Canadian Aboriginal syllabics

Canadian Aboriginal syllabics

Infobox Writing system
name = Canadian Aboriginal syllabics
type = Abugida
time = 1840s-present
languages = Cree, Ojibwe, Naskapi, "et al."
fam1 = Devanagari, Pitman Shorthand (disputed)
children = Inuktitut, Blackfoot, Sayisi, Carrier
sample =
imagesize =
unicode = Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, U+1400–167F ( [ chart] )
iso15924 = Cans, 440
IPAChartEng =

"Canadian Aboriginal syllabic writing, or simply syllabics"', is a family of abugidasdubious used to write a number of Aboriginal Canadian languages of the Algonquian, Inuit, and (formerly) Athabaskan language families.

Canadian syllabics are presently used to write all of the Cree dialects from Naskapi (spoken in Quebec) to the Rocky Mountains, including Eastern Cree, James Bay Cree, Swampy Cree and Plains Cree. They are also used to write Inuktitut in the eastern Canadian Arctic; here they are co-official with the Latin alphabet in the territory of Nunavut. They are used regionally for the other large Canadian Algonquian language, Ojibwe in Western Canada, as well as for Blackfoot, where they are obsolete. Among the Athabaskan languages further to the west, syllabics have been used at one point or another to write Dakelh (Carrier), Chipewyan, Slavey, Tli Cho (Dogrib), Tasttine (Beaver). Syllabics have occasionally been used in the United States by communities that straddle the border, but are principally a Canadian phenomenon.

The bulk of the characters, including all that are found in official documents, are encoded into the Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics character table of the Unicode standard. This page will use Unicode characters that are readable with any appropriate font; see the links below if they are not visible on your browser.

Basic principles

Canadian "syllabic" scripts are abugidas, in which consonants are modified in order to indicate an associated vowel — in this case through a change in orientation, which is unique to syllabics. In Cree, for example, the consonant "p" has the shape of a chevron. In an upward orientation, ᐱ, it represents the syllable "pi". Inverted, so that it points downwards, ᐯ, it indicates "pe". Pointing to the left, ᐸ, it is "pa," and to the right, ᐳ, "po". The consonant forms and the vowels so represented vary from language to language, but they have generally been made to approximate their Cree origins. [In an actual syllabary each syllable would be graphically independent. That is, "pi" would have no connection to "pa."]


These forms are present in most syllabics scripts with sounds values that approach their Swampy Cree origins. For example, all scripts except the one for Blackfoot use the triangle for vowel-initial syllables.

By 1841, when Evans cast the first movable type for syllabics, he found that he could not satisfactorily maintain the distinction between light and heavy typeface for short and long vowels. He instead filed across the raised lines of the type, leaving gaps in the printed letter for long vowels. This can be seen in early printings. Later still a dot diacritic, originally used for vowel length only in handwriting, was extended to print: Thus today ᐊ "a" contrasts with ᐋ "â," and ᒥ "mi" contrasts with ᒦ "mî". Although Cree "ê" only occurs long, the script made length distinctions for all four vowels. Not all writers then or now indicate length, or do not do so consistently; since there is no contrast, no one today writes "ê" as a long vowel.


The only punctuation found in many texts is spacing between words and ᙮ for a full stop. Punctuation from the Latin alphabet, other than the period (.), may also be used.


Some common terms as used in the context of syllabics

"Syllables", or full-size letters

The full-sized characters, whether standing for consonant-vowel combinations or vowels alone, are usually called "syllables". They may be phonemic rather than morphophonemic syllables. That is, when one morpheme (word element) ends in a consonant and the next begins with a vowel, the intermediate consonant is written as a syllable with the following vowel. For example, the Plains Cree word "pīhc-āyi-hk" "indoors" has "pīhc" as its first morpheme, and "āyi" as its second, but is written ᐲᐦᒑᔨᕽ "pīh-cā-yihk."

In other cases, a "syllable" may in fact represent only a consonant, again due to the underlying structure of the language. In Plains Cree, ᑖᓂᓯ "tānisi" "hello" or "how are you?" is written as if it had three syllables. Because the first syllable has the stress and the syllable that follows has a short IPA|/i/, the vowel is dropped. As a result, the word is pronounced "tānsi" with only two syllables.

Syllabication is important to determining stress in Algonquian languages, and vice-versa, so this ambiguity in syllabics is relatively important in Algonquian languages.


