Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Does spelling matter in Malinke ebola materials?

An earlier post looked at problems with non-standard Bambara in an ebola poster. Here I'll look at similar issues with a poster in Malinke (Maninka), a closely related Manding language spoken mainly in upper Guinea, and also southwestern Mali.

The Malinke poster at right is a translation of a CDC poster on ebola symptoms, one of various different materials translated into a number of languages by Translators Without Borders. It appears to be written in the old, pre-1985 Guinean orthography with some French spellings.

After independence, Guinea adopted a common alphabet to transcribe all its languages, using the keys available on the typewriters of the day. Many people learned to read and write with these spelling rules (I personally encountered people and Pular materials using this system, and used it myself, in the mid-1980s), and to some degree their use persists.

When the government transitioned after the death of longtime president Sékou Touré in the mid-1980s, Guinea adopted an orthography harmonized with that of the other countries of the region. For Malinké that meant for example the following changes: dyj ; èɛ ; nhŋ ; nyɲ ; öɔ ; and tyc (the latter sound is represented by "ch" in English and variously by "tch" or "thi" in French).

The French writing influences in the poster are dj instead of dy or j, and ou instead of u. The accent aigu on é in the poster is probably gratuitous (the letter e in the old and new Malinke orthographies indicates the same sound) - unless a tone was intended by the writer (Manding languages are tonal, but usually tones are not marked in writing them in Latin-based script).

To see what the current orthography would look like, a simple set of substitutions would be straightforward, however I'm not sure on some word divisions (what knowledge I have of Bambara is an imperfect guide for that task).

The product as is, is presumably readable - and read-aloud-able - by many in Guinea since it is based on the older transcription. I don't have information on how widespread use of the new orthography is, but that is a question that should be considered.

And to the extent it is used consistently, conversion to the new system would be easy - which would facilitate use with Malinké populations outside of Guinea, or comparison with materials in other Manding languages (for terminology development etc.). Malike is also written in the N'Ko script (which has been the subject of some previous posts) - transcription between that and the Latin-based systems for communication or for comparison  is not as simple.

So in answer to whether spelling matters - yes, especially if the material is to be re-used or reviewed in comparison to other materials in Malinke or in other Manding languages. The fact that there has been a change in orthographies adds a complication, but one easily dealt with if each system is used consistently. And as indicated above, the matter of relative knowledge and use of the old and new orthographies for Malinke - and other languages of Guinea - is a question.

Addendum (2 January 2015)

I am told that the ebola poster above has numerous mistakes. This again points to the need to review materials in African languages (per "2Ds & 4Rs"), preferably before publication.

See also follow up posting: "More on written Malinke."

No comments: