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The Endangered Osage Language Gets a Unicode-Friendly Alphabet

Osage dancers, courtesy College of Design

Letters from the new osage alphabet, courtesy College of Design

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

These nine simple words, written in this precise sequence, say nearly everything there is to be said about the Western world’s predominant orthography, Roman type. In it, all 26 of the English language’s letters make at least one appearance. Since Roman times, the languages of Europeans and their descendants have used them—and a handful of other characters, depending on the language and custom—to commit verbal utterances to writing.

Many of the more than 500 Native American languages that still exist in some form—since most pre-colonial languages weren’t written down, it’s impossible to know precisely how many there were before Europeans turned up in the New World—also use this predominant orthography. It’s not an ideal fit.

Latin, the language spoken by the Roman alphabet’s “inventors,” is also a direct predecessor of many of the languages that still employ it. By contrast, Native American languages have only the most tenuous connections to the Western world’s Indo-European language family. Most employ decidedly unfamiliar conventions of grammar, style, and form. The Language Geek, the alter-ego of a Canadian linguist named Michael Harvey, identifies a few Native tongues, like Nuu-chah-nulth,  that lack any provision for capital letters; at least one, Vancouver Island’s SENCOTEN, is typically written in all caps.

The long colonial hangover hasn’t been good for these languages. Jessica Harjo, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Design MA program and a current PhD candidate, suspects that “the majority [of Native languages] are endangered.” Worse, she says, only “a small number” of Native American tribes “still have children who learn their Native language as their first language.”

An alphabet based on movement

Harjo is an Oklahoman of mixed Osage, Pawnee, Otoe, Sac, and Fox heritage. She wants to make it easier for Native American kids to learn their ancestors’ tongues in authentic fashion. Her U of M master’s thesis took the first step, sketching out a novel orthography for the Osage language.

The characters are a far cry from our A-to-Z alphabet—some are whimsical swirls, others resemble the human form. “The design truly encompasses the Osage culture in every curve, line, and bend,” she said in a recent interview with the U of M’s Discover Magazine. “Each symbol derives meaning from the basic forms of Osage arts [or] the movement that a…dancer exhibits.”  

To complete the project, Harjo worked directly with Osage-language students and teachers in Oklahoma. Mapping a novel orthography onto an endangered language was a challenge, especially for a relative novice. “I took the beginners’ class when I lived in Oklahoma, so I know the basics,” she told me. “My maternal grandfather was a fluent Osage speaker…[his was the last generation of] fluent speakers who spoke and thought in Osage as their first language.”

Osage doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like Spanish (Romance) and English (Germanic), it fits snugly into a family of closely related tongues known as the Dhegiha Sioux language group. Since members of this language group use similar sounds and constructions, Harjo’s orthography could easily commit them to writing as well.

Other languages would be trickier. “It may be possible for non-Siouan language groups to adapt the Osage orthography symbols,” says Harjo, “but their sounds are different, and more symbols would be required.”

Translating a new orthography into Unicode

Still, this might not be the last we hear of Jessica Harjo’s Osage orthography. Her recent acceptance into the U of M’s PhD program may gave her more opportunities to refine the alphabet or create new ones. It could also give her the chance to transcribe the orthography into the Unicode digital language system, making it available to anyone with an Internet-connected computer—which would help the folks back home. Harjo designed her alphabet to be Unicode compatible.

Currently, Osage language students learn the language from an earlier form that isn’t compatible with Unicode. In the age of iPhones and Kindles, the students are still using paper and pencil.  “The goal of my typeface was to design something that could be” translated into Unicode, says Harjo.

Digitally transcribing a language in Unicode takes time and resources, but Harjo—or a colleague—may get the chance sooner than anyone thought. In February, she’ll be meeting with a Unicode developer and the people in charge of the Osage language program to explore the feasibility of a potential project. It’ll be her job to convince her peers in Oklahoma that a carefully transcribed digital record is crucial to the language’s long-term survival.

Assuming the Osage elders agree, Harjo will face just one additional hurdle. “I am open to actively seeking funding” if the project moves ahead, she says. Even in the world of linguistics, money talks.
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