Writing Tanacross Without Special Fonts

Gary Holton

Alaska Native Language Center Introduction

One of the greatest barriers to writing Native language actually has nothing to do with the language itself. Rather, it has to do with the difficulty of using computers to write the special characters used in the writing system. Most generally available fonts are designed for writing English and other European languages. The characters necessary for writing Tanacross are not available in these fonts. Even the new “Unicode” font, which claims to contain all of the characters necessary for all of the world’s writing systems, does not always adequately represent some Tanacross characters (for example, the nasal hook).

There are fonts available for writing Tanacross language. One commonly-used font is the Tanana font produced by LinguistSoftware. This is a commercial product which sells for approximately $100. While using the LaserTanana font will enable you to write on a computer and print out the necessary characters, it is important to note that using this font to compose electronic documents will not guarantee that others will be able to read your electronic document. That is, a file composed using the LaserTanana font and emailed to another person may not be readable by that person. There are several reasons for this. First, the person receiving the file does must have the LaserTanana font installed on their computer in order to be able to read the file. Second, the version of the LaserTanana font on the receiving computer must be the same as that on the sending computer. The Macintosh and Windows versions of the LaserTanana font are not compatible! And the Tanana font is not fully compatible with other LinguistSoftware fonts such as LaserYukon or LaserGwichin!

Tanacross special characters

Given all these complexities it would be very useful if we could figure out a way to write Tanacross language using a standard font. In the next section I will describe one such way which has been used successfully by linguists and language workers in Alaska. But first, let’s begin by reviewing the Tanacross characters which are difficult to represent using the standard English font. These fall into four categories:

nasal hooką
underscored-consonantsł th s sh x

Let’s look more closely at each of these categories. First, the barred-l. There’s really no way to get around this. The barred-l and the plain-l are distinct sounds in Tanacross, and the require different letters. So whatever we do to make Tanacross easier to write, we will have to have a special symbol for barred-l.

Next, let’s consider tone. This is a tough one. Tone is an important part of Tanacross language. Knowing the correct pitch to place on various syllables of a word is crucial to achieving a Native-speaker pronunciation. Thus, shos nek-'ęh â€˜I see a bear’ has the pitch pattern low-low-low, while tsá' nék-'ęh â€˜I see a beaver’ has the pitch pattern high-high-low. However, in spite of the important of pitch to pronunciation, tone done not play much of a role in distinguishing word meanings. In this sense Tanacross is very different from tone languages such as Chinese, where a single syllable such as ma could represent five different words depending on what tone it is pronounced with. So, even if we omit the tone markings altogether, we will rarely encounter a situation of ambiguity, where we are unable to tell what was meant by a certain word. The worse that will happen is that we may not know exactly how to pronounce the word. Of course, this is only true for unfamiliar words; for words we already know we can easily supply the correct tone pattern.

What about the nasal hook? In the Mentasta dialect of Ahtna, nasalized vowels are represented by a following n. This is more difficult to do in Tanacross because Tanacross contrasts nasalized vowels with a sequence of vowel followed by n. Thus, ąą â€˜yes’ is different from aan ‘come!’. One way to get around this problem is to use a double-n to indicate a ‘real’ n, leaving the single n to represent nasalization.

Current Tanacross spelling
Ahtna-type spelling
‘yes’  ąą   aan
‘come!’   aan aann

However, this approach is somewhat awkward, as it requires us to write double n's all over the place. Even a common words like ‘people’ end up as denndeey iinn. The other problem with this approach is that it is difficult to know whether or not a writer is following this approach or not in a given word. Does a single n mean n or does it mean nasalization? We can’t tell unless the writer tells us what system they are using. So we need some way to represent nasalization. We can’t really get around it.

Finally, let’s consider the underscored consonants. Underlining is actually quite easy to achieve using most word-processors. However, formatting such as underlining is often lost as computer files are passed back and forth, hence, it is best to avoid relying on formatting to represent characters. How important is the underscore? There are some analogies to be drawn with tone. The underscore indicates that a sound is “semi-voiced”, that is, pronounced somewhere in between a voiceless sound and a voiced one. Thus, the semi-voiced s is pronounced somewhere between the voiceless sound s and the voiced sound z. In a way the semi-voiced sound s actually shares more in common with z than with s. If the underscore is omitted, then the semi-voiced sound will look just like the voiceless sound. This can cause some confusion regarding the pronunciation of the sound, but there is rarely confusion as to meaning. For example, compare łii ‘dog’ and wuł_iig& ‘his dog’. The first word has the voiceless barred-l, while the second word has the semi-voiced underscore barred-l. If we were instead to write the second word as wułiig& there would be no confusion as to the meaning of the word—it would still mean ‘his dog’—but there could be some confusion as to pronunciation, if you didn’t already know that this word had a semi-voiced sound in it.

Using a standard font

Given what we know about the sounds represented by the special characters in the Tanacross alphabet, it is possible to use a standard font and keyboard to represent those sounds. In this system the barred-l is represented by a backslash (“\”). The nasal hook is represented by a tilde (“~”). Tone marking is omitted. Underscore can be represented by an underscore following the letter or can be omitted altogether. The following table compares this system of standard font symbols with the writing system which makes use of special font symbols.

CharacterSpecial font symbolStandard font symbol
nasal hook̨~
underscoress_ (or omit)

Let’s take a look at some examples which compare the use of the two systems.

tsa’ nek-‘e~htsá' nék-'ęh‘I see a beaver’
wu\iig’wułiig'‘his dog’

It may take some time to grow accustomed to the use of the backslash and tilde characters. Of course, there are many words which will look identical or almost identical in the two systems. Examples include shi’ â€˜meat’, shos â€˜bear’, tsets â€˜firewood’, and kon’‘fire’.

This system of standard font symbols can be used on any computer with any program. It can be used in email and on the web. There is never a need to install a font. The characters never show up garbled in a file sent to another person. If a prettier font is needed for publication or distribution, it is extremely easy to convert to a special font like LaserTanana. Simply use a word processor to globally replace the backslash with barred-l and the tilde with nasal hook.

Further Reading

For more information about the Tanacross writing system, see the following:

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