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The Blackfoot Alphabet And How To Use It
Writing in Blackfoot symbols if you've never heard of a syllabary before

We get a lot of confused email asking how to use the Blackfoot alphabet, so here is a tutorial that should hopefully clear things up for beginning Blackfoot language learners.



First, the Blackfoot alphabet is technically not an alphabet, but a syllabary. That means each Blackfoot symbol represents a syllable, not just a consonant or a vowel. So using the English alphabet, napi ("friend" in Blackfoot) is written with four letters: n, a, p, and i. Using the Blackfoot syllabary, the same word is written with only two Blackfoot characters, and (pronounced "na" and "pi.")

For this reason, Blackfeet symbols were arranged in chart form, with one row for each Blackfoot vowel and one column for each Blackfoot consonant:


(adapted from the syllabary chart at Omniglot)

So if you're looking for the Blackfoot Indian symbol for "ki," you go across the chart to the "K" row (fourth from the left) and down to the "I" row (third from the top) to find the character . To add a final consonant to a syllable, tack on one of the diacritic marks from the "Finals" column (so by adding to you get the character , "kit."

Here are some additional hints for using this old-fashioned syllabary chart:

1) In Blackfoot, as in English, symbols are written left to right.

2) If there is no consonant at the beginning of the syllable, use the first column-- the one labeled (a symbol meaning "none.")

3) The final characters for "h" and "kh" are in their own columns, fourth and fifth from the right, instead of with the other finals. Probably that's because those sounds are only used to end Blackfoot syllables, not to begin them.

4) The vowel sounds AI, OI, and AO can also be found in their own columns, sixth and seventh from the right. The diagonal marks that distinguish these vowels from A and O always come before any final consonant marker, not after it.

5) The last three columns actually show consonant clusters. An "s," "y," or "w" that comes after another consonant, as in a syllable like "ksi," is indicated by a diacritic to the right of the syllable character. So "ki" is but "ksi" is . These diacritics also come before any final consonant marker, not after it.

6) You can ignore the whole "E" row. There is no separate E vowel in Blackfoot (and no letter E in the modern Blackfoot alphabet.) The missionary who created this system may have simply been copying the vowel system of Ojibwe (which has an E sound), or he may have been carelessly using E to represent the same ai-as-in-paid sound he was also using AI for.

7) Sometimes this system leaves you with two ways of spelling the same thing. For example, the word Siksika (which means "Blackfoot") could be spelled with either the Blackfoot symbols for SI, KSI, and KA () or SIK, SI, and KA (). The syllabary never became popular enough to have standardized spelling, so you can find words like this spelled both ways.

Note that this syllabary was invented by a non-Blackfoot missionary in the 1800's, based loosely on the Ojibwe syllabary, and it doesn't actually fit the Blackfoot language very well. In particular, there are no characters for the Blackfoot consonant ' (a glottal stop), and no way to represent long vowels or consonants. (Short and long vowels like i and ii, for example, are pronounced differently in Blackfoot and can change the meanings of words, but they are spelled the same in this syllabary.) The writing system also cannot cope with certain Blackfoot consonant clusters like nst, forcing them to be spelled in unintuitive ways like nast or nsit. These problems make the syllabics rather hard for Blackfoot speakers to read, which is probably why they never caught on. The English-based Blackfeet alphabet, which you can see here, is used by almost all Blackfoot speakers today.

Further reading:

Here are some websites with further information about the Blackfoot alphabet:

*Writing Your Name In Blackfoot: Instructions on how to use the Blackfeet syllabary to write English names.
*Blackfoot Syllabarium: Detailed linguistic information on the Blackfoot writing system.
*LanguageGeek Fonts: Blackfoot: Free downloadable Blackfoot font.
*Omniglot: Blackfoot: Brief overview of the Blackfeet writing system, with historical context.



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