Cree Syllabics

The Cree language is traditionally written not in the Roman alphabet but in syllabics, symbols representing a combination of consonant and vowel. This system is appropriate for Cree because the language is syllabic in its structure, ie, words are composed of consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel sequences. Syllabics work less well for the Athapaskan and Inuktitut (Inuit) languages, for which they were later adapted.

Syllabics are widely known among Canadian Cree, especially older people who learned the system in mission schools (see Aboriginal People: Education). Moreover, syllabics are currently taught in many reserve schools. Although the syllabic alphabet can be considered uniquely Aboriginal (as opposed to the white man's alphabet), it was popularized 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 Aboriginal People: Languages.