Great Lakes Algonquian syllabics (or
Great Lakes Aboriginal
syllabics, also referred to as "Western
Great Lakes Syllabary" by
Campbell) is a writing system for several
Algonquian languages that
emerged during the nineteenth century and whose existence was first
noted in 1880. It was originally used near the Great Lakes: Fox
(also known as Meskwaki or Mesquakie), Sac (the latter also spelled
Sauk), and Kickapoo, these three constituting closely related but
politically distinct dialects of a single language for which there is
no common term; in addition to Potawatomi. Use of the script was
subsequently extended to the Siouan language Ho-Chunk (also known as
Winnebago). Use of the
Great Lakes script has also been attributed
to speakers of the Ottawa dialect of the Ojibwe language, but
supporting evidence is weak.
Consonant and vowel letters that comprise a syllable are grouped into
units that are separated by spaces. The system is of interest to
students of writing systems because it is a case of an alphabetic
system acquiring aspects of a syllabary.
Great Lakes script is unrelated to Cree syllabics, which was
invented by James Evans to write Cree and extended to a number of
other Canadian indigenous languages.
1 History and origins
2.1 Fox alphabet
3 Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) adoption
4 Possible Ottawa use
5 Ojibwa use
6 Written materials
7 Correspondence table
10 External links
History and origins
The script is based upon "a European cursive form of the Roman
alphabet". Vowel letters correspond with French writing
conventions, suggesting a French source. The order of the consonants
in tables of the
Great Lakes Syllabics is evidence that the script was
developed by people who knew the
Canadian syllabics syllabary
previously in use in Canada, suggesting an origin in Canada.
The early development of the system is not known. In 1880, when first
reported, use of the script was widespread among speakers of Fox and
Sac. Some remarks by Potawatomi speakers suggest that the first
Potawatomi usage was in approximately the same period.
Potawatomi does not have a consonant /h/, and instead has a glottal
stop /ʔ/ in places where Fox would have /h/. In Potawatomi, the
glottal stop is the only consonant not represented in the script, and
similarly in Fox /h/ is the only consonant that is not represented.
Because glottal stops have frequently been overlooked when
transcribing Native American languages with the Latin script, whereas
/h/ seldom is, this anomaly suggests that the script was originally
developed for Potawatomi, and subsequently transmitted to speakers of
Fox, Sac, and Kickapoo.
In syllabics, syllables are separated by spaces, and words optionally
by a point (period) as the word divider. Old transcriptions of
Algonquian languages by Westerners frequently separated the syllables
of the languages with hyphens, and the period would be used every few
words at the end of a sentence, so these practices may be historically
Great Lakes syllabics is an alphabet, with separate letters for
consonants and vowels. However, it is written in syllabic blocks, like
the Korean alphabet. Moreover, the vowel /a/ is not written unless it
forms a syllable by itself. That is, the letter ⟨k⟩ transcribes
both the consonant /k/ and the syllable /ka/. In most Great Lakes
syllabics alphabets, the letter for the vowel /i/ has been reduced to
its dot, which has become a diacritic on the consonant of the
syllable. Both phenomena (ignoring an inherent vowel and writing other
vowels as diacritics) are characteristics of a subclass of alphabet,
such as Devanagari, known variously as abugidas or alphasyllabaries.
The aspirated consonants are distinguished from the tenuis as digraphs
with the letter ⟨h⟩, but the distinction is frequently ignored,
making syllabics a defective script for consonants as well as vowels.
There are several alphabets based on the script. Samples of the Fox
alphabet are in Jones (1906), and Walker (1981, 1996); the latter
includes handwriting samples for each letter or compound letter from
four different early 20th century Fox writers. Samples of the
Potawatomi alphabet are in Walker (1981, 1986). Goddard (1996)
includes a postcard written in the Fox script, and Kinkade and Mattina
(1996) includes a page of text in the Fox alphabet.
