To outsiders, they look like triangles, arrow points, canes, upside down Ls and joined hooks. To Cree language speakers across Canada, however, these symbols are parts of their own unique and indigenous writing system. Which is why Canadian syllabics is used as the text for translations of God’s Word in many Cree language varieties.
Canadian syllabics is commonly used for Aboriginal languages in the language families of Athabaskan, Inuit and Algonquian (the latter includes the various Cree languages). Syllabics represent consonant+vowel combinations, suitable for Cree languages where words are usually composed of consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel sequences.
In syllabics, the nine consonants are represented by character shape. The four vowels in these languages are represented by character orientation (rotations or flips). So, for example, in Cree, pi is ᐱ, po is ᐳ, pa is ᐸ and pe is ᐯ. Vowels appearing alone are represented as hollow triangles similarly oriented by direction. For example, i is ᐃ, o is ᐅ, a is ᐊ and e isᐁ.
“It’s very easy to teach just those shapes . . . and four directions,” says Bill Jancewicz, facilitator for the Cree Initiative Bible translation projects.
Syllabics can be learned in a few days, while the Roman letter-based writing system of English takes much longer. This is the reason syllabics easily spread over great distances after the writing system was created by British missionary James Evans in 1840, for Cree living in Manitoba. From two hunters who Evans taught to read syllabics, the system radiated outward. Cree taught other Cree, from one group to another.
“So in 10 years,” says Jancewicz, “syllabics spread all across northern Canada. Not primarily because of missionaries, but because of Cree speakers, who were so excited about being able to read [and write] their own language, that they taught it to one another.”
The people began to use syllabics to write on tree bark with burnt sticks, leaving messages on hunting trails.
Evans created a printing press out of a discarded Hudson Bay fur press, fitted with hand-made syllabic type and ink made from soot and fish oil. He produced many hymnals and prayer books in Cree. In 1862, 15 years after Evans died, the British and Foreign Bible Society published a Cree Bible in syllabics.
Considered as part of their Cree cultural identity, syllabics are viewed by some as a gift from the Creator to two Cree elders, hundreds of kilometres apart, about the same time as Evans came to Canada. “They dreamed in two different parts of the country that a message would come to them that would be written down,” says Jancewicz.
As God’s Word is translated into syllabics for various Cree languages, that dream continues to come true nearly two centuries later.