Can we write a language the way we pronounce it?

Does the writing system of a language have to match the pronunciation? Ideally, we would like spelling to represent pronunciation, the way the language is spoken. But it’s impossible to write exactly the way we pronounce, because:

  • Pronunciation varies from one person to another, even within the same community, for example between generations. There are differences in language depending on the age of the speaker since a language changes and evolves. We cannot constantly change spelling to reflect every minor change in pronunciation.
  • Innu spelling was developed so it could be used by speakers of all dialects of the language. This meant there would have to be a certain level of abstraction in the writing system, which does not reflect any particular dialect and which was created based on specific and rigorous linguistic characteristics using features from all dialects.
  • It is also necessary for spelling to reflect the grammar of a language, which means that sometimes it will be different from strict pronunciation; and other times it will be difficult to transcribe certain pronunciation elements, such as intonation.
    • In French, verb endings give grammatical information we don’t hear orally (je mange, tu manges, il mange, ils mangent, etc.)
    • In Innu, we distinguish utapan ‘a car’ and utapana ‘cars’ : in this case, the plural marker –a is pronounced in some dialects but is replaced with a low tone on the final syllable in others.

Sounds and Letters

Language is made up of sounds. To write a language, we use visual symbols, or letters, to represent the sounds. In Innu, we use the letters of the Roman alphabet.

Comparing Innu and English Letters

The letters used in written Innu are also found in English. Although most of the letters are pronounced the same in Innu as in English, others are pronounced differently.

The Innu language uses the following letters:

vowels : a e i u
consonants : h k m n p s sh t tsh