Father Morice's Phonetic Writing System

Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice wrote extensively about Dakelh language and culture. In these scholarly publications he used a phonetic writing system, one designed to convey the details of the sounds of Dakelh to other scholars who had never heard the language. The system that he used is in some ways an old-fashioned version of the International Phonetic Alphabet, used by linguists today. However, in his time there was not yet a real international standard, and in some ways Father Morice's writing system is idiosyncratic.

Father Morice was aware that it was not well suited for practical purposes because it contained too much phonetic detail. However, in 1938 the Bishop insisted that Father Morice transliterate the Prayerbook from syllabics into his phonetic system. This version of the Prayerbook was used at Lejac Residential School, as a result of which many Dakelh people learned to read this writing system. Here is a page from this version of the Prayerbook.

A Page from the 1938 Prayerbook

No Dakelh person ever wrote anything in Father Morice's phonetic writing system because it is very difficult for a native speaker of a language to bring to consciousness the phonetic details that it recorded. From time to time one encounters writing in a modified version of Father Morice's writing system, one that eliminates the unnecessary phonetic detail.

To understand what we mean by "phonetic detail", let us consider an English example. Wet your finger and hold it a short distance in front of your mouth as you say the word "top". You will feel a little puff of air after the "t". This is what linguists call "aspiration". Now say "stop". You will not feel the same puff of air. The "t"s in "top" and "stop" are not quite the same; one is aspirated, the other is not.

If you were a speaker of another language trying to learn English, you would need to learn about the two kinds of "t" in order to pronounce English correctly. If you were a linguist trying to describe English carefully, you would need to distinguish the two kinds of "t". However, the two kinds of "t" are not written differently in ordinary English spelling because it is completely predictable when a "t" will be aspirated. To a first approximation, the rule is that "t" is aspirated at the beginning of a word but unaspirated when it is preceded by "s". Linguists say that there is a single phoneme /t/, which has two versions, called allophones.

Since aspiration is predictable, a fluent speaker of English knows when to produce an aspirated "t" and when to produce an unaspirated "t" when he or she reads a "t", so there is no need to write them differently. Furthermore, it would be a bad idea to distinguish the two "t"s in English spelling because it is difficult and tedious for a native speaker of English to tell them apart. Imagine having to pause each time you wrote a "t" to decide whether it was the aspirated version, as in "top", or the unaspirated version, as in "stop". For this reason, linguists agree that a writing system should distinguish all of the phonemes of a language but should not indicate allophonic details.

Returning now to Dakelh, the problem with Father Morice's writing system can be seen when we note that it distinguished 23 different vowels, although Dakelh in fact has only six vowel phonemes. For instance, Father Morice's writing distinguishes a sound like that of the "e" in the English word "bet" from a sound like that in the English word "bait". In English these are distinct phonemes; depending on which of these sounds we produce, we get one word or the other; replacing one sound with the other changes the meaning of the word. But in Dakelh these two sounds are not distinct; they are allophones of the same phoneme. It is not too hard to learn to read this kind of writing; you just pronounce certain letters the same way. But it is quite difficult to learn to write this way in your own language.

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