The word "series" is used for either a set of syllables with the same vowel, or a set with the same initial consonant. Thus the n-series is the set of syllables that begin with "n," and the o-series is the set of syllables that have "o" as their vowel regardless of their initial consonant.

"Finals", or reduced letters

A series of small raised letters are called "finals". They are usually placed after a syllable to indicate a final consonant, as the ᕽ "-hk" in ᔨᕽ "yihk" above. However, the Cree consonant "h," which only has a final form, begins a small number of function words such as ᐦᐋᐤ "hāw." In such cases the "final" ᐦ represents an "initial" consonant and therefore precedes the syllable.

The use of diacritics to write consonants is unusual in abugidas. However, it also occurs (independently) in the Lepcha script.

Finals are commonly employed in the extension of syllabics to languages it was not initially designed for. In some of the Athabaskan alphabets, finals have been extended to appear at mid height after a syllable, lowered after a syllable, and at mid height before a syllable. For example, Chipewyan and Slavey use the final ᐟ in the latter position to indicate the initial consonant "dl" (IPA|/ɮ/).

In Naskapi, a small raised letter based on "sa" is used for consonant clusters that begin with /s/: ᔌ "spwa," ᔍ "stwa," ᔎ "skwa," and ᔏ "scwa." The Cree languages the script was initially designed for had no such clusters.

In Inuktitut, something similar is used not to indicate sequences, but to represent additional consonants, rather as the digraphs "ch, sh, th" were used to extend the Latin letters "c, s, t" to represent additional consonants in English. In Inuktitut, a raised "na-ga" is placed before the "g-" series, ᖏ ᖑ ᖓ, to form an "ng-" (IPA|/ŋ/) series, and a raised "ra" (uvular IPA|/ʁ/) is placed before syllables of the "k-" series, ᕿ ᖁ ᖃ, to form a uvular "q-" series.

Although the forms of these series have two parts, each is encoded into the Unicode standard as a single character.


Other marks placed above or beside the syllable are called "diacritics". These include the dot placed above a syllable to mark a long vowel, as in ᒦ "mî," and the dot placed at mid height after the syllable (in western Cree dialects) or before the syllable (in eastern Cree dialects) to indicate a medial "w," as in ᑿ "kwa." These are all encoded as single characters in Unicode.

Diacritics used by other languages languages include a circle above, two dots before, and a variety of other marks. Such diacritics may or may not be separately encoded into Unicode. There is no systematic way to distinguish elements which are parts of syllables from diacritics, or diacritics from finals, and academic discussions of syllabics are often inconsistent in their terminology.

Points and pointing

The diacritic mark used to indicate vowel length is often referred to as a "point". Syllabics users do not always consistently mark vowel length, "w," or "h." A text with these marked is called a "pointed" text; one without such marks is said to be "unpointed".


Cree legend maintains that syllabics was a divine gift to two Cree elders on opposite sides of Canada.ref|cree_origin_claim The " [ Native Languages of the Americas] " website states that, :"A few North American tribes do have traditions of literacy which they claim predate Columbus, however, and coincidentally enough, the writing systems in those tribes are drastically different from European languages—pictographs in the case of Mi'kmaq, and a syllabary with rotating vowels in the case of Ojibway and Cree. It's theoretically possible that those tribes just happened to have been visited by very creative, iconoclastic missionaries, but it's more likely that the missionaries simply recorded and adapted an existing Native American writing system to serve their purposes (teaching Indians prayers, primarily.)"

However, although this appears to be the case for Mi'kmaq, the lack of preserved written material in syllabics before 1840, the well-documented history of partially missionary-driven expansion of syllabic writing immediately after this date, and the resemblance to writing systems of the Old World all weigh in favor of a missionary derivation for syllabics, which will be explored in the remainder of this section.

James Evans

In 1827, James Evans, a missionary from Kingston upon Hull, UK, was placed in charge of the Wesleyan mission at Rice Lake, Ontario. Here, he began to learn the eastern Ojibwe language spoken in the area and was part of a committee to devise a Roman orthography for it. By 1837 he had prepared the "Speller and Interpreter in English and Indian," but was unable to get its printing sanctioned by the British and Foreign Bible Society. At the time, many missionary societies were opposed to the development of native literacy in their own languages, believing that their situation would be bettered by linguistic assimilation into colonial society.

