Caroline Islands Script

Language Hat recently linked to Abecedaria, a newish blog by Suzanne McCarthy devoted to writing systems. McCarthy already has quite an archive built up, and I was intrigued to find an entry on a Caroline Islands syllabary (CIS). She links to a proposed Unicode table on Michael Everson’s website for symbols in the syllabary, and to CarolineIslandScript.com, a site devoted to the system that offers a lengthy discussion regarding the its possible historical origins. Its owners (Dan and Andy Koch) really seem to be keen on the notion that CIS is a Woleaian invention, contrary to Reisenberg & Kaneshiro (1960).

The Koches’ site includes an FAQ area that starts with the following background:

The name Caroline Island Script (here CIS for short) refers to a writing system which originated in the Central Pacific, and only in a small group of islands in that part today called Micronesia ( and the part which was once called the Caroline Islands). The writing system is comprised of over 100 individual signs (“graphemes”), representing some 100 syllables , and which linguists have divided into 2 general categories ( “Type 1” and “Type 2”), depending on the signs ultimate origin. The script was (and may be still) used to write of concepts and ideas within the native dialect, today called Woleaian, which is the name for the native language used among these islands.

NB “these islands” means the Woleai group, a cluster centered around Woleai atoll, and not the entire Carolines. I’m familiar with Woleaian from H.M. Sohn’s grammar (1975); it’s a language spoken on Woleai atoll, along with a few nearby islands, including Faraulep, Ifaluk, Elato, Lamotrek, and Eauripik.

My first glance at the Unicode character table told me something was off slightly. Lest you think I object to this implementation, I do not – Everson has done thorough work. The issue is with the accompanying phonetic values, which Everson obtained either from R & K (1960) or from one of their sources, Smith (1956). I’ll refer to these transcriptions as the R&K values. Anyway, the script does not have a mechanism for marking segment length, although length is contrastive for both consonants and vowels in Woleaian. (Turns out that this simply a shortcoming of the syllabary, as Reisenberg & Kaneshiro discuss). Further, probably because of this, the “phonetic values” given for each symbol do not quite match either the modern Roman-based Woleaian orthography (as used in Sohn 1975), and viewable in action here), or the true phonetic values Sohn associates with the modern system.

I can’t put the CIS symbols in this post, but I can again link to Everson’s table. The following table shows the R&K values arranged C x V:

BA BAE BI BO BU
CHA CHI CHO,CHOO CHOA CHOE CHU CHUU
FA FAE FI FO
HA
I
KA KAE KI KO KOE KU KUU
MA, MAA MAE MI MU
MWA MWI MWO MWOA MWOE
NGA NGAE,NGE NGI NGO NGOA NGUU
NA NAE NI NO NOA NOE NU NUU
NMA
OE
PA PAE PI POA POE PUU
RA RAE,RE RI RO ROA RU RUU RYO
SA SAE SI SO SU
SHO SHOA SHU SHUU
TA,TAA TAE TI TO TOA TOE TU TUU
U UU
WA WAE WI WO
YA YAE YO YOA YOE

For contrast, here are the consonants of Woleaian, in Sohn’s transcription, with phonetic values noted where different. I give oral consonants in singleton and geminate rows; note several columns in which geminates differ from singletons by some secondary feature.

b [ɸw] p f t s sh [ʃ] r l g [x]
bb [ppw] pp ff tt ss ch [č] ch [č] n k [kk]
mw m n ng [ŋ]

w y

And here are the vowels:

i iu [ü] u
e eo [ö] o
a oa [ɑ]

Curiously, eo and oa only occur long.

Now if you compare the R&K values with Sohn’s segment inventory, some segments are missing, and other symbols seem to stand for sounds the language doesn’t use. For example, the R&K values have no [l], or anything that would line up with “g”/[x]. The vowel digraphs are also different. There was only one way to settle this … to the library!

Turns out that Reisenberg & Kaneshiro tell a fascinating story of why who knew how to do what when. They describe how a missionary named Snelling was lost or forced ashore in 1905 at Eauripik, an island in the Woleai group, with a crew of Trukese sailors. They had knowledge of a Roman-based alphabet developed near Truk (to the east of the Woleai group) which they taught to the Woleaian-speaking locals on Eauripik, who adopted it as a syllabary. R&K refer to this system as Type 2; its symbols represent word-initial vowels and all consonants + [i]. The Type 2 symbols can be seen in the rightmost two columns of Everson’s Unicode table, and their Roman origin should be clear.

The castaways made their way back to Truk, stopping at various places, including Woleai (where Snelling died) and Faraulep. Either because of this trip or for independent reasons (or both), Type 2 diffused through the area. At Faraulep, the system was expanded into a larger syllabary with novel intricate symbols (developed possibly in a rebus manner) called Type 1, whose symbols represent consonants in combination with other vowels. Type 1 then spread throughout the region, back to places where Type 2 had already been learned. There is no overlap in the sounds that the symbols represent, and the two systems were used in tandem in written texts. By the time missionaries got back to Woleai atoll in 1913, it looked as if an indigenous writing system had been found.

