American Collections blog

05 October 2012

James Evans and the Cree Syllabary

 Cree language p165

Evans’ Cree syllabary as it appears in John MacLean’s biographical work, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language, published in 1890 [BL Shelfmark 4907.ff.6].

We're pleased to say that our ex-intern Brendan Cull has stayed in touch with us, and has sent us this blog from Canada:

As part of nineteenth-century religious education in the Americas, European missionaries made efforts to develop instructional and religious texts in the languages of the diverse First Nations groups which they endeavoured to convert to Christianity. Many of these resources employ the use of the modern English alphabet to phonetically describe words in print; however, with the help of a Wesleyan Methodist missionary named James Evans (1801-1846), a new system of written communication was created to visually represent the Cree dialects of Hudson Bay in the early 1840s.  Instead of methodically spelling out the phones (or sounds) which make up a word, he devised a series of symbols which corresponded to common syllables. By doing so, he had created the first Cree syllabary.

Evans was born in Kingston-upon-Hull and educated in England.  He arrived in Lower Canada with his parents in 1822 and was soon married.  After a few years of teaching, he became involved in the Methodist Church, was ordained in 1833 and embarked on missionary work throughout Upper Canada.  His ability to quickly and proficiently learn First Nations languages was encouraged by the church and he began to develop grammars and dictionaries for publication.  He also began working on a more efficient way to record the Ojibwa language in print and began work on an Ojibwa syllabary.

He was sent to Norway House, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in present day Manitoba, and it took him only a couple of months to apply his idea to the local Cree language.  He was then faced with the challenge of producing texts without access to a printing press, typeface, ink or even paper.  Determined to develop his project further, Evans whittled handmade wooden type and printed on birch bark, using ink made from chimney soot.  Later he gleaned lead from tea cases and bullets to make cast metal typeface.  In 1841 Evans sent a letter, along with examples of his syllabic typeface, to his brother in London asking the Wesleyan Missionary Society to encourage the Hudson’s Bay Company to send a printing press to Norway House.  With help from other members of the society, both a printing press and typeface were sent to Evans.

The end of Evans’ career was much less positive than its beginnings. In 1843, George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, moved Evans and his family out of Norway House and into nearby Rossville due to Evans’ purported interference in Hudson’s Bay Company business.  Coupled with allegations of sexual misconduct and the accidental death of his good friend by Evans’ gun, his physical and mental health began to deteriorate.  Evans was subsequently summoned to London for an investigatation of his conduct but he was soon acquitted.  He died of a heart attack in Lincolnshire on the 23rd of November 1846.

Evans’ idea has had a lasting impact on the languages of the First Peoples of Canada; in fact, his work continues to be employed by many First Nations groups as well as the Inuit as their primary means of written communication in their respective languages.



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