How do you spell Michif?

One of the things that has made creating Michif materials difficult is the fact that there is no standardised spelling. This is largely because, like most other Amerindian languages, Michif has been primarily a spoken language rather than a written one. Michif has the additional challenge of having two parts, a French part and a Cree part, with different spelling conventions and different sounds.

There are roughly three spelling systems I have seen used for Michif so far:

  1. Turtle Mountain spelling
  2. Flamand-Papen spelling
  3. Source language spelling

Turtle Mountain spelling was the first system developed. It is basically Michif spelled ‘as it sounds’ with English letters. For instance, ‘aw’ represents the long a in father, ‘ee’ represents the i in machine, and so on. It was the creation of Michif speakers who also knew English and were attempting to spell a language that had rarely, if ever, been written down before.

Flamand-Papen spelling was adapted by a linguist (Robert Papen) from the system created by Rita Flamand. That original system can be seen on the Metis Resource Centre website. It attempts to link each individual sound to an individual letter, which is different from TM spelling, where the same sound may be spelled different (the a sound in mate, for instance, might be written either ‘ay’ or ‘ey’ in TM spelling, but is written ee in FP spelling). The main alterations to the system in the above link were to use double vowels instead of accented vowels, using ‘ii’ instead of ‘é’ for the sound /i/, and using ‘a’ instead of ‘u’ for the sound in ‘nut, hut.’

The last spelling system doesn’t have a fancy name. It consists of spelling the French part of Michif as it is spelled in standard French and the Cree part of Michif as it is spelled in standard Cree. This type of spelling seems to be most used when demonstrating the linguistic division that exists in Michif rather than as a commonly used writing system.

The same sentence, meaning “How is the weather?” in all three systems:

  1. Tawnshi li tawn?
  2. Taanshi li taan?
  3. Tanisi le temps?

There are pros and cons to the use of each of these systems, but on the whole I think Michif speakers and scholars are tending towards the use of the Flamand-Papen system. Although Turtle Mountain spelling may be more natural for English speakers, it’s generally not a good long-lasting solution to base a language’s spelling on the spelling of a language with very different sounds. And spelling Michif words as they are spelled in their ‘source language’ ignores the fact that Michif words have undergone certain changes in sounds so that they are not identical to the French or Cree word anymore. It also reinforces the idea that Michif is not a real language, just a code-switch or debased dialect.

In practice, I would say that few people use one system 100% of the time. Most seem to use a spelling based on Flamand-Papen, with some alterations. There are certain tricky spots caused by Michif phonology: one key tricky spot is the letter o/u. In both the French and Cree parts of Michif, the sound represented by o/u is roughly something like the vowel in ‘book,’ but it varies from a /u/ to an /o/ sound. There are, however, some words that definitely contain a /u/ or /o/ sound that cannot be replaced by the other sound. There’s also the issue that because Michif is so tied to speaking rather than writing, many words are pronounced differently depending on the speaker. As a result, in Michif texts, words are often spelled differently even within the same sentence.

So which spelling to use? For myself, I use something based on Flamand-Papen spelling. The best example of this is found in Norman Fleury’s telling of Cinderella. I have personal opinions, though – I have instinctive dislike for quite so many double vowels, especially, for instance, the ee in Cree verbs, where there is no single e sound to be found; I also tend to the o side of the o/u spelling. But I think that the FP spelling system is probably the best that Michif has at the moment.


One comment

  1. Just thought I give you a couple examples of since e’s in Cree verbs. There’s two main places where they show up all the time, probably more if I think about it, but these are the main two: the first is with the 2nd person conjunt – -yen. chii-atoshkeeyen. The other is with the third person following verbs that end in -ee. “awa kaa-atoshket”. So there might be some reason to have both ee and e in the orthography, even though both of these examples are 100% predictable.., although I find it a little funny that at least in nouns, an “e” actually has more length than an “ee”.

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