About the roman alphabet

Why so few letters for so many sounds?

The East Cree roman alphabet uses just a small set of letters to represent many more sounds. This observation is summarized in the following table:

Letters versus sounds
Letter Sounds
P [ p, pʰ, b ]
T [ t, tʰ, d ]
K [ k, kʰ, g ]
CH [ tʃ, dʒ, ts, dz ]
S [ s ]
SH [ ʃ ]
H [ h ]
M [ m ]
N [ n, n ̩]
W * [ w ]
Y * [ j ]
II [ i, iː ]
E [eː, e ]
UU [ u, uː, u̞, u̞ː ]
AA [ a, aː, æ, æː, ɛ, ɛː ]
WAA [ ɔ, ɔː, ɒ, ɒː ] **
I * [ ɪ, ɨ, ə, ʊ ]
A * [ ɪ, ɛ, ɨ, ə, ʌ ]
U * [ ʊ ]
R *** [ ɹ, r, ʀ, l ]
L *** [ l ]
V *** [ v, f ]
TH *** [ θ, ð ]

* This letter can also be silent.

** Sometimes a [ ʷ ] sound occurs at the beginning of these vowel sounds.

*** This letter is only found in borrowed words and names.

Questions you have probably already asked yourself include:

  • Why not write B when I hear a [ b ] sound? Or D when I hear a [ d ] sound? Or G when I hear a [ g ] sound?
  • Why not write J when I hear a [ dʒ ] sound?
  • Why write silent letters (when I can’t hear a sound)?
  • Why write I in some words, and A in others, when they both sound nearly the same?
  • Why write I in some words when it sounds like U [ ʊ ]?

These are good questions, and there are two answers that address all the above questions.

  • Answer 1: The phonemic principle. Answers the questions:
    • Why not write B when I hear a [ b ] sound? Or D when I hear a [ d ] sound? Or G when I hear a [ g ] sound
    • Why not write J when I hear a [ dʒ ] sound?
    • Why write silent letters (when I can’t hear a sound)?
  • Answer 2: Historical spellings. (Why we sometimes depart from the phonemic principle). Answers the questions:
    • Why write silent letters (when I can’t hear a sound)?
    • Why write I in some words, and A in others, when they both sound nearly the same?
    • Why write I in some words when it sounds like U [ ʊ ]?

The phonemic principle

As mentioned in the introduction to writing systems, many languages use letters from the roman alphabet to represent sounds. They use letters in different ways, however: for example, the letter J usually stands for a [ dʒ ] sound in English; in contrast, it stands for a [ ʒ ] sound in French, and for an [ x ] sound in Spanish. Despite such differences, however, most languages with roman alphabets follow the same underlying rule, known as the Phonemic Principle. The basic ideas behind the Phonemic Principle are that

  • a letter represents a sound or a sound-group
  • only sounds (or sound-groups) that carry differences in meaning are represented by letters

Sound-groups: no meaning difference; one letter per sound group

A sound-group is a set of sounds that speakers consider to be ‘the same’. While speakers can hear the difference between such sounds (if it is brought to their attention), they typically ignore these differences because they do not convey any change in meaning in the language.

  • For example, in words like later, English speakers can use the either [ tʰ ] or [ d ] sounds interchangeably without a change in meaning: later can be pronounced either as [letʰə˞] or [ledə˞]. In this particular word, the [ tʰ ] and [ d ] sounds are interchangeable. Because they are interchangeable, the word later is always spelled with a T: the difference between [ tʰ ] and [ d ] is not important in this particular word.

What you have just discovered is that the letter T represents a sound-group [ tʰ, d ] in some English words. (The [ tʰ ] and [ d ] sounds are interchangeable in only a few English words. It is more common for English to represent the [ tʰ ] sound with a T and a [ d ] sound with a D.)

Although the later example is only typical of a few English words (other words include butter, shutter, etc.), the situation where a single letter represents a sound-group is common in East Cree. In East Cree, the letter T always represents either a [ t ] , [ tʰ ], or [ d ] sound. Unlike English, East Cree has no special letter for the [d] sound because the [d] sound is, at one level, ‘the same’ as the [t] and [tʰ] sounds for East Cree speakers.

