Syllabics are widely known among Canadian Cree, especially older people who learned the system in mission schools (see NATIVE PEOPLE, EDUCATION). Moreover, syllabics are currently taught in many reserve schools. Although Cree usually consider the syllabic alphabet to be uniquely Indian (as opposed to the white man's alphabet), it was actually devised by the Reverend James EVANS at Norway House (in present-day Manitoba) in 1840. He had designed a similar alphabet for Ojibwa, a closely related language, in 1836. Evans produced considerable printed material in syllabics, largely hymnals and prayer books.
Evans's system has been modified slightly to adapt to local dialect variation and to increase its phonetic accuracy (correspondence of sound to alphabet symbol). Nine geometric forms, each associated with a consonant (m, p, k, n, y, s, ch, r, o), are rotated through 4 geometric positions (representing the vowels a, i, e, o) to produce 36 syllabic characters. A system of final diacritics allows for syllables of consonant-vowel-consonant structure and for diphthongs (which are rare in Cree). A diacritic is also used for /h/.
The system provides a consistent and reliable orthography for Cree and shows no signs of dying out. Rather, it is closely associated with Cree cultural identity. See also NATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES.
Author REGNA DARNELL
N. Shipley, The James Evans Story (1966); Regna Darnell and A.L. Vanek, "The Psychological Reality of Cree Syllabics" in Regna Darnell, ed, Canadian Languages in their Social Context (1973).
Links to Other Sites
Languages of Canada
A comprehensive online database of languages currently in use in Canada. Also provides details about extinct languages. Check out the "language maps" for more information. Based on "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition." From SIL International, a US website.
Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre
An extensive online information source about the history, traditions, and languages of First Nations peoples in Saskatchewan.
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.