Towards a Standard Orthography – Part 1

Part 1
Introduction

In February of 2021 Montreal-based publisher Joseph John launched an online campaign to add Cree to Google’s translation software. His campaign has managed to attract quite a bit media attention, but reactions among Cree people have been mixed, with pertinent questions regarding dialect and orthography being raised by many. 

For Google to even be able to add our language to its translation software it will have to address both issues, something with which even we as Cree people continue to struggle. But let us disregard the question of dialect for the time being and focus on orthography to better understand what Google would require to even be able to add our language to its service. This topic is especially pertinent as the solution for Google would ideally translate into a solution for us.

In this post we will describe the nature of orthography and orthographic standardization. As an example from which perspective and lessons can drawn, we will then provide a brief history of French orthography. In the following post, a summary of what has been accomplished to date in Cree country with regard to orthography will be provided followed by an outline for a principled approach to a standard orthography of our language.

What is orthography?

Orthography is a set of shared conventions for writing a language that allows speakers of that language to communicate using the written word. Without shared conventions, written communicate becomes laborious, or even impossible. It is the need to communicate using the written word that compels us to abide by what we perceive to be shared conventions. After all, why write if no one can read? 

In the absence of shared conventions, an orthography may gradually take form commensurate with the need or desire to communicate. In the beginning, competing conventions naturally arise. The process of addressing these and settling on a shared set of spelling rules is called standardization. For most languages, this process took hundreds of years and did not happen organically. To settle competing conventions, most languages benefitted from learned persons who systematically assessed them against their understanding of the history of that language and its phonemic and morphemic structures. And yet, despite pronouncing themselves in favour of one convention versus another, progress towards a standard orthography could only happen if others endorsed their opinions. Let us look at the development of the French standard orthography to better grasp what is involved.

A Brief History of French Orthography

The earliest example of written French goes back to 842 with the Oath of Strasbourg. The French portion of this multi-lingual document would be hardly recognizable to speakers of contemporary French given the evolution of both the spoken and written language since. In fact, French orthography as we understand it nowadays was largely establish between the 14th and 17th century, hundreds of years after the first evidence of its written form.

The concerted effort undertaken by individuals during those few centuries aimed at establishing a set of conventions based on both phonemic and historical principles. The resulting orthography, not yet its present form, but likely recognizable to most contemporary speakers, is largely based on the pronunciation of Old French with an attempt to remain as close as possible to the language’s Latin origins. However, these pioneers had to wrestle with many issues, including one we wrestle with as Cree-speakers – Old French was not a unified language, but rather a set of dialects. As a result, the spelling of certain words became largely etymological with the consequence being a multitude of silent letters. For instance, the French word for ‘time,’ pronounced /tã/, would become temps, to represent its Latin origin tempus rather than its Old French origin tens (whence English tense). Additionally, letters that had been pronounced differently in Latin were retained in French in words where the letters had come to represent the same sound, as in the case of the French letters s and c, both pronounced /s/ in the early orthographies. With time, many etymological errors crept in and orthographic reforms became necessary to address the shortcomings of what was a misguided attempt to model French onto Latin, a completely different language in spite of its ancestral relationship with French.

The many errors that were introduced during that period started receiving attention the 1600s with the establishment of the Académie Française in 1635. The progression towards a standard French orthography would continue with further reforms into the 1800s. But these would not be the last. In 1990 a further set of reforms affected another few thousand words, many of them common words. This reform continues to be criticized and even challenged by some, but it is slowly becoming the norm. Even well-established dictionaries were slow to adapt, with the 1990s reforms finally being included in the 2011 edition of the Dictionnaire Larousse.

All told, French has been written for over a thousand years and has really only achieved a semblance of a standard hundreds of years later. Its crawl towards a standard orthography really only picked up the pace in the 1600s, with the establishment of the Académie Française, the pre-eminent council for matters pertaining to the French language. This council of forty members has played a crucial role in the development of a consistent orthography and has published 9 editions of a dictionary deemed official by much of the French-speaking world. Yet, the heavy reliance on Latin continues to make French orthography clumsy, fuelling fringe advocates of even more drastic orthographic reforms who insist on purging French orthography of silent letters and homophonous letters and letter combinations. Despite the heavy influence of Latin, French orthography works well precisely because it is standardized and is endorsed by all French-speakers countries regardless of dialect.

What about Cree?

In contrast, Cree was first committed to writing in the early 1600s, and mostly by non-Cree people until the late 1800s. And although attempts to develop a suitable orthography have been made since the beginning, the task continues to be complicated by dialectal variance, the choice between alphabet and syllabics, and the ever-present influence of a colonial language such as English or French. To make matters worse, ongoing language loss continues to diminish the potential for real literacy in any dialect. The future may seem grim, but there is hope for both us and Google. In our next post we will ignore the noise and review what has been accomplished across Cree country to date and discuss a principled approach to a real standard orthography.

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