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Suppose you're a linguist working in a community where
• the speakers have a shaky grasp of literacy
• community development workers have a shaky grasp on the speakers' languages
• there's an existing orthography which is crying out for improvement
My advice - block your ears to its cries....

I've just had lunch with an anthropologist who started hissing like a tea-kettle when I mentioned the latest IAD Picture Dictionary (on which more in a later post). It's of Western Arrarnte. Not Aranda, not Arrente, not Arrernte. That's what got the steam whistling. Linguists (in league sometimes with community members) keep changing the spelling of languages, and other learners can't keep up, and can't see why we make them change.

And here's what the belief that spelling's arbitrary leads to..

From a conversation with an enthusiatic community development worker C who went on what sounds like a wonderful bush trip. C was collecting information with some knowledgeable people, including N, who loved language, who I and many others admired, and who has since died.
C: "Have a look at this booklet and photos from the trip. We're planning to distribute it. N wrote the words down."
Me: [gulps at seeing napa for ngapa 'water'] "Oh?"
C: "Yeah I'm very proud of it. But some people have said some of the spellings are wrong."
Me: "They're right. I'd be happy to proof-read it for you."
C: "But I'm thinking of keeping the spellings anyway. Because they're N's spellings."

When I shoot myself, don't write 'Rest in Piece' on my gravestone.

The moral - for non-linguists reading this blog - is that semi-literate speakers of small languages can't cope with lots of variation in spellings. It hinders them learning to read and write. So, use the normal spelling system consistently if you're preparing texts for long-term or wide distribution (signs, books, pamphlets, posters). And as for linguists... yes, I am as guilty as any in creating variant spellings of individual words, but please let's resist creating the major variations that come with changing the orthography.


Your point is well taken. Here’s another story that complicates and reminds us also that language and politics are intimately related. Speaker A of a “small language” is very proud of her language accomplishments—certificates, booklets in her language, anthros and linguists seek her out for advice, etc. A few other members of the community are also dedicated to keeping their language—written and oral—alive. Speaker B is also quite proud of his language accomplishments (all similar to Speaker A). When out-of-town consultants on a community project which involved signage and pamphlets came to town they were directed to Speaker A and B as well as to the local language Learner’s Guide. After making their lists and checking them twice the well-meaning consultants noticed Speakers A and B disagreed and their spellings only sometimes matched with the Learner’s Guide. Speaker A pulled her political weight with all involved and her spellings became those used in the final versions. The moral? Politics trumps language? How does one, especially a non-speaker, enter into this fray without alienating all involved? When competing lists and guides exist in one community how can a non-linguist make the “right” choice when she knows that her own connections and relations in the town are also determined by the ever-changing political scene?

You're right - I have been dancing over the buried landmines... it IS political - look what happened in Canberra. The Chief Minister was about to unveil a sign saying "Welcome to Ngunnawal country" when he was slapped with an injunction against unveiling it by the one-N Ngunawal.... So now some people write the name of the language and people as Ngun(n)awal. (Jonathan Swift, you prefigured this!)

I guess in the situation you describe the best you can do is go for consistency - so at least the same word is spelled the same way in the texts. Often one finds that there are just a few key words that the speaker Really wants to spell in the aberrant way, and everything else is fine. But it's also a lesson to linguists and language educators to explain to people again and again WHY consistency is important.

The arguments are never-ending and it is SO boring. Some of it centers around the spelling of skin names for the purposes of identifying and marketing Aboriginal art. A particular issue that annoys me is the absolute confusion about spelling, pronunciation and SIGNING (names) and hence 'identity'. Really bad spellings of people’s names, sometimes based on the way they spell them themselves, lead to the signatures being read literally. A case in point is Utopia Anmatyerr artist ‘Kuddatji Kngwarreye’, in the current spelling preferred by the art world. In this case the bad spelling actually leads to a real difference in the pronunciation of his first name (something that does not happen with a skilled reader of any of the normal Arandic variations – final ‘e’, initial ‘a’ etc). Now it may well be that the old man signs himself with a ‘d’ ( a back-to-front ‘b’) but does that change his official name from that pronounced with a ‘b’ (spelt in current Anmatyerr orthography as a 'p')? I have known him since the 1970s and I have always heard his name as Kubatji or Kwepatyey with the /p/ phoneme). I have no idea how he has adjusted to being called ‘Kuddatji’ all the time. He probably just thinks that everyone is mad or that they have speech impediments or bad colds. A lot is also made of the signatures of his close countywoman, the late Emily. I do not think there is a great deal to be made of whether she signed herself 'Emily' or 'Emlly'. Except the changing of a signature with age.

I think that it would be very constructive to keep the spelling dialogue going with major galleries and art institutions – but in a sense that is one of the purposes of standardised texts such as the dictionaries. It is better for all concerned if we work towards a uniform approach. But there is a danger that we all start sounding like cracked records…and personally i get really sick of people saying that the linguists are changing things all the time. Well if people ask for changes it is the harmless lexicographer drudges who actually have to do it. Enough. Blah.

Tying non-literate people's identities up in the way they happen to write their name on some occasion is a frightening example of the gulf between the long-term literate and the non-literate.

Dictionaries! Way to go! YES!!! But then there's getting the non-linguists to use them... And that's where the crack in the record starts to widen...

There's an excellent recent discussion with examples of problems arising from mis-spellings that you can direct people to, on Langguj Gel.

In regard to the spelling of my traditional name, "NGUNAWAL" my people have always spelt the name with one 'n'. It was only since the Mabo decision that one family group in Canberra chose to use the double 'n' spelling. A historian, who is not qualified to do such a publication, confirmed this spelling with an unauthorised publication of a genealogy report. History itself shows no previous spellings of the Double 'n' until this report was written for this one family group who previously to this report, clearly identified themselves a "WIRADJURI".

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