Evans continued to use his Ojibwe orthography in his work in Ontario. However, his students appear to have had conceptual difficulties using the same alphabet for two different languages with very different sounds, and Evans himself found this approach awkward. Furthermore, the Ojibwe language was polysynthetic but had few distinct syllables, meaning that most words had a large number of syllables; this made them quite long when spelled with the Roman alphabet. He began to think that a syllabic writing system might be less awkward for his students to use.

In 1840, Evans was relocated to Norway House in northern Manitoba. Here he began learning the local Swampy Cree dialect. Like Ojibwe, to which it was quite closely related, it was full of long polysyllabic words.

As an amateur linguist, Evans was acquainted with the Devanagari script used in British India; in Devanagari, each letter stands for a syllable, and is modified to represent the vowel of that syllable. Such a system, now called an abugida, readily lent itself to writing a language such as Swampy Cree, which had a simple syllable structure of only eight consonants and four long or short vowels. Evans was also familiar with British shorthand, presumably Samuel Taylor's "Universal Stenography," from his days as a merchant in England; and now he acquired familiarity with the newly published Pitman shorthand of 1837.


Both Devanagari and Pitman played a role in the development of Cree syllabics. Devanagari provided the glyphs for the syllables, whereas Pitman provided the glyphs for final consonants, as well as the idea of rotation and line weight to modify the syllables.

In the original Evans script,ref|early_evans_syllabary there were ten syllabic forms: eight for the consonants "p, t, c, k, m, n, s, y;" a ninth for vowel-initial syllables or vowels following one of the incidental consonants; and a tenth, which is no longer in use, for the consonant cluster "sp." There were four incidental consonants, "r, l, w, h," which did not have syllabic forms. Except for "sp," these can all be traced to the cursive combining forms of the corresponding Devanagari "akshara;" the Devanagari combining form is somewhat abbreviated (the right-side stroke is dropped), and in handwriting the running horizontal line may be left off as well, as has been standardized in Gujarati. (The sequence "sp" appears to be a conflation of the shape of "s" with the angularity of "p," along the conceptual lines of the more contracted ligatures of Devanagari such as क्ष.)

The likeness is stronger if one allows the symbols to rotate to give a similar direction of writing for each vowel; for example, Devanagari "n" has the orientation of "ne" rather than of "na". The motivation for the change of orientation appears to have been to allow the pen to trace the same direction when writing syllables with the same vowels: The reflection class "ka, ca, ma, sa, ya" (that is, the consonants which are flipped to distinguish the front "i, e" vowels) all follow an L-like path, whereas the rotation class "a, pa, ta, na" (those which are rotated for the front vowels) all follow a C-like path. The orientation of Devanagari "g-" (for "k-"), "n-," "y-," and possibly "s-" had to be flipped for this to happen. ("Sp-" does not follow this generalization, reflecting its hybrid origin.)

Because Cree consonants can be either voiced or voiceless, depending on their environment, each corresponds to two Devanagari letters, and Cree "ka/ga," for example, resembles Devanagari "g" rather than "k." Note also that "h," which only occurs as a final in syllabics, appears to derive from the Devanagari visarga, ः "Unicode|ḥ," which also occurs only as a final, rather than from syllabic ह "ha." :

Additional consonant series

A few western charts show full "l-" and "r-" series, used principally for loan words. In a Roman Catholic variant, "r-" is a normal asymmetric form, derived by adding a stroke to "c-," but "l-" shows an irregular pattern: Despite being asymmetrical, the forms are rotated only 90°, and "li" is a mirror image of what would be expected; it is neither an inversion nor a reflection of "le," as in the other series, but rather a 180° rotation.:"Some western additions"::


The remaining sounds are written with digraphs. A raised "ra" is prefixed to the k-series to create a digraph for "q": ᖃ "qa, etc."; the final is ᖅ "-q." A raised "na-ga" is prefixed to the g-series to create an "ng" (/IPA|ŋ/) series: ᖓ "nga, etc.," and the "na" is doubled for geminate "nng" (/IPA|ŋː/): ᙵ "nnga."The finals are ᖕ and ᖖ.

In Nunavut, the "h" final has been replaced with Roman ᕼ, which does not rotate, but in Nunavik a new series is derived by adding a stroke to the k-series: ᕹ "ha, etc."

In the early years, Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries used slightly different forms of syllabics for Inuktitut. In modern times, however, these differences have disappeared. Dialectical variation across the syllabics-using part of the Inuit world has promoted an implicit diversity in spelling, but for the most part this has not had any impact on syllabics itself.


