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Ojibwemowin Writing Systems


Birch bark scroll image from "The Midewiwin, or 'Grand Medicine Society', of the Ojibwa" in (Míkmaq hieroglyphic writing) Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Bureau of Ethnology Report, v. 7, pp. 149-299 by Walter James Hoffman. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891).

Double Vowel Orthography and Other Writing Systems

For thousands of years, the Anishinaabeg passed on their knowledge and culture orally through Anishinaabemowin. Recently in the language's history, people have begun to write it. You may see it written phonetically using the English alphabet or in the special characters of syllabics, which is used primarily in Canada. The newest writing system is the Double Vowel system, devised by Charles Fiero of Cass Lake.

There is no standard orthography, however the Double Vowel system is gaining popularity among language teachers and learners in the United Stated and Canada (including the seven Ojibwe Tribes of Minnesota) because of its ease of use. And many materials including books and text books are being produced using this orthography.

The Double Vowel system is based on the idea that the letters and letter combinations represent Ojibwe sounds, not English sounds even though they are taken from the English alphabet. Each letter or letter combination in the Double Vowel system has only one possible pronunciation, unlike English were the word "read" can be pronounced two different ways with two different meanings.

The system takes its name from its treatment of vowels. There are short vowels and long vowels. The short vowels are formed using one letter, and the long vowels are formed by two letters, or a doubling of the letter, and thus the name "double vowel."

At a conference held to discuss the development of a common Ojibwe orthography, Ojibwe language educators agreed that the Double Vowel system was a preferred choice, while recognizing that other systems were also used and preferred in some locations. The Double Vowel system is widely favored among language teachers in the United States and Canada, and is taught in a program for Ojibwe language teachers.

One of the goals underlying the Double Vowel orthography is promoting standardization of Ojibwe writing so that language learners are able to read and write in a consistent way. By comparison, "folk" phonetic spelling approaches to writing Ottawa based on less systematic adaptations of written English or French are more variable and idiosyncratic, and do not always make consistent use of alphabetic letters.

Letters of the English alphabet substitute for specialized phonetic symbols, in conjunction with orthographic conventions unique to Ojibwe. The system embodies two principles: alphabetic letters from the English alphabet are used to write Ojibwe, but with Ojibwe sound values; the system is phonemic in nature, in that each letter or letter combination indicates its basic sound value, and does not reflect all the phonetic detail that occurs. Accurate pronunciation cannot be learned without consulting a fluent speaker

There are probably dozens of ways used among the Algonquin to spell Ojibwemowin, inlcuding "Folk Spelling" of Anishinaabemowin which is not a system per se, as it varies from person to person writing speech into script. Each writer employing folk spelling would write out the word as how the speaker himself would form the words. There are those from Ponemah alone that might spell frog as Muckuckii, Muckakee Makaki Makakii, Omakakii and more…none are wrong.

But although none are wrong, not only among nations but among individuals from the same community, it is felt by educators that a consistent way of spelling would be helpful in teaching the language, consequently many in the US and Canada have begun using the double vowel orthography.

Before moving forward in Ojibwe, it is important to practice pronunciation and understand the most common spelling system. The double vowel system was created by Charles Fiero (working with fluent speakers in Minnesota) in the late 1950s and is used by Anishinaabe teachers, elders, translators, administrators, language activists, and students seeking a common Anishinaabemowin orthography. It is currently used in over 200 Anishinaabe communities in and around Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, North Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Although this is a system of writing that the Anishinaabeg use on both sides of the international boundary, they also recognized the value and importance of syllabics and folk-phonetics/spellings as part of their linguistic heritage.

Ojibwe Alphabet and Pronunciation Chart Using the Double Vowel Orthography

Although the letters used are taken from the English alphabet, they represent Ojibwe sounds, not English sounds. In the examples below, Ojibwe sounds and English approximations of the Ojibwe sounds are given. However, it is always best to consult a native speaker for the best pronunciation. Correct pronunciation is important, mispronouncing a word can completely change its meaning.


Ojibwe Sound - English Equivalent

a asemaa (tobacco) - about

aa omaa (here) - father

e esiban (raccoon) - way

i gimiwan (it's raining) - pin

ii niiwin (four) - seen

o opin (potato) - obey, book

oo oodenaang (in/to town) - boat, boot


Ojibwe Sound - English Equivalent

b bakwezhigan (bread) - big

ch chi-oginiig (tomatoes) - chin

d doodooshaboo (milk) - dog

g gaag (porcupine) - go

h hay' (oops) - hi

j maajaan (go) - jello

k mikinaak (turtle) - kite

m mamoon (take it) - milk

n bine (partridge) - name

p baapiwag (they laugh) - pig

s es (clam) - sun

sh nishkaadizi (s/he's angry) - bush

t anit (fish spear) - time

w waawaan (egg) - woman

y babagiwayan (shirt) - yell

Micmac - This form of writing Ojibwemowin known as Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics was developed by early missionaries among the Ojibwe in northern Canada. The text reads Koqoey nakia msit telikaqumilla'laji? - litterally "Why/those/all/after he did that to them?" or "Why are all these steps necessary?"

z mooz (moose) - zebra

zh niizh (two) - measure

' ma'iingan (wolf) - oh - oh (glottal stop)


The English letters and sounds of f, l, q, r, u, v and x are not part of the Ojibwe alphabet.

The Ojibwe alphabet contains the additional double-letter symbols of aa, ch, ii, oo, sh and zh .

The glottal stop (represented by an apostrophe) is a sound made a release of air from your throat, similar to when someone punches you in the stomach.

Credit for this pronunciation guide goes to Rick Gresczyk (Ojibwe Word List. Eagle Works, Minneapolis, MN.) and to John Nichols and Earl Nyholm (A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe)


Reader Comments(1)

shaawano writes:

Standardizing orthography is helpful, but what must be kept in mind is how to represent regional variations--if at all. Double-vowel can work for any dialect of Ojibwe, but each dialect would need to have its own set of printed materials for teaching use. As it seems now, along with orthographic standardization, we basically have dialect standardization since only a handful of Ojibwe dialects have teaching materials/dictionaries printed.


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