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American Writing Systems

Free essaySome people think that there was only one Native American language. In fact, there existed around 250 languages spoken on the territory of the present United States. They differ a lot between one another. Although Cherokee and Cree languages do not have many common points concerning phonetics and grammar, syllabaries of Cherokees and Cree are still in more close connection with each other than with English, because the native speakers have done a lot to preserve and revitalize their cultural heritage. Syllabaries systems are very specific and their history and characteristics can clearly show their peculiarities in comparison to other languages.

The History of Native American Languages

In North America, there were many more languages than in Europe at the time of Columbus. Among them there were Algic (Algonquin), Iroquoian, Muskogean, Siouan, Athabaskan, Salishan and Eskimo-Aleut. Three people from different tribes were likely to be unable to understand each other. There was, however, a sign language used in some areas to allow communication between those of different tribes (Clark 1885). The arrival of people from the Old World was not kind to the American Indian cultures. The population of the native civilizations reduced from about 20 million to the present level of less than 2 million. Most Native American languages now are extinct or are spoken only by older speakers, with whom the language will die in the nearest future.

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Only eight indigenous languages have a population of speakers in the US and Canada large enough to survive. Many Indian languages originate from the same roots (just like English, German, French, Greek, and Russian), having a single language, they developed from. Languages related in this way belong to a single language family. There were about sixty such families in North America. However, no American Indian language originated from a historically known Old World language as most of them began to develop before the first European settler came to the New World.

The Cherokee language belongs to the Iroquoian family. The name ‘Cherokee’ is an English variant of the eastern dialect pronunciation jaragi or jalagi, the meaning of this word is not defined. According to Woodward (1963), here exists documentary evidence that in the 17th century the Cherokees referred to themselves as Ani Yun-Wiya, ‘the Real or Principal people’.
The Cherokee writing system is the oldest Native American language in the United States. George Gist or George Guess, who also was called Sequoyah, invented the syllabic writing system in 1821.

It took around ten years for Cherokees to adopt the new writing system. Soon after this, the literacy rate increased and the first American Indian newspaper was published. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, literacy rate among the Cherokees was around 90 percent. Writing became an important part of Cherokee culture; significantly, the more traditional the community is, the higher the literacy rate tended to be (Silver, & Miller 2000). Today the Cherokee Nation is the second largest Indian tribe in the United States with more than 240,000 tribal members.

In 1840, an English missionary James Evans created the Cree syllabics for two languages: Cree and Ojibwe. He was inspired with Sequoyah’s experience of creating the syllabary but he used Devanagari symbols instead of Latin. The local Cree community quickly adopted Evans’s invention. James Evans tried to publish materials in this writing system, but the colonial authorities resisted the development of native languages. At present, in most areas, the Cree syllabic system is used as well as the transliterated Roman writing. Although the use of the syllabic writing systems is not always convenient, the Canadian government is tolerant towards it.

Among the Cherokee tribal members there are many speakers of their native language. The Cherokee syllabary plays an important role in the language revitalization. According to Allen (2003), one of the main reasons why Cherokee has survived as a language in historical and cultural sense lies in strong interrelation between the Cherokee language and its use in Cherokee spiritual life. It is clearly established that Cherokees use the syllabary to communicate with each other, to keep fastidious records and to retain “sacred” knowledge. The strong cultural and spiritual heritage of the Cherokee Nation is now allowing the tribe to develop a language program and to teach a new generation of native speakers.

Syllabic Writing System at Work

In writing systems invented by Sequoyah and James Evans, each symbol represents a syllable, not a single phoneme, as well as Chinese syllabic writing. In Cherokee syllabary first six characters represent six isolated vowels, the rest 80 are combined consonant and vowel syllables.

Though some characters are the same as in Latin, the sounds they represent do not correspond to those of any language derived from Latin. This can be explained with the fact that at the time of creating syllabary Sequoyah did not know any foreign language. He saw English, Russian and Hebrew writings, copied some symbols from them and used them for creating the Cherokee syllabary. Like many other American Indian languages, the Cherokee and Cree languages are polysynthetic. They form very long words with many morphemes joined together. In Evans’s writing system, there are eight syllabic forms for the consonants p, t, c, k, m, n, s, y, one for vowel initial syllable and the tenth syllabic form, the consonant cluster /sp/ is not in use any more.

In the Cherokee language, the four main parts of speech are verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs; like many adjectives and nouns, verbs always have a pronominal prefix. In Cree and Ojibwe, pronouns as an independent part of speech are not included into the verb like in Cherokee. The verb is the most complicated part of speech with its system of prefixes and suffixes.

