Sunday 6 May 2012

The Cree Written Language, Thomas More's Utopia, and Genocide

(1) This article clears up a few facts about the connection between (i) the invention of the "syllabic" writing system (now used for many indigenous languages in Canada) and (ii) the classical writing systems of India, that I would show, briefly, to be more significant than the often-mentioned connection to (iii) European systems of short-hand in general, and (iv) Thomas More's Utopia in particular; noted here also is (v) the subsequent influence of the Canadian syllabics system on at least one writing system in Asia, with a few reflections on the over-arching issue of (vi) Christian Missionaries of the the British Empire.

The article as a whole (diverse as these subjects may be) is a knot of anecdotes resulting from the rise and collapse of an empire; it is a peculiar knot, linking several radically unrelated cultures, peoples, languages and themes.  While these are merely linguistic anecdotes, tying them together provides us with a peculiar vantage on the legacy of both attempted and actual genocide in that empire.
(2) In some quarters, the invention of what we now call "Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics" remains controversial as an "invention", but I would propose here that (in most cases) this controversy is the result of sincere confusion.  (i) The tenet that Cree as a spoken language is an ancient, sacred patrimony of the Cree people is uncontroversial (and so on for Ojibwe to the speakers of Ojibwe, etc. etc.), and many words to this effect are found in the opening pages of the wâskahikaniwiyiniw-âcimowina, 1987; (ii) the further tenet that the Cree and adjacent indigenous peoples had a writing system of some kind prior to European contact is also uncontroversial (more on that in a moment).  However, what is controversial (and, indeed, impossible to believe) is the blending of these two tenets, such that people start to assume that the syllabic characters now in use are themselves part of that ancient cultural patrimony (pre-dating European contact).

The same Christian missionaries who introduced new systems of writing to transcribe these languages provide us with the evidence that there was writing of some kind before it (at least in limited, local use).  In another essay, I've compared this aspect of colonialism to a layer of volcanic lava, that arbitrarily preserves fragments of the very same thing that it destroys; in looking through the autobiographies of the destroyers, we find some evidence of what was destroyed.  Thus, amongst the James Bay Cree, a missionary who was trying to introduce a new alphabet himself observed that the locals already had their own system of "…hiroglyphics [sic] being marked with the finger nail on a piece of birch bark".*¹

Although it is hypothetically possible that this was some other European writing system that had reached them already (and that was not recognized as such by the missionary observing, in 1842) it is more likely that this was another example of a native system along the same (general) lines of what we have documented among the Mi'kmaq (formerly writ Micmac).  Why do I say this is likely?  The same missionary that we're quoting himself witnessed the arrival of the syllabic system (locally) within the same year as this observation, and then proceeded to teach the new system himself; it would be wildly improbable, given his whole career, if he could not see the difference between a European system of spelling (of some kind) and native "hieroglyphics".  This same word (hieroglyphics) is still used to describe the Mi'kmaq system of logograms; unfortunately, the missionaries who documented it were primarily interested in adapting it to record prayers and biblical meanings (thus, polluting the evidence).

It isn't surprising that a culture that manufactured so many items out of birch bark would devise writing of some kind (the bark easily retains marks, made with any implement or none at all); and as we do have some documentation of the (pre-contact) symbols used by the Mi'kmaq it is reasonable to suppose that the symbols used by the Cree would (likewise) have no resemblance to any European alphabet (i.e., there is no evidence of a phonetic script prior to European contact, but merely hints at pictograms and logograms, in local use here and there).

Why is the example of Mi'kmaq better documented than this example from amongst the James Bay Cree?  Simply because the particular Christian missionary observing one system took a greater interest in it than the other (i.e., in both cases, we are dependent upon a missionary witness).  I assume that a few more articles on this subject will yet be written (collecting together other anecdotes about such pre-contact symbols in Canada), as both missionary archives and the records of the Hudson Bay Company become digitized, and more readily available.  Arbitrarily, as I say, some fragments of evidence are preserved by the same forces that were set upon the subversion, conversion, and destruction of the colonized culture.

