Orthography development as an ongoing collaborative process: Lessons from Bangladesh

John M. Clifton
John M. Clifton
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A practical orthography is especially important for language conservation in South Asia, since there is a close psychological connection in the region between language and script. A language without a script is frequently thought to be inferior to neighboring literary languages. In this paper I develop a model of orthography development as an ongoing collaborative process and show how it was applied in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Most commonly, a practical orthography is based on a technical phonological analysis done by an outside linguist. The linguist considers a wide range of factors important to orthography and develops a proposal that takes these factors into consideration. Significant community involvement is limited, and the final result is viewed as a stable object. When orthography development is conceived of as an ongoing collaborative process, community practices play a central role. Instead of beginning with a phonological analysis, this model begins with regional orthographic practices. Ideally, orthography development is undertaken simultaneously with application of the orthography, so that those involved can see the effects of their decisions. It is collaborative in that the linguist and the local community work together from the beginning, and is an ongoing process in that the local community learns to modify the orthography as needed. This model was applied in orthography development workshops in Bangladesh. My discussion of the workshops begins with an overview of the orthographic practices in the seven languages involved. One was previously unwritten, and four had either recently undergone script changes, or were contemplating script changes. Speakers from all of the languages indicated frustration with aspects of their orthographies. The workshops were held over a two week period; participants were simultaneously involved in producing materials for vernacular preschool programs. The collaboration between participants and linguist during the workshops uncovered many aspects of orthography development that a typical phonological analysis would have considered. Participants struggled with whether particular sound contrasts were distinctive, and whether they should be represented, with inconsistencies in spelling and wordbreaks, and the pros and con of changing scripts. For some issues, participants did not come to long-term conclusions. But they learned to make short-term decisions that allowed literacy work to proceed while the larger issues were discussed. Most importantly, they learned that orthography development is a process and that decisions can be changed. They gained skills needed to make orthography development an ongoing process over which they have control.
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