When traveling in Canada, especially the central provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, you might encounter a strange system of symbols placed just beneath a set of English words. At first glance they might resemble Egyptian hieroglyphics, but upon closer examination, the plain markings display a lot of geometric shapes, including th abundant use of the triangle. Often the letters are used in conjunction with a Native American or First Nation building or cultural center, revealing the true origin of the strange shapes and markings.
Commonly referred to as syllabic (emphasis on the middle syllable) this script is most commonly practiced and used by the Cree and Oji-Cree communities of central and eastern Canada and the Inuit of the far north. In fact, the newly created province of Nunavut uses the Inuit form of the symbols in all official communiques along with the more more widely read Roman script letters. The aboriginal symbols have also been used to express the languages of the Blackfeet, Athabascan and Ojibwe, but continued use in regards to these languages varies from infrequent to nearly non-existent.
The written device was initiated by a Catholic missionary and priest, named James Evans and began just several years after Sequoyah, developed a very different script to express the Cherokee language further to the south in the US. Around 1830 Evans was stationed in an Ojibwe community near Rice Lake, Ontario, where he began to learn the local language and record the words in Latin letters. However, the abundance of numerous multi-syllable words made this task difficult.
The Swampy Cree
Evans’ big breakthrough came when he was transferred to a Swampy Cree outpost in Northern Manitoba. Here, he encountered a very similar Cree dialect and soon discovered that his Native students were able to work with their own language, when it was expressed in a different set of phonetic symbols other than Latin letters. Drawing upon his knowledge of Devanagari script used in British India and the Pitman shorthand just developed in 1837 in England, Evans appears to have been well qualified to develop a fundamental Native written language.
Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics
After Evan’s big breakthrough the new script spread quickly among the Cree communities of Northern and Eastern Canada. Eventually, the Inuit and Oji-Cree groups picked up on the script.
Though the original script was quite sparse, it adequately sufficed to express several unrelated Native languages. Evans original Cree symbols included only vowel and eight consonants. Today, Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics feature over 600 characters and symbols and are used by a variety of Native groups.