(3) What exactly is the link between the writing system now used for Cree and Thomas More's Utopia?  The link both to Utopia and to European shorthand (that pre-dates the invention of Cree/Ojibwe syllabics) is much more tenuous than most other authors seem to think.

The illustration at the top of this article gives the reader their first hint: the similarity is rather less than it seems.

Looking at the Cree in the left-hand column, we can see the systematic relationship between the sounds ᒧ (mo), ᒪ (ma), ᒥ (mi), and ᒣ (mê).  The same shapes do appear in the middle column, as they appear as letters in Thomas More's Utopia; however, there is no such systematic relationship between them at all.  You can see that Utopian does not even create a logical separation between consonants and vowels, but simply transcribes the English alphabet on a one-to-one basis, in this same order: ᒧ, ᒪ, ᒥ, ᒣ = n, o, p, q!

Other websites (and even peer-reviewed articles) have vaguely suggested that the common link between these alphabets is the principle of rotation.  This is extremely misleading: "rotation" seems to imply that they have in common the logical relationship between ᑭ=ki, ᑫ᐀kê, and so on.  Both with More's Utopian alphabet and the early shorthand scripts, there is no such significance to "rotation" whatsoever.  Indeed, 18th century shorthands generally removed the significance of "rotation", so that the same character could be written with more than one alignment to speed up the pace of penmanship: notice that the chart lists two different forms for the sound "h" in Byrom shorthand (right-hand column).  In this shorthand, both ᑫ=h and ᑯ=h; they are two different ways of writing the same character.  This is, as I say, the diametric opposite of Cree, where the distinction of ᑫ-vs.-ᑯ is crucially important (ᑫ=kê and ᑯ=ko).

The shorthand systems were certainly influenced by More's Utopia, and while the small chart for this article doesn't show the patterns in full, the reader will notice that the bottom row shows that Byrom shorthand has ᑎ=m and ᑌ=n.  This is no more sophisticated than Utopia before it: the sequence of the symbols in the alphabet is just made a bit easier to remember by this pattern, but there is no logical principle of "rotation" that explains one sound by contrast to another.  Of course, in Cree ᑎ᐀ti, and ᑌ᐀tê.

(4) I think that some sources simply reach out for Utopian as the earliest possible example of the type of "rotation" that is found in many of the shorthand systems; however, all of these precedents lack the directional logic of vowel sounds found in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics.  Obviously but fundamentally, Utopia's alphabet is not a syllabary, but simply a futuristic-looking alphabet (showing, strangely, that our notion of what is aesthetically futuristic hasn't changed much since 1516!).

The so-called principle of rotation is in fact one of the aspects of the syllabic system derived from India.  The connection to India's writing systems is always admitted (if fleetingly and without details) in articles on this subject: James Evans himself knew Devanāgari to some extent, and I've seen various sources try to demonstrate that particular Cree letter-forms were derived from Devanāgari.  This seems to me to miss a more useful point (that I've foreshadowed in this article's second illustration).

India's writing systems are indeed syllabic (albeit imperfectly so), and what we call "rotation" in Canada is really derived from a pattern of the ancient Indian writing systems indicating vowels by "direction" (a few of my readers will roll their eyes at my simplicity of expression here, but I'm assuming that my audience has not already studied the inscriptions of Ashoka, etc.).

I should confess here that I am digressing to provide some answers to "F.A.Q." on the relationship between written Cree and the written languages of India here: there seems to be real confusion about this among the specialists (both students and professors) whom I've spoken to, perhaps resulting from the same type of vagueness I've seen in other articles myself.

(5) The most ancient era of India's history that we have (extant) written evidence from is called the Mauryan dynasty (and the most famous tracts of writing from this period are the edicts of the Emperor Aśoka, whose name you will also find anglicized as Ashoka).  If you're going (to Google) to look for further illustrations of this writing system, you'll need to know that a number of different (ancient) systems of writing are now referred to as "Brahmi" (the term is more confusing than you might expect, but I won't digress into discussing it here).