The syllabary symbols used by the Fox, Sauk, and Kickapoo groups have
only minor differences. This section outlines the main characteristics
of the Fox alphabet, which is the most completely described in
published sources. A brief discussion of the Sauk alphabet has also
been published. Fox speakers refer to the script in both Fox and
English as the pa·pe·pi·po·, referring to the first row of
consonant-plus-vowel syllables in traditional presentations of the
The core component of the Fox presentation is 48 syllables arranged in
twelve rows and four columns. One row is the four vowel letters by
themselves. The others each consist of one of the eleven consonant
letters by itself (with the inherent vowel /a/ understood) and
followed by each of the three combining vowel letters. The script
accommodates all the consonant sounds of the
Fox language with the
exception of /h/, which has no letter. No distinction is made between
long and short vowels. A sequence of two identical vowel letters is
read as two syllables, typically with an /h/ assumed between the two
Syllables are separated by spaces. Punctuation consists of a word
divider, "which variously appears as a dot, a small line, or an
⟨X⟩ or ⟨+⟩.... Many writers do not use the word divider, being
particularly apt to omit it at line ends, and some never use it."
Jones (1906) indicated that the dot or small line were used as word
dividers and the cross as a sentence divider, but subsequent study of
Fox text manuscripts does not support this claim.
Several variants of the script existed among Fox speakers, in which
various symbols were substituted for combinations of consonant and
vowel letters. These variants were apparently originally used as
secret codes and were not widely utilized. Samples of the variant
forms are in Walker (1981), taken from Jones (1906).
There are also minor variations in the form of the script used by
Kickapoo speakers, and Kickapoo speakers living in Mexico have added
orthographic modifications based on Spanish.
Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) adoption
The Fox alphabet was adapted by speakers of Ho-Chunk (also known as
Winnebago) subsequent to an encounter in
Nebraska in 1883/1884 with
Fox speakers, who told them of other Fox speakers who were using a new
writing system in order to write their own language. On a subsequent
visit to Fox territory in
Iowa in 1884, a Winnebago speaker learned to
write in the script. Period reports indicate rapid adoption of the
script by Winnebago speakers in
Nebraska and Wisconsin. Winnebago
phonology is significantly different from that of Fox-Sauk-Kickapoo
and Potawatomi, with both more consonants and vowels, and the script
was adapted in order to accommodate some of these differences.
Paul Radin worked with Ho-Chunk speaker Sam Blowsnake
to produce Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American
Indian. This autobiography was based upon handwritten material
composed by Blowsnake in the script. Use of syllabics declined
over time; when Radin visited Winnebago communities in 1912, he
reported that it was known only to a small number of people.
Possible Ottawa use
Some comments by Ottawa speaker Andrew J. Blackbird “…in which he
recalls his father Mackadepenessy ‘making his own alphabet which he
called ‘Paw-pa-pe-po’” and teaching it to other Ottawas from the
L'Arbre Croche village on the
Lower Peninsula of
Michigan have been
interpreted as suggesting use of a syllabic writing system by Ottawas
earlier in the nineteenth century, although Blackbird was not himself
a user of the script. Blackbird’s Ottawa writings use a mixture of
French and English-based characteristics, but not those of Great Lakes
script. There are no known Odawa texts written in the script.
It has been suggested that Blackbird’s father may have been
referring to a separate orthography developed by French Roman Catholic
missionaries and spread by missionary August Dejean, who arrived at
Michigan in 1827, and wrote a primer and catechism in
an orthography similar to that used by other French missionaries.
In his 1932 "Ethnobotany of the Ojibwe Indians," Huron H. Smith
records, "The Ojibwe have written their language for a longer time
than any other Algonquin tribe and, while they employ a script in
corresponding with absent members of the tribe, it has little value to
the ethnologist...." Smith then clarifies what he means by 'script'
and provides a script table in the footnotes.
In the early twentieth century,
Bureau of American Ethnology
Bureau of American Ethnology linguist
Truman Michelson engaged several Fox speakers to write stories using
the Fox script. Some of these texts are lengthy, running to several
hundred printed pages each. A large collection of these unpublished
texts is now archived in the
Smithsonian Institution National
Anthropological Archives. A photograph of Michelson and prolific Fox
writer Albert Kiyana appears in Kinkade and Mattina (1996). Kiyana
wrote stories for Michelson between 1911 and his death in 1918. A
newly edited and transcribed version of “Owl Sacred Pack,” one of
the culturally most significant of the stories written by Kiyana has
recently been published.
