5. Choosing a script
||Analysing the sound system of a language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for developing a practical writing system. Once the analysis is done, there is still the question of which script to use, or which version of which script to use.
Linguists tend to advocate alphabetic systems for a hitherto unwritten language. However, as some specialists point out, logographic systems may actually be preferential to phonetic ones. In the introduction of writing among certain South American Indian groups, phonetics-based scripts were disfavoured by the speakers concerned, since their language varied considerably in pronunciation. However, with the use of logograms, everyone could write and read the language, although the signs were pronounced somewhat differently. The same situation can be observed concerning the Chinese languages, which have a unified writing system but are different spoken languages, such as Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka.
Also, Dahl (2000:218) notes the highly interesting fact that syllabic systems are preferred from the users' point of view in some fairly recently designed orthographies, for example for the North American languages Inuktitut and Cree.
If choosing a phonetic script, there may be a choice as to what kind of alphabet should be used. In this respect it is useful to look at how Arabic is used to write African languages not related to Arabic; it has also been used for Yiddish, the German-related spoken variety associated with the Jewish people.
The choice of a script raises many social and political issues – these are illustrated in what follows by examples from around the world. A number of basic questions must first be posed:
- Should the script of more widespread or more powerful languages be adopted, for example Roman script in many former British and French colonies?
- How far is the learning of a national or official language a factor? For instance, should a tribal language in India adopt (a modified form of) Devanagari script to facilitate learning Hindi subsequently?
- Is there a government policy or guideline regarding the choice of script and symbols? In Cameroon, the General Alphabet of Cameroon Languages was adopted in 1979 and is a guiding framework for the writing of unwritten Cameroonian languages, using modified Roman script.
- How much weight should be given to history and tradition? Over the centuries Berber languages have used Arabic, Roman and Tifinagh scripts, with the latter being associated with traditional culture.
The examples given below from Ethiopia, Peru, Guatemala and Mongolia show how these and other factors play a role in decisions about scripts – from a historical and a contemporary perspective.
The very fact of writing a language down for the first time is not without political implications. In situations of high linguistic diversity, such as parts of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the languages, or the dialectal varieties, that are written come to enjoy higher prestige than the unwritten languages around them, thus changing the balance of power and influence among language groups. Mühlhäusler (1996) refers to such situations as changes in the linguistic ecology. While recognising that writing a language down makes possible new opportunities of literacy, education and cultural expression, he sees the process as an intervention which is costly in terms of the changes it brings to the status of languages; some end up being promoted at the expense of others. Over time the predominance of one written language or variety could lead to the disappearance of others – a factor therefore in the reduction of language diversity. Further research would be needed to determine how far this is the case in particular countries and regions and how the process is related to other factors of language endangerment such as language spread. While developing writing systems for unwritten languages can be a factor in their survival and development, Mühlhäusler reminds us that it can also lead to nefarious effects on the linguistic ecology in areas of high diversity.
5.1 Syllabary to alphabet in Ethiopia
In many cases choice of script is a historical process with many different kinds of influence brought to bear on the decision. Often these influences are external and they eclipse many of the functional arguments for choosing one script over another. Until recently this was the case for Oromo.
The Oromo language of Ethiopia is spoken by about 25 million people, making it the largest language group in the country. During the colonial era Oromo was written with a variety of scripts, including Roman and Arabic scripts and the Sabean or Ethiopic syllabary. The ‘Galla Spelling Book’ (Galla is an alternative name for Oromo) was published using the 250 characters of the Ethiopic syllabary in 1884.