Blackfoot, another Algonquian language, uses a syllabary that is quite different from the Cree and Inuktitut versions. Blackfoot has eleven consonants and three vowels, most of which can occur long or short. It has nine basic consonant forms, only two of which are identical to their Cree equivalents. The new forms, given in the "o" series (which corresponds graphically to the "a" series of Cree), are ᖲ "o," ᖶ "wo," ᖺ "no," ᖾ "ko," and ᗃ "ha." Old forms with new values are ᑲ "po," ᒐ "mo," and ᒪ "to." Forms with the same consonantal values are ᓴ "so" and ᔭ "yo" (here only the vowels have changed). There are also a number of distinct final forms.

Although all four vowel positions are used, Blackfoot has only three distinct vowels. The script is now obsolescent.

Carrier and other Athabaskan

Athabaskan syllabic writing systems were developed in the late 1800s by French Roman Catholic missionaries who adapted this originally Protestant writing scheme to languages radically different from the Algonquian languages. Most Athabaskan languages have more than four distinct vowels, and all have many more distinct consonants than Cree. This has meant the invention of a number of new consonant forms. Whereas most Athabaskan scripts, such as those for Slavey and Chipewyan, bear a reasonably close resemblance to Cree syllabics, the Carrier (Dakelh) variant is highly divergent, and only one series - the series for vowels alone - resembles the original Cree form.

In order to accommodate six distinctive vowels, Dakelh supplements the four vowel orientations with a dot and a horizontal line in the rightward pointing forms: ᐊ "a," ᐅ "IPA|/ʌ/," ᐈ "e," ᐉ "i," ᐃ "o," and ᐁ "u."

One of the Chipewyan scripts is more faithful to western Cree. (Sayisi Chipewyan is substantially more divergent.) It has the nine forms plus the western "l" and "r" series, though the rotation of the "l-" series has been made consistently counter-clockwise. The "k-" and "n-" series are more angular than in Cree: "ki" resembles Latin "P". The "c" series has been reassigned to "dh." There are additional series: a regular "ch" series, unsupported by Unicode, but graphically a doubled "t" (something like Ɛ for "cha," Ɯ for "che," 3 for "cho, etc."); and an irregular "z" series, where "ze" is derived by counter-clockwise rotation of "za," but "zi" by clockwise rotation of "zo":


Other series are formed from "dh" or "t." A mid-line final Cree "t" preceding "dh" forms "th," a raised Cree final "p" following "t" forms "tt," a stroke inside "t" forms "tth" (ᕮ "ttha"), and a small "t" inside "t" forms "ty" (ᕳ "tya"). Nasal vowels are indicated by a following Cree final "k."

All Athabaskan syllabic scripts are now obsolescent.

Current usage

At present, Canadian syllabics seems reasonably secure within the Cree, Oji-Cree, and Inuit communities, somewhat more at risk among the Ojibwe, seriously endangered for Athabaskan languages and Blackfoot.

In Nunavut and Nunavik, Inuktitut syllabics have official status. In Nunavut, laws, legislative debates and many other government documents must be published in Inuktitut in both syllabics and Roman alphabet form. The rapid growth in the scope and quantity of material published in syllabics has, by all appearances, ended any immediate prospect of marginalisation for this writing scheme.

Within the Cree and Ojibwe language communities, the situation is less confident.

Cree syllabics use is vigorous in most communities where it has taken root. In many dialect areas, there are now standardised syllabics spellings. Nonetheless, there are now linguistically adequate standardised Roman writing systems for most if not all dialects.

Ojibwe speakers in the US have never been heavy users of either Canadian Aboriginal syllabics or the Great Lakes Aboriginal syllabics and have now essentially ceased to use either of them at all. The “double vowel” Roman orthography developed by Charles Fiero and further developed by John Nichols is increasingly the standard in the USA and is beginning to penetrate into Canada, in part to prevent further atomisation of what is already a minority language. Nonetheless, Ojibwe syllabics are still in vigorous use in some parts of Canada.

Use in other communities is moribund.

Blackfoot syllabics have, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. Present day Blackfoot speakers use a Roman alphabet writing scheme, and very few Blackfoot can still read - much less write - the syllabic system.

Among the Athabaskan languages with syllabic writing schemes, none is in vigorous use. In some cases, the languages they represent are on the brink of extinction. In other cases, syllabics have been replaced by Roman letters. Many people - linguists and speakers of Athabaskan languages alike - feel that these languages are ill-suited to syllabic writing. The government of the Northwest Territories does not use syllabic writing for any of the Athabaskan languages on its territory and native churches have generally stopped using them as well. Among Dakelh users, a well developed Roman alphabet has effectively replaced syllabics, which are now understood almost exclusively by elderly members of the community.