Great Lakes Aboriginal syllabics is not part of the Unicode
standards, glyphs for this table have been approximated with cursive
' / h
a / á
a / aa
aanh / aany
š / š'
e / é
e / é
enh / eny
kw / gw
x / x'
i / í
i / ii
iinh / iiny
k / g
k / k'
p / p'
o / oo
oonh / oony
gw / ġ
kw / ḳ
s / s'
s / z
t / d
t / t'
č / č'
x / x'
¹ Depending on the style, "a" or "u", "g" or "q", "H" or "x", and "I"
or "y" are used.
² The portion shown within the parentheses are not always written.
³ Meskwaki ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩, and ⟨o⟩, and Ho-chunk ⟨i⟩ may be
shown using vowel dots instead of vowel letter.
^ a b Walker, Willard, 1996; Goddard, Ives, 1996
^ Campbell, Lyle. 1997. p. 9 American Indian Languages. New York:
Oxford University Press
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 123
^ Walker, Willard, 1996, pp. 168-173
^ Walker, Willard, 1996, p. 169
^ Justeson, John and Laurence Stevens, 1991-1993
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 116
^ a b Walker, Willard, 1981, p. 169
^ Unseth, Peter. 2017. The syllabary used by the Kickapoo in Mexico.
Written Language and Literacy 19.2: 246 – 256.
^ Walker, Willard, 1981; Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 126
^ a b Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 127
^ Jones, William, 1906; Walker, Willard, 1981, pp. 158-159; Walker,
Willard, 1996, pp. 170-171
^ Walker, Willard, 1981, p. 160; Walker, Willard, 1996, p. 172
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 124; Kinkade, Dale and Anthony Mattina,
1996, p. 250, Fig. 3
^ Reinschmidt, Kirsten, 1995
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 117
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, pp. 117-119
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 120
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 120; Jones, William, 1906, p. 91
^ Jones, William, 1906; Walker, Willard, 1981, pp. 158-159
^ Walker, Willard, 1996, pp. 169, 171
^ Fletcher, Alice, 1890
^ Walker, Willard, 1981, p. 162
^ Blowsnake, Sam, 1920
^ Walker, Willard, 1981, p.162
^ Walker, Willard, 1981, pp. 161-162; Walker, Willard, 1996, pp.
^ Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 127; Walker, Willard, 1996, p. 169
^ Smith, p. 335
^ Kinkade, Dale and Anthony Mattina, 1996, p. 250, Fig. 3
^ Goddard, Ives, 2007
Blackbird, Andrew J. 1887. History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians
of Michigan: A grammar of their language, and personal and family
history of the author. Ypsilanti, MI: The Ypsilantian Job Printing
House. (Reprinted as: Complete both early and late history of the
Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of
Michigan [etc.].) Harbor Springs, MI.
Babcock and Darling.
Cappel, Constance, 2006. Odawa Lanquage and Legends: Andrew J.
Blackbird, and Raymond Kiogima, Bloomington, IN:
Blowsnake, Sam. 1920. Edited and translated by Paul Radin. Crashing
Thunder: The autobiography of a Winnebago Indian. University of
California publications in American archaeology and ethnology, volume
16, no. 7. University of California Press.
Fletcher, Alice. 1890. “A phonetic alphabet used by the Winnebago
tribe of Indians.” Journal of American Folk-Lore 3:299-301.
Goddard, Ives. 1988. “Stylistic dialects in Fox linguistic
change.” Jacek Fisiak, ed. Historical dialectology,
pp. 193–209. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Goddard, Ives. 1990. “Some literary devices in the writings of
Alfred Kiyana.” W. Cowan, ed., Papers of the twenty-first Algonquian
Conference, pp. 159–171. Ottawa: Carleton University.
