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Understanding the “unwritten rules” of an unwritten language

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Title: Understanding the “unwritten rules” of an unwritten language
Authors: Giffen, Robyn
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Languages without official orthographies may have literary traditions that affect how speakers perceive writing and any proposed writing systems. In this presentation I will discuss some of the attitudes and expectations that speakers of the previously unwritten language, Nabit, had about the “proper” way to write their language. The Nabit language is spoken in the Upper East Region of Ghana by approximately 40,000 people. Through the work of Project GROW, a non-profit organization, the community developed an orthography development initiative in 2011. Project GROW invited me into the project to serve as a linguistic expert to help the community develop an orthography for Nabit. Working with Dr. Vida Yakong, a speaker and community member, I completed a phonological analysis of Nabit and helped develop a preliminary orthography in 2012. I also developed a Nabit Writing and Counting Book, which explained the alphabet and how to use it, which we sent to the community in Ghana to share the work that had been completed on the language.

The project continued in 2014 when I received feedback about the preliminary alphabet from community members who had reviewed the Nabit Writing and Counting Book. My community partner Vida also established a Nabit Language Committee (NLC) to oversee the further development of the Nabit language project. In May and June of 2014, I traveled to Ghana to work with the community to document more speakers and finalize the writing system. I conducted 13 language documentation interviews recording phonological and syntactic data, as well as qualitative data inquiring about people’s feelings about the Nabit language and their desire to have a writing system. I then hosted an alphabet workshop with the NLC where we finalized the Nabit orthography.

Based on the reviews of the preliminary Nabit alphabet, my interviews with Nabit speakers, and discussions with the committee members I discovered that people had very particular ideas about how Nabit could, and should, be written. Speakers praised my inclusion of “local characters”, such as ŋ, ɔ, and ɛ, that are used in other Ghanaian indigenous writing systems. Additionally, several people on the NLC were already familiar with some Nabit spelling conventions, despite the fact that there was no formally recognized alphabet. In this presentation, I investigate how speakers’ language ideologies, such as attitudes towards “proper” letters (Terrill and Dunn 2003) and their understanding of their own language (Kroskrity 2010) influenced the development of the Nabit orthography.

Kroskrity, Paul V.
2010 Language ideologies - Evolving perspectives. In Society and Language Use. Jürgen Jaspers, Jan-Ola Östman, and Jef Verschueren, eds. Pp 192-211. Amsterdam: John Benjamin Publishing Company.

Terrill, Angela and Michael Dunn
2003 Orthographic design in Solomon Islands: The social, historical, and linguistic situation of Touo (Baniata). Written Language and Literacy 6(2): 177-192.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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