Mi'kmaq hieroglyphic writing

Mi'kmaq hieroglyphs
Languages Mi'kmaq
Time period
17th–19th century (logographic); date of precursors unknown

Mi'kmaq hieroglyphic writing was a writing system and memory aid used by the Mi'kmaq, a First Nations people of the east coast of Canada.

The missionary-era glyphs were logograms, with phonetic elements used alongside (Schmidt & Marshall 1995), which included logographic, alphabetic, and ideographic information. They were derived from a pictograph and petroglyph tradition.[1] In Mi'kmaq the glyphs are called komqwejwi'kasikl, or "sucker-fish writings", which refers to the tracks the sucker fish leaves on the muddy river bottom.


Scholars have debated whether the earliest known Mi'kmaq "hieroglyphs" from the 17th century qualified fully as a writing system, rather than as a pictographic mnemonic device. In the 17th century, French missionary Chrétien Le Clercq adapted the Míkmaq characters as a logographic system for pedagogical purposes.

In 1978, Ives Goddard and William Fitzhugh of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, contended that the pre-missionary system was purely mnemonic, as it could not be used to write new compositions. Schmidt and Marshall argued in 1995 that the missionary system of the 17th century was able to serve as a fully functional writing system. This would mean that Mi'kmaq is the oldest writing system for a native language north of Mexico.


Father Le Clercq, a Roman Catholic missionary on the Gaspé Peninsula in New France from 1675, claimed that he had seen some Míkmaq children 'writing' symbols on birchbark as a memory aid. This was sometimes done by pressing porcupine quills directly into the bark in the shape of symbols. Le Clercq adapted those symbols to writing prayers, developing new symbols as necessary.

This adapted writing system proved popular among Mi'kmaq, and was still in use in the 19th century. Since there is no historical or archaeological evidence of these symbols from before the arrival of this missionary, it is unclear how ancient the use of the mnemonic glyphs was. The relationship of these symbols with Mi'kmaq petroglyphs is also unclear.

Pierre Maillard, Roman Catholic priest, during the winter of 1737–38[2] perfected a system of hieroglyphics to transcribe Mi'kmaq words. He used these symbols to write formulas for the principal prayers and the responses of the faithful, in the catechism, so his followers might learn them more readily. In this development he was greatly aided by Jean-Louis Le Loutre, another French missionary. There is no direct evidence that Maillard was aware of Le Clercq's work; in any event Maillard's work is outstanding in that he left numerous works in the language, which continued in use among the Mi'kmaq into the 20th century.[3][4]

An unknown number of birch scrolls containing mi'kmaq writings were destroyed by missionaries in New England, before the writing system was adapted to aid conversion of community members to Christianity.


The full text.
Text of the Rite of Confirmation in Míkmaq hieroglyphs. The text reads Koqoey nakla msɨt telikaqumilálaji? – literally 'Why / those / all / after he did that to them?', or "Why are all these different steps necessary?"
Page 5 of Buch das gut, enthaltend den Katechismus by Christian Kauder

See also


  1. Edwards, Brandan Frederick R. Paper Talk: A History of Libraries, Print Culture, and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada before 1960. Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004 ISBN 978-0-8108-5113-9 p.11
  2. Johnson, Micheline D. (1974). "Maillard, Pierre". In Halpenny, Francess G. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. III (1741–1770) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  3. This hieroglyphic script contained more than 5700 different picture letters to speak to their imagination . . he wrote the first Micmac grammar and dictionary, he produced religious handbooks containing prayers, hymns, sermons and forms for celebrating baptisms, marriages and funerals. When the government no longer allowed resident missionaries to work among the people, their chiefs would gather them . . read Fr. Maillard's "sacred text" . . Fr. Pat Fitzpatrick CSSp, Spiritan Missionary News Oct. 1994, accessed 4 October 2009
  4. As late as 1927 it could be written, "The Micmac book has taken the place of a missionary for nearly a hundred and seventy years". Spiritans


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