In 1827, James Evans, a missionary from Kingston upon Hull, England, was placed in charge of the Wesleyan mission at Rice Lake, Ontario. Here, he began to learn the eastern Ojibwe language spoken in the area and was part of a committee to devise a Latin alphabet for it. By 1837 he had prepared the Speller and Interpreter in English and Indian, but was unable to get its printing sanctioned by the British and Foreign Bible Society. At the time, many missionary societies were opposed to the development of native literacy in their own languages, believing that their situation would be bettered by linguistic assimilation into colonial society.
Evans continued to use his Ojibwe orthography in his work in Ontario. As was common at the time, the orthography called for hyphens between the syllables of words, giving written Ojibwe a partially syllabic structure. However, his students appear to have had conceptual difficulties using the same alphabet for two different languages with very different sounds, and Evans himself found this approach awkward. Furthermore, the Ojibwe language was polysynthetic but had few distinct syllables, meaning that most words had a large number of syllables; this made them quite long when written with the Latin script. He began to experiment with creating a more syllabic script that he thought might be less awkward for his students to use.
In 1840, Evans was relocated to Norway House in northern Manitoba. Here he began learning the local Swampy Cree dialect. Like Ojibwe, to which it was quite closely related, it was full of long polysyllabic words.
As an amateur linguist, Evans was acquainted with the Devanagari script used in British India; in Devanagari, each letter stands for a syllable, and is modified to represent the vowel of that syllable. Such a system, now called an abugida, readily lent itself to writing a language such as Swampy Cree, which had a simple syllable structure of only eight consonants and four long or short vowels. Evans was also familiar with British shorthand, presumably Samuel Taylor's Universal Stenography, from his days as a merchant in England; and now he acquired familiarity with the newly published Pitman shorthand of 1837.
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