What you can see in these ancient systems (more clearly than in some of the modern languages of India, that are directly derived from the same source) is a consistent system of expressing the vowel by adding an extra line "pointing" in a direction that indicates the vowel-sound.  The syllable "lu" is expressed by the consonant symbol for "l" plus one line below it (pointing downward), whereas the symbol for "le" is the same consonant shape with a line added pointing to the left instead.  All of this should be clear enough in the illustrations.

In the classical Indic writing systems, the number and shape of the lines added (to the core consonant symbol) isn't as significant as the "direction" that the vowel is pointing toward; thus, because of the shape of the "k" character, it takes two lines to add a mark above the character to form "ki" (and scribes had some liberty to use their imaginations to make these markings look stylish, giving rise to a great variety of glyph-forms over the centuries).

The reliance on the pattern of directions (rather than the graphic form of the vowel) makes the script easier to learn (and easier to read) because stylistic variations don't break the pattern: in reading the language, you soon learn that anything pointing "up" adds an "-i" to the syllable, whereas "down" adds a "-u" sound, and so on.  The resemblance to the way we now write Cree is limited, but it is real.

At the most basic level, both systems are designed to display one syllable as one symbol as often as possible (but there are exceptions and imperfections in both systems).  This is fundamentally different from More's utopia, and also differs from all of the shorthand systems antedating the Cree syllabary.

This broad pattern of expressing vowels by "decorating" a consonant symbol has remained the principle of all Indic writing systems, through an amazing array of variations and historical examples over more than 2000 years (including the writing systems for unrelated languages in Southeast Asia, such as Cambodian and Burmese).  Although the style of the lines that "point" off in the various directions has changed there has been a remarkable consistency in the basic association of the sounds with the directions.  In modern Thai, you don't add a single line above the consonant for an "i" vowel, but instead add a sort of loop; however, the "i" sound is still a decoration added above the character, whereas a "u" vowel is a different sort of loop added below the character, and so on.

(6) It deserves to be said that this directional principle is extremely well-suited to a language with only four vowels (and Cree has exactly four) whereas it would be poorly suited to a language relying on contrasts between a large number of complex vowels (e.g., Cambodian, Thai and Lao).  However, the same basic writing system has been foisted onto radically unrelated languages, either by the indifference of history, or else by the designs of missionaries.

In the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia (Burma, Cambodia, etc.) the writing systems that have resulted from India's influence can express the ancient language of their religious scriptures very efficiently (i.e., Pali), but can just barely express the spoken vernacular of the modern languages (with many "bootstrapping measures" to denote all of the vowel sounds necessary, and still with many leaps of imagination left up to the reader).

Interestingly, however, the effect for Cree and Ojibwe has been the opposite: anyone looking at the first generation of Bible translations (from English into Cree) will find it remarkable that they are looking at a writing system that can express the indigenous vernacular well enough, but it breaks down into a mess every time a Hebrew name or biblical concept must appear (and this happens on every page of these religious tracts, with a borrowed vocabulary from Abraham to Zachariah that defies transcription into Cree).

(7) So what exactly was the inspiration that the Christian Missionaries took from Thomas More's Utopia?  When you look at the illustrations of the original plan for the writing system produced by James Evans (of the Wesleyan Methodist Church) there is one major difference between Cree as he wrote it and Cree as it is written today: Evans tried to express the difference between the long vowels and the short vowels by bifurcating the syllable (i.e., cutting the glyph in half, leaving a gap in the lines forming the character).

This seems wildly original, and the only thing it looks like (to my knowledge) is the Utopian alphabet (where we have gaps in the middle of circles, and squares divided in half, etc.) --although it is a resemblance only.  I don't think there's any mystery as to why More did this, nor as to why the first designers of the Cree script copied the same geometric aesthetic: simply, in type-written script, it looks neat.

In hand-writing, however, it is difficult, time-consuming, and it generally ends up looking like a mess.  You can go ahead and try writing a triangle in two halves that don't join up, if you're having trouble imagining this; the more letters of this kind are on the same line, the more work there is for the reader's eye to do in joining up the halves to make sense out of the sentence (and half of one letter can look like half of another, etc. etc.).

