The Spread of Syllabics
It's reasonably well-known that the syllabic writing system used by some Canadian Inuit was created by a Wesleyan missionary for use among the Cree Indians of Manitoba in the 1840s.
In the 1850's two Church Missionary Society missionaries, Horden and Watkins, adapted that system for use with Inuktitut – the language of the Inuit.
But both of those missionaries worked in the extreme southern reaches of Inuit territory and the system did not spread, not until Rev. Edmund James Peck arrived in Little Whale River, where, under the direction of John Horden in Moose Factory, he began to work almost exclusively with Inuit. Peck learned Inuktitut, translated material into syllabics, sent his translations off to England, and succeeded in having a body of religious literature made available for Inuit.
Peck spent the years between 1876 and 1892 on the Hudson Bay coast of Quebec, at Little Whale River and Fort George, with only one year off for a holiday back in England. In 1894 he relocated to Blacklead Island in Cumberland Sound and spent four periods of two years each there, leaving permanently in 1905.
Each of the books produced by Peck had a "syllabarium" at the beginning – a page that provided a syllabic chart. The chart was organized in four columns, one for each of the vowel sounds. (Purists, at this point, may want to rush to their computers and write a letter to remind me that the vowel in the first column was really a digraph.)
Down the left side there was sometimes a list of English vowels that represented the first letter of each syllable except those in the top row. And down the right side was a row of characters called "finals."
The books that Peck gave the Inuit were passed hand to hand up and down the coast, from camp to camp. The syllabic system for Inuit was so simple that each Inuk who learned it became a teacher for the next person.
People taught each other the system by rote, the book in front of them, pointing to the symbols and reciting – ai, i, u, a, pai, pi, pu, pa, tai, ti, tu, ta. And so on. Monotonous? Probably. Effective? Definitely.
And so the system spread far beyond the areas that had been reached by missionaries.
In 1922, in the Keewatin interior, the ethnographer Knud Rasmussen listened to a song contest between two men, deriding each other in verse for their short-comings.
One man, Utahaania, having been excoriated by Kanaihuaq for his transgressions, responded in kind to his tormentor, who was guilty of having learned "the sign alphabet of the missionaries" and become snobbish as a result. Rasmussen's text provides the song in his transcription of Inuktitut, and in his English translation:
Ivmaiya – ayai
Is there any sort of reason
Why the Lord of the White Men
Should pay heed to your words?
Is he to put any trust in your words
Because you and you Tupialaaq
Drove him up to those
Who dwell to the east of us?
And yet all the same he listened to you
(and thought you were wise)
Because you could write down speaking signs
With "writing hand",
And make your speech
Like that of a chieftain.
And now I sing
Just to be nasty,
A song such as that a bird sings
With its beak
Here in the qaggje.
In 1990, Inuit participating in the Igloolik Oral History Project, talked about Iqipiriaq, who lived at Avvajja, and his struggle with syllabics:
"He knew nothing about white people and the language. He knew nothing about letters or anything like that, as a matter of fact he made a song about it. He had tried in vain to learn letters but he could not learn them so he made a song about them instead. It goes something like this:
"This letter that looks like a hook,
I wish I could learn what it is,
Gai Gii Guu Ga, Gai Gii Guu Ga."
A year later, the aged Noah Piugaattuk also remembered Iqipiriaq's difficulty and his famous little song:
"I remember the time when some of the people knew how to write while some did not. Iqipiriaq was one of those that never did get to learn the symbols of the writing system. He tried hard to learn but he never caught on. As a matter of fact he composed a song about the symbols of the writing system, hoping he could remember the symbols…"
Most Inuit in the Eastern Arctic did learn syllabics, many well before they ever saw a missionary. This is a tribute to the ease of the system developed by Horden and Watkins, and revised by Peck, a system that spread largely through the "each one teach one" approach.
Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to