1894: Father Morice trashes Chinuk Pipa

In the preface to the 2nd edition of his Dakelh Dene “Carrier Reading-Book“, A.G. Morice OMI trashes his perceived competition, the new, vastly popular Chinuk Pipa of southern BC.

Pages 6 to 8 bring us this notoriously cantankerous priest’s criticism, which is actually cogent, balanced, and powerful:

morice 1

morice 2

morice 3

morice 4

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-
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 [Ktunaxa], 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 [Secwepemctsín],
Thompson [Nla’keʔkepmxcín], Okanagan [Nsilxcn], 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-
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 different value, an accident which is, of
course, impossible with type-printed signs like those of
the Déné Syllabary.

That’s one of the best summaries ever put together of the real deficiencies of Chinuk Pipa.

Having learned it and taught it, I’m aware that too many of the “shorthand’s” symbols are hard to distinguish from each other; its creator Duployé got a bit carried away with his idea of geometrically minimal letters that would maximally boost writing speed. (Mind you, though, Morice’s Dene syllabics must be a nightmare for dyslexics, as the vowels are differentiated only by tilting the syllable character in different directions!)

Chinuk Pipa is also indeed handicapped by its handwritten, in fact cursive, mechanism of word-formation. This is precisely why it’s the quite rare writing system in the world that still hasn’t been successfully turned into a font. (Yesterday a friend demonstrated to me how his expensive electronic drawing pad can learn to recognize your handwriting, which I think could lead to a way to input Chinuk Pipa directly into a computer…but it still begs the question of displaying Chinuk Pipa onscreen!)

And in 2020, most Chinuk Wawa learners will have a sharp awareness that CW uses numerous sounds that aren’t found in European languages. Morice’s unique but accurate phonetic writing of 3 Jargon words above with apostrophes and upside-down L’s & R’s — which by the way is among the earliest such representations of the language — demonstrates this well. Chinuk Pipa, even at its best in the pretty rare circumstances when writers made an effort to distinguish some of the “Indian” sounds, still only managed to come up with symbols for k’, ł, x, and xw ( phonetically). The “schwa” sound ə, the complex t’ł (ƛ̓ phonetically), and the “back x” , all found in the above words, are among the many that never had their own symbols in the shorthand.

Nonetheless, it turns out that scientific efficiency isn’t what makes a writing system useful or popular.

Virtually every alphabet, syllabary, abugida, abjad, and ideogram system that speakers actually use in their daily lives is sub-optimal:

(1) in terms of helping our brains to distinguish among the set of symbols, and

(2) in leaving out a whole lot of informationally important detail — nearly always stress/tone/intonation, but also the sorts of “place and manner” distinctions that Morice points out in Chinuk Pipa.

And Morice doesn’t disclose two further factors of great relevance to why Chinuk Pipa caught on despite its failings:

(A) Salish community members turned out to love learning to read & write it from each other, and

(B) Morice was what’s now known as an asshole; his attitudes and behavior pissed off his superiors and peers, leading to a province-wide meeting of priests at which Le Jeune was elected as the best person to develop a shorthand alternative to Morice’s Dakelh syllabary.

As I’ve recently written here, there’s more than one way for a cat to be skinned. You can create a successful way of writing Indigenous languages through your sheer solitary genius, and as Morice did, more or less press it on the communities you work with.

Or you can acknowledge a consensus of people’s feelings, and come up with something that works well enough, which is the usual story behind the writing systems of the world.

What do you think?
Kata maika tumtum?