Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Writing Bambara right

How to compose text in the Latin-based orthography of the Bambara language of Mali? One question raised by an ebola poster in non-standard Bambara (see previous posting) is whether the modified letters (technically "extended characters") in the Bambara alphabet  discourage use of the standard orthography. There are two potential issues - fonts and keyboards - although noting use of standard Bambara in other materials, these are not the impediment they once were. I'll briefly discuss both below, after a quick intro to written Bambara.

Bambara orthography

The Bambara alphabet today includes the following characters:
a  b  c  d  e  ɛ  f  g  h  i  j  k  l  m  n  ɲ  ŋ  o  ɔ  p  r  s  t  u  w  y  z

Digraph consonants (two letters to represent one sound) have been phased out of use, such that "ny" is now "ɲ" (in Senegalese orthography this would be "ñ"). However, "sh" is still used - although the IPA borrowing for this sound - "ʃ" - is sometimes seen (just today noted it in an email by odd coincidence). Double vowels however are used, for words where the vowel sound is slightly prolonged.

Bambara is a tonal language. The two tones are rarely marked, but when they are, accent marks are used. (A change in the alphabet some years ago from "è" and "ò" to "ɛ" and "ɔ" permitted marking of tones with accents rather than underscores for low tone).


Time was, the lack of fonts (and before Unicode became the dominant standard, character encoding behind the fonts and the lack of compatibility among different 8-bit fonts) presented the main problem for creating and sharing text in Bambara with the extended characters ɛ, ɲ, ŋ, and ɔ.

Font support for extended Latin characters is still uneven, though current operating systems can substitute a missing character from another font (all being encoded in Unicode). As I compose this posting, I note Blogger's default font lacking 3 of the 4 extended characters from the obvious substitution (per figure above from screenshot; background color added). On the other hand, the font for the published posting does include these characters. So no substitution is necessary.

Basically this means that most of the time, one can display the needed characters, but for aesthetic reasons, fonts that include all of those characters would be preferable. In finding fonts, it is helpful to know that the needed extended characters may be spread among several Unicode "blocks." For Bambara this means a font will have to have, in addition to the basic Latin blocks common to any font with Latin characters, the following extended blocks:
Latin Extended-A is fairly common in fonts, but not the other three above. (If needed, the "ʃ" and its capital form would be covered by the IPA and Extended-B ranges.)

Alan Wood's extensive list of "Unicode character ranges and the Unicode fonts that support them" is an excellent resource for finding fonts for specific Unicode ranges. (Sill looking for a resource that would allow one to choose several Unicode blocks and get a list of fonts that cover them.)


Since display of extended characters is no longer the impediment it used to be, the big issue now seems to be how to efficiently compose text with extended characters that are not supported by computer keyboards (i.e., not via inserting symbol in a wordprocessor or cutting and pasting characters from another source). This means use of alternative keyboard drivers or onscreen keyboards or character pickers.

In the latter category, there are a couple of websites worth noting. In both, one types from one's keyboard and then clicks on extended characters, producing text onscreen that can be copied and pasted elsewhere:
  • Lexilogos has a page for Bambara, featuring a window where one can type basic Lain characters and then click on the extended ones onscreen (and diacritics for accents).
  • Richard Ishida has a more complex IPA Character Picker enabling input of many more extended Latin characters.
Keyboard drivers enable one to use one's existing keyboard in any application. These generally use either Tavultesoft Keyman or Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator (MSKLC). A short list of links to current keyboard drivers useful for composing in Bambara follows (with thanks to Valentin Vydrin, who shared this on the Translating Hope list). I'll add to this but encourage comments with additional information:
  • Via Mali Pense site (see under "ÉCRIRE LE BAMBARA - ka bamanankan sɛbɛn"). Note also a spell checker ("vérificateur orthographique"; see under "POUR ÉCRIRE SANS FAUTES - Fililatilennan sɛbɛnni na")
  • Via LLACAN site (see under "Saisir des caractères spéciaux sous windows.")


Rebecca Fenton said...

Thanks for this, Don. (And sorry if this is a double post!)

I use a keyboard layout by SIL, which uses special key combos and can create any IPA character. Keyboards for PC, Mac, and Linux are available. For Macs there is also a character palette (click and copy).


Coleman Donaldson said...

I second the use of the SIL IPA keyboard for writing Manding.

Don said...

Rebecca, Coleman, thanks for your comments. To facilitate users' access, here is a clickable link to the indicated SIL page: IPA Unicode Keyboards.