Wednesday, September 02, 2015

On diacritics & modified characters in African languages

Various past posts on Beyond Niamey have touched on aspects of Latin-based orthographies of many African languages, especially "extended Latin," which is a technical term for characters and diacritics beyond the basic letters we use in English (and the common accented characters used in major European languages). Since I anticipate returning to this topic in some future posts, I thought I'd reach back to some background I wrote on the old A12n-Collaboration list in 2006.

The context was a request from Kasahorow in their June 2006 newsletter for feedback on the topic of diacritics. Keep in mind that the technical context of this issue has changed remarkably over the past decade, to where the "nightmare" of diacritics for electronic publishers is no longer such a problem. Nevertheless, the question of why use diacritics (or modified characters) at all is probably one that still gets asked regardless of improvements in how software handles complex scripts.
Yoruba and Igbo are classic examples of diacritic heaven. However, in reality what works well for linguists and non-native learners of these two languages is a nightmare for electronic publishers.

We are sampling a professional opinion to further understand whether the diacritics are a vestigial crutch for the non-native transcribers who first set these languages to text or a necessary part of the textual representation of these recently alphabetized languages.

It is often the case that writing in languages with young written histories closely follows the oral form hence the need for diacritics to preserve the tone variations of the spoken word. However, the problem of ambiguity in the absence of diacritics can be solved with new writing techniques. (from Kasahorow, reproduced in posting on A12n-Collab, 16 June 2006)
My long reply on A12n-Collab (24 June 2006) addresses some assumptions about the origins of extended and complex Latin orthographies for many African languages, making reference to some of the colonial and post-independence history. I've layered in links to various topics discussed, and added two footnotes:

Here's a stab at responding to Kasahorow's request for feedback on the issue of diacritics in African language transcriptions.

First I'd want to put the issue in historical perspective since discussions on orthographies in Africa generally, and for the specific languages mentioned (Yoruba, Igbo), go back decades or in some cases well over a century. It is true that the Latin-based transcriptions of African languages have their origins in the colonial period or just before, spearheaded by missionaries and in some cases colonial administrators, but this should not discredit them (I'll touch on this issue later, below).

Yoruba is an interesting case, since a Yoruba, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, played a major role in developing the Latin orthography for the language before the partition of Africa. A major feature of the alphabet was the use of small vertical lines under 3 letters that had different sounds than in English (generally now we see dots under). Another feature is tone marking, since among tonal languages, Yoruba is apparently one of the more complex.

Igbo, for which a standard orthography was adopted almost a century later (c. 1960) was also apparently written in the late 1800s. It also used marks under two letters and a dot over an n to distinguish meaningfully different sounds, and also has meaningfully significant tones.

By the 1920s there were more concerted efforts to devise consistent orthographies. One notable resume of this effort is the
Practical Orthography of African Languages (1930)* which can be read at . Many of the additional letters proposed were evidently adopted directly from the International Phonetic Alphabet, which had its origins in the late 19th century. It is of interest to note that this proposed orthography appears to have been a major influence on later African discussions of transcription of the continent's languages, such as Bamako 1966 and Niamey 1978.

The text of the
Practical Orthography is in some places unfortunately phrased in the condescending language of colonialism, but there are some observations that stand the test of time, such as part of the rationale for modified Latin letters rather than diacritics to mark different sounds: "For practical purposes in everyday life diacritic marks constitute a difficulty and a danger. In the first place it is found that in current writing these marks are liable to be altered so as to be unrecognizable and even omitted altogether, as every one who has had to read written texts in African languages will readily acknowledge. Such alterations and omissions of diacritic marks are also frequently found in print. ..."

Such a situation is probably typical of young writing systems (others may want to comment), where there are not the cultural and pedagogical stays that support continued use of, say, accent marks in French or vowel marks in Arabic. I would offer that it is not so much the diacritics themselves that are the problem, but whether the educational system teaches their use consistently.

Note in any event that the use of this proposed African alphabet of 1930 did not supersede the original one for Yoruba; also it did not get established in southern Africa. For all the inconvenience that the undermarks (be they dots or lines of whatever sort) presented for typographers then, it apparently was not enough to lead to their abandonment in favor of the
Practical Orthography. By now, there is a lot more material in Yoruba using the orthography developed in the 19th century. (On the other hand, Yoruba tongues spoken in Benin are written using a system related to the Practical Orthography and rules discussed in Bamako 1966, etc.) I'll return to the issue of tone marks shortly.

In the case of Igbo, the writing system was apparently standardized somewhat later, but it is worth noting that the effort in 1998 of one Nigerian linguist to introduce a different orthography for Igbo in his publication of a dictionary has met with a vary unfavorable reaction, at least on the part of experts.

This leads one back to part of the question in the Kasahorow newsletter: whether such writing systems work really more for the linguists and language experts than for wider use. This I think is not a helpful dichotomy. Even a historically young writing system such as those of Yoruba and Igbo have already become part of the culture in certain ways. This is probably a major reason why the
Practical Orthography did not replace the use of dot-under characters in southern Nigeria 70 years ago - the "look" of Yoruba or of Igbo, even to those not literate in those languages probably, included and still includes marks under.

