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 Epheva'e

"It is good," is one of the most common and important Cheyenne words. According to the modern alphabet, it should be spelled epheva'e, or even more difficult, including the pitch marks, as phva'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 nee

The Cheyenne number "2" is written nee, or with the pitch mark, ne, 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 Tsetshesthese

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 Tstshsthese. That's much more difficult to read than Tsitsistas, isn't it?

Difficult decisions

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 phva'e, or, without the pitch marks, epheva'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 consider.

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 nahkheo'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'khome

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'khome. 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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