Friday, November 15, 2013

Texting in Wolof & implicatons for standard orthographies

In a recent post on Think Africa Press entitled "Wolof 2.0: Spoken Languages in a Digital Age," Juliana Friend offers a very interesting snapshot (and video) of the meeting of the Wolof language in Senegal with information and communications technology.

A remark by a Senegalese woman quoted in the post about spelling in Wolof not mattering as much as getting the message across oddly had me remembering a long discussion on H-Africa in December 2007 ("Names for African peoples & languages") wherein one of the topics was whether scholars should use the official orthographies of languages whose terms they used in publication.

Standardized spellings and orthographies of course have a reason, or really several functions (from clarity of meaning to facilitating learning to read). They are more critical in long texts and formalized uses, such as a localized interface on computer or mobile device, than they are in texting or citing an occasional word in an academic publication. So one sees for example attention to Wolof spelling and orthographies in both the content and the interface of the Wolof Wikipedia.

Ms. Friend's post focuses on Senegal - the main country where Wolof is spoken - but it's important to remember that the language is also spoken by significant segments of the populations of Gambia and southern Mauritania. The issue of transnational harmonization of the written forms of the many cross-border languages of Africa is a subject that has been given official attention since the 1960s. It would be interesting to know whether written Wolof is still "unified" in this sense across the countries where it is spoken. (I'll come back to this general subject in a later post.)

It's also probably worth thinking about how it came about that in Senegal "French was traditionally the language of writing, Wolof the language of speaking." In fact, Wolof was historically written in Wolofal, an Arabic-based script whose use has persisted.

Part of the reason that a language like Wolof is spoken "not" written has to do in large measure with education policies under which generations of students were not taught to read anything but French (or in Gambia, English). In Saint-Louis, Senegal, an early effort to teach in Wolof was stopped in 1829, setting the tone of French monolingual education policy in colonies acquired later.

The latter historic anecdote came from an article several years ago on spell checkers for certain African languages. In the case of Wolof, maybe a new generation of spell checker apps for devices on which one texts might be an important piece of the establishment of its official written form. Other pieces might range from first-language literacy apps for smart mobile devices to evolution of education policies.

No comments: