Typing in Cree

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With the release of the Canada 150 Typeface in 2015 I decided to contact its designer, Raymond Larabie, about an error in the orientation of certain characters in its Cree syllabics. Fortunately, Mr. Larabie knew lots about typeface design and he soon realized the error resided with Unicode, the information technology standard for consistent encoding and representation of text in most of the world’s writing systems. He quickly contacted Debbie Anderson, Technical Director at Unicode, and together we worked to rectify the error for the release of Unicode 9.0.0.

Since then, default typefaces for syllabics, such as Euphemia, have yet to be updated and typing in syllabics continues to be frustrating, especially over the internet where the typeface is set in stone, so to speak. Thankfully, there are a number of typefaces designed by those in the know that avoid Unicode’s previous errors, my favourite being BJ Cree by Bill Jancewicz. When I switched to a Mac a number of years ago I appreciated that he had designed a keyboard that could easily be installed and used without Keyman, the cumbersome program used to type in syllabics on a PC and cellphones.

I immediately noticed a few differences between BJ Cree on my Mac, when compared to the PC version. For one, the W-series on the Mac consists of one Unicode character when compared to the PC version where the dot representing the W is a separate character from the syllable that follows. Naturally, this causes problems when searching for text that was originally composed on a PC, but this problem is more of a nuisance than a obstacle.

Two years ago, however, I noticed another mistake that would have gone unnoticed for years were it not for the fact that we had just published a pedagogical syllabics chart for Moose Cree. Only after printing the charts did I notice that the character representing RE pointed in the wrong direction, showing up as ᕂ (U+1542) instead of ᕃ (U+1543). This puzzled me at first and had me wondering if I had been using the wrong character all these years when writing by hand. My uncertainty lied in the fact that the R-series is rarely written as the sound does not exist in our dialect, so only words of foreign origin require it. However, a quick check in the the literature made it clear that the keyboard was wrong. Unfortunately, the syllabic charts had already been printed and all there was for me to do was to update the syllabics chart featured on this website.

For some reason I had not thought of contacting the designer of this typeface and keyboard. After all, I was right in the middle of my medical studies at the time. But as luck would have it, a casual conversation last week with Arden Ogg, Director and Chair of the Cree Literacy Network, led to her e-mailing Bill Jancewicz on the subject. A week and a half later, he informed me that he had corrected the keyboard error. However, upon testing it, another error that was noted to have inadvertently crept in. I informed Bill Jancewicz of the error and we discussed other changes that could be made to improve its function. I suggested a narrow no-break space (U+202F) could be added to keep grammatical and lexical preforms closer to their hosts. This suggestion resulted from a conversation Arden Ogg and I had had about how awkward large spaces look in syllabics when these are used between preforms and their hosts. Incredibly, Bill was gracious enough to include this narrow no-break space on the new keyboard and placed it on the dash key, which would normally be used when typing in the alphabetic orthography in these situations.

I would like to thank Bill Jancewicz for taking the time to correct the above mentioned error on his Mac keyboard and for including the narrow no-break space. Although modern technology still offers some resistance to the use of our written language, he is among those who make it possible for us to do so. I encourage all Cree speakers to get involved and to use the language as much as possible on modern media. The resistance we encounter today will eventually vanish as we progressively improve our tools.

For those interested in downloading Bill Jancewicz’s typeface and keyboards, they can be found here. Note that it may take a few days for the corrected version of his Mac keyboard to be uploaded.

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