In the past, government policy towards syllabics has varied from indifference to open hostility. Until quite recently, government policy in Canada openly undermined native languages, and church organisations were often the only organised bodies using syllabics. Later, as governments became more accommodating of native languages, and in some cases even encouraged their use, it was widely believed that moving to a Roman alphabet writing scheme was better, both for linguistic reasons and to reduce the cost of supporting alternative writing schemes.

At present, at least for Inuktitut and Algonquian languages, Canadian government at least tolerates, and in some cases encourages, the use of syllabics. The growth of Aboriginal nationalism in Canada and the devolution of many government activities to native communities has changed attitudes towards syllabics. In many places there are now standardisation bodies for syllabic spelling, and the Unicode standard supports a fairly complete set of Canadian syllabic characters for digital exchange. Syllabics are now taught in schools in Inuktitut-speaking areas, and are often taught in traditionally syllabics-using Cree and Ojibwe communities as well.

Although there are limitations to syllabic writing, and in many cases a Roman alphabet scheme would be less costly to use and quite possibly easier to learn, many native communities are strongly attached to syllabics. Even though it was originally the invention of European missionaries, many people consider syllabics a writing system that belongs to them, and link Roman letters to linguistic assimilation. As Canada redefines itself in terms of ethnolinguistic diversity and multiculturalism, it is increasingly difficult to justify neglecting the only writing system that is truly unique to Canada.

"Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics"

A reasonably complete set of Canadian syllabics characters is encoded into the Unicode standard under the name "Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics". It covers the range from U+1400 to U+167F. See Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics character table for a complete list.



* [ Cree legend describing origins of syllabics]
* [ An early syllabary from Evans]
* [ Description of Evans' manner of casting type at the Rossville mission]
* [ Methodist Bible in Cree syllabics]

ee also

*Cree syllabics
*Ojibwe syllabics
*Inuktitut syllabics
*Kamloops Wawa

External links

* [ Language Geek: All About Syllabics]
* [ Carrier Writing Systems]
* [ Paper on Carrier Syllabics]

Free font downloads

* [ Language Geek.] Syllabics fonts for several languages.
* [ Eastern James Bay syllabic fonts and typing packages.] Includes links to free Unicode fonts compatible for East Cree spelling, a talking syllabic chart (complete with sounds)and more information about fonts in use in Eastern James Bay Cree communities.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Syllabics — may refer to:* Canadian Aboriginal syllabics, a writing system for Inuit and Cree * Abugida, a writing system in which consonant graphemes are inherently associated with a default vowel * Syllabic verse, a poetic form having a fixed number of… …   Wikipedia

  • Aboriginal peoples in Canada — Native Canadian redirects here. For Canadian born people in general, see Canadians. Aboriginal peoples in Canada …   Wikipedia

  • Aboriginal peoples in Quebec — Aboriginal peoples in Canada …   Wikipedia

  • Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada — Departments of the Government of Canada Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Develompent Affaires autochtones et du développement du Nord canadien Minister John Duncan (Canad …   Wikipedia

  • Cree syllabics — Aboriginal peoples in Canada …   Wikipedia

  • Inuktitut syllabics — Infobox Writing system name = Inuktitut syllabics type = Abugida time = 1870s present languages = Inuktitut fam1 = Pitman Shorthand (disputed) fam2 = Canadian Aboriginal syllabics children = sample = imagesize = unicode = Unified Canadian… …   Wikipedia

  • Carrier syllabics — Type abugida Languages Carrier (Dakelh) Creator Adrien Gabriel Morice …   Wikipedia

  • Eastern Cree syllabics — Note partially copied from Western Cree syllabics Eastern Cree syllabics are a variant of Canadian Aboriginal syllabics used to write all the Cree dialects from Moosonee, Ontario to Kawawachikamach on the Quebec Labrador border in Canada that use …   Wikipedia

  • Western Cree syllabics — are a variant of Canadian Aboriginal syllabics used to write Plains Cree, Woods Cree and the western dialects of Swampy Cree. It is used for all Cree dialects west of approximately the Manitoba Ontario border in Canada. It is also occasionally… …   Wikipedia

  • National Aboriginal Achievement Awards — Aboriginal peoples in Canada …   Wikipedia