James Evans (linguist)

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James Evans
James Evans.gif
James Evans
BornJanuary 18, 1801
DiedNovember 23, 1846
London, England
Resting placeNorway House, Manitoba, Canada
ResidenceUpper Canada
NationalityEnglish, Canadian
OccupationMethodist missionary, linguist
Known forCreator of the Canadian Aboriginal syllabics system for the Ojibwe language and the Cree Language and later adopted by Inuktitut

James Evans (January 18, 1801 – November 23, 1846) was an English-Canadian Methodist missionary and amateur linguist. He is best remembered for his claim of the invention of the "syllabic" writing system for Ojibwe and Cree, which was later adapted to other languages such as Inuktitut. While it was long believed that Evans was the original inventor of the syllabics writing system, there is strong evidence to suggest that the Cree people already knew the writing system[1] and Evans simply adapted it for print.


Evans was born in Kingston-upon-Hull in England, but emigrated with his parents to Lower Canada in 1822,[2] where he worked as a teacher. He later moved to Rice Lake and continued his teaching work.

Teaching Indians his system

In 1833 he was ordained as a Wesleyan (Methodist) minister, and in 1840 he was given authority over the local district in Norway House in Manitoba. During this time Evans worked on the development of the Ojibwe and Cree scripts. Evans had picked up Ojibwe during his work among the people in Upper Canada. He created the Ojibwe script after first trying to apply a Roman script to their language. Later, he modified syllabics slightly and applied it to Cree, a related language. The scripts were based on Devanagari and Pitman Shorthand. They were easy to learn and led to almost universal literacy among the Canadian Ojibwe and Cree within a few years.

Evans's other missionary work was scarred by turmoil. Evans clashed several times with the Hudson's Bay Company, mostly over their treatment of the native population. Evans accidentally shot and killed his friend and co-worker Thomas Hassall in 1844. He was accused of sexual misconduct with native girls under his care. This was proven to be a ploy by the church to discredit and incarcerate Evans, due to his unwavering dedication in helping the native people. Although he was acquitted, he was sent to London to defend himself again. The stress took a toll on his health, and he died of a heart attack in 1846. His daughter Clarissa Eugenia later married the HBC trapper and explorer John McLean, who became active in the Methodist community of Guelph, Canada West (now Ontario).

James Evans's grave was in England, but his remains were cremated and sent to Norway House, Manitoba.[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Murdoch, John. "A Serious Read on Syllabics: The M.Ed Thesis of John Murdoch". Cree Literacy Network. Retrieved 7 March 2019.
  2. ^ "Biography – EVANS, JAMES – Volume VII (1836-1850) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography". www.biographi.ca.


  • McLean, John (1890), James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language, Toronto: Methodist Mission Rooms.

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