What's More Canadian Than Cree?



November 28, 2011

I was pointed to this great resource on Plains Cree (nêhiyawêwin) links but it still doesn't have much information about presenting this language on the web.

Since hearing the story about the creation of Cree & Inuit syllabics, I've been interested in how colonization introduced written language to an oral culture. Since working on several Arabic/Hebrew/Farsi sites over the years, I've been curious as to how this applies to the web.  Being a unilingual person, I can't do more than look at the characters in any of these languages and I certainly have no education in linguistics.  However, I find the challenge of implementing aboriginal languages on the Internet to be quite a fascinating one. 

Cree is the most widely spoken native language in Canada and it's a people that span much of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. However, I was surprised to see how little content I could find on the Web that was written in Cree.  Much of what was available was presented either as images or through Flash, neither of which can be copied, easily searched and certainly would be inaccessible to assistive technologies. The lack of examples to learn from certainly made this exploration more difficult. 

Drupal uses UTF-8, a character set which encompasses most of the world's languages.  So I can simply cut/past UTF-8 characters into Drupal from the web if they are available in HTML.  I pulled these phrases from the East Cree Grammar Dictionary, but it's just a random combination of phrases I've thrown together to show examples of the text:

ᐦᑎᒻ᙮ ᒻ᙮ ᐧᐋᐱᒫᐤ᙮ ᐅᑎᓈᐤ ᐅᑎᐧᐋᔑᔒᒻᐦ᙮ ᐅᑎᓂᒻ ᓂᑎᐦᑯᔨᓂᔨᐤ᙮ ᐋᐱᑎᓰᐤ᙮ ᐋᐱᑎᓐ᙮ ᐄᔨᔨᐅᔨᒧᐧᐃᓐ ᐊᔨᒧᐧᐃᓐ ᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ">ᐊᔨᒧᐧᐃᓐ ᒥᓯᓂᐦᐄᑭᓐ ᐋ ᐊᔨᒥᐦᐄᑐᓈᓅᐧᐃᒡ ᐋᔑ ᐋᔨᒧᑖᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐᐦ ᒋᔅᑯᑎᒫᒑᐧᐃᓐᐦ ᒑ ᐧᐄᒋᐦᐄᑯᔨᓐ ᔖᔥ ᒋᑭ ᓂᐹᐦ᙮ ᔖᔥ ᓂᑭ ᓂᐹᐦ᙮ ᔖᔥ ᒋᑭ ᒌᐦ ᓂᐹᐦ᙮ ᔖᔥ ᒋᑭ ᐧᐄᐦ ᓂᐹᐦ᙮ ᐅᑖᐦ ᐋ ᐄᔑ ᒌᐧᐋᑳᐳᐧᐃᔮᓐ ᐅᑖᐦ ᓈᐦ ᐋ ᐃᔨᐦᑖᑦ, ᓈᔥᑎᔨᒡ ᒧᔖ ᐹᒋ ᓃᐳᐧᐄᑎᒃ᙮ ᑳ ᐧᑳᐱᒑᐧᐃᒡ ᒌᐦ ᒧᐧᐃᓱᑎᒃ ᓈᑖᐦ᙮ ᐃᔥᑭ ᔑᐧᐋᔨᒫᔥᑎᑳ ᐊᓂᔮᐦ ᐅᔑᔑᒥᔥᐦ ᑳ ᐄᐧᑖᐧᐋᐦᑎᑖᐧᐃᑦ ᐋᐦ ᐅᒑᒫᑦ᙮ ᒥᔥᑏᐦ ᐐᐦ ᒦᒋᓱᒑ, ᑖᐹ ᒋᑭ ᒥᔪᒥᐦᒋᐦᐆ᙮

Canadian Syllabics in UTF-8 run from U+1400 to U+167F which means in theory there are 640 aboriginal characters available by default. The Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics is defined in Wikipedia for those who want a list of those available and a subset of these includes the Cree Syllabics. These can be applied in the web through HTML Entities so that can be also expressed as ᐁ - and information about these entities can be found by searching for them by sylabic through GraphemicaUTF-8 character through FileFormat or the HTML Entity through Code Table.

I'd love to see a Cree domain name now that the system has been internationalized and now supports UTF-8.   Certainly all modern browsers support UTF-8 Characters so searching, editing & reading the syllabics shouldn't be a problem on the web. 

Part of the challenge is that there simply that Cree involves several major dialects and even though there are more than 100,000 Cree speakers, it has several major language groups. Although created in 1840 there have been a number of variations in how the written language has been adopted, both character sets & spellings.   The small population of people who can read/write Cree also doesn't help the migration of this language onto the web. 

Web fonts have only recently been introduced in a way that makes them easily accessible to everyone.  You can take any free TrueType Font (TTF) and run it through Font-Squirrel's @font-face Generator and get nice way to display your text online. Knowing that the Language Geek site had a great deal of aboriginal languages I downloaded all of the free Algonquian (Cree, Ojibway, Naskapi) And Inuktitut Fonts that were available.  I then converted them all to the web fonts that I've attached below. 

There are a number of different sites that offer Cree fonts, but many of them are geared for the desktop and most of them aren't specifically free and many of them won't work for the web.  Despite the many sources of fonts, I didn't see anything that compared them.  I think it's assumed that you would be directed to a font, download it to your desktop and go from there.  I believe that the Masinahikan font would be the best one to use for the James Bay Cree, but definitely need direction on this.

Mostly though I need to know when what's available directly through Unicode isn't enough. How do the fonts help to extend Unicode? After that it would be interesting to see how the current methods of entering text in aboriginal fonts work with web browsers.  I can't see why it would work any differently than it does in Microsoft Word, but until someone who can read/write in Cree has done it I'll hold off on saying that it's easy.

As a Canadian I'd really like to see better support and understanding for first nation's languages on the web.  The web can be used to connect First Nation's people across this country and strengthen their communities. Being able to use it in their mother tongue is an important part of this. Please consider this just an initial exploration into what's possible. 

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.