Friday, February 28, 2014

See you in Bamako in 2016?

Forty-eight years ago today, in Bamako, Mali, began a UNESCO-supported expert meeting on the "Unification of Alphabets of National Languages."* Running from 28 February until 5 March, 1966, this meeting was a key part of efforts to harmonize or standardize writing systems for several West African languages, which fall under the category that we now refer to as "cross-border" languages. Would the 50th anniversary of this event be an ideal time to revisit its impact, and ongoing challenges and opportunities for written African languages in general?

The Bamako 1966 meeting followed several smaller meetings and built on efforts that began during the colonial period. It in turn was followed by others, notably one in Niamey in 1978 that attempted to take the harmonization up a level with a proposed standard reference alphabet for all of Africa. One of the issues with writing African languages that had limited or no written tradition has been how to accommodate sounds that were not readily represented by imported alphabets. Another was how to develop standards for languages that crossed Africa's new borders - which in many instances were also borders between areas where different Europhone languages, and their respective phonetic systems, were dominant. These meetings dealt with both, drawing on national experiences and expert opinions.

The result of these meetings was a remarkably coherent set of standards that has guided many African countries on developing orthographies for their national languages (as the term tends to be used there).

In later years, conferences and expert meetings on planning for African languages dealt more with policy, and applications such as literacy and localization. Yet there are still issues with African languages in print and writing, some larger, some dealing with details, and some that could not have been anticipated by the notables and experts of half a century ago. Some of those are certainly being addressed by the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN)'s Vehicular Cross-Border Language Commissions and National Language Structures.

Ultimately it would be for ACALAN and/or other African language organizations to decide on the utility of a general meeting in the near future, but what might a conference on the 50th anniversary of the seminal Bamako 1966 expert meeting have on its agenda? As indicated above, one issue might be a kind of stock-taking of how the work of the early expert meetings has served a range of efforts in African languages, from education and literacy, to literature, and via Unicode, to social media and mobile devices.

And about Unicode, how is it supporting written African languages? One issue which seems to have receded as the technology has improved, is how well dynamic composition works for complex Latin (where characters have accent/tone mark combinations not included as single characters in the Unicode standard - some languages such as Yoruba and Igbo have this). There may be other details such as that of the capital "eng" letter.)

A larger issue is how the focus on "unification" of African alphabets on the one hand and country-level practice on the other relate. "Harmonization" seems to be a fortuitous concept, but is it, and how should it work going forward, when dynamic local usage may seem to go the other way? (See for example the earlier post on "Texting in Wolof & implicatons for standard orthographies.")

Since the early conferences (and indeed language policy in many states) focused on the Latin-based alphabet, a new conference might also consider other scripts, such as Ethiopic/Ge'ez, Arabic (often referred to as Ajami when used to write African languages), and N'Ko. The focus could be more technical, including issues such as harmonization (especially for Ajami) and transliteration, to support more policy options for countries where diverse scripts are used.

We're still two years out from the 50th anniversary, but it is not too early to discuss the utility of using that occasion to bring together a new generation of experts working on support for written African languages.

* The French language version is available on the Bisharat website.

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