“Is this my language?”

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It used to be taken for granted that language documenters would develop anorthography for the language which they document in cases where no writingsystem exists already. Such systems facilitate the production of materialsfor revitalization of the languages. Lately however questions have been raisedas to whether the time and money expended in such endeavors are worth it.Two main reasons are that the orthographies are not often used anyway and,where they are successful, since they are often standard orthographies, theydestroy variation in languages. In this paper, I argue that standardization goeswith literacy development, and is desirable in situations where it is clear thatsuch languages would be used in school situations. However, most languagesof endangered communities do not have any prospect of being used in school.Because of this rather than focus on the development of a standard orthographysystem, documenters should rather develop systems that enable communitiesto write in the vernacular. Such systems use “orthographic transcription” whichminimally ensures the association of sounds with letters. Beyond that, speakersare allowed to write as they speak. This means that colloquial expressionsand dialectal differences would be incorporated into the system of writing. Theadvantage of this system is that adults particularly do not have to spend a longtime learning to represent their languages in ways that may not necessarily bethe same as the way they speak. I discuss the experience I had with Nyagbowhere my development of a vernacular writing system proved more successfulwith the community than an attempt to develop a standard orthography.


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