Reading Syllabics: Lesson 3


Lesson 3

Ordinal Characters

In this lesson you will learn how to read five more sets of syllabic characters along with their superscript counterparts. You will also learn how to read new words as you work your way through the lesson. Are you ready?


The first character of this lesson is pronounced like the ke in skeleton, never like the ke in kelp or the ge in get. This is what it looks like:

Memorize its shape as you repeat its sound, paying close attention to the direction in which it points. Let’s now move on to the next character.

This character has the same shape as the first character, but it points in a different direction. This one is pronounced like the ki in skit or the kee in skeet, never like the ki in kit or the kee in keep.  Memorize its shape as you repeat its sound, paying close attention to the direction in which it points. When a fuller or longer vowel sound is required, a dot is place above this character, for example:

Accompanied by a dot, this character now sounds like the ki in skied, never like the key in keyed. The next character also shares the same shape as the first two characters, but again this one points in another direction.

This character is pronounced like the coo in scoop, never like the coo in coot. Its vowel sound may also be pronounced closer to the one in book. Once again, to achieve a fuller or longer sound, a dot is placed above the vowel.

Accompanied by the overhead dot, it now sounds like the choo in school. Memorize its shape as you repeat its sound, again paying attention to the direction in which it points. Only one  character left in this set!

ᑲ ᑳ

The plain form on the left is pronounced like the cu in scuttle or the ca in scat. The dotted one on the right has a fuller and longer sound, courtesy of the overhead dot. This one sounds like the ca in scab. Memorize the shape and the direction in which this last character points. You have now learned a complete set!

ᑫ       ᑭ       ᑯ       ᑲ

By now you have surely noticed that this set of characters does not point in the four cardinal directions the way the characters from the last two lessons do. Instead, this set of characters is rotated so that its round head is placed in one of four corners, each associated with its own vowel.  Top-left is associated with the vowel E; top-right with the vowel I; bottom-left with O; and bottom-right with A.  Since the characters point, more or less, in the ordinal (or intercardinal) directions as opposed to the cardinal directions, characters that obey this pattern are called ordinal characters. Here is a mnemonic device to help you remember the directions and their associated vowels. We will build on this mnemonic as we learn more character sets.

ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ

Now that you have learned a first set of ordinal characters the following sets will be a breeze. Here is the first character of the next set:

This character sounds like the ge of gem. Notice how this character’s head is located in the top-left corner? Do you see how a pattern is emerging? Keep in mind directions in which the characters of the first set point as you learn this set.

ᒉ ᒋ ᒍ ᒐ

Take your time to memorize this shape and the four directions in which it points. Listen to the audio track as many times as you need to help you remember the vowels associated with its four directions. You have now learn two sets of ordinal characters:

ᒉ    ᒋ
ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ
ᒍ    ᒐ

You are now ready to learn a third set of ordinal characters. The following character sounds like the me in medical. Can you predict the direction in which it points? That is correct! It will point to the top-left corner. Here is the character:

Take your time to memorize this shape. The next three characters of this set will follow the predictable pattern of the two previous sets. Here is the full set.

ᒣ ᒥ ᒧ ᒪ

Take your time to memorize this set and the four directions to which it points. Listen to the audio track as many times as you need to help you remember the vowels associated with its four directions. You have now learn three sets of ordinal characters:

ᒣ       ᒥ
ᒉ    ᒋ
ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ
ᒍ    ᒐ
ᒧ       ᒪ

By now you have memorized the four ordinal directions and their associated vowels. The next two sets follow the same pattern, but their shapes can be a little tricky to learn. That is because they are the same shapes as the first two sets learned above, except that they lie horizontally instead of vertically. Here is the first set. It represents the consonant otherwise known as N in English, matched of course with the four vowels as usual.

ᓀ ᓂ ᓄ ᓇ

Notice how this set has the same shape as the first set of this lesson. For this set, however, it is the tail that points in the four expected directions. Pay close attention to the difference between the two sets and listen to the audio track as needed to help you remember the vowels associated with their four directions.

You are now ready to learn the last set of this lesson. Notice how the shape of this set is identical to the second set learned above, except that the characters are laid horizontally as opposed to vertically. Once again, the tail of this character will point to the four directions, not the head.  This set represents the consonant otherwise known as L in English. Note, however, that its sound is closer to the French or Spanish L, rather than the English L.

ᓓ ᓕ ᓗ ᓚ

Note that this last set is not used much outside of the Moose Cree dialect. It represents an older sound that, save for a few words, has been replaced by a Y-sound in the dialects spoken along the east coast of James Bay. Although dialects other than Moose Cree have also preserved this sound, they do not use the syllabic spelling system. You will therefore not encounter this set of characters very often, but it nonetheless represents a Cree sound that has to be learned!

We can now update our mnemonic to represent the five character sets you have learned and the directions in which they point.

ᓓ            ᓕ
ᓀ         ᓂ
ᒣ       ᒥ
ᒉ    ᒋ
ᑫ ᑭ
ᑯ ᑲ
ᒍ    ᒐ
ᒧ       ᒪ
ᓄ         ᓇ
ᓗ            ᓚ

Now, let’s practice reading a few words!

1. A young child who is hurt may complain of having a…


2. A word that means “baby”


3. The baby will often ask for its…


4. The baby wants to sleep and says…


5. The baby wants its mommy and cries out…


6. “This English word was not used long ago,” complains the grandmother. She corrects the baby by teaching him to say…


7. The grandmother’s name is Mary, but everybody calls her…


You’ve learned five new sets and already are reading a bunch of new words! Let’s keep going, shall we?

You may have noticed how the above sets all feature syllables containing a consonant sound along with a vowel sound. In order to write a consonant sound without any accompanying vowel, the last character of any set is spelled as a superscript symbol. Notice how these superscript characters are identical to the last character of the sets you’ve just learned.

ᑫ, ᑭ, ᑯ, ᑲ, ᒃ
ᒉ, ᒋ, ᒍ, ᒐ, ᒡ
ᒣ, ᒥ, ᒧ, ᒪ, ᒻ
ᓀ, ᓂ, ᓄ, ᓇ, ᓐ
ᓓ, ᓕ, ᓗ, ᓚ, ᓪ

In addition to these basic consonants, there are two more superscript consonants to learn. Some Cree words preserve a kind of W-sound after a final consonant. This sound is only heard at the end of certain words and only following the consonants  ᒃ and  ᒻ. To write this sound following these consonants we write  ᒄ and  ᒽ instead of ᒃ and  ᒻ.  Notice how these two superscript characters are based on  the larger ᑯ and  characters. These special superscript finals are important to capture the right pronunciation. But they are also important to distinguish certain words such as:

ᒉᒃ           ᒉᒄ
[eventually]     [which?]

Remember that when a dot precedes a character that is composed of a consonantal sound followed by a vowel sound, the W is pronounced between the consonant and vowel. Read the following words to reinforce this concept. Translations will help guide your pronunciation if you are unsure of your reading.

ᓂᒌ ᑴᑎᐲᓐ!    ᒬᐦᒡ      ᒸᒄ
[I capsized!]   [like]   [a loon]

In this lesson, you have learned to read five sets of characters. You’ve learned that these sets of characters all pattern according to the ordinal or intercardinal directions and that the vowels associated with these directions remain constant from one set to the next. Having learned all this has allowed you to read the following words:

ᓂᒌ ᑴᑎᐲᓐ

And many more!


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