Whenever sounds (or sound groups) convey a difference in meaning, a special letter is used to represent that difference. Because the difference between [ t ], [ tʰ ] and [ d ] is not meaningful in East Cree, East Cree uses just one letter, T, to represent the [ t, tʰ, d ] sound-group. Similarly, the letter K stands for [k, kʰ] or [g] sounds, and P stands for [p, pʰ] or [b] sounds. East Cree speakers use K to represent the [k] and [g] sounds because speakers can pronounce ᑭᐱᑕᐤ kipitau as [ kɪpɪtaw ] or [ gɪbɪdaw ] without a change in the meaning of the word.

As you can see, Cree uses letters differently than English does. Here is a summary of the main differences between how East Cree and English stops are spelled.

East Cree versus English
P stands for [ p, pʰ, b ]: Most notably, ᐸᔨᒄ payikw can be pronounced as [ pajɪkʷ ] or [ bajɪkʷ ]. (See the page on silent vowel letters for examples of the [pʰ] sound.) P stands for [ p, pʰ ]: spill [ spɪl ], pill [ pʰɪl ]

B stands for [ b ]: bill [ bɪl ]

T stands for [t, tʰ, d]: tii can be pronounced as [ ti ] or [ di ]. (See the page on silent vowel letters for examples of the [tʰ] sound.) T stands for [ t, tʰ ] (and [ d ] in a few isolated words): [ stɪl ] still, [ tʰɪl ] till

D stands for [ d ]: dill [ dɪl ]

K stands for [ k, kʰ, g ]: ᑰᒃ kuuk can be pronounced as [ kukʰ ] or [gukʰ ]. (See the page on silent vowel letters for examples of the [kʰ] sound.) K stands for [ k, kʰ ]: skill [ skɪl ], kill [ kʰɪl ]

G stands for [ g ]: gill [ gɪl ]

CH stands for [ tʃ, dʒ ] (and more sounds): ᒑᑭᑦ chaakit can be pronounced as [ tʃaːgɪtʰ ] or [ dʒaːgɪtʰ ]. CH stands for [ tʃ ]: Chuck [ tʃʌk ]

J stands for [ dʒ ]: John [ dʒɑn ]

In summary, each language uses as many letters as necessary to convey meaning differences. No language uses a letter for each and every sound that can be heard in the language. Languages only use one letter per sound group.

Historical spellings

The East Cree roman alphabet conforms to the Phonemic Principle for the most part, but sometimes departs from it. For example, although the first I is not pronounced in the word ᐋᐱᐦᑐᐎᓐ Click here to hear this word aapihtuwin , the word is spelled that way because the I was pronounced at one time in the history of East Cree; in addition, the I is still pronounced in many varieties of Cree.

Another example is the way verbs like ᔒᐦᑭᒋᐤ shiihkichiu ‘s/he is cold’ are spelled in Northern East Cree. Although we hear a UU at the end, it is spelled IU, because the verb is made of a stem ending with I, the stem ᔒᐦᑭᒋ shiihkichi ‘be cold’ and the suffix -u. Other forms of this verb have endings with I, like ᓂᔒᐦᑭᒋᓐ nishiihkichin ‘I am cold’. Spelling ᔒᐦᑭᒋᐤ shiihkichiu with an I allows us to recognize the common stem ᔒᐦᑭᒋ shiihkichi in all the forms.

Spelling words the way they were pronounced in the past or to reflect their common stem allows to group words of the same family together by their spelling. This also allows speakers of other varieties of Cree (such as Plains Cree) to read East Cree.

Other reasons for differences between sounds and spellings

You may still be wondering about the following spelling problems. Use the links that have been added to each question in order to find the answers.

  • Why write silent vowels (when I can’t hear a sound)?
  • Why write I in some words, and A in others, when they both sound nearly the same?
  • Why write I in some words when it sounds like U [ ʊ ]?
  • Sometimes I hear an [ h ] sound, but cannot see an H in the spelling. Why? See the page about H sounds.
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