There is a point of view that not only the diacritics are problematic, but the extended characters too - basically anything more than the alphabet as used in English or perhaps French. I had occasion once to speak with the (American) co-author of a bilingual dictionary for a West African language who expressed the opinion that the extended characters in the official orthography were "silly" and asked rhetorically why they don't they just use combinations of ASCII characters. (Some foreigners dismiss attention to whole languages in such terms, but here was someone dismissing only the orthography chosen for one of the languages.)

Ultimately I think it is helpful to remember that in addition to the prominent role of non-African experts in the development of most orthographies for African languages, non-Africans may also be prominent in offering negative opinions about it all. In fact it may be that non-Africans actually dominate both sides of any discussion on the utility of such matters as diacritic characters, extended characters, and tone marks. (I admittedly may be implicated in this too, though I do try to encourage discussion in which Africans dominate - part of the reason for instance that I sought and posted various African documents on language policy, etc.)

This is a dynamic sadly common to so much of development and African studies over the years - outsider experts effectively dominate discussion and analysis of African development, ultimately occupying if not pre-empting both sides of any major debate. (If anyone's interested I can discuss this offlist.) At the same time it is important to point out that, such as with Bishop Crowther and with the later UNESCO-sponsored conferences on African language transcription, Africans have not been bystanders in the development of Latin-based orthographies for their languages. The history of this needs to be formally explored in more detail (I'm aware of only one in-depth historical study that dealt with Hausa orthography**). In other words, what I'm trying to say by all of this is that the issue cannot be reduced to one of external imposition of complexity vs. unstated indigenous preference for something simpler.

As for tone marks, these may not be the big problem that people often think they are. Africa has many tonal languages and in many cases the need to mark tones is not that apparent. Bambara and Hausa for instance are commonly written in Latin transcription without tone marks since the context usually makes the meaning clear. Tone marks can be used to disambiguate text. We've discussed this matter some already on A12n-collab. Yoruba and Igbo may not be as forgiving in this matter as some other languages. Or maybe tone marks could be optional for ordinary text - mainly for disambiguation (is this the case for newspapers in Yoruba already?).

There was a proposal made by Prof. Constancio K. Nakuma, a Ghanaian researcher on the Dagaare language of northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso, to use a new set of spelling conventions to indicate tones in text in that language (one of these as I recall was insertion of an "h" after vowels to indicate high tone). Not sure if this is the "new approach" Kasahorow alludes to. There is perhaps merit to this particular approach, but it is not widely understood and certainly introduction of such a system for languages that do not use it would lead to some confusion and arguably hinder development and literacy in these languages.

Part of the problem as I've already mentioned, is that for the writing systems for many African languages, one is not starting with a blank slate. Proposing new systems - whether they be ingenious or dumbed-down - means undoing or discounting what has been in place for a while. It is not impossible, but certainly would lead to lost time even in the optimal case where there is a broad agreement on the course of action to take.

And even with less widely spoken languages in proximity with the more widely spoken ones, there may be issues of "harmonization" of transcriptions - does it make sense to have very different orthographies for diverse languages in a given geographic area when there already will be a differences with the English / French / Portuguese used officially and in later schooling?

Anyway this has been a bit longwinded as there are a number of matters implied even by as simple a question as you pose. Returning to the starting point of the question, you actually raise the issue in the context not of the native-speaking user but the electronic publisher. This is a real issue but much more narrow and IMO not a significant enough issue to use to justify significant changes in a writing system. It may actually be the case that the problems encountered by typesetters today will be overcome well before any new writing system designed to avoid them is established.

In sum therefore, I'd suggest that:

  1. While it is good, and even necessary to have more African than foreign participation in discussions about (writing) African languages, the topic area is not new and there is a history within Africa with African dimensions that shouldn't be overlooked.
  2. The origin of the writing system needn't be an issue: Latin script replaced the indigenous writing systems of northern Europe via the Christian church - and it was adapted to the non-romance languages by clergy and specialists; Arabic was brought to the Sahel centuries ago and adapted to indigenous tongues by the few learned in Islam and Arabic language; etc..
  3. Changing writing systems to something more logical is discussed for a lot of languages (including such as English and French) but in the end such a process of changing makes less sense (and costs more) than to make the best of what one has. It may be the "right" thing to do in some cases (Turkey shifted from Arabic to Latin script, for example, and script changes are discussed for a number of languages elsewhere), but is probably best taken on the highest appropriate official level (usually a country government, in consultation with experts and the relevant community of speakers, and ideally also governments of neighboring states where the language is spoken).

* The 1930 publication of the Practical Orthography of African Languages was the revised edition of the original 1928 publication
** John Edward Philips, 2000, Spurious Arabic: Hausa and Colonial Nigeria, Madison, WI: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin. A table from the book comparing Ajami and Boko Hausa alphabets is available online. An article available online offers a shorter treatment of topics from or related to the book: John Edward Philips, 2004, "Hausa in the Twentieth Century: An Overview," Sudanic Africa, 15: 55-84.

(See also on this blog, "More on standard orthographies of African languages," 16 Nov. 2013.)

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