Cherokee verbs must contain at least a pronominal prefix, a verb root, an aspect suffix, and a modal suffix. For example, the verb form ᎨᎦ – ge:ga ‘I am going’ has each of these elements. The pronominal prefix is g-, which indicates first person singular. The verb root is -e, ‘to go’. The aspect suffix of the present tense is -g-. The present tense modal suffix for regular verbs is -a. Much attention is payed to plural and dual forms of the verb, especially in first person.

1st.peson dual inc.: inega – ‘We (you and I) are going’;
1st. person dual ex.: osdega – ‘We two (without you) are going’;
1st. person plural inc.: idega – ‘We all (including you) are going’;
1st.person plural ex.: otsega – ‘We all (without you) are going’.
(Montgomery-Anderson 2008)

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In Cree and Ojibwe, the plural form is also created by adding the suffix to the stem; both languages distinguish animate and inanimate nouns (Ministry of Education 2002).
The idea of “subject-object-verb” word order is problematic in Cherokee. While there are word sequences that are used more often than others, the word order in the Cherokee language is very flexible and depends on the context. For example, sentence ‘A man sees a cat’ in Cherokee can be written as a-sga-ja we-sa a-gowh-ti-ha or we-sa a-gowh-ti-ha a-sga-ja. This variability can be explained with the fact that the verb may include subject or object. In Cherokee, the verb gives enough information to stand on its own as a complete sentence. Dahlstrom (2013) states that in Cree and Ojibwe, like in Cherokee, the word order is not regulated with a specific set of rules or structure; instead, “subjects and objects are expressed with means of inflection on the verb.”

Nouns are the second major part of speech in Cherokee. Many simple Cherokee nouns, which denote animals, plants and inanimate objects, form plurals by adding d-, ts- or an- prefixes: ᎦᏚᎲ/ᏗᎦᏚᎲ – gaduhv/digaduhv ‘town/towns’, ᏍᏚᎢᏍᏗ/ᏗᏍᏚᎢᏍᏗ – sduisdi/disduisdi ‘key/keys’. Some simple nouns do not have a plural form: ᏪᏌ – wesa ‘a cat’, ᏓᏆᎴᎷ – dagwalelu ‘a car’.

There is a group of nouns, which are formed by adding the –sgi ending to the verb: ᎦᏃᎯᏍᎩ – gawonisgi ‘a speaker’, ᏗᏓᏥᎶᏍᏗᏍᎩ – didatsilosdisgi ‘a camera’. The majority of nouns in Cherokee are derived from verbs.

Root nouns are those underived form any other part of speech, the original ones. There are two kinds of them: human and non-human. Root non-human nouns do not have person and number: ᏎᎷ – selu ‘corn’. Human root nouns always have a prefix. For example, the root for the word ‘man’ is skaya, but it is always used in third person singular with the prefix a-: askaya.
Human nouns can also denote ethnic and national groups: ᎠᏴᏫᏯ – ayvvwiiya ‘Indian’, ᎠᏯᎳᎩ – ajalaki ‘Cherokee’.

In Cree and Ojibwe, unlike Cherokee, it is possible to distinguish subject and object noun in the sentence. This mechanism is called obviation. For instance, there are two third person singular nouns in the sentence. In Cherokee, one can guess the subject and object through the context, but in Cree, the object is called obviative and takes an obviative inflectional suffix (Ministry of Education 2002).

Adjectives in Cherokee can take prefixes to agree with the subject they modify: ᎠᏆᏔᎾ agwa-tana ‘I-big’, ᎠᎩᏴᏣ agi-yvtsa ‘I-cold’. Like verbs, most adjectives have prefixes to denote person and number. In Cree and Ojibwa, there are no adjectives; objects are described with the help of verbs. The first part of such verb is translated into English as an adjective. Most English adjectives exist like Cree verbs: waapaau ‘it is white’ (Junker, MacKenzie, & Brittain 2012).

Cherokee and English

Cherokee and English are completely different languages as they belong to different language families. Cherokee tends to rely on its own linguistic resources rather than on borrowings. English, on the contrary, contains a great number of words borrowed from other European languages. There are also words that originated from Asian languages like Japanese or Chinese.

In grammar, these two languages have very little in common. In English alphabet, each symbol represents a single morpheme. In Cherokee and Cree syllabics, each character stands for a syllable, which is usually a combination of a consonant and a vowel. The word order is also different. In English, the verb and object go after the subject. In syllabics, this type of word order is only one variant out of many possible. For example, in English sentence ‘He saw me’ it is clearly understood that ‘he’ is the subject and ‘me’ is the object. In Cherokee, this simple sentence will look like aki-kooh-vvi ‘He/she/it saw me’ or ‘I saw it’. In this example, the verb shows that the action took place in the past while its prefix denotes the first person singular. However, the prefix does not give any information if its referent is a subject or an object.

