Saturday, November 16, 2013

More on standard orthographies of African languages

In the previous post, I alluded to a discussion on H-Africa in December 2007 under the title "Names for African peoples & languages." Since it seems broadly relevant to issues raised in that post, I'll re-up a longish excerpt from one message in that discussion,* with some minor edits (in italics) and added outlinks.

With regard to the issue of orthographies, I think it is an oversimplification, and indeed in many cases an error to say that no one is using the "official" orthographies for African languages. Certainly for Pulaar in Senegal, there is some significant use of the orthography (e.g., publications by ARED [Associates in Research and Education for Development], many of which come from Fulaphone Senegalese). Adult literacy classes, and now increasingly some new first-language/bilingual primary education programs use the official orthography.

It is true that governments have not placed much emphasis on first-language literacy, and often none at all in formal schooling. In addition, language policies, including standards of orthography, are not given much official support.

So it is also true that people who go through English-only or French-only schooling may not be comfortable with an orthography that they were never taught (to quote just one person on this subject - Philip Emeagwali in a speech he made in 2004: "I was taught to write in a new language. As a result, I became literate in English but remain illiterate in Igbo - my native tongue."). This is an issue of language and education policies.

Nevertheless, where there are standards, efforts have been made to develop them, and there are people who do use them. To ignore these standards, especially now as they are getting to the point of being able to implement them more extensively in information technology, would be a disservice.

I was recently in South Africa for a workshop on localizing software and content in African languages. Two of the participants were Senegalese and had been working separately on translating different software into Wolof. This work - no less than writing a book - depends on a common orthography, which happily exists. One of the projects, ANAFA, has also been working on computer literacy in Wolof - another area relying on standard orthography. (BTW, they are coordinating their efforts now; I should also mention in passing that the Wolof Wikipedia is beginning to get more attention too.)

This may seem far from deciding what orthography to use in citing a word from a language in a scholarly paper, but I'd argue that all this highlights a context that is indeed relevant to such a choice. In any case, in the end it seems like a question of principle. The level of attention scholars pay to such issues seems to me not to be neutral - it sends a message of support or of dismissal; it respects the standard such as it is, or it says the standard is not worth the bother.

I'm painting this in somewhat simple terms. I do recognize that there are various issues surrounding the various orthographies (part of the rationale for N'Ko for Manding languages is the assertion that the Latin script is not adapted to the language). But ultimately any writing system that is reasonably well conceived and consistently used is of more value than either pursuit of an unattainable perfection (some orthographies such as for Bambara have been revised several times to improve them) or a return to the old days when African languages were written according to whatever transcription matched the author's experience or imagination.

* Source: "Names for African peoples & language: REPLY," Don Osborn, H-Africa list, 14 December 2007.

1 comment:

Don said...

Another posting on this blog dealing with orthographies may be of interest: On diacritics & modified characters in African languages (2 Sept. 2015).