Potawatomi is Algonquian language spoken by fewer than 100 mainly elderly
people in Ontario and the north-central United States. Efforts are currently
being made by various bands of Potawatomi to revitalise and revive their
language. There are about 28,000 Potawatomi and the call themselves
Nishnabe'k ('the original people') or Bodéwadmi ('those
who keep/tend the hearth-fire'), which refers to the hearth of the Council
of Three Fires, a confederation of the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi
peoples dating back to 796 AD.
For many generations the Potawatomi used a pictographic form of writing in
which each symbol represents ideas rather than words or sounds. The symbols
were carved into bark or wood with a knife or other sharp tool. Sometimes
charcoal or paint were used as well. This script was used for various purposes,
including ceremonies, keeping records, maps and illustrating stories.
Between 1830 and 1860 two Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Christian Hoecken and Fr.
Maurice Gailland, developed a spelling system for the Potawatomi using the
Latin alphabet. The system is syllabic in that combinations of consonants
and vowels are used to represent single syllables, e.g. ba, be, bi, etc. The
system was known as the "ba-be-bi-bo-bu" syllabary.
Another spelling system known as "Traditional Writing" also appeared for a
number of Native American languages during the 19th century. A version of this
system for Potawatomi was developed in about 1878 by Joe Ellick, a Wisconsin
Potawatomi to enable members of the tribe to write home when they were away.
During the 1970s a team of linguists, native speakers and second language experts
at the Wisconsin Native American Languages Program (WNALP) developed a new spelling
system for Potawatomi known as the Pedagogical writing system. This system was
designed to teach the Potawatomi to speak their language and is shown below.