In the 1950s an Oromo nobleman, Shaykh Bakri Sapolo devised a writing system for the language and taught it to his students. Although it did not come into general use, it was an attempt to adapt the Ethiopic syllabary to the particular structures of Oromo. This resulted in over 300 symbols derived from 28 basic consonantal forms. The following quotation highlights the originality – as well as the political implications – of the enterprise:
It is not really clear why Shaykh Bakri returned to his home area to devote time to the alphabet, unless it was for the purpose of keeping the thing secret, for the authorities would certainly have been adamantly opposed to the idea of Oromo being written in any form, let alone in a script other than Ethiopic. Be that as it may, it does seem highly likely that Bakri was the first Oromo who saw clearly the problems inherent in attempting to write the Oromo language by means of orthographic systems which had been devised primarily for other languages. (Hayward and Hassan 1981)
Other languages in Ethiopia, which were developed in written form later than Oromo, also largely adopted the Ethiopic syllabary. In the 1970s both Ethiopic and Roman scripts were used for Oromo, but the writing of Oromo was officially banned until the Mengistu regime came to power in 1974. At that time the ban was lifted and there was liberty to write Oromo using the Ethiopic syllabary, although its use in education was proscribed.
About five months after the fall of the Mengistu regime in 1991, Oromo intellectuals held a meeting to discuss the question of the script. After six hours of debate there was a unanimous decision to adopt the Roman script, on the basis of three types of consideration: linguistic, pedagogical and practical.
The chief linguistic consideration was that the Ethiopic syllabary did not accommodate the structure of Oromo, for instance in the representation of lengthened vowels and consonants, as well as in the number of vowels. There was also a feeling that the syllabary was more adapted to writing Ethiopia’s Semitic languages, such as Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya, rather than the Cushitic languages to which Oromo belongs. Pedagogical reasons focused on the reduced number of symbols to be learnt if an alphabet of about 30 symbols is used rather than a syllabary of 250. Under the heading of practical reasons, ‘global functional considerations’ were adduced, that is, the argument of easier transition to other languages, with English as a prime example.
While these reasons are entirely adequate in themselves, there may also have been some underlying political considerations, as suggested by Bakri’s clandestine project in the 1950s. The Ethiopic syllabary had come to be associated with political and cultural domination. The use of a distinctive script and its application to other languages was a powerful symbol of hegemony. Thus once the political landscape shifted, part of the new-found liberty consisted in challenging the linguistic symbols of domination – the adoption of a different script was thus an assertion of political freedom.
It is worth noting that other Cushitic language groups in Ethiopia, such as the Hadiyya and Kambaata continue to debate which script to adopt, Roman or Ethiopic. Amharic, used as a lingua franca in the country, continues to use the syllabary.
5.2 Vowels and politics in Peru
The controversy over vowels in Quechua in Peru illustrates how decisions about writing systems can become political. The question was whether Quechua should be written with three vowels or five. Hornberger (1995) documents the debate, pointing out the different interests of the players involved. They were:
- Peruvian linguists and bilingual educators, specialists in Quechua although few were speakers of it.
- Quechua academicians, belonging to the native Quechua academy in Cusco, founded in 1953. All are native speakers of Quechua.
- Foreign linguists, working with communities in linguistic research, literacy and Bible translation, often learning the local variety of Quechua.
These all had views on the number of vowels, depending respectively on whether linguistic arguments prevailed (three vowels), long-term written practice was foregrounded (five vowels), or native speaker/reader reaction was given prominence (mostly favouring five vowels). The problem arose because Quechua has three vowel phonemes /i/, /a/ and /u/, with [e] and [o] occurring as allophones of /i/ and /u/ in the proximity of the uvular consonant /q/. However, 400 years of writing Quechua represented [e] and [o] in writing, probably by analogy with Spanish.
However the problem is not purely linguistic. As Hornberger points out, other issues are stake, notably the language planning process, the basis of authority on the language, and defence of the language’s purity and autonomy – all politically charged issues. Thus any decision has implications for the relative power of the different groups involved and, beyond that, rests on a different view of who the important sections of the Quechua population are:
The choice for three vowels implies the rural monolingual Quechua speaker as a primary target group and an autonomous, cross-regional, and cross-national community of Quechua readers and writers as goal. whereas the choice for five vowels implies the urban, bilingual Quechua-Spanish speaker as primary target group and communities of Quechua readers and writers linked perhaps more directly to the Spanish-speaking Andean world than to each other as goal. (Hornberger 1995: 201-202)
What is the way forward in such a situation? The question was all the more urgent, as the educational use of Quechua depends on a stable writing system. While groups of specialists may take their respective positions, what is needed is the many voices of the Quechua-speaking population themselves.
