Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Potawatomi Syllabary

On May 29th Omniglot added a new page on the Potawatomi (Bodewadmi )writing system.

At the bottom of the page the alphabet and its phonetic equivalent is displayed. This represents the Pedagogical writing system for Potawatomi and is the orthography now used for teaching those who speak English how to read Potawatomi. No other writing system is presented. Just the alphabet. There must be more to this than meets the eye. Indeed, there is.

Last year in a language forum I was challenged to present a syllabary that had evolved from an alphabet and I said "The Potawatomi Syllabary, of course." I was refering to the writing system used for Potawatomi in the last century.


"From the 1830's to the 1860's two Jesuits, Fr. Christian Hoecken and Fr. Maurice Gailland, were missionaries to the St. Mary's band of Potawatomi (the combined Prairie and Citizen's Bands). These missionaries developed a writing system that was taught as a syllabary. As you can see from Fig. 2 below, there are different symbols (letters) for consonants and vowels, but they are written in groups of two letters, where each group represents a single syllable. This system came to be known as the "ba-be-bi-bo-bu" syllabary."

This is from www.potawatomilang.org and their article on writing systems is too interesting to miss.

Is it the alphabet or is it a syllabary, no wait, a syllabarium? It is organized as a syllabary. So is it a writing system of its own or just a configuration of the Latin alphabet?

One could be excused for thinking that the organization in a syllabary is an artefact of the last century. However, read on. Here is the Potawatomi alphabet organized in syllables. And here are some thoughts on Potawatomi where it is also organized in syllables. There is an ongoing loyalty to the organization of the alphabet into a syllabary.

Along with this presentation of the syllabary is an interesting reflection on the notion that there should be one right way to write a language.

"To say that any of these alphabets are more correct than any other would probably cause someone’s ego to swell, but we shall attempt it by giving credence to the one we have just written down. Let us say it is closer to the truth of the Potawatomi language in use today. I do not believe the old Potawatomi language can be written any other way than it was put down by so many of the old folks who attempted to convey certain thoughts to us, such as old medicine recipes, songs, stories, and prayers. Too, certain missionaries, priests, nuns, educators, and even members of the foreign military powers who conquered us wrote many facts down about our various languages.

My grandfather once told me there was no one correct way to write this language. It was in the mind of the one who wrote it down, but we have these folks with us today who think they know the truth of everything and so we go. " Donald A. Perrot

The early 1800's saw the emergence of many syllabic writing systems: Cherokee and Cree have their own symbols and have endured intact to this day. The Cree syllabary, now used by many First Nations in Canada and called Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, can be viewed here where it is used for Inuktitut.

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