Inventor of Dene syllabics slams inventor of Jargon shorthand

-Notorious Northern character Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice’s “Carrier Reading-Book” (Stuart’s Lake Mission, BC: 1894) starts with one of his diatribes. This might seem odd in a lesson book. But there’s a very real reason for his spirited defense of the Dene (Carrier) syllabics system that he had invented and popularized.

The historical sources indicate that the Oblate (that is, the British Columbia Catholic missionary) powers-that-be were duly impressed with how successful this Native literacy of north-central BC was. A chapter (a meeting of all hands) around 1890 discussed how best to get the Native people reading and writing religious instructional materials in languages they understood. This would give Natives the ability to keep learning the intricacies of Christianity on their own during the 50-ish weeks per year that their overworked priests were away in some other far-flung “Indian camp”.

As later remembered by Father Jean-Marie Le Jeune of Kamloops Wawa fame, Morice’s achievements with Carrier caused the assembled priests to seriously attempt writing non-Dene languages in his syllabics. Le Jeune recalls some “5,000 books” (what does he mean by this!) of the various BC Salish languages getting experimentally written out in syllabics — before the Fathers concluded that this was a difficulty way to represent these consonant-filled languages.

What’s more or less left indirectly said is that Morice, no matter how brilliant he was, left something to be desired as a personality. (Read the engaging biography of him, “Will to Power”, for the dirt on this.) His priestly peers almost certainly felt little motivation to validate his invention of a Native writing system, after enough scrapes with his prickly character.

A better-liked young fella named Father Le Jeune piped up at this juncture in the meeting, saying, “Well, how about the shorthand that I learned as a student in France?” And the rest is history, in spades. These events are why we now have thousands of pages of Chinook Jargon preserved, in what the Native users called Chinuk pipa “Chinook writing”.

Now that you know this background information, from the Preface of Morice’s book I give you:

Since the invention of the Déné Syllabary, efforts
have been made in the southern part of British Colum-
bia to introduce among Indians of non-Déné stock the
stenography of the Duployé brothers as a means of wri-

— 7 —

ting the Chinook jargon and even some of the native
languages. This attempt has prompted the question
asked the writer from different quarters: Would it not
be better for the sake of convenience and as a means of
reducing labor to a minimum to adopt a uniform graph-
ic system throughout the whole province ? To which
I beg to answer ; —

With the exception of the Kootenay, all the Indians
south of the Déné belong to tribes of Salish parentage
the dialects of which are noted for the preponderance
of the consonants over the vowels. Hence our system,
being based on the relatively equal proportion of the
vocalic and consonantal sounds, could not, without al-
terations, meet the requirements of the Shooshwap,
Thompson, Okanagan, etc. idioms. On the other hand,
no unprejudiced philologist ever so little conversant
with the numerous sounds of the Salish dialects which
have absolutely no equivalent in the French language
will deny the fact that the Duployé stenography, which
is excellent in the land of the Gauls, is altogether out
of place among the natives of British Columbia, since
it is utterly inadequate to the task of faithfully render-
ing, say, one-fifth of the sounds of their languages.
Nay more, even Chinook, which is but an unpreten-

— 8 —

tious jargon, cannot be correctly expressed by means of
the Duployé, or any other, stenography, since there is
no known system of short-hand which possesses any-
thing like an equivalent for the peculiar consonantal
sound of such common words as t’ɿap, t’ɿəmənwit, oiɹat,
etc.[*] Nor should it be forgotten that stenography being
invariably hand-written previous to its being reprodu-
ced by mechanical process, some dashes inadvertently
made too long or too short may easily be confounded by
the student with others of nearly similar appearance,
but of quite diiferent value, an accident which is, of
course, impossible with type-printed signs like those of
the Déné Syllabary.

From all of which it seems that we are warranted in
concluding that the latter has “come to stay”.

(pages 6-8)

* To emphasize his point and show how smart he is, Morice invents a couple of special symbols ɿ ɹ  here. Did you recognize the Chinuk Wawa words he’s using as examples?

  • t’ɬáp ‘to get, to find, to catch’
  • t’ɬəmínxwət ‘(to tell a) lie’
  • úyx̣at ‘street, road, trail’

I want to make it clear to you that Morice’s critique is right on point.

  • A syllabary approach, where most symbols stand for a sequence of Consonant+Vowel, works well for a Dene/Athabaskan language like Carrier/Dakelh.
  • The structure of Chinuk Wawa, Salish and Kootenay/Ktunaxa words is less predictable than that, which is why an alphabetic system works better for them — the Duployan Chinuk pipa is an alphabet. (To my knowledge, Ktunaxa has only been written in the Roman alphabet, not Duployan.)
  • It’s true, Chinuk pipa certainly didn’t start out having enough symbols to represent all the Native sounds of Chinook Jargon or Salish. Father Le Jeune, who the priests tasked with developing that alphabet for Native use, recognized this implicitly. We can tell this from the continuing emergence of modified Duployan symbols in Kamloops Wawa such as k’, ɬ, and so forth.
  • And yes, the Achilles heel of Duployan is what its French inventor had seen as its strength: it’s a visually minimalist set of symbols, with many pairs of sounds distinguished only by the size of the symbol used. Sure enough, new writers had a hard time keeping say the small letter separate from the big letter g. (But to fair, few Salish languages make much use of the voiceless-voiced consonant distinction that this usually reflects in Duployan.)

What we’ve seen today is one man’s good idea, hard work, and big dreams abruptly frustrated, and another man’s chance suggestion turning into a huge historical legacy for Chinuk Wawa.

Imagine if we had wound up reading the Jargon in symbols like this…

dakelh syllabics tombstone

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

(FYI, I go into the history of Chinuk pipa in greater depth in my dissertation.)