Reading Syllabics: Lesson 1


Many go through life never knowing how to read in Cree, some having assumed that syllabics must be too difficult to acquire. Nothing can be further from the truth! Syllabics are an intuitive writing system that can be acquired with little effort, so long as that effort be consistent. Once acquired, a whole new world opens up to the reader. Aside from being able to read signs, posters, and pamphlets in one’s community, a wide set of Cree books will suddenly be accessible. Cree language books display a wide range of topics including cooking, education, harvesting the land, history, religion, and sacred stories. Of course, a whole set of posts on this very blog will also become intelligible. But most importantly, having learned how to read, one may eventually learn how to write – and we are in desperate need of writers! Cree literacy is a skill that can enrich one’s life immensely. So without further ado, shall we begin?

Lesson 1


In this lesson you will learn how to read the four basic vowels and how these may be marked for length. You will also learn how w‘s  and h‘s are indicated. By the end of the lesson you will be able to read a few basic, but important, Cree words! Try to memorize the individual characters and the first few words presented in this lesson.

This first character sounds like the e in bed. Memorize its shape as you repeat its sound, paying close attention to the direction in which it points. You’ve now learned to read your first Cree word, a conjunction that can be translated as that, when, or as.

This second character sounds like the h in ahead. Memorize its shape. You’ve now learned two characters that together allow you to read a second Cree word, an exclamation that means yes.


The next character looks exactly like the first one above, except that it points upwards instead of downwards.

This character has two sounds. Although it usually sounds like the i in bit, when it occurs at the beginning of a word or after the character  it will sound like the the ea in beat. Memorize its shape while paying close attention to the direction in which it points. You’ve now learned a character that allows you to read another Cree word, an exclamation that also means yes, but that is only used in northern dialects.


When a fuller or longer vowel sound is required, a dot is place above this character.

Accompanied by a dot, this vowel now sounds like the ea in bead. Notice how the ea in bead is pronounced longer than the ea in beat. You’ve now learned how to read two vowels and one consonant. You also know that a dot above a vowel indicates a longer vowel. Let’s move on!

The above character can be pronounced like the oo in book or the oo in boot. As with the previous character, the second sound will usually be heard at the beginning of a word or after an . Memorize this vowel while paying close attention to the direction in which it points.

Once again, to achieve a fuller or longer sound, a dot is placed above the vowel. Accompanied by this dot, the vowel now sounds like the oo in brood. Notice how the oo in brood sounds longer than the oo in boot. This is now the fourth Cree word you’ve learned to read! This dotted character, as you have probably guessed, means this one. Having learned the above characters, you can now also read a variant of this word, spelled as follows:


Only one vowel left to learn! Here it is followed by its dotted counterpart:

ᐊ ᐋ

The character on the left can be pronounced like the u in cup or like the a in cap. Its dotted counterpart will be pronounced like the a in cab. Notice how the a in cab is longer than the a in cap. Alone, this dotted vowel is a marker for yes/no questions. You can now read the following question, meaning Is it this one?

ᐆ ᐋ?

Of course, if the answer is affirmative, you can now read it, too!


You’ve now learned to read the four Cree vowels, three of which can be lengthened by the addition of an overhead dot. You’ve also learned one consonant. Together, these characters have already allowed you to read quite a few Cree words. It is crucial that you pay close attention to the direction in which these vowel characters point. These characters are traditionally memorized in the following order:

ᐁ       ᐃ       ᐅ       ᐊ

As you may have noticed, only the last three characters can be accompanied by the overhead dot. Another dot, however, can precede any of the above characters to indicate a preceding w.

ᐌ       ᐎ       ᐒ       ᐗ

The last three characters can simultaneously take an overhead dot, indicating a long vowel, and a preceding dot, indicating a preceding w. Knowing this will allow you to read two more Cree words: , a marker of volition that precedes verbs; and , a common response when someone has called your name or when you’ve misheard something directed at you.

We end our lesson with one final character, the final w. This character is written as a superscript circle following another character. Notice where it is placed in the following word.


The above word contains the overhead dot to indicate a long vowel and also contains both the preceding w, indicated by an initial dot, and a final w, indicated by a final superscript circle. This word, which you are now able to read, means egg. You can now also read this final word of encouragement!


In this lesson, you have learned to read seven characters – four basic vowels and one consonant. You have also learned how three of the vowel characters are lengthened by the addition of an overhead dot. Finally, you’ve learned how to read preceding w‘s, indicated by a preceding dot, and final w‘s, indicated by the final superscript circle. Having learned these basic symbols has allowed you to read the following words:


… ᐋ?

Believe it or not, this will have been the most difficult lesson to learn! In the following lessons you will learn the other consonantal characters, all of which obey the possible combinations presented above. It is therefore crucial to properly assimilate the information presented above. Read through the lesson multiple times if need be and practice writing the characters out. You can also draw a chart to memorize the directions in which the vowels point or even use cue cards to help you memorize them along with the nine words above.

Practice makes perfect!


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