In no time at all, a much simpler long-vowel-marking came to replace the Utopian convention: a single dot was added above the character to mark long vowels (ᐃ vs. ᐄ, instead of writing the whole syllable in two halves).  Apparently the only place that the original plan (of bifurcated characters) is demonstrated is in the proposal documents produced by James Evans (before the script became popular with the Cree and Ojibwe themselves).

The simple dot is also somewhat messy and imperfect; as anyone with direct experience will tell you, the vast majority of fluent Cree speakers (over age 50, shall we say?) do not use the dot in their own hand-writing, but leave these vowel distinctions unmarked on paper (much to the frustration of some linguists), along with omitting the marker for h (ᐦ).

(8) These were not the only influences on the development of the syllabic writing system: the precedent of Cerokee syllabics was significant, and pretty well every published source on this history will mention the systems of shorthand writing that were then in use in Europe, in one way or another, as a model for emulation.

However, it may be that the most important influence of shorthand was simply the cultural impetus of questioning what the best way to write a language might be, and encouraging innovation in general.

It is remarkable (prima facie) that a self-selected group of people who had devoted themselves to a Hebrew-and-Aramaic religion did not have any interest in devising their new writing system on the basis of what they considered to be their own sacred language.  Certainly, it is easy to imagine that some other missionary might have instead found inspiration in the writing systems of what were then called the "Hamito-Semitic" languages; but, instead, they invented something new, and presented it as new, i.e., neither boasting of any roots in ancient India, nor of any in ancient Israel.

(9) The story of this particular writing system begins in Canada, but it doesn't end in Canada: other missionaries did follow the precedent set by the Cree syllabary, in working with radically different languages, in radically different cultural contexts.

As I am one of very few people with combined experience in researching languages in both Yunnan and Canada, I was quite relieved when I discovered that someone else had already published an article on the next chapter of this history (because it means that I don't have to write the article myself!).  Here is the citation:
Alison Lewis and Louis-Jacques Dorais.  2003.  "Two Related Indigenous Writing Systems: Canada's Syllabic and China's A-hmao Scripts."  The Canadian Journal of Native Studies.  Vol. 23, No. 2, 2003, p. 277–304.  Brandon: Manitoba.

(10) While I understand why various sources try to put a positive spin on this story, it deserves to be said bluntly that the invention of this system of writing was expressly part of a project to conquer, Christianize, and subjugate the native peoples of Canada in one instance, and to (similarly) conquer, Christianize and subjugate other native peoples in Yunnan (S.W. China) in the other case.  The comparison illustrates broader patterns of British imperialism found around the world.  In the source just cited, above, the positive spin is to emphasize that, regardless of whatever the intentions of the missionaries may have been, "As soon as it became available as a writing system, it was, so to speak, appropriated by its users, who made it totally their own" (id., p. 287).

The problem with appending this kind of happy ending onto the story is that it mis-represents cultural destruction as cultural preservation: I favor the blunt honesty of the (aforementioned) wâskahikaniwiyiniw-âcimowina that sums up the history as one of white society "robbing [the Cree] of everything, even our language and also our culture" (p. 2).  As chilling as this honesty may be for some, it is preferable to presenting a reassuring pseudo-history of native appropriation of the missionary's tools.  I don't think that this kind of reassurance is useful to anyone: the vast majority of published works that are extant in these written languages (that were invented to impose the Bible on the indigenous people of Canada in the first place) are still Bible-translations and church sermons.  The effectiveness of the tool has to be evaluated relative to the purpose it was designed to serve; and, of course, the earlier phase of translating the Bible into native languages was rapidly followed by outright forced assimilation (pursued by both church and state), banning the use of the native languages, and forcing the recitation of prayers and reading of Bibles in European languages only.  Even in this bleak context of cultural genocide, it may be complained that the British Empire didn't take much interest in forcing its conquered peoples to learn Aramaic, Ethiopic or even Hebrew (i.e., if anyone sincerely believed that their god "said" any of this stuff, why would they be forcing the conquered peoples to learn English?); in a sense, linguistic homogenization was a higher priority than Christianization.

(11) So, as it is has been foreshadowed that I don't want to pin a happy ending onto the tale, what is the unhappy ending that I propose instead?

