2011 LSA Orthography Symposium

Developing Orthographies for Unwritten Languages

Organizers  Michael Cahill (SIL International)
Keren Rice (University of Toronto)

Orthographies have long been of interest to linguists, relating to both linguistic theory and social issues. This interest has increased lately because of the connection with endangered language research. Researchers in such languages have become sensitive to a moral imperative to not just study languages for the sake of scientific investigation, but to assist minority language groups in ways that the communities themselves value. In many circumstances, literacy is one of these. Literacy in an endangered language can strengthen a language’s vitality, raise the perceived status of the language, make it possible to communicate in ways not known before (e.g. personal letters), preserve cultural material, and make it easier to disseminate certain types of information such as health materials.

However, introducing literacy in a language community that has never known it, or has known literacy only in a national language, is a more complex undertaking than many researchers realize or are trained for. Endangered languages concerns and language documentation methodology have indeed motivated improvements in how graduate students are taught today. However, practical applications of linguistics, such as pedagogical grammars, monolingual dictionaries for community use, and literacy primers and reading materials production, are not in focus outside of summer schools such as InField.

In this Symposium, we cannot cover all the elements involved in literacy, but we focus on one major aspect, that of developing an orthography for a previously unwritten language, and issues to consider when undertaking such a project. These will include issues in developing the actual orthography, but also issues related to how such an orthography is used and embedded in a larger social and cultural context.

The first presentation addresses the non-linguistics issues involved in orthographies. These will include governmental policies, educational factors, and especially crucial sociolinguistic factors. Also, brief mention will be made of other factors for successful literacy, such as development of materials and training of readers and of teachers.

The second presentation treats what level of phonological depth is the most fruitful in application to orthographies. It will be proposed that something corresponding to the output of the lexical level in a lexical phonology-type approach most corresponds to psychological awareness for speakers.

The third presentation discusses options of marking tone in an orthography, likely needed for a majority of the world’s languages. It also will present different options that have been used for marking lexical and grammatical tone, in Africa and other areas.

The fourth set of presentations includes three brief case studies from disparate areas of the world, illustrating concrete cases of the above topics, from California, Mexico, and Southeast Asia.

Discussion will follow.

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