Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Expert Meeting on the Transcription & Harmonization of African languages, Niamey, 17-21 July 1978

Niger's National Assembly, where the 1978 meeting was
formally opened. (Source: Britannica.com)
Forty years ago today, the Meeting of Experts on the Transcription and Harmonization of African Languages began in Niamey, Niger. Along with the 1966 meeting in Bamako, it was one of the more significant of a series of meetings* organized in Africa with the assistance of UNESCO to deal with questions relating to standardization of the written forms of African languages.

This expert meeting was at once less ambitious than the 1966 Bamako meeting - seeking "harmonization" rather than "unification" of systems for writing - and wider in scope - including representatives from more countries around the continent:Angola; Benin; Burundi; Cameroun; Central African Republic; Guinea Bissau; Ivory Coast; Mali; Niger; Rwanda; Senegal; Tanzania; Uganda; and Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] (some countries had more than one person). Plus France, United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia. (Representatives from Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Zaire [now DR Congo] were not able to attend.)

This diversity also meant that the number and range of languages considered in Niamey was greater than in Bamako. On the other hand, like Bamako, the Niamey meeting focused only on the Latin-based transcriptions used in educational contexts (notably literacy) by the recently independent governments in sub-Saharan Africa.

This conference was particularly notable for its connection with the African Reference Alphabet, which was intended to provide a common character for each sound encountered in main African languages (rather than each country devising its own symbols or character combinations).

African Reference Alphabet. Source: Proceedings of the Meeting, UNESCO, 1981.
This alphabet was later amended by linguists David Dalby, who participated in the Niamey meeting, and Michael Mann, to include a number of additional characters. They also suggested a lower-case only alphabet,with a keyboard design using both registers to accommodate all the letters. (This keyboard was never adopted as such.)

 This effort was significant in influencing orthographies adopted for many languages (although not all). However it did not seem to be explicitly connected with the contemporaneously emerging digital text standards. Although many of the characters in ISO 6438 "African coded character set for bibliographic information interchange" were the same, there were differences that indicate the latter was the result of a separate process (or perhaps "fork" in today's software development terminology).

A few years ago I had hoped it would be possible to use the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Niamey expert meeting to organize a conference to review the status and influence of the African Reference Alphabet and its descendants - with particular attention to technical support in ICT - and issues related to non-Latin scripts used for African languages. And perhaps to broach other topics related to use of African languages in the spirit of the efforts of a half-century ago.

Perhaps such a conference will prove useful in the future, but for the moment I'll mark this 40th anniversary with a series of short posts on the 1978 Niamey expert meeting itself and/or contemporary efforts that in one way or another reflect its aspirations.

* Several other expert meetings during this period addressed more specific sets of issues.

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