What is SRO, and how can it help me learn Cree?

Best friends, now departed. Cecilia Masuskapo and Freda Ahenakew of Ahtahkakoop FN (photo by Arden Ogg)

Cree speakers as fluent as nôhkomipaninânak (our late grandmothers) in this photo are precious and rare in 2017. Many of them fought to retain their language in spite of Residential Schools that tried to beat it right out of them. While they were being taught to read and write English in school, exactly how and when did they have a chance to be instructed in reading and writing their own language?

So it’s understandable that some speakers would make it up as they go along instead, using spelling patterns they know about English – and being justifiably suspicious of the interference of môniyaw education systems. Some of them argue that since Cree is traditionally an oral language, spelling really doesn’t matter at all.

But the letters on the page only represent language sounds – they don’t make any sound themselves. And when we rely on English spelling patterns, things get confusing fast: Think of the sound “ay” in eight, in bait, hate or ray.

Standard Roman Orthography (SRO) uses only the sounds of Cree. And every letter has only one sound. This makes it much less confusing than English spelling.

All over the world, reading and writing are skills that need to be taught. Reading is not a skill that comes naturally anywhere. And if you’re struggling to write things out using English phonetics, remember: somebody else is going to have to try to struggle just as hard (or even harder) to read what you’ve written.

The late Freda Ahenakew was set on her path by the late Ida McLeod, choosing to use SRO because it gives everybody an equal chance, and builds the opportunity to learn even more as a library of materials gets built using the same tools. Standard Roman Orthography (SRO) uses the letters of English alphabet (with a few modifications) to represent Cree language sounds. Each meaningful sound (or phoneme) gets its own character. Each letter represents the same sound every time. It is this consistency of the sound-to-symbol correspondence that makes SRO effective.

SRO is also the spelling system used for most print publications in Cree, and has the greatest number of published books. As of 2017, SRO is taught and used in Cree language programs in schools, colleges and universities across the Western Canada.

One of the main purposes of the Cree Literacy Network is to offer the tools for reading and writing Cree to those who already speak the language, or those who are struggling to learn. And the added bonus for fluent speakers who learn to read is that they can then access the Cree language stories and books that were intended all along for them to read and enjoy. An added bonus for the students, is that they can read whatever genuine speakers write.

In learning to read Cree, a review of the sound system is Step One. Here is a table of sound correspondences adapted from Ken Paupanekis’s Introduction to Cree Language 1, Text and Student Handbook (First Nations University, 2011). You can find the audio recordings from Ken’s lessons elsewhere on this site. And although Ken is demonstrating with n-dialect, the words he chooses for models are Cree words that are the same for all of the western dialects.

By giving examples of each sound *in Cree* Ken is stepping away from English-based phonetic spelling that may seem easier initially, but gives speakers very little in terms of long-term learning.

Click on the highlighted links to hear audio of Solomon Ratt’s “Chants” to teach pronunciation of consonants and vowels. And when you’re ready for your next lesson, you can download How to Spell it in Cree – shared here as a gift to by Arok Wolvengrey and Jean Okimāsis.

SRO Vowels: sounds as in English: sounds as in Cree:

a

about maskwa      ‘bear’

â

cat âstam           ‘come here’

i

sit mikot           ‘nose’

î

machine nîna              ‘I, me’ (n-dialect)

o

foot mispon        ‘it is snowing’

ô

food kôna             ‘snow’

ê

café pimohtê      ‘walk’
SRO Consonants:

p

pin or bin pêtâ               ‘bring it here’

hp

akohp            ‘blanket’

t

tin or din tânisi             ‘hello’

ht

mitâtaht       ‘ten’

c

chin kêkâc            ‘already’

hc

anohc            ‘now, today’

k

kin or grin kîmôc            ‘secretly’

hk

âhkosiw        ‘he/she is sick’

s

sin sêmâk            ‘right away’

m

me namôna         ‘not’ (n-dialect)

n

no nîna                ‘I, me’ (n-dialect)

w

will wiyâs             ‘meat’

y

yes âsay                ‘already’

l

leaf palacîs           ‘pants’  (l-dialect)

r

red arîkis             ‘frog’ (r-dialect)

About vowels: Cree uses seven distinct vowel sounds. Three are “short vowels” (a, i, o). Four are “long vowels” which get a special mark (â, ê, î, ô). Some people call it a “roof” or a “hat”. We use a circumflex accent here, but others use macrons or acute accents. It doesn’t matter which symbol we choose, as long as we mark long vowels every time, because the difference between long and short vowels can change the meaning of a word.

About consonants: The English sound pairs p/b, t/d and k/g each represent two distinct phonemes. Cree only uses one of each pair, so the Cree sound of p, t and k falls can fall anywhere between English p and b, t and d, and k and g.

About Arden Ogg

Arden Ogg is Director of the Cree Literacy Network, launched in 2010 with the goal of creating Cree language literacy materials suitable for use by learners of all ages.

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