3. Developing a writing system
||3.1 A multi-faceted issue
For those who use writing every day it seems a simple matter to have some way of representing speech and words on paper or on the computer screen. We give little thought to how those marks were designed or decided upon. We are hardly aware that the system we use evolved over time and may have been the subject of much debate or even dispute. However, developing a writing system is not a simple or straightforward matter – it concerns the place that language has in human society and so has connections with many different aspects of life: social, political and cultural. Some of the processes are technical, concerned with the structure of particular languages and the procedures for analysing them scientifically in ways that reveal their uniqueness and the systematic way in which they are organised. Such an analysis must form part of the basis of deciding how to write a language which has hitherto been used only in oral form.
The technical, linguistic basis is only part of the story. Linguists may plead for a writing system to take the structure of the language fully into account; indeed, it may be that the linguistic reality and its analysis offer solutions which are elegant and relatively simple. However, a writing system is not only a linguistic reality, it is also a social convention, to be adopted and used by a community of speakers with their particular history, social relations, political context and cultural heritage. Thus all these factors must form part of decisions about how to write a language.
3.1.1 Social relations
If a writing system is to be accepted by the community of speakers of a language, decisions must take into account social relations within the community and with other communities:
- Within the community: what is the relationship between different dialect areas of the language? How are gender relations structured and how can women’s and men’s input be organised? Which institutions use or may use the language in written form and what is their influence on how the language should be written?
- With other communities: which of the neighbouring languages has a written form and when/how was it developed? What is the attitude of neighbouring groups to developing a writing system: will they use it, feel threatened, learn from the experience and develop their own, …?
3.1.2 Political context
Deciding how to write a language is not a politically neutral enterprise. Governments, the status of the language community and other interest groups have an influence on the decisions and how they are made:
- What degree of autonomy in decision-making does the language community have, and why?
- What other interests may have to be taken into account: linguists’ views, government policies, institutional power, …?
- How flexible or constraining is government policy with regard to writing systems for the country’s languages?
- How much influence may foreign governments have, for example, former colonial powers whose languages are spoken in the country in question?
3.1.3 Cultural heritage
Writing a language may change the relationship of the speakers to their culture, to the possibilities of access to their cultural heritage and transmission of it to future generations and to the wider world:
- What attempts have already been made to write the language? By whom and for what purposes?
- What kinds of oral literature exist and what will happen to them when the language is written?
- How has local history been recorded, and how will this change if the local language is written?
- Who are the creators and guardians of local knowledge, and what will be their role once the language is written? Will they become authors and writers? Will they be marginalised? How will local knowledge be better validated once the language is written?
3.1.4 Language structure
Languages have diverse and fascinating structures which a good writing system should seek to represent. However, analysis takes place in the context of the social, political and cultural factors, and these will carry more weight ultimately in determining now a language is written. Some of the broad questions which linguistic analysis must ask are the following:
- What are the distinctions of sound which must absolutely be represented in the language to avoid confusion?
- What should be the relationship of these essential sounds differences to the way they are spelled? Should one sign represent one sound? Should each distinctive sound unit be represented by only one sign?
- What is the grammatical structure of the language and how does this influence how the language is written, for example, word breaks, elision, parts of the verb?
- What light do the structures of related languages shed on the development of a writing system?
Section 4 (hyperlink) introduces the principles involved in analysing the sounds of a language.
The following diagram illustrates how all these factors – social, political, cultural, and technical/linguistic feed into the decision-making process.
- Key Elements in Developing a Writing System
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