Orthography issues in Kơho: A Mon-Khmer language

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2015-03-12
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Olsen, Neil
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Kơho [kəˈhɔ] is a Mon-Khmer (Austroasiatic) language, spoken by more than 207,000 people located in Lam Dong province, Viet Nam. Kơho is related to Khmer (Cambodian) and more distantly to Vietnamese (Author 1968). Since the 1930s, French, and later American, missionaries, government agencies, and educators using several different alphabets have produced scripture, primers, grammars, and dictionaries. A romanized orthography based on the Vietnamese national alphabet (quốc ngữ) was developed in 1935 for the Sre dialect of Kơho by French colonial administrators and missionaries. That orthography was the most consistently (nearly phonemic) utilized to date (Smalley 1954). Many documents were published using that alphabet. Under pressure from Jacques Dournes, a French missionary/linguist, who was compiling a voluminous Sre-French dictionary (1950), a new orthography commission met in Dalat, in 1949, to devise an acceptable replacement (Martini 1952). During the 1960s and 1970s, a series of pedagogical materials in Kơho was produced by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) under contract to the former Saigon government. Writing primers, science, and health books were used in classrooms where Kơho was the language of instruction in the primary grades; in the higher grades, Vietnamese was phased in. Even among a newly literate people, attachment to a written tradition, lingers on. Recent proposals have gained acceptance only with difficulty. Subsequent orthographies were proposed in 1953 (Condominas 1954) and in the 1960s. The latter orthography, developed by SIL, was employed by the former Republic of Vietnam (Saigon) government for educational materials. The 1967 New Testament and 1993 Psalms were published in that orthography. After reunification in 1976, all previous (i.e., south Vietnamese) pedagogical materials were discarded. In 1983, the Vietnamese government introduced a quốc ngữ-based orthography (Vũ Bá Hùng and Tạ Văn Thông, 1983), and published a Vietnamese—Kơho dictionary (Hoàng Văn Hanh, et al. 1983). The Kơho people living in North Carolina have no use for that orthography. The complete Bible was published in 2010 in the SIL orthography. In the preparation of a dictionary and a reference grammar for the Kơho language, a decision on which orthography to use is crucial. There are five potential orthographies that Kơho could be written in. Currently, in North Carolina, the orthography employed depends on which church or dialect one is affiliated with. This paper explores the inherent problem of matching speakers’ desires with a practical orthography that is acceptable to a majority of language users. References Condominas, Georges. 1954. Enquête linguistique parmi les populations montagnardes du sud indochinois. BEFEO 46:579-586. [Part 2: ‘the new mode of transcription for Kơho’] Dournes, Jacques. 1950. Dictionnaire Srê (Kơho)--Français. Saigon: Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient. 269 p. Hoàng Văn Hanh, et al. 1983. Từ Điển Việt-Kơho [Vietnamese-Kơho dictionary]. T.P. Hố Chí Minh: Sở Văn Hóa và Tông Tin Xuất Bản. Martini, François. 1952. Notes et melanges de la transcription du Sre (Kơho), à propos du dictionnaire du R. P. Jacques Dournes. BSEI 27,1:99-109. Author. 1968. Basic Kơho: grammar and conversation guide. Bao-Loc. MACV. Smalley, William A. 1954. A problem in orthography preparation. Bible Translator 5:170-176. [Discussion of various Sre orthographies.] Smalley, William A. 1955. Sre phonemes and syllables. Journal of the American Oriental Society 74,4:217-222. Vũ Bá Hùng and Tạ Văn Thông. 1983. Về hệ thống ngữ âm tiếng Kơho và sự sửa đồi chữ Kơho [The phonetic system of Kơho and the reform of Kơho writing]. Ngôn Ngữ 4(58):56-65.
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