It will probably come as no surprise that bringing a language from just a spoken form into written form is not an easy task. Also, not all languages are ‘created equal'; some are harder to write than others, and writing tonal languages well, that’s a whole different ball game. Johannes and Sharon, members of Wycliffe Switzerland, share some fascinating insight into the difficulties and complexities of translating the tonal language Mbelime.
‘One of the biggest problems of the Mbelime project remains the question of how to write the language (the spelling and punctuation rules that make up a written language are known as its “orthography”). Mbelime is a tonal language that has three distinct tone levels. This means that the tone level of a word changes its meaning. For example, if the vowel a of the word ditade is pronounced with a high tone, it means “stone”. When a is pronounced with a lower tone, however, it means “mountain”.
When the language was first written in the 1970s, tone levels were not marked. Accordingly, readers found it difficult to read since they had to first figure out which tonal variation would apply to some of the words so that the text would make sense. Following further linguistic analysis, people started to mark tones. The stone was now written as dītáde, while mountain became dītāde. This rendered the two words distinctive in the orthography, which made the language easier to read. On the other hand, the text was now crowded with accents, which means that people still read very slowly.
Over the years many people, including literacy teachers, have told us how difficult they find it to write Mbelime. At the moment there are only a handful of people who master writing Mbelime correctly, among them Bienvenu and Claire. The three translators also find the current orthography a big challenge. Unfortunately, they feel that the current work pressure is hindering them from coming to grips with this. Bienvenu and Claire are currently reading through the first full draft of the gospel of Luke to correct the orthography. This is a lot of work and they’ll have to thoroughly proofread it twice. The orthography problem is so complex that we need a specialist who is well versed both in the tonology of African languages as well as in questions of orthography design. These people are a truly rare breed. One of them, David Roberts, recently returned to Togo and proposed including Mbelime in a comparative study with several other languages, as Mbelime is far from being the only language with this challenge.
Johannes, Bienvenu and Claire prepared the texts needed for the proposed reading experiment, for which we invited the best Mbelime readers. David came to Cobly in mid-June for three days during which he led the experiment (see photo). We recorded 32 people who read two short texts with the tones marked and two texts without the tone accents. They also had twenty minutes to write tones on two texts. In early July Bienvenu and Johannes went to Kara for a week to start analysing the recordings and texts together with the other four language groups that participated in the experiment.
It will be a while before we will be ready to have another orthography reform, but we’re thrilled that another important step towards it is finally happening.’
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