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An orthography is a standardized system for writing a specific language – including both the symbols used to write the language, and the conventions for which symbol refers to which sound. Two types of orthographies are used to write British Columbia First Nations’ languages: linguistic orthographies and practical orthographies.

Click here for a key to B.C. First Nations' preferred spellings of their language names, and the anglicized variants.

Developing Orthographies

Many B.C. languages have been written in a succession of orthographies, and for several languages, a standard orthography has not yet been established.

Orthography development is a long-term process, as orthographies are revised - or whole new ones created – as language communities and linguists learn more about each language. Practical considerations, such as the ease with which an orthography can be typed, also play a role in the choice of an orthography.

As language revitalization continues, and technology is developed to accommodate First Nations orthographies in print and in computer fonts and keyboards, we can look forward to the emergence of a standard orthography for each of B.C.’s diverse languages.

Links for Fonts and Keyboards:

Linguist's Software
Canadian Syllabics

Linguistic Orthographies

Linguistic orthographies are based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the alphabet used by linguists to uniquely represent the sounds of the world’s languages. Linguistic orthographies can represent a language either phonetically – showing every detail of how each word is pronounced – or phonemically – showing only those details which are unpredictable based on the sound structure of the language.

In British Columbia, linguistic orthographies generally use local forms of the Americanist variant of the IPA, containing symbols such as: ƛ ʕ kʷ and y̓. A few BC languages, such as Nłeʔkepmxcín and Hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, have adopted linguistic orthographies as their standard.

Practical Orthographies

Practical orthographies in BC can be further divided into alphabets and syllabaries.


An alphabet is a type of writing system in which a set of symbols (letters) represents the distinctive sounds (or phonemes) of a language. Practical alphabets generally try to use only those symbols found on an English typewriter keyboard, although a few extra letters or diacritics (such as accents, underlines, or bars) are often needed.

Many B.C. languages have relatively newly developed practical alphabets which differ significantly from the orthography commonly used by linguists. As they have developed independently, these practical alphabets may differ from each other as to which symbol is used to represent which sound. The table below shows a brief example of this:

Linguistic orthography χ
Hul’q’umi’num’ hw x
Secwepemc cw x

Orthographies which show a close correspondence between letters and sounds – ideally, one distinct letter for each distinct sound - are described as phonemic.

B.C. First Nations' practical alphabets vary in how they represent the relationship between letters and sounds. Many rely on combinations of two to four letters to represent certain sounds. For example, the Hul’q’umi’num’ alphabet includes the letters t and h, but also the combined th, tth, and tth'. Each combination represents a distinct sound.

Nevertheless, all B.C. practical alphabets are more phonemic than English, in which many different letters can represent one sound (such as the vowel sound in the words m eet, m eat, and mach ine), and many different sounds can be represented by the same letter or combination of letters (t ough, thr ough, d ough, pl ough).


In a syllabary, such as that used to write ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ (Nēhiyawēwin, or Plains Cree), each symbol represents a syllable (usually a sequence of consonant + vowel) rather than a single sound. Syllabaries are used to write many Algonquian languages in central Canada, and have also been used for Dene languages in British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon, such as ᑕᗸᒡ (Dakelh), ᑌᓀ ᒐ (Dene Tha), and ᑕᓀ ᖚ (Dane-zaa).

Orthography Development

This language strategy includes the design, development, expansion or enhancement of an alphabet / writing system that will be accepted and used by a First Nations / Aboriginal language community.

Most B.C. First Nations' language communities have chosen to develop writing systems, but communities elsewhere, such as the Pueblo de Cochiti in New Mexico, have consciously decided not to write their language at all.

A writing system can build pride among language community members, allow for written documentation of the language, and be put to practical use in everyday life for anything from newspapers to shopping lists. However, elders and other language community members often express concern that a person whose teachings are written down may lose control over who has access to those teachings. Written documentation also has limits, and should not be considered a replacement for active language teaching and revitalization.

Assuming a community wants a writing system, there are many things to be considered in choosing an appropriate one. An interesting example of different choices in orthography development is that of Hul’q’umi’num’ and Hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, two sister dialects of a Salish language of southwestern B.C.

The Quw’utsun’ Hul’q’umi’num’ of Vancouver Island have chosen a practical alphabet which uses only letters found on an English keyboard, plus the apostrophe. This ensures that their language can be written, typed, and used in email with ease. In contrast, the speakers of χʷmθk̓ʷiʔəm Hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, whose traditional territory occupied what is now much of Greater Vancouver, have chosen a linguistic alphabet which emphasizes the distinctness of their language's sounds. These two alphabets look very different, but both represent the sounds of the language accurately and systematically.

Orthography development can be a long-term process, as orthographies are revised - or whole new ones created - as language communities learn more about their languages. New technology is also rapidly being developed to accommodate First Nations orthographies in print and in computer fonts and keyboards.
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