5.3 Alphabets and identity in Guatemala
Alphabets have been proposed for the Quiché (or Ki-che, or K’iche’) language of Guatemala since the 1940s, and the process has paralleled closely the assertion of ethnic identity, as Lewis (1993) describes. The first alphabet originated from the First Linguistic Congress of Mayan languages in 1949 and was designed to facilitate transition to learning Spanish – the alphabet was thus based on Spanish orthographic convention, including for the phoneme /k/ using before and before . This alphabet was therefore not aimed at maintaining or affirming Mayan identity, but at integration into the national, ladino culture. In 1959 a Quiché speaker, Adrián Chávez, developed a set of symbols based on Mayan glyphs – a deliberate attempt to assert the distinctiveness of cultural and ethnic identity through the symbolism of an alphabet. While the alphabet was not generally adopted, his attempt was a milestone in the Mayan ethnic movement.
There followed a period when several competing alphabets came into use, prompting the holding of the Second Linguistic Congress in 1984. Orthography questions were top of the agenda, but no concrete solution emerged. This was left to a committee which soon formed an unofficial Mayan Language Academy and held a consultation on orthography in 1987. The outcome of this meeting was a unified set of symbols to be used in representing all Mayan languages. Thus, similar sounds in different Mayan languages should be represented by the same symbol, symbolising ethnic solidarity across different language groups. The inventory includes the use of for the phoneme /k/, and the use of to represent the post-velar stop /q/ – this usage makes a clear statement about the distinctive nature of Mayan languages vis-à-vis Spanish. Lewis (1993) concludes that orthographic decisions symbolised transitions in the consciousness and projection of ethnic identity, moving from passive assimilationist tendencies to the assertion of a wider Mayan nationalism.
5.4 Centuries of scripts in Mongolia
Mongolian has had a writing system for about a thousand years. There is evidence in Chinese texts of the sixth century of a written from of the language of the nomadic ancestors of the Mongols, but the first scripts used by Mongols themselves date back to the tenth century. The Classical Mongolian script was developed from Uighur and Sogdian sources in the thirteenth century and was promoted by the great Mongolian emperor Chingis Khan. It is unique in that it is the only script written from top to bottom and from left to right across the page.
Other scripts such as the following appeared over the intervening centuries, but did not survive:
- Square or Phagsba script: designed by a Tibetan monk in the thirteenth century, this ‘square writing’ (which is what Phagsba means) combined features of Tibetan and Chinese and was written vertically.
- Clear script: this script, invented in 1648, sought to improve the classical Mongolian script by eliminating homographs (different words spelled the same way) and bringing written representation closer to the oral form.
- Soyombo script: a Mongolian monk, Zanabazar, invented this script in 1686 on the basis of ancient Indian writing. It served particularly to record religious terms from Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit, which all served at some time as literary languages for Mongolian scholars.
- Vaghintara script: also based on the classical Mongolian script, this variety was developed in 1905 and did away with homographs and positional allographs (that is, letters written different ways according to their position in the word).
It was the classical Mongolian script which was in common use until 1941 when, under Soviet influence, a new alphabet based on the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced with 35 letters (two more than Russian). Official documents stated two reasons for the change: first, the classical Mongolian script was too far removed from the oral form, and, second, it was not suitable for transcribing foreign words. The second reason was not in fact true, while the first reason applies to many scripts/languages, not least English.
Since the transition to democratic rule in 1990, there have been efforts to revive the classical Mongolian script, and it was taught in schools for some years. However, many of those born between the mid-1930s and the 1980s had never learnt to read it, and so it caused some friction. Also, literature was in Cyrillic script. Today, the Cyrillic script is taught and is in general use. With globalisation, some suggestions have been made to move to a Roman alphabet, but there seems little functional value in this, particularly given the ease with which transliteration can be effected between the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets.
5.5 Writing minority languages in China
It comes as something of a surprise to find that some minority languages in China are written with Roman script. How did this come about?
