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Apr 21, 2007

Alphabet Soup

A team of Bantu language specialists who are part of the Bantu Initiative conducted the first in a series of workshops to develop orthographies (alphabets) in four Bantu languages in the Mara Region cluster project in Tanzania. They led a team that worked with mother tongue speakers to begin drafting orthographies. The following is a first-person reflection from Leila S., one of the workshop facilitators:

mara.orthography.leilasDifferentiating between similar, but distinct sounds in a
language is a difficult process, but Leila S.
makes it look easy. (Mara Cluster, Tanzania )
"Holding a workshop for a cluster of languages is more interesting than for just one, because you notice all the differences between the sounds and grammar rules of each language, as well as different language attitudes, which affect the way people want their language written and their decisions for alphabet charts and, eventually, spelling rules. It's more challenging because the big picture must always be presented; then you help people from multiple groups see that their language's needs are different. You're trying to give them a good basis for making decisions for writing their language.

The most challenging aspect was that the amount of data we collected was nearly overwhelming. We spent weekends and evenings during the workshop, sorting, typing, and studying the linguistic phenomena. We are still-two weeks later-writing and organizing our findings. When working with 7,000 word-cards, the very task of data organization is a challenge.

The primary benefit to holding a workshop for a language cluster is synergy. People enjoyed seeing other groups discover grammatical features of their languages and imagining their languages actually written down-and then seeing their alphabet charts in progress. For people who have never had a writing system, these charts and wordlists were the event's climax.

Personally, the highlight of the workshop was watching a drama put on by several participants at the closing ceremony. The singing and dancing was awesome as they celebrated their newly formed alphabets. They rocked! Even though they are the true experts on their languages, they had never been asked to categorize their nouns into classes, to whistle their tone patterns, or to figure out whether a vowel in their language is long or short! They were proud of their hard work." And so are we.

mara.orthography.groupThe entire orthography workshop 'Kuunda Alfabeti.'

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