1. Languages and writing
||1. Languages and Writing
Language issues are at the heart of quality education for all. It is essential that children in school and adults in community have the opportunity to use their own languages to engage with the world around them – orally and in written form. Many minority and indigenous people groups do not have that opportunity – quite simply because their language is not written down.
It is a situation which is changing, though only slowly. The population of Papua New Guinea, for example, speaks around 800 different languages, and gradually more and more of them are being used in education. Children in primary school and adults in literacy groups have the chance to gain literacy skills in their own languages – and through that experience acquire literacy in other languages as well. That takes books and libraries, adequate teaching, literature and a dynamic literate environment – all in the local language. With the commitment of local communities all that is beginning to develop… but it starts with developing an adequate writing system.
These web pages explore what it takes to write unwritten languages – one way of offering new opportunities of expression and learning to the world’s linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples.
1.2 Languages – written and unwritten
There are around 6800 languages in the world today (Grimes 2000), but they differ widely in how many speakers each one has. Some languages are spoken only by those who are mother tongue speakers of it, while others are widely spoken as additional languages (second, third … languages). Eleven languages each have 100 million mother tongue speakers or more and they account for 51 percent of the world’s population: Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Arabic (all varieties), Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, French and German (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000). These are, of course, all written and all have vast stores of literature. A further 200 or so languages account for another 44 percent of the world’s population. This means that over 6000 languages are spoken by groups of less than a million people each, with some languages of less than 1000 speakers. In other terms, 95 percent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 5 percent of its population. The world distribution of languages is as follows, according to the Ethnologue (Grimes 2000)
How many of these are written? It is extremely difficult to estimate how many written and unwritten languages there are in the world, and there is no established source of information. The difficulty in counting comes in part from a lack of information of what is happening on the ground. The world currently has no systematic way to collect data on the number of communities which are developing their languages, what stage they have reached, whether existing writing systems are actually used, or whether attempts have been made to develop writing systems that are not in use. The Ethnologue notes sporadically whether a language ‘has an orthography’ or ‘has an official orthography’, but does not present information on writing systems for each language.
1.2.1 Minorities and ‘small’ language groups
Africa, Asia and the Pacific are the regions where there are many small language groups, although there is also a large number of small indigenous groups in Latin America. Most of these small languages are not written. The same is true of some larger groups in Africa and Asia, numbering in a few cases more than one million speakers.
While some groups may not wish to see their language in written form, for many communities lack of a writing system is yet another factor of marginalisation, often compounding others such as:
- small population numbers
- minority facing a majority
- ‘remote’ location (from a metropolitan perspective)
- economically poor
- low resource base
- politically without voice
- socially marginalised or stigmatised
- little access to quality social services, such as education and healthcare
Developing a writing system will not by itself change these realities, but may interact with other factors to increase opportunities, for instance:
- a greater chance of literacy, and so education and opportunities for economic development;
- increased access to the learning of additional languages;
- opportunity for cultural expression and wider communication of cultural values and particularities;
- increased cultural and linguistic self-confidence and thus greater security in one’s own identity;
- appreciation by others of the unique richness of the language;
- the option to use the language in the electronic media.
Developing a writing system for an unwritten language is perfectly feasible – such work has gone on for centuries. Linguistic tools have improved and speeded up the process, and there is today a greater understanding of the influence of the social context, and of the cultural impact of writing a language down.
UNESCO is convinced that it is the right of every language community to use their own language in written form, if they so desire.
1.3 Meaning, sound and symbol
The earliest writing systems of the world appeared in Egypt and Asia Minor around 3000 B.C., China (roughly at the same time), and Central America (AD 1000). As Dahl (2000) points out, these civilizations had in common a fairly high level of development which evidently necessitated a writing system of some kind. Successors of the writing systems of Egypt and Asia Minor are the ones most commonly found in the world today.
Early attempts to represent language through an abstract system of marks did so by reproducing an image of the concept in question – an iconic or pictorial form. Sumerian and Mayan hieroglyphic writing are examples of such a system. The picture represented the meaning of the concept/object, not its sound in spoken form. This worked well enough for material objects, but did not suffice for representing abstract notions. Thus an alternative system gradually developed which linked the representation of speech to the sound of words – now any word that was spoken could be represented in written form through phonetic representation. All writing systems, including those based on ideographic representation include some form of phonetic representation.
Syllabic and alphabetic scripts are based on this principle – in these systems writing is an abstract symbolisation of the sounds of speech, and the meaning is derived from the reader’s knowledge of the spoken form of the language. This is not to say that the correspondence between sound and symbol is necessarily direct or straightforward, as other sections show. Ideally, in alphabetic scripts, one symbol represents one phoneme, and each phoneme is represented by a single symbol. Spanish and English provide an interesting example of how this is NOT the case:
- The phoneme /k/ is represented by more than one symbol in both langues
- Similarly, the symbol represents more than one sound, again in both langues: Spanish (Castillian)
In syllabic scripts, the syllables of spoken language are represented by single symbols. As Garlén (1988:154) observes, this works quite well for languages with straightforward syllable structure, for example Japanese, which only exhibits syllables with a structure of consonant+vowel (CV). It would be impossible in languages such as many Germanic and Slavic languages which have a wide range of syllable patterns, including clusters of consonants.
The following diagram, adapted from Coulmas (1989), shows how the relationship of the written form evolved with regard to the meaning and sound of language:
- See the diagram
Did you know?
| The mother-tongue dilemma
Educators are increasingly convinced of the value of multilingual education, and studies show that children learn better in their mother tongue.UNESCO's Education Today newsletter No.6 highlights how emotional this whole issue is and outlines the huge political and economic obstacles.
Resolution on Mother Language Day (1999)
· Cultural & Linguistic Diversity in Education
. Endangered Languages
· Selected websites