Thursday, February 26, 2009


I was always struck by these two pictures (blow-ups of the signs on the bathroom doors of the school) taken during my year in Northern Manitoba, particularly since they very closely resemble Inuit syllabics used here in Nunavut. I'm not sure what the words actually say since I only learned a few words of the Swampy Cree dialect and that was now 6-7 years ago. Seeing them now, though, the first thing that come to mind is "Inuktitut".

With the exception of pictographs used by certain Micmac and Ojibwa societies, no aboriginal group in Canada that I'm familiar with had a writing system prior to European contact. The syllabic writing system, as far as I know, as invented by a British missionary named James Evans while he was working with Ojibwa people in Rice Lake, Ontario (not far from where I grew up interestingly enough). In the early 1840's Evans moved to northern Manitoba where this system was adapted for Swampy Cree.

As far as Inuktitut is concerned, there is a story that a missionary from Moose Factory encountered a group of Inuit from Northern Quebec who were interested in the use of syllabics to express their language in written form. This missionary, a man by the name of Horden, spent time modifying the syllabic he used to fit their language. The man credited for the widespread use of syllabics for Inuktitut, however, was another Anglican missionary, Edmund Peck, working in what was then known as Great Whale River (now Kuujjuarapik) in the Nunavik region of Quebec. With the support of both Anglican and Catholic missionaries, Peck helped translate the Bible and other materials into Inuktitut.

Today, syllabics are still prevalent in the eastern arctic, where they are still used along with Roman orthography. The syllabics used in the above pictures are all part of the syllabary used for Inuktitut. The only exception is the final character on each sign. At one point in time I believe this syllabic was used but this is no longer the case, at least with the Nunavut dialects that I know of. To a speaker of Swampy Cree, this symbol would be pronounced (I believe) as "la".

At any rate, this is the sum of what I know about the development of Inuktitut syllabics without getting into all the fun morphological/phenomenological stuff since I don't profess to be a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. But if you've ever wondered where all those cool-looking symbols the Inuit used came from, hopefully this was helpful to you.