One issue that is illustrated by the dotted lines traced out in this article (from Europe to India and China, with the Cree somewhere in-between) is the peculiar cosmopolitanism of the authorities of the British Empire --both the temporal and ecclesiastical authorities alike.

At the top of the heap, there were figures like Lord Lamington, who were expected to be experts (or at least imperators) from one end of the world to the other, serving the empire in the most diverse (and mutually-alien) linguistic and cultural contexts imaginable; and (in general) these men served with deplorable brutality, ignorance, and indifference to human suffering, everywhere they were sent.  At the bottom of the heap there were Christian missionaries (many of whom at least lived up to their promises to live in poverty, in contrast to the lairds at the top) who, likewise, often had experience at unrelated extremities of the earth, and in radically alien languages.  In the careers of particular individuals, we see decisions being made (with long-term ramifications) by people who had served in some capacity in Africa, who then were re-assigned to India, or who were equally arbitrarily re-assigned from Asia to "the New World", and so on.  This is indeed part of the intellectual background to the invention of the Cree syllabary, the A-hmao syllabary, and many other linguistic oddities of the empire.

However, within this strange patchwork of the British Empire, I cannot say that all conquered peoples were treated genocidally: while the same missionary organizations were often involved in translating the Bible into both Chinese and Cree, they did not equally expect that the Chinese and the Cree would one day cease to exist.  The conquest of Canada, like the conquest of Australia, falls into a category much different from the British conquest of Burma: as brutal as the annexation of Burma may have been, the British never dreamed that Burma would one day be completely uninhabited by the Burmese, whereas they not only dreamed of an equivalent genocide for Canada but very much came to assume that it was a sort of automatic outcome of British dominion there.

Were the missionaries themselves aware of this purpose?  Did they regard the future of the continent in this way?  The answer is, very often, written out plainly enough in the autobiographies of the missionaries themselves, as I have alluded to before.

I would here present one example of an important missionary who worked both in "the new world" and in Burma, and whose work on languages was of tremendous importance (at least for Southeast Asia); this was the Reverend Francis Mason, who wrote his autobiography in 1870.*²  The man travelled the world during one of the bloodiest eras of imperialist history, and he seems to have approved of the slaughter going on around him in each and every theatre of the war called civilization.  Mason was a witness to this history in the most literal sense: "Official councils were frequently held with the Indian chiefs [in St. Louis] at the house of General Clark, and I was often present. [...] They had much to say about dying away before the white man, like withered leaves ..." (pg. 148).

The following excerpt takes on more weight when we consider that the reverend doctor had both witnessed some of the extinction of the bison (that he is endorsing) and the persecution of the native population (that he is excusing), as both proceeded at a rapid pace during the years that he lived in America:

"The Indian may be excused if he complains of his lands being taken from him, but shall we have no Pacific railroad because the land belongs to the Indian, and he will not sell it?  I see no absolute wrong in the government taking it under such circumstances. [...] The world cannot be civilized without their lands, and the civilization of the world is a necessity as great as the turning of the earth on its axis.  If they will submit to be civilized, land enough will be left them for a civilized people to dwell on, but if they are determined to remain wild, like the bison on their plains, then like their bison, they must move on before the wave of civilization, or be swept away by it." (p. 149-150)

In this case, as was typical of the British empire, we have one and the same man acting as a missionary in what seem like the most diverse (and mutually-unrelated) civilizations imaginable.  Perhaps he had an equally limited appreciation of each of those civilizations.  However, my point here is that the remotest tribal minorities of Burma were indeed linked to the indigenous peoples at the opposite end of the world, because they were both conquered by the same empire, and had to contend with the same characters (like Mason) ruling over them, preaching to them, while both documenting and redefining their languages.


¹ John S. Long.  1986.  "The Revend George Barnley and the James Bay Cree."  The Canadian Journal of Native Studies.  Vol. VI, No. 2.  p. 318.  Brandon: Manitoba.
² Francis Mason.  1870.  The Story of a Working Man's Life: with Sketches of Travel in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.  Oakley, Mason & Co.  New York: U.S.A.