Anyway, not only do Reisenberg & Kaneshiro provide a comprehensive summary of the inventories of symbols provided by individual informants, they go over quite a bit of detail regarding the phonetic values associated with each symbol. The non-overlap between the spelled-out values of the symbols and inventory given by Sohn seems to be attributable to the lack of encoding for the length contrast.

Thus, any symbol whose syllable is spelled with a “b” in the chart lines up with “b” or “bb” (the velarized labials) in current orthography. Likewise any “n” stands for [l] or [nn] (the latter being the long alternant of the former), and any “k” stands for [x] or [kk] (again, where the latter is the long alternant of the former). For example, the GA symbol could be used for [xa] (spelled ga) or [kka], while the NA symbol could be used for [la] or [nna]. Moreover, all the vowel symbols (singletons and digraphs) stand for different vowel qualities, disregarding length. So “i” refers to [i] or [ii]. The criticial ones are UU = iu = [ü], OE = eo = [ö], and AE = e = [e].

So, just in case any other Woleaianists came across the script and scratched their heads, hopefully this clears it up.

Reisenberg, S.H., and S. Kaneshiro. 1960. A Caroline Islands Script. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 173, 269-333. Washington DC: The Smithsonian Institute. (This was difficult to find – E51 .U6)

Sohn, H.M. 1975. Woleaian Reference Grammar. University of Hawaii Press.

6 thoughts on “Caroline Islands Script

  1. Bob Kennedy

    Michael Everson wrote to phonoloblog to add some thoughts about teh syllabary:

    The syllabary is what it is, but the Romanization is a goddawful mess. That will take a great deal of work before this script can be encoded. There’s a question as to whether it has any users, though.

    The Romanization – ie, letter equivalents of the symbols – is indeed messier than I expressed in this post. I don’t have the R&K work with me right now, but there are many examples in which a particular symbol is used for more than one CV combination. It seems as if the script never really got standardized. As far as whether there are any users, even in 1960, it seemed like there were few if any. The Koches may know more about this question.

  2. Michael

    Interesting blogg here. I though from personaly experience, believe that the script though influenced by westerners, also have local orgin. Thoughout the islands there is a system of lore that is called Itang. It consists of language that is different than normral Trukic language, in which traditional lore and wisdom is practiced. Since time of European encounters, Itang was often associated with chiefs, though through some local sources, they say that itang was once known by common people. They started to missuse it and it then was only practiced by the chiefs. On the outer islands between chuuk and yap, itang is also practiced, but often combined with the traditional navigation. Before I totaly lose track of what I am saying, I believe I should point out the following.

    In Trukic area in Carolinas there are pictographs along with traditional tatoos. I have seen both, in case of tatoos, I can see one and know what it means. Many of the scripts remind me of both. As to why I mentioned Itang, is that it included a way of sending messages from one chief to another. By arrangement of different objects in say a basket, a Chief could then look at it and know of some warning, or upcoming event. The chief then can make a proclamation to wonder of everyone. There seems to be roots of proto-script. I am not sure that there was more over systematic way of writing as developed in writing samples of the Woleain script that I seen. Probably the european influence gave booste in which to develope the pro-script into a more formal script.

    By the way have you ever been to Micronesia?

  3. kaiyen

    hi, im from micronesia, Chuuk. My peoples ancestors had a language called “itang.” And only royalty or chiefs has that knowledge. I want to learn more about my people and i was hopeing if you could help me out. please mail me at freehammer4u@yahoo.com

    thank you

  4. Dokta Kan

    I have a theory that Rongo-rongo and Chinese are ultimately from Sumerian and that all of Southeast Asia was once covered in Yi-Indus-like hieroglyphic syllabograms, which haven’t registered with the archaeologists because of the extreme rate of tropical decomposition and the low-level civilizations of those peoples. Look at the Maya. A lot of what we had is in stone not because of mass-book burnings but probably because of decomposition. I just recently came across this script and it seems to feed into my idea. The clearly Roman-influenced characters probably are, but look at how extensive -Yi extensive- that syllabary is. This is not Tagalog Script, an alphabetic, last-minute simplification of Kawi Script. But I might be wrong here: look at (name?) that 1901 Alaska Script. It’s like the same thing as this. Also, note on the contrary to my arguement the linear, Old-World character of the signs. Rongo-rongo and Mayan both have distinctly non-Old-World bloated forms. If anybody’s interested, in the Anthropology section of John King’s Used and Rare Bookstore is the journal wherein the syllabary was published and described.

  5. Michael Everson

    Could you do out a chart of all actual syllables in Woleaian with their current spellings that correspond to you chart above? The question is, can better assignments be made for the character names.

  6. Bob Kennedy

    Hi Michael – I can create a table like that but I’m out of the office (and thus away from a lot of resources) until next week. I’ll email you directly about it. Cheers, Bob K

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