Thursday, October 09, 2014

Putting the "ɛ" (back) in Mende

Mende-speaking area (UCLA LMP)
How might Mende - a Mande language spoken by about 1.5 million (which many non-Sierra Leoneans may have encountered for the first time watching Amistad or Blood Diamond) - be used in written form as part of public education and health worker training for combating ebola?

The Mende language (Mɛnde yia) is a major first language and lingua franca of southern Sierra Leone, an area particularly impacted by the current ebola epidemic in southwestern West Africa. In public education efforts on ebola, I understand that Mende, as well as other languages of Sierra Leone, have been used on broadcast media, and that in some cases, songs have been used to get messages across. However in this post the focus will be the written form of the language, with some thoughts on why that's important, and ways it might be used.

Mende is written in two ways::
  • the century-old "Kikakui" script, a right-to-left syllabary, which is apparently little used today (Ethnologue's entry on Mende states "limited usage except for correspondence and record keeping, especially accounting"); and 
  • a modified version of the Latin alphabet, which is more widely known, but apparently not used consistently since most of its speakers do not study it in school. 
I'll focus on use of the Latin script for Mende, beginning with what I've learned about Mende's Latin-based orthography. The Mende alphabet (per's page on Mende) is as follows:

This includes three digraphs, which represent meaningfully significant sounds and count as letters, and two modified letters or "extended characters" to represent the additional vowels in Mende's 7-vowel system. Like a number of languages in West Africa (such as Bambara), Mende has, in addition to a, e, i, o, and u, the open-e, represented by ɛ, and open-o, represented by ɔ. (Mende is also a tonal language, but apparently tones are not marked.)

For an example of Mende text, we may turn to the translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - "Dunya Lahi Nuvuu Lɔnyisia Va" - from which I reproduce part of the preamble below (NB - the linked translation for some reason has the ɛ's and ɔ's in upper case, which I've corrected below):
Magona Yɛpei

A jifa kiliyei na kɛ numu vuu kpɛlɛɛ ti maa hɛwulei lɔ towa kpaupau le laha va, tɔnya kɛɛ ndilɛli dunyihu.

A jifa ngawulɛɛhu kɛɛ baagbuala nuvugaa ti lɔnyisia ma ti wanga a pie hindangaa na hii i wotɛa a nɛmahugili waa nuvuu ma, dunya ninahu mia mahoingɔ muvuu i gu i yɛpɛ kia ngi longɔla, kɛɛ ngi lanayei kɛɛ ngi lima hinda.

Perhaps the longest Mende text in Latin alphabet is a translation of the Bible, which dates to 1959.

Ebola messaging and written Mende

Focusing here on the written language does not in any way minimize the important, indeed central, role of the spoken language in communicating about ebola in West Africa. I've chosen for the above subheading "ebola messaging AND written Mende" rather than "ebola messaging IN written Mende" because as I see it, the former phrase encompasses the latter as well as uses of text designed to:
  1. take most advantage of spoken messages (for example, transcribing what is said, which lets one do more with it than simply recording would); and 
  2. enhance the effectiveness, accuracy, and consistency of oral communication (for example through use of scripts and talking points). 
Oral and written communication are of course different (a topic I hope to come back to another time), but also complementary. Moreover, transcription of speech/audio, along with printed material destined for reading or reference - the language "reduced" (in)to writing, if you will - can be reviewed, revised, and re-used for public education and training programs. Understanding the complementarity of the written and spoken language seems to be important to expanding public education and health training efforts.

Technology and standard written forms

Language technology may have an important role to play in linking text and audio. For example, with text-to-speech (TTS) applications. Already a decade ago, for example, a working model for Swahili TTS was developed. There is also current research on Yoruba TTS. In principle, one could have TTS to make text messages "speak" to users in any language. Could be developed for Mende and other languages of countries most affected by the ebola epidemic?

One could also combine text with video productions by using "same language subtitling" (SLS) to enhance the impact of such videos (and incidentally help increase literacy in those languages).

Such applications, as well as searching text, combining text from different documents of different origins or ages, and assuring that readers get the intended meaning, require consistent use of an orthography - in the case of Mende, the one briefly discussed above. This poses a challenge where speakers of a language like Mende may never have learned to write it (apparently Mende is an elective subject in the Sierra Leone education system, so not all first-language speakers learn in or study it in school). The good news is that a spelling correction utility could be designed to convert irregularly transcribed text into a standard format (some years ago, for instance, a utility was developed in Kenya to add tilde marks in Gikuyu text where they were missing).

Take for instance the Mende translation of an ebola message from the US Embassy/Freetown website, which I reposted on this blog three weeks ago. While it is a laudable effort and hopefully useful product, it clearly does not use the same alphabet as the examples cited above. A utility designed to "correct" such Mende text to the standard orthography would allow people not schooled in the language but literate in English to transcribe spoken/audio Mende text as best they can, and then render it in a form that can be more readily reviewed and re-used by others for expanded education and training efforts.

For further discussion on the utility of standardized orthographies, see on this blog: "More on standard orthographies of African languages."

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