Friday, January 02, 2015

More on written Malinke

The previous post highlighted issues with choice of Malinke orthography, and with spelling, in an ebola poster. Thanks to several responses* to a message about this sent to the Mande Studies Association (MANSA) list, I'm able to give more information on the situation of written Malinke in Guinea.

First, as background: Malinke (known to its speakers as Maninka) is a Manding language (within the Mande group) spoken primarily in upper Guinea as well as in southwestern Mali. It is closely related to Mandingo (Mandinka), Bambara (Bamanan), and Dyula (Jula) spoken in several countries of West Africa. There are four ways of writing the language in Guinea, of which the first two in the list below are Latin-based. The Latin-based and Arabic-based (Ajami) transcriptions include modifications to letter values to accommodate the sounds in the language - a process observed with other languages of the region as well.
  1. Pre-1985 orthography (developed by the newly independent Guinea using available characters and accents on French typewriters, for use in all Guinean languages)
  2. Current or "reformed" orthography (harmonized with usage in neighboring countries per the African Reference Alphabet, which incorporates some characters used in the International Phonetic Alphabet)
  3. Ajami (Arabic-based; I understand that this is more commonly used in Mandingo/Mandinka of Gambia and Senegal than for any other Manding language)
  4. N'Ko (created by Solomana Kante in 1949 and spread since then by an active grassroots movement; it is incidentally the only system in which one consistently marks tones)

The information from responses to my message on MANSA is that N'Ko today is the most used system for writing Maninka in Guinea. It evidently was finally recognized by the Guinean government in 2011.

The current Latin-based orthography (#2) is used by literacy efforts, but has not been taught in schools, so is not widely used (language of instruction policy in Guinea would be another discussion). The old Latin-based orthography (#1), which was taught in schools through 1984, is still used by people familiar with it. Apparently people not familiar with the current Latin-based system (due mainly to the unfamiliar extended characters borrowed from IPA) are more comfortable with the old orthography. However, the irregularities in use of the latter observed in the previously discussed ebola poster are said to be common in other writing.

Some suggestions:
  • Development communication and health education efforts in Upper Guinea should prioritize use of N'Ko. 
  • If Latin transcriptions are used, it may make sense to make use of both Latin transcriptions. Conversion from one to the other should be simple (a guide and perhaps a software tool could be developed to facilitate this).
  • In any case, material in any Malinke transcription - whether composed or translated - should be reviewed (per 2Ds & 4Rs), preferably before publication. While it may be that irregular spelling can still be understood, the range of alternate spellings could lead to misunderstanding and will make sharing and re-use problematic.
  • On a broader scale, primary education in countries where extended Latin alphabets are used (such as those of West Africa) should teach the expanded alphabet to children, regardless of the language of instruction. This would facilitate first language literacy, and could be done in a way that does not confuse students.
* Thanks to Valentin Vydrin, Ibrahima Sory Condé, and John Hutchison for their responses and information.

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