Goddard, Ives. 1996. “Writing and reading Mesquakie (Fox).” W.
Cowan, ed., Papers of the twenty-seventh Algonquian Conference,
pp. 117–134. Ottawa: Carleton University.
Goddard, Ives. 2007. The Owl Sacred Pack: A New Edition and
Translation of the Meskwaki Manuscript of Alfred Kiyana. Edited and
translated by Ives Goddard. University of Manitoba: Algonquian and
Jones, William. 1906. “An Algonquian syllabary.” Berthold Lanfer,
ed., Boas anniversary volume: Anthropological papers written in honor
of Franz Boas, pp. 88–93. New York: G.E. Stechert.
Jones, William. 1939. “Ethnography of the Fox Indians.” Margaret
W. Fisher, ed.,
Bureau of American Ethnology
Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 125. Washington.
Justeson, John S. and Laurence D. Stevens. 1991-1993. “The evolution
of syllabaries from alphabets: Transmission, language contrast, and
script typology.” Die Sprache 35: 2-46
Kinkade, Dale, and Anthony Mattina. “Discourse.” Ives Goddard,
ed., The Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 17. Languages,
pp. 244–274. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution.
Michelson, Truman. 1927. “Fox linguistic notes.” L. Friederichsen,
ed., Festschrift Meinhof: Sprachwissenschaftliche und andere Studien,
pp. 403–408. Gluckstadt und Hamburg: J.J. Augustin.
Reinschmidt, Kirsten Müller. 1995. “Language preservation with the
help of written language: The Sauk language of the Sac and Fox of
Oklahoma.” David H. Pentland, ed., Papers of the twenty-sixth
Algonquian Conference, pp. 413–430. Winnipeg: University of
Smith, Huron H. 1932. “Ethnobotany of the Ojibwe Indians.”
Bulletin of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, 4:327-525.
Thomason, Lucy. 2003. The proximate and obviative contrast in
Meskwaki. PhD dissertation. University of Texas, Austin.
Walker, Willard. 1974. “The Winnebago syllabary and the generative
model.” Anthropological Linguistics 16(8): 393-414.
Walker, Willard. 1981. “Native American writing systems.” Charles
A. Ferguson and Shirley Brice Heath, eds. Language in the USA, pp.
145-174. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Walker, Willard. 1996. Ives Goddard, ed., The Handbook of North
American Indians, Volume 17. Languages, pp. 158–184.
Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution.
Internet Archive of "Potawatomi syllabics"
Foster's vocabulary list
Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride – a Ho-Chunk story
Potawatomi Words at
Wisconsin Historical Society collections (written
with superfluous diacritic marks and use of "b" instead of "l")
Types of writing systems
History of writing
Languages by writing system / by first written accounts
Old North Arabian
Boyd's syllabic shorthand
Thomas Natural Shorthand
New Tai Lue
Pau Cin Hau
New York Point
New Epoch Notation Painting
Chinese family of scripts
Oracle bone script
Khitan large script
Khitan small script
Ditema tsa Dinoko
Great Lakes Algonquian syllabics
Nwagu Aneke script
Old Persian Cuneiform
Unicode braille patterns
(see for more)
Devanagari (Hindi / Marathi / Nepali)
Chinese (Mandarin, mainland)
English (Unified English)
Inuktitut (reassigned vowels)
Taiwanese Mandarin (largely reassigned)
Thai & Lao (Japanese vowels)
Gardner–Salinas braille codes (GS8)
Symbols in braille
Canadian currency marks
Gardner–Salinas braille codes (GS8/GS6)
Nemeth braille code
Optical braille recognition
Refreshable braille display
Slate and stylus
Thakur Vishva Narain Singh
William Bell Wait
Braille Institute of America
Braille Without Borders
Schools for the blind
American Printing House for the Blind
Other tactile alphabets
New York Point
Electronic writing systems
Internet slang dialects
Lolspeak / LOLspeak / Kitteh
Martian language (Chinese)
Padonkaffsky jargon (Russian)
See also English internet slang (at Wiktio