Different ways to spell Cheyenne
There are some aspects of the modern alphabet which make reading it
more difficult than reading Cheyenne words written closer to how they
might be written according to English spelling rules. This is all
right, and we often see Cheyenne license plates or words written
"informally", using English letters rather than just the letters of the
linguistic alphabet. But if we want to display all the regularities and
logical patterns of the Cheyenne language, there are significant
advantages to learning to spell with the linguistic alphabet. But no
one should ever apologize for using some other set of letters to write
Cheyenne. It is more important to write Cheyenne words down and be able
to read them to yourself or to others, no matter what letters are used,
than it is not to write any words down at all. English speakers and
readers, after all, must admit that they have some rather strange ways
to spell some words and there are inconsistencies in English spelling.
Yet English is probably the most widely read language in the world. So
it is entirely possible to operate with an alphabet or spelling rules
which are not completely logical and still read well.
There are some Cheyenne words which are more easily
read using a more informal way of spelling than just using the letters
of the modern Cheyenne alphabet, along with its spelling rules. Here are some examples:
Ipiva or Epėheva'e
"It is good," is one of the most common and important Cheyenne words. According to the modern alphabet, it should be spelled epėheva'e, or even more difficult, including the pitch marks, as épėhéva'e. Few
people, whether Cheyenne speakers or non-Cheyenne speakers, would
correctly pronounce this word, just by looking at the way it has just
been spelled, UNLESS they already know some of the most difficult parts
of the Cheyenne sound system ("phonology") and how they are spelled in
the modern alphabet. Instead, many Cheyennes, and even a good number of
non-Cheyennes, would be able to come close to the correct pronunciation
of this word if they saw it spelled as ipiva, and that is how it is often written in informal Cheyenne spelling.
nish or neše
The Cheyenne number "2" is written neše, or with the pitch mark, nèše, in
the modern alphabet. But if it is written informally, any speaker of
English, including Cheyenne speakers, will correctly pronounce the
Cheyenne word if they see it written as nish, which rhymes exactly with the English word "dish".
Tsitsistas or Tsetsėhestȧhese
George Bird Grinnell, an ethnographer who wrote much
about the Cheyennes in the early 1900's, spelled the name the Cheyennes
call themselves as Tsistsistas. Now that
is very close to how the word is pronounced. Grinnell did put in an
extra "s"; he would have been more accurate to spell the word as Tsitsistas.
Probably every Cheyenne alive today can recognize this word as the name
of their tribe. Yet if we listen to this Cheyenne word very carefully
and and try to write each sound exactly as it is pronounced, using the
modern alphabet we would have to write this word, including pitch
marks, as Tsétsėhéstȧhese. That's much more difficult to read than Tsitsistas, isn't it?
If anyone has any easy solutions to these complicated
issues, we will gladly listen to them. Any alphabet which can respect
the Cheyenne language as it is actually pronounced, while also
attempting to reflect all the logical patterns of Cheyenne, and yet can
be easily read by a large number of speakers would be quite a gift to
the Cheyenne people. Linguist Wayne Leman, who began his work for the
Cheyennes after the modern alphabet was already in use, has
periodically asked Cheyenne language program leaders, who are his
elders, and the best readers and writers of Cheyenne if the modern
alphabet should be simplified to be more like English words. Every time
the answer has come back strongly, "No, spell Cheyenne they way it
should be spelled. Cheyennes should learn to read the modern alphabet."
And so we try to honor our elders and respect their wisdom. At the same
time we also want to make Cheyenne reading and writing as accessible as
possible for the greatest number of Cheyennes. Bringing the two needs
together to find a common solution is not easy. For now we will
continue to write with the modern alphabet. Occasionally, however,
linguist Leman uses some compromise spelling. For instance, he often
writes the name of the tribe as Tsitsistas.
It is easiest for publishers and newspapers to print, and it is easiest
for Cheyennes themselves to read. He also often spells "it is good" as epeva'e, which is a compromise simplification from épėhéva'e, or, without the pitch marks, epėheva'e.
nits or netse
Cheyenne netse "eagle" sounds exactly like the English word "nits" and would be easier to read if it were written as nits
in Cheyenne. But if it were, then it would be more difficult to see the
regular correspondence between the singular "eagle" and plural
"eagles", netseo'o, which uses the regular, very common Cheyenne plural ending of -o'o.
(Note: the letter "i" is not used in the modern alphabet because it
already has a dot over it, and a dot over a vowel indicates that is is
whispered (voiceless). Also Rev. Petter's spelling used "e" much more
often than "i", so there is the weight of historical tradition to
nago or nahkohe
The need for being able to see the connection between
singular and plural is even clearer with the Cheyenne word for "bear".
If we write informally, it would be written as something like nahgo, or, perhaps more often, as nago. But then the plural, again with the common -o'o plural suffix (which corresponds to the English "-s" plural ending as in "cats"), would have to be written as nahkoyo'o.
Spelling "bear" and "bears" informally completely misses the normal
pluralization pattern for Cheyenne which IS shown by spelling with the
modern alphabet. "Bear" is then nahkohe, and "bears" get the -o'o, becoming nahkȯheo'o.
The "k" of Cheyenne "bear" sounds similar (but not exactly the same as)
English "g". To Cheyenne ears, English "g" is the closest sound to the
sound in Cheyenne "bear". (In actual fact, the sound is not exactly
like English "g", but, rather exactly like English "k" when it follows
the letter "s", as in English "skip." But speakers of English,
including Cheyennes, usually think of the first letter of a word as
being the way that letter sounds, so it is understandable that the
voiceless, unaspirated "k" of "skip" is not recognized as exactly the
same sound as Cheyenne "k.") The "k" in Cheyenne "bear" sounds exactly
like the "k" only at the beginning of English words, as in English
"kite." Most people do not realize that English has at least three
different ways of pronouncing "k" (as well as "p" and "t"). English
speakers hear them all as the same "sound", which is why they are all
written with the same letter. When Cheyennes become accustomed to the
similar sound changes which take place with Cheyenne "k" (as well as
"p" and "t"), they will also start to sense that they really are all
the same "sound" (actually, not the same sound, but the same phoneme,
but that is talking technical).
okom or o'kȯhome
At least one Cheyenne car on the reservation has had a personalized license plate with the letters OKOM
on it. Surely every Cheyenne speaker who sees that license plate
recognizes it as having the Cheyenne word for "coyote," a humorous word
which Cheyennes enjoy saying to tease others. When teasing it refers to
a person as being sly, tricky, perhaps even a cheat. The spelling okom is easy to read, whereas the spelling using the modern alphabet, and being more phonetically accurate with it, would be o'kȯhome.
This spelling shows the glottal stop which precedes the "k", but which
is difficult to hear. And it shows, if you know the spelling rules,
that the "k" of "coyote" is aspirated, that is, it has a puff of air
after it, as does the "k" at the beginning of English words, such as
"kite" or "kernel." What, then, is the "best" way to spell "coyote" in
Cheyenne? The answer to this question may require other questions
before there can be answers: For what audience are you writing
(informal readers or readers trained in the difficult parts of the
modern alphabet)? Do you want the word to be immediately recognized by
most Cheyennes, or do you prefer a more accurate linguistic spelling?
Maybe there is room for both kinds of spellings for Cheyenne.
There are many, many more examples which demonstrate
that the modern alphabet best honors the sound and grammatical system
of Cheyenne, but these are enough for now. Hopefully, you can see that
it is not easy to make an alphabet for Cheyenne which follows the
natural, logical, systematic patterns of the language, and which is
also easy to read or write.
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