Problems with Choctaw Spelling

In George Aaron Broadwell’s A Choctaw Reference Grammar, one of the first topics he covers is the language’s orthography. He lists them as “Traditional orthography,” which is the one that developed in the mid-nineteenth century by missionaries, “Mississippi Choctaw orthography,” which came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in the mid-1970s, “Modified traditional orthography,” which developed in the late twentieth century to differentiate long from short vowels and to improve consistency, and the “Choctaw Bible Translation Committee orthography,” which is currently being used by that committee in creating the first complete translation of the Christian Bible. The one that Broadwell chooses for his extensive grammar is the “modified traditional orthography,” which uses the digraphs sh and ch instead of š and č, and uses lh for ł.

The sentence he uses to show each one is from Matthew 19:14, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Here is this sentence in each orthography:

Traditional: Ʋlla chipunta yʋt ʋm ʋla hi a hʋsh im ahni.
Mississippi: Alla čipǫtayat amalahíyą hašimahni.
Modified: Alla’ chipotayat amalahiiya hashimahni.
Committee: Alla chipota yat am ala hí ya hash im ahni.

(Quick glossary: Alla’ = child, chipota = small, yat = nominative marker, am = first person singular agreement class III, al = come, ahii = irrealis, ya = different subject marker, hash = second person plural agreement class I, im = agreement class III, ahni = allow).

All four systems use Roman letters, but differentiate different things. In spoken Choctaw, vowel length is rather important, but Traditional, Mississippi, and Committee all only vaguely indicate vowel length by either an acute accent or a macron, or show nothing at all. Much of the written Choctaw that I’ve seen still differentiates vowel laxness, which tends to be inconsistently applied in spoken Choctaw. Nonetheless, many people still write child as ʋlla or vlla instead of alla. In the word for bread, pallaska’, for instance, many people still spell it palʋska, as it is spelled at the Oklahoma School of the Choctaw Language site. If you click the word on that site and listen, the letter ʋ is no more lax than the other letters a in the word.

Another difference that pops up occasionally is double consonants, which do make a difference in meaning occasionally. The word hattak (man), for instance, has been spelled “hatak,” and indeed is the root of the tribe name “Atakapa,” or “man-eater.” Just like in Italian, the double consonant is simply held a bit longer than a single consonant. This normally is not an issue in spelling until you get to a double ch or sh. One of the words for river is “hachcha,” which looks unnecessarily long (this by the way is in the word Atchafalaya, or “long river,” which runs through Louisiana). Haccha might make the eye read it as hakcha. Hačča is a good compromise here. Homma (red) is often rendered homa in early writings, or in the names Oklahoma (red people) and Coahoma (red panther).

The most obvious difference among these orthographies, though, is word spacing. Modified lumps all the particles together, while traditional separates each particle out, as we tend to do when romanizing Japanese so that we can more clearly see the word.

So here is my crazy idea.

Why not write Choctaw in a different writing system? Obviously there would be a steeper learning curve, but it would have a certain elegance to it that Roman letters fail to give well.

I looked around for an existing writing system that would do well writing Choctaw, with its few letters, nine vowels (three forms of three vowels: a, aa, a, i, ii, i, o, oo, o), confusing word separation questions, and so forth. The one that stuck out to me was the writing system used by the Shan people of Myanmar. It is a slightly simpler form of Burmese script that is remarkably clear, beautiful, and quite circular. I remember reading somewhere that the symbol of the circle has been historically quite important to the nation, so it drew me further to that idea.

Here is the system:


So, like the Shan language, the most common Choctaw syllable is a consonant followed by the vowel a. Thus, when a consonant stands alone, the a is assumed. Otherwise, another vowel mark is added as the table indicates. The symbol on each of those vowels in the table is the glottal stop. To indicate that a consonant ends the syllable, a c-looking diacritic is added above it. Double consonants are shown with a ၢ symbol. For instance, the word hattak would be ဂတၢၵ်.

In this system, there is no spacing between words at all; it flows just like speech. The main two punctuation marks are ၊ and ။, the comma and period/full stop.

Here’s the sentence from above:

Alla’ chipotayat amalahiiya hashimahni.

If anything, this was an enjoyable exercise. It isn’t as difficult to memorize as the Cherokee syllabary, but still narrows it down to syllables.

Here’s another short example:

Naa yoppahoosh binnililittook.
I sat down happily.

Here is one from the October 31, 2016, Lesson of the Day at the School of Choctaw Language:

Fʋni ʋlwʋsha ish ʋpa hinla ho?
Fani alwashaish apahilaho?
Can you eat fried squirrel?

This writing system might clear up some real headaches when trying to make sense of older spellings of words in the language.