How 'Little' African Languages Can Be Written Down for the First Time; Retired University Lecturer Dr Paul Tench Is at the Forefront of a Groundbreaking Project to Develop Written Alphabets in Remote African Communities Where Language Is All in the Mind. Here He Describes How Linguists in Zambia Are Helping to Tease out Spelling Systems for the Very First Time

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Tench

AFRICA has a billion people, about 15% of the world's population.

Between them they speak 2,000 languages, about 30% of the total number of languages in the world.

This means that many of their languages have a relatively small number of speakers; many less than a million, some less than 50,000, less than the population of Bridgend for instance.

Yet all these ethnic groups, even small ones like the 15,000 Fwe people of Zambia, are fiercely proud of their own special identity, their culture and their language.

Wales knows what it's like to be a small nation next to a large one and knows what it's like to feel a minority status within a larger political unit, but nevertheless to feel proud of its distinctive heritage and culture and, of course, its language. So it's not difficult to have a fellowfeeling with other people's awareness of their minority status in a much larger country.

But Welsh has a wonderfully rich literary heritage, with written records and documents dating back to the 900s. This is, however, not the case for most African peoples with a similar mother tongue population. Zambia with its 13 million people has 73 different ethnic groups and languages.

English is the official language, the language of government, the law, national media, big business and secondary education.

And some Zambian languages have huge populations like the Bemba with 3.5 million, Tonga (one million) and Nyanja (800,000) which are also spoken by millions of others as second languages. These languages are used at home, at work, in church, for trading in the market, often in local government and in primary school.

But then there are the smaller languages, the minority languages, which are also used at home, at work, in church, for trading in the market, but in much more restricted areas. They have their own customs and traditions, their own sense of dress and architecture, and their own practices of work.

The Fwe people know they are different from their neighbours, the Shanjo people, who are different from the Makoma people and the Kwamashi people and the Kwangwa people, and so on and on. But none of these people have a written heritage; their languages are not taught in school like siLozi, the regional trade language.

They are, nevertheless, vibrant languages which identify the people.

Now they want to change that. They see no reason why they should be left behind, and so I went to help them. We were a small team of linguists, funded by a charity called The Seed Company that responds to initiatives from local communities like these, by providing local workshops.

Language is all in the mind; what is written on the page reflects what is contained in the mind, and we linguists were there to tease this information out of their brains and facilitate the production of a spelling system that would be appropriate to their particular language.

The first task was to audio record a short story in their mother tongues, and then play it back bit by bit, with each member of the team attempting to write it down on their own.

Now, how could they do that, if their language had never been written down before? Well, all of these people were literate in siLozi and English; they knew from these languages the consonants and vowels of our (Roman) alphabet and what they stood for in those two languages.

And they adapted that knowledge as best as they could in the first instance.

There were disagreements among the team members, but there was also a surprising amount of agreement. And then they discussed their differences with the linguist assigned to them, and gradually a greater degree of consensus emerged.

The second stage was then to use this very provisional attempt at spelling to work out the meaning of each word and each part of a word in the story. This would help to show up plurals from singulars, present tenses from past, pronouns from prepositions, and other grammatical information. …