Blackfoot Syllabary

Provided here is a syllabary table: the version which was developed in the 19th century by the Anglican missionary, John William Tims. Blackfoot was also later written in a Syllabic script directly derived from Plains Cree (Murdoch 1984:47).

These syllabaries are written in a Unicode-only format which can be read with any other Unicode Syllabics font. Note that some of the characters may not display properly.

See Glossary for terminology explinations.

Original 1880s Version

Initials Syllables Finals
a e i o
hk (x)

Origin of Blackfoot Syllabics

There are several places on the internet as well as perhaps an article in the alternative-archæological journal ESOP (Epigraphy Society Occasional Papers) which claim that all Algonquian syllabics stem from a common Blackfoot ancestor which was used by a single family before contact with Europeans.

If this is in fact true—I have yet to see any evidence—then it could not be the usual Blackfoot syllabary presented here. By looking at the letter shapes, it becomes clear that the forms of most of the glyphs are based on similarly pronounced Latin letters—usually cut in half or modified in such a way that they are not symmetrical; Blackfoot syllabics must all have a 45° rotation axis.

  • /pe/ : Latin P
  • /te/ : Latin T
  • /ko/ : Latin k
  • /me/ : Latin m
  • /no/ : Latin n
  • /we/ : Greek Digamma Ϝ
  • /s/ and /y/ are directly from Cree.

The finals are simply formed from a syllabic without the stem:

  • ᐤ ~ ᑭ
  • ᐨ ~ ᒥ
  • ᘁ ~ ᖼ
  • ᐢ ~ ᒋ
  • ᐡ ~ ᖸ
  • ᔈ ~ ᓭ


The 1888? Blackfoot syllabary, unlike other syllabics systems, tended to over-differentiate somewhat, giving more symbols than necessary for representing the language. Especially noteworthy is the vowel ‘e’  which does not exist as a separate phonological vowel in the (modern, at least) language, although a [e] sound is one pronunciation of /ai/. This system does not recognise vowel length, neither does it specifically mention glottal stops.

This syllabary is interesting in that it gives different vowel sounds for its directions than other languages. In Cree, Ojibway, Inuktitut, and Dene (except Dakelh), (/y/ facing south-east) is /ya/, while in Blackfoot it is /yo/. Similarly, is /se/ in the other Syllabics systems, but /sa/ in Blackfoot. This is not due to sound changes in Blackfoot, but instead on a re-organising of the chart. The vowel ordering of the Cree Syllabics chart is always ᐁᐃᐅᐊ ... ᓭᓯᓱᓴ / Blackfoot keeps the Syllabics vowel direction ordering (north-west, n.e., s.w., s.e.), but reassigns the vowel sounds to their Roman order (a.e.i.o). In fact, it is the only Syllabics system which has no north-south-east-west facing symbols. Furthermore, some of the syllabic shapes have been given new sounds. ᑫ, ᒣ, ᒉ are pronouned /ke/, /me/, /ce/ in Cree, but /pa/, /ta/, /ma/ in Blackfoot. See the discussion of the origin of Blackfoot syllabics above for more details.

It does somewhat merge the vowels /i/ and /o/ with the semi-vowels /y/ and /w/ respectively. Consequently, there are no finals for /y/ and /w/, instead the diphthong (basically, where two different vowels are beside each other, as in English 'oi' in 'boil') finals would be likely used.

In the chart above, the basic syllabics are self-explanitory, so that initial /p/ + vowel /a/ (giving the syllable /pa/) is written ᑫ. The finals are shown with the vowel preceding. The diphthongs are a bit less transparent, and should be understood as follows. (C)V+i means that any basic syllabic (either consonant+vowel like /pa/, or vowel alone like /a/) can have an /i/ after it. Instead of writing for example ᑫᖱ /pa-i/, the /i/ is considered the second element of a diphthong, so a /i/ final is used, ᑫᐟ. The /ai/ diphthong, when pronounced [ɛ], or [e] would be written with an e-series syllabic. Similarly, (C)V+u(o) means that any basic syllabic + /o/ (given as /u/ on the 1888? table) should be written as ᖿᐠ /kao/, not ᖿᖲ /ka-o/. Gaps in the chart are where the sound combination does not occur.

The sounds /h/ and /x/ do not have a syllabic series of their own, and only appear as finals. The two sounds are actually the same basic sound in different environments, so again there is over-differentiation.

Finally, some consonants are often followed by a /s/, which is shown with a special symbol (diacritic), the middle dot after the basic syllabic. Thus /kso/ and /tsi/ are written ᖾᐧ and ᒧᐧ, not ᘁᓴ and ᐨᓱ. The same idea is used for a consonant followed by a /y/ or /w/, although these combinations are in fact likely diphthongs beginning with /i/ or /o/. Frantz (1971:9) indicates that /i/ becomes /y/ before a vowel, so that, e.g. the syllable /kio/ ᖽᖲ would end up sounding like /kyo/ ᖾᑉ. I am assuming that the same process would happen with a diphthong beginning with /o/, so that the syllable /koa/ ᖾᖳ would sound like /kwa/ ᖿ=.

As in Cree, a small is used for a period.

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Last Modified: 28-Aug-2011