Nasalized vowels are not typical for English, while in Cherokee, the vowel ’v’ is nasalized. In both Cherokee and Cree, writing does not distinguish voiceless and voiced sounds. Sound “d” and “g” are often devoiced and affricates “ts” and “dl(tl)” appear only in the Cherokee language.

Cherokee syllabary consists of 85 symbols, while English alphabet includes 26 letters. In both languages, the text goes from left to right. Some characters look the same, but sound different as Sequoyah did not know how to read English and just borrowed some symbols from English to Cherokee.

Cherokee is one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn. Syllabics are polysynthetic languages by nature, which means that words consist of many parts. Words are constructed to give some details about the speaker, the object, to express the speaker’s attitude to the action. The complexity of the Cherokee language is best exhibited in verbs, which comprise about 75 percent of the language as opposed to only 25 percent in English (Montgomery-Anderson 2008).

In fact, these languages exist together and the majority of Cherokee and Cree native speakers are bilinguals. This situation is not dangerous for English being an international language with millions of speakers around the world. Now Native Americans try to return to their cultural roots and save their language; for instance, they publish textbooks and teach new speakers.

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Inventory of Characters

Cherokee and Cree have relatively low inventory of characters. In comparison to 85 Cherokee symbols, an average Chinese should know 4,000-5,000 symbols to understand what is written in a newspaper. Chinese has extremely high inventory of characters. There are over 80,000 of hieroglyphs but most of them are not in use.

In Cree and Cherokee, when the new word is formed, one symbol that represents one syllable is not enough. Many syllables or even words can be joined together to create a word with the complex meaning. If one takes, for instance, Cree word cihciy meaning ‘hand’ and adds the prefix ni- to it, the new word nicihciy ‘my hand’ with a possessive marker appears. In Chinese, one symbol can carry enough information to stay as a single word. There are many single root morphemes in Chinese. These morphemes are enough to carry the meaning and do not need additional morphemes to create a complete word. Unlike the Chinese, Cherokee and Cree syllabic languages form words by putting many morphemes together and it is impossible to understand the meaning and the grammatical category of the word without affix syllables.

Although, like in many languages, there are additional affixes in Chinese, they can be added to the root morpheme only to give an additional meaning. There also appear words that consist of two symbols. They often begin or end with the same sound: gāngà ‘awkward, embarrassed’, cànlàn ‘brilliant, glorious’.

Forming a Cluster

When two or more consonants occur together, they are called a consonant cluster. There is no regular rule for representing consonant clusters (Montgomery-Anderson 2008). The typical syllable in Cherokee and Cree is a consonant followed with a vowel (CV). The onset of a syllable is the initial sound or sounds, if any, that come before the nucleus. The nucleus is represented with a vowel, and the coda is the sound that goes at the end of the syllable after the nucleus. Most clusters that appear before the nucleus are divided into two groups. The first group is a cluster of /h/ and a sonorant. There are four such clusters: /hn/, /hy/, /hw/, and /hl/. Such combinations may exist as part of lexical items or may come about through phonological operations. The following example is a combination with the nasal /n/: aseehno ‘probably’. However, often, it is not exactly a cluster, but a devoiced sonorant.

The second group of onset cluster is /s/ plus consonant. The alveolar fricative combines quickly with other consonants. It is the only consonant that is represented with its own syllabary character s. Most consonants can follow this consonant: asthi ‘string’ (sth), skwiisti ‘a lot’ (skw). In Cree, the cluster /sk/ is formed with two consonants: chisaayaaskunibisim.

Other combinations, such as /sl/, /stl/, and /sn/, do not appear often: taasluuska ‘He is splitting it.’ (sl), taastluuska ‘He is splitting it’ (stl), taakinusnvni ‘She gave me them’ (sn).
There are other onset clusters, although they are much less common than clusters involving initial /h/ or initial /s/. The combination /ts/ plus obstruent can exist in a lexical item: tskili ‘ghost’, tskooya ‘bug’.

There are no examples of the following consonant clusters as onsets in Cherokee: /sm/, /sj/, /sch/, /shl/, /sy/, /sw/, /sts/, or /s/.

The dropping of the final vowel creates clusters including sv/, st/: uusvhnvvi – uusvhnv ‘eat’, oosta – oost ‘good’.

In Cree, consonant clusters /sp/, /st/, /sk/, /sch/ can often be met: ispimishiish, muusuyaanistis, miskam, escheu.