In the 1950s the Chinese government carried out research on minority languages, including the development of scripts for those which did not yet have one. Chinese pinyin, a Romanised form of Chinese, was used at that time – and still is – as an initial introduction to reading for children in school. Thus there was a perception that a Roman script would be easier to learn. Also, fifty years ago, the idea was being floated of using this Romanised form for writing Chinese, rather than using ideographic characters – this suggestion, since abandoned, may at the time have contributed to the use of Roman script for minority languages.
These scripts were promoted in the early 1960s, then left on one side during the period of the Cultural Revolution. Interest returned in the 1980s, when there were a number of literacy efforts in minority languages, as well as the publication of research articles and dictionaries. For example three-month literacy classes for adults were held in the Dong language, and an experimental literacy programme took place in the Bai-speaking Jianchuan area between 1986 and 1992. Both Dong and Bai have Roman-based scripts
Currently it is largely up to local communities to develop and use their minority languages, if they wish to do so. A limited bilingual education programme in the Dong-speaking area offers the chance to learn literacy skills in their own language.
Attitudes to Roman script reflect the long tradition of writing and literature in Mandarin Chinese – Chinese characters are felt to reflect a high view of culture and an accomplished skill of beautiful calligraphy. Roman scripts carry none of those connotations, but rather evoke the early years of children’s schooling, with all the overtones of simple and childlike learning. These attitudes represent barriers to the use of these minority languages in written form, even though the Roman scripts have been in use, at least experimentally, for several decades.
5.6 Community ownership and use
Language is not only a means of communication, but also a symbol of identity. Writing an unwritten language is therefore a matter of great cultural significance – it changes the nature of the relationship of the community to its language. The language moves from one category to another – for some speakers it means that the language has come of age, or has acquired a new status, alongside the other written languages of the world, near and far. For others the development may not be seen in such a positive light, because writing opens the language up to others, and makes it in some sense less the property of the original community.
The sense that a language belongs to the community of its speakers can be very strong, especially when the community is relatively small and language constitutes a major feature which marks that community out from surrounding ones.
When a language is in the process of being written for the first time, it evokes many different kinds of feelings. It is important that they are expressed and that the community of speakers is vitally involved in the process of developing a written standard. There are a number of important questions which a community will have to debate and decisions it will have to make:
- which dialect(s) of the language should be used for the written standard?
- what script should be used?
- which language(s), if any, should be used as a model for the writing system?
- should the writing system resemble that of related languages, or neighbouring languages, or national or official languages, or should it be quite distinct?
- how will words be spelled – joined up or in their separate grammatical or lexical parts?
- how will the written standard be promoted?
- how will it be taught, to adults, to children?
- who will produce literature in the language?
- is there a need for a linguistic standard-setting body (such as a language academy or institute), and if so how will it be organised?
These questions cannot be dealt with quickly or easily. Some may be settled by a deliberate process of consultation and decision-making, others may evolve slowly with a consensus gradually developing. Language issues may form part of a broader cultural or political agenda, such as indigenous people’s rights or government decentralisation, or they may be the object of focus in themselves.
5.6.1 Language committees in Cameroon
In 2003 there were 62 language committees in Cameroon, each one representing a distinct language group.
It is estimated that there are upwards of 250 language groups in total in Cameroon, many of which have no written form or have a very recent written tradition. Each language committee is composed of speakers of the language and takes responsibility for the following functions:
- the development of the language in written form
- literacy promotion, including the production of literature and the organisation of literacy acquisition
- stimulating and overseeing bilingual programmes in the schools using the mother tongue and the official language
-cultural development and preservation
- developing and identifying resources for these functions
-links with other language committees
In setting up a language committee, the following criteria were taken into account in determining its composition (cf Sadembouo 1988):
- representatives of all the dialects of a language
- men and women, young and old
- people from all religious groups
- people from different socio-economic groups
- educators and teachers
- literate and non-literate people
The Gunu Linguistic Committee (GULICO) of central Cameroon started life in 1978 as the initiative of local community leaders and a foreign linguist undertaking research into the language. It began to meet monthly and quickly addressed issues of how to write the language. Discussions focused particularly on the similarities and differences with two other languages with which the committee members were familiar in written form: Ewondo and French. Ewondo, the language of the Yaoundé region, had been used previously for religious purposes and was the only written African language that GULICO members were familiar with up to that point. In addition, the University of Yaoundé had recently adopted general principles for writing the languages of Cameroon, some of which conflicted with the practice in Ewondo.
