nation has been making steady effort to revitalise this language in its purest form, and their future depends on this. For anyone who is interested, the Osage Nation conducts online courses for free here, offered by the Osage Nation Language Department.

The Osage language features five vowels (/i/, /e/, /o/, /ə ~ ɑ/ and /y ~ ʉ/), with three nasal vowels (/ɑ̃/, /ĩ/ and /õ/). Vowel length is important in distinguishing Osage words, but it is hard to perceive and has a good deal of variation. For example, long vowels are often reduced to short ones when they are not stressed. Given the lack of information regarding how this vowel system works, there is ongoing debate on the role and importance of vowel lengths in discerning Osage words. There are four diphthongs in Osage, which are /aĩ/ /eĩ/ /oĩ/ and /ai/. 

Along with these vowels come 31 consonants, with a rich inventory of stop sounds. This is commonly split into five categories, such as voiceless preaspirated or fortis, which may be pronounced as geminates or preaspirated, as in /ʰt~tː/, /ʰts~tːs/, /ʰtʃ~tːʃ/. Voiceless plain or lenis, which are tenuis, and often lightly voiced, includes consonants like /p/, /t/, /ts/. Aspirated consonants and ejective consonants also form part of this series. Lastly, voiced consonants are shown, but the only one is /b/, and it only occurs as part of a consonant cluster /br/. Consonant clusters like /br/ can occur at the start and medial of syllables, but never at the end of a syllable.

In 2006, the year after the extinction of the Osage language, a writing system for the language was developed, and revised for the language in 2012-2014. The motivation was to create a new script by modifying or fusing Latin alphabet letters, in order to prevent interference with English conventions when students learn the Osage language. The script, an alphabet 35 letters long, with additional diacritics to specify vowel lengths, tones, and consonant stop series. Interestingly, the ejective, fortis and lenis series in the stop sounds mentioned earlier are not distinguished in the alphabet, prompting further revision in 2014 to add diacritics like cross bars to distinguish these consonants.

osage

The Osage alphabet, probably the only alphabet to be created to represent the language after that language became extinct.

Following the adoption of the Osage script into the Unicode in 2016, the main challenge forward was to get people to learn the language. The revitalisation efforts made by the Osage Nation are similar to that of Kristang by Kodrah Kristang, although a proper orthography for the latter was not quite standardised between Singaporean and Malacca variants. With their aim to teach Osage in its purest form to those interested, we can be sure that the Osage language, the language of the mid-waters, will persist in a world where many languages are moribund, endangered or extinct. The Osage Nation will continue to endeavour; they cannot quit, and their future depends on it.

“We will continue to make an aggressive effort to revitalize the Osage language. Because of what we have experienced so far, we know that it can be done”

– Osage Nation Language Department

Afterword

This post marks the third of a series of writing systems of North America, and this is one of the more interesting ones given its history and current revitalisation efforts. As summer vacation starts, why not take the time to contribute to the revitalisation effort, by registering in the Osage language class offered by the Osage Nation? It is self-paced, free of charge, and you can play a role in keeping this language alive. Once again, the link is here: https://www.osagelanguage.com/.

The next post will feature a take on the Great Lakes Algonquian Syllabary, with a conclusion to the series. It has been an eye-opening experience writing about these writing systems, just like it was when I was writing about the writing systems in the African continent.

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