Thought, the consonant clusters involving /s/ appear often in both languages, there are no examples of /sch/ cluster in Cherokee, while it often appears in Cree.

Syllabic Writing System and Roman Alphabet

Some languages use both syllabic writing system and Roman alphabet. Dale (1980) defines the use of two (or more) writing systems for representing a single language as digraphia. Although the Cree and Cherokee native scripts were invented, they may show resemblance to scripts from which some symbols were borrowed, but they were not copied from beginning to end. Having analyzed the socio-political situation, the Cree and Cherokees decided to adopt one more script. Native communities and the government found some reasons for adding the Roman script to their languages. These prerequisites included accuracy, learning ease and computer literacy. The process in which one reads and pronounces the words and sentences of one language using the letters and special symbols of another language is called transliteration. In case with the Cherokee language, each Cherokee symbol corresponds to two Roman letters.

In Cherokee schools, children usually begin with Cherokee words written in Roman letters; only after it, they get acquaint with syllabary symbols. In some Cree communities, children learn syllabics using their native writing system first, and only after it, they learn it in Roman orthography.

There are some problems in computer transliteration from Cherokee to the Roman script and vice versa. Cherokee words sometimes contain adjacent pairs of single letter symbols that would be combined when doing the back conversion from Roman script to Cherokee. Here are a few examples:

ugetsasgv – u-ge-tsa-s-gv ‘smile’
asivsgi – a-si-v-s-gi ‘fishing’
usgolvgigagei – u-s-go-lv-gi-ga-ge-I ‘pink’
(Feeling 1975)

Other Cherokee words contain character pairs that entail overlapping transliteration sequences. Examples: ᏀᎾ transliterates as nahna, yet so does ᎾᎿ. The former is nah-na, the latter is na-hna.
A special computer program usually analyzes the Roman script from left to right, longest match first. When the text will be conversed from Cherokee back to Roman script, the syllables will not coincide.

In Cherokee, there are some pairs of different words, which have the same spelling in the Roman script. In the process of back conversion, one should pay attention to the context.
Sometimes, to convey the sound special phonetics symbols are used instead of the Roman letters. They are called diacritic marks and are used in French. As Sequoyah’s syllabics system does not show the difference between capital and small letters, the first letter of the first word of each sentence becomes capital when transliterated in Roman alphabet.

When one transliterates a text from the Cherokee syllabary to the Roman alphabet, it is divided to know where one syllable ends and another begins. It allows transliterating the text “syllable-by-syllable” back to Cherokee.

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Education and Socio-Politics

Only 30 percent of aboriginal people in Canada are able to speak their native language, and only 18 percent speak an aboriginal tongue as their primary language at home. In Canada, only Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwe have sufficient numbers of speakers that is considered viable in the long term. Yet, even their languages may be in danger in a few decades.

Native American communities and the government provide language revitalization programs to save their languages and community bounds. Universities and tribal colleges play a key role in the language revitalization movement. To support the Cree language development and cultural literacy, bilingual books and other literacy materials are published.

For teaching children, special computerized dictionaries are created. They translate words from English to Cree in syllabics and Roman orthography, explain how words behave in a sentence and show some pictures to illustrate the examples.

In 2002, the Cherokee Nation surveyed the number of fluent Cherokee speakers and it occurred that less than 11 percent of Cherokees are fluent speakers of their native language. Besides that, there were no children among these speakers, because they are no longer learning the language (World Heritage Encyclopedia n.d.). The Cherokee language revitalization program includes creating materials for teachers, adding new words to the language lexicon and establishing teaching programs.

Most of young Cherokees speak and learn English and Cherokee, and now the tendency of saving the language and cultural heritage is increasing. Cherokee people try to preserve their language by creating their own words instead of borrowing them. Here cognitive aspects should be taken into account. For instance, the word ‘airplane’ in Cherokee looks like tsi-yu ga-no-hi-li-to-hi, which literally means ‘the thing that one flies’. It is not a borrowed English word itself, but a cognitive equivalent, a descriptive translation based on Cherokees’ experience.

Although these languages have complicated phonetics and are full of affixes because of the low inventory, Native Americans quickly adopted both of them. Using the syllabary can sometimes be inconvenient, especially while working with the computer, so transliterating the syllabary into Roman script is thought to be a good idea. Some of native Cherokee and Cree speakers use both syllabary and Roman script. Native Americans think that losing the native language is the same as losing the identity and the sense of belonging. It has become a recent trend among young Cree and Cherokee people to learn their native languages, because they had no opportunity to speak it fluently in their childhood. Now, they try to repair an omission, they want their children to become fluent speakers of their native languages as their grandparents were.

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