Standard spelling in Cree

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Posted on 
March 30, 2020

Are you familiar with the word “ghoti”? No, it’s not an alternative way to write the name for a small beard. Widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw, this infamous string mocks the vagaries of English spelling. By borrowing the pronunciation of “gh” from “enough,” “o” from “women,” and “ti” from “motion,” we create one possible representation of “fish.”

French, too, has its share of spelling quirks. Take, for example, tête and fête, in which the sole purpose of the circumflex is to mark the location where earlier generations wrote an “s” that they never pronounced either! English and French are also full of homonyms, such as “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” and verre, vert, and vers, that are the bane of the existence of many fine copy editors.

Spelling oddities are easy to ridicule. As readers and writers, we grumble about these quirks. Yet, our ability to read and understand remains largely unaffected thanks to school systems that focus on reading and writing, and roughly 500 years’ worth of publications that consistently reinforce all of these rules.

In an ideal world, spelling in Cree might follow a similar evolutionary path. But time is a luxury that endangered languages lack. To help support Cree language learners and language revitalization, a wider adoption of a standard, phoneme-based writing system could be a powerful tool. Here are two of the ways it can help.

Reading simplified

Learning to read in any alphabetic writing system depends heavily on phonological awareness, that is, the reader’s ability to recognize phonemes. Phonemes are the discrete sounds that can change meaning in a given language. The vowels in the English words “beet” and “bit” are two of (approximately) forty-four distinct phonemes in English. The vowels in the French words nid and nu are two of (about) thirty-seven phonemes in French. In English and French, as in Cree, the actual number of phonemes may differ by dialect.

In contrast with the spelling quirks of English and French, Standard Roman Orthography (SRO) for Cree is entirely phonemic. Each sound has one letter; each letter represents one and only one sound. There is no ambiguity; there are no silent letters.

Imagine how such an approach might simplify spelling in English or French: we could even write the word “phonetic” with an “f”!

One spelling: two representations

A second benefit that arises from the use of SRO is perhaps less expected.

Following the publication of the first syllabic Bible in 1841, Cree language literacy spread like wildfire across the Prairies. With no formal education system in place, individuals quickly and effectively learned and passed on the system from person to person. Their principal teaching tool was a chart much like the one below.

Plains Cree syllabic chart composed of rows presenting all consonant and vowel combinations

Today, many of the Cree-speaking communities in which the language is most robust maintain a strong preference for syllabic reading and writing.

What many speakers (or editors) may not realize is how easily Cree written in SRO can be transliterated by machine to produce equally accurate text in syllabics.

In fact, because phonemic spelling for Cree is wholly equivalent with syllabics, simple computer algorithms can be written to harness this equivalency. And a major bonus for editors and proofreaders arrives through the old computer maxim, “Garbage in, garbage out”: conversion can make errors more obvious. Conversion is a terrifically useful proofreading tool.

The greatest benefit, however, belongs to readers: accurate spelling in one form creates a foundation through which identical Cree language content can be easily shared in whichever of the two writing systems a given community prefers.

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Arden Ogg and Dorothy Thunder

Arden Ogg is a linguist and editor from Winnipeg who founded the Cree Literacy Network in 2010 to encourage the use of standard spelling as an essential element of Cree language revitalization. As a kid who grew up reading dictionaries for fun, she found that her first connection with Cree language and culture quickly became a lifelong passion.

Dorothy Thunder is a first-language speaker of Plains Cree, from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan. She has been teaching Plains Cree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for over fifteen years. Dorothy loves embedding essential elements of Cree culture in all her language classes.

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