Writing in North America — Great Lakes Algonquian Syllabics (GLAS)

In the 1880s, syllabic blocks of text recorded the languages of Ho-Chunk, Fox and several more languages. Derived from the Latin alphabet, this writing system strongly resembled Latin texts. But yet, no digitisation of this writing system was ever made, and what is revealed online is only an approximation, usually using a cursive Latin script. Despite being referred to as a syllabary, or syllabics, this writing system is an alphabet, with separate letters for consonants and vowels arranged or grouped into units of syllables. This is the story of the Great Lakes Algonquian Syllabics.

The Great Lakes, consisting of Lake Superior, Michigan, Erie, Huron and Ontario, were home to a diverse set of Algonquian and Siouan languages. Over time, migration events happened, leading to the current distribution of speakers scattered over the United States and Canada, mainly concentrated in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas. Some speakers also reside in Ontario in Canada, and even northern Mexico.

No one knows where or how GLAS was first developed for certain. However, some sources have suggested a French source, in Canada. This was inferred through interpretation of the script as a European cursive form of the Latin alphabet, with vowel letters corresponding to French orthography and writing standards. Additionally, linguists observed the arrangement of consonants in tables appear to correspond somewhat to the arrangement used in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. While it suggests that GLAS has a Canadian origin, stemming from the hypothesis that GLAS was developed by people who had experience with Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, there has not been solid evidence to confirm the origins. However, what we do know is that GLAS is not related to the Cree syllabics developed in Canada.

As previously mentioned, GLAS is an alphabet, with consonants and vowels organised into syllable blocks, separated by spaces. Words are separated by periods or points. In most GLAS scripts, the letter ‘i’ is often reduced to a single point, written as a diacritic on the consonant in the syllable. Additionally, the vowel ‘a’ is not written unless it is its own syllable, much like the inherent vowel system found in abugidas or alphasyllabaries. Between the languages GLAS represents, there are several variations in the alphabets, and the sounds they represent. However, the evidence is based off the few excerpts or publications of brief discussions surrounding the alphabets.

GLAS was argued to not be the first writing system adopted by the speakers of Potawatomi (Neshnabémwen), an Algonquian language in southern Ontario in Canada, and in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Kansas in the USA. For them, a system of pictographs was used to convey ceremonies, maps, stories, and record-keeping, carved into bark or wood with a knife, or written with charcoal or paint. Perhaps the system closest to GLAS was introduced by two Jesuit missionaries, who developed a writing system, called the “ba-be-bi-bo-bu” syllabary, for Potawatomi speakers. While it may suggest that this was the origin of GLAS, it might not be applicable to the origins of writing systems of Fox (Meskwaki) and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago, Hotcągara).

Despite the use of GLAS in Potawatomi, linguists and native speakers in the 1970s developed a new spelling system for the language, called the Pedagogical writing system. This aimed to aid teaching and learning Potawatomi, leading to the possible decline in the use of GLAS in this language in the present day.

For Fox, or Meskwaki, which encompasses three distinct dialects of Sauk, Fox and Kickapoo, two systems have been recorded, one being GLAS, and the other being Fox-II, a consonant-vowel alphabet. GLAS for Fox featured a 48-syllable system, arranged in 12 rows and four columns, one column for each of the vowels in the language, and one row for each of the consonants. Orthographic variations are noted in Kickapoo, and Kickapoo speakers living in Mexico may also adopt modifications from Spanish influences.

In the 1880s, Ho-Chunk speakers interacted with Fox speakers, bringing along GLAS to write their own language. However, they encountered a problem. Ho-Chunk had way more sounds than Fox, and a rather different phonology from Fox. Adaptations to the script had to be made to fit the Ho-Chunk language. This prompted the development of this system, meant to represent nasal vowels, ejectives and other consonants not found in Fox.

GLAS adapted for use in Ho-Chunk

Like Potawatomi, the Latin alphabet is now commonly used to write Ho-Chunk and Fox, and officially adopted by the respective nations. As these languages decline in the number of native speakers, so too did the use of GLAS. Revitalisation efforts all try to boost interest in these languages in hope to preserve their languages, but the phasing out of GLAS in favour of the Latin alphabet may spell the demise of this writing system.

Despite the use of GLAS in several languages, it never got enshrined into the digital age. There has yet to be a Unicode standard adopted for GLAS, although the alphabet had some distinguishing characteristics from the Latin alphabet. The use of cursive in a French writing convention, that was not enough to warrant its acceptance into the Unicode standard. Many sources on the web approximate what these letters would have been written as, instead of displaying an authentic piece of written text. Perhaps in the future, we might see an advancement of GLAS into the digital world, or this curious cursive script might be lost to history.


And so, concludes this series of posts introducing the writing systems of North America. Although most of these writing systems discussed had syllabics or syllabary in their names, only the Cherokee syllabary was considered a true syllabary. This series omitted the disused scripts like Carrier syllabics, a writing system inspired by the Cree syllabics. But these may be covered in a separate series altogether.

Many of these languages discussed are endangered, moribund or extinct, highlighting the need for revitalisation efforts to kick in and promote interest in the diverse indigenous languages, cultures, and peoples of North America. Perhaps in time to come, we would see a rebound in the number of speakers of these languages, maintaining the linguistic diversity landscape we see today.

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