Au Pays de l’Ours Noir: Part 16

Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir,

Dispatches of a Missionary 1897, by Father

Adrien Gabriel Morice

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Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan

 Alphabet for the Carrier Language

The Natives of the outlying places having dispersed, an occupation of quite a different sort claimed my leisure moments. Charged singly with an immense district of missions where I foresaw from the beginning that I would have to completely renew, prayers, catechism, canticles etc. since everyone agreed that the forms then in use were the work, not so much of the priest, who did not know the language, as of the interpreter who, while doing his best, had nevertheless given to a host of passages, a meaning which when it was not ridiculous, was utterly unorthodox. I understood quite soon that if the Natives could be brought to read their language, my task would be considerably simplified.

So from the first months of my stay at Stuart Lake, I was pondering what system of writing might be best suited to their needs. Three qualities seemed to me to be definitely required: the alphabet must first render correctly the sounds of the language: it must be complete: and above all it must be easy because I knew that I would only be able to spare a little time for teaching it to the Natives. The hieroglyphic system applied to the writing of the Micmac language was out of the question. It was too complicated, and besides, since it represented not letters but words, it could only be suitable for the dialect for which it had been intended. The Latin characters gave way to the same objection; if so much time is needed for the child of a white man to learn to read the 25 letters of his alphabet, how much time would be needed for an Aboriginal whose language would require at least 70 different letters to render it correctly? And then where to find these additional letters?

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Stuart Lake, BC

I thought then of the syllabic alphabet invented some time ago by the late Mr. Evans to write the Cree language. But here a new and very serious difficulty presented itself. this book of spelling had only eleven characters; moreover they were displayed without order or method. At least 30 would be needed to enable us to write the Carrier language and related idioms.

So I was obliged to to compose a system of spelling myself, borrowing from the alphabet of Mr. Evans its syllabic character, but for the rest guiding myself solely by what seemed to me necessary to ensure ease of learning.

This system, which has been called ‘methodical, easy and complete’, has been tested. A Native will learn its 30 characters forming a total of 180 positions or different syllables in less time that it will take him to learn the eleven characters with 44 positions of the Cree system. In fact, I have known a young man who learned our alphabet in two evenings. You see, the characters which compose it are formed and grouped in such a way that their 180 positions reduce to 30 signs and they in turn are only modifications of nine principal signs.

Do not forget that with our system every sign represents a whole syllable. Reading is nothing more than reading the characters you see, so that anyone who knows the alphabet can, by the same token, read more or less fluently.

The typeface (font) does not exist which would give an idea of these written characters, so I will permit myself to transcribe here instead, the salutation of the angels in the Carrier language with an almost literal French translation between the lines.

 The Angels Greeting in The Carrier Language:

Carrier with French sub-titles

Click on text to magnify

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The Angels’ Greeting in the Carrier Language

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 Our Natives could from then on learn to read and write their language. Some short manuscript exercises were their first reading books. But it was clear that to obtain lasting and satisfactory results we would need a press and some typeface. The former we got from France, a machine of a most primitive model now out of use and the latter we ordered at great expense from a foundry in Montreal.

We can now say that the XIXth century is an age of great progress.

All that naturally was not done in a day. These writings and printings require a knowledge of the language. In fact from my first week of living at Stuart Lake I put all the energy  of which I was capable towards learning Carrier. It is useless to explain in detail all the difficulties and the richness of this dialect. I will only only remark that its verbs and all of their forms are counted in millions! A single verb in French like the verb mettre, to put, has not less than 65,000 translations in Carrier.

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