For instance, the sound [tS] had been represented as in Ewondo, but was recommended to be written as in the University’s principles. After much discussion, was adopted. This was in large measure a result of the committee’s desire to adopt new general Cameroon practice, rather than maintaining a historical precedent whose scientific basis was not apparent and which, in any case, had been a colonial invention.
Once the alphabet had been adopted and spelling rules developed, the committee worked together on an initial booklet to promote the written form of the language. This was presented in visits by committee members to villages of the region, with the result that some villages requested literacy instruction. Again, the committee members were involved in setting these up and organising instruction.
The role of the committee expanded in the early 1980s through visits to neighbouring language communities, creating a regional dynamic for language development which, by 2003, resulted in joint working sessions and regular mutual exchange of information.
In the late 1980s a national federation of Cameroon language committees was formed, in order to organise training, facilitate publication of materials, undertake research, and coordinate the search for external funding support. The National Association of Cameroon Language Committees (NACALCO) today supports and promotes local responsibility for the development of Cameroon’s languages, with an emphasis on their role in education and development.
5.6.2 Building community ownership in Uganda
Lugbara is a language spoken in Uganda, southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and has a number of dialects. In common with many African languages, Lugbara crosses international borders which frequently divide a language area into two, or even three, as in this case. In 2000, representatives of the Lugbara-speaking community came together in Arua (northwest Uganda) for a conference on standardising the Lugbara writing system. The aim was to move forward as a whole community so that the resulting orthography would be owned and used by all sections of the Lugbara population– that is, recognised as belonging to all parts of the community, not merely one dialect area or sub-group. The conference set as its goals (LULA 2000: 6):
- to examine the challenges facing the existing Lugbara orthography
- to find out the most appropriate ways through which a standard orthography could be arrived at for wider communication in the Lugbara communities
The meeting strove therefore to develop ownership of the process of orthography standardisation rather than to decide directly on what orthography should be adopted. The reasons for this emphasis are clear: only when such ownership across the community is in place can the vigorous use of the language in written form be sustained. Earlier history showed how necessary this process was.
The first attempts at writing the language were undertaken by Catholic and Protestant missionaries from 1918, with differences between the denominations in the way the language was written. This religious use resulted in the Ayivu dialect being used as the standard for the written form, although some used the Aringa dialect. The orthography used in Congo differed again, under the influence of French. When mission schools were taken over by the government in 1965, the publication of books in Ugandan languages was abandoned. The Lugbara Literature Association – LULA – was founded in 1994 (registered as an NGO in 1999) with the aim of promoting research, publication, cultural expression and standardisation in Lugbara. It also sought to bring together all the dialect areas. Against the background of all these initiatives and divergent attempts at orthography development, LULA organised the 2000 conference as a way of establishing a commonly agreed approach.
It should be noted that Lugbara was one of the languages which the government of Uganda designated in 1992 as one of five languages of wider communication to be used in primary education. Thus the policy environment was supportive, as witnessed by the co-sponsoring of the conference by the Arua District authorities, where Lugbara is spoken.
However, the use of Lugbara in schooling has never been implemented, nor is the language an object of study at university level, in contrast to the other four officially recognised languages.
What did the conference achieve? First, it brought together representatives of the different dialects, religious groups, government departments, educational NGOs, civil society groups and networks. Second, it issued a strong appeal for a standard Lugbara orthography and stated the reasons why.
Third, it did not get into technical details, but appointed a committee to carry that process forward and set parameters for its work. Fourth, it highlighted the importance of research as the underpinning of language development, and, fifth, it emphasised the promotion of the use of the language as a vehicle of literacy for adults and primary schooling for children.
The conference served as the scaffolding for building the written use of the language: without such a process there can be no guarantee that a writing system, however elegant and scientifically based, will actually serve all the speakers of a language community.
- Developing a writing system: stages in the process
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