Syllabics and the Unicode Consortium

When the Canadian government announced the release of the Canada 150 Typeface last year, I was immensely pleased to read that it would support Cree syllabics. In our communities, however, it is common knowledge that syllabic typefaces based on the Unicode Standard contain a number of errors in the sh-series that make typing in Cree quite a hassle. Fonts designed either locally or by linguists in the know have been used for years to circumvent this problem, but this requires that one manually change the font selected whenever typing in syllabics. Therefore, with the release of Canada 150, I immediately wanted to verify its Cree syllabics to see if the errors had been corrected.

Sadly, the errors had not been rectified and this prompted me to contact the designer of the typeface, Raymond Larabie. He was surprised to hear that the Unicode Standard contained such errors and immediately offered to help get the message across to the Unicode Consortium. We worked together to identify the erroneous glyphs and sent them examples of how the glyphs should be oriented. Eventually, the consortium replied and paid the matter the attention it deserved. A few months and emails later, the Unicode Consortium informed us that they had published a new errata notice to publicize the corrections that will take effect with the release of the Unicode Standard 9.0.

Barriers related to the use of our language need to be identified and removed if our language is to survive its uncertain future and perhaps even thrive once again. A font related problem might not seem that significant, but this little hassle has served as a disincentive for many people who would have otherwise embraced pairing our language with modern technology. I would therefore like to acknowledge and thank Debbie Anderson, Unicode Technical Director, and Raymond Larabie for their assistance in solving this problem.

It will take a while for typefaces to catch up with the corrections. In the meantime, those wishing to type in Cree can download and install the BJCree typeset provided freely here. It can be used on word processors, but not on social media. For the latter, we will simply have to be patient as we wait for the world to catch up to the Unicode Standard 9.0.

The errors and corrections can be seen below in the consortium’s latest errata notice.

Errata Unicode


Travelling Exhibit on the Cree Language


IMG_3969The Canadian Language Museum recently launched its newest travelling exhibit, Cree: The People’s Language, at the University of Toronto. While browsing six beautifully designed panels and an audio station, visitors can become acquainted with the most widely spoken indigenous language in Canada. The colourful bilingual panels feature information about the various dialects of Cree, some idiosyncrasies of its grammar, information about its various spelling systems, along with other interesting linguistic facts. Browsing the audio station, one can actually listen to clips from the various dialects of Cree and get a sense of what is written on the panels.


Having been invited to contribute to the content of the exhibit it was great to attend the launch and finally see the end product in person. Elaine Gold and her team at the Canadian Language Museum did a wonderful job at crafting eye-catching displays that are sure to please even the less linguistically inclined. In fact, the exhibit proved to be a great conversation starter as visitors pondered linguistic traits such as animacy and polysynthesis. I certainly enjoyed my evening conversing with the curious!


The Canadian Language Museum plans to have their exhibit travel the country and will be presenting it at the Pan-Am games in Toronto this summer. Be sure to visit this stimulating exhibit if it comes to a town near you or contact the museum directly if you would like to host it for a special event!

(Cree: The People’s Language was launched on March 25, 2015. The images above were provided by Andrew Tomkins.)

Publication of a Grammar of the Cree Language


imageLast week marked the publication of the Grammaire de la langue innue, the first ever modern and comprehensive grammar of the Cree language. So while I usually lay my head down around eleven o’clock, for the past few days my eyes have remained open long after the time of my nightly reclination as I diligently read through each of its 602 pages.

For those unversed in the study of the Cree language or its various appellations, what is here referred to as the Innu language is a group of Cree dialects spoken by around 11,000 people along the north shore of what is now generally known as the St-Lawrence River in Québec. Yet, despite the title of the book, there is no such thing as a homogeneous Innu language. Instead, the book introduces us to a variety of dialects who, for historical and political reasons, have come to be grouped under that term.

Differences aside, the speakers of these dialects have managed, over time, to agree on a single standard spelling system – no simple task considering the glaring phonological discrepancies among the dialects in question. But this move towards orthographic unity, encouraged by their conspicuous cultural and ethnic unity, has been of utmost importance for the development of literacy and the promotion and preservation of the Cree language in those communities. Without such a standard orthography, the present grammar would have most likely failed at being so dialectally inclusive and at successfully targeting the actual speakers of the language who, more often than not, are not trained linguists and might not manage to read an orthography based on conventions used in linguistics.

The author of this grammar, Lynn Drapeau, is a well-known linguist in the field of Algic languages. Having done research since the 1970’s on the particular dialect spoken in Pessamit, she is one of a handful of linguists who has spent a considerable amount of time in our communities to eventually become a speaker of our language. This investment of hers would also result in her 1991 publication of what was then the most extensive dictionary of the any Cree dialect, her Dictionnaire montagnais-français. But her crowning achievement will unquestionably be her Grammaire de la langue innue, which she managed to perfect by dedicating her post-retirement time to parsing countless hours of recordings of elderly monolingual speakers and holding discussions on various points of grammar with her academic and communal research groups.

I have had the pleasure of having the author supervise my work as a graduate student in linguistics, where I focused my interests on the history of the Cree language. It was then that I came to understand how what appears to be a wide and disparate variety of Cree dialects is in fact a language that remains incredibly similar, lexically and grammatically, regardless of its regional innovations. This grammar will therefore undoubtedly prove useful to speakers of other Cree dialects until modern and comprehensive grammars of their dialects are published as well.