Re: A basic question on encoding Latin characters)

Date: Sat Oct 02 1999 - 22:56:40 EDT

       Edward wrote:

>Fascinating thought. How many ethnic groups are there with
       written languages? I remember when The Book of a Thousand
       Tongues (Bible Society, London, 1972 IIRC, out of print) came
       out, and I hear that there is a Book of Two Thousand Tongues in
       the works. I also heard about a long-range plan involving SIL
       to create writing systems for the rest of the 6,000-odd
       languages listed by Ethnologue sometime before hundreds of them
       go extinct.

>How are we doing? Who works on creating writing systems? How
       many new characters are we likely to need that can't be handled
       with composition?

       I'm not aware of any long-range plan on the part of SIL that I
       would describe in the terms you did. It suggests that we'd be
       setting e.g. a hundred people to sit down and crank out
       orthographies. We do not just make orthography decisions
       unilaterally. Things are far more complicated than that.
       Orthography development requires a good phonological analysis
       of the particular language, an even better understanding of the
       sociolinguistic and politicolinguistic factors at play in the
       particular context, and strong interaction with the user
       community - they need to own decisions (where governments are
       not doing that), and we need to be there as consultants. It
       also needs to be done in the context of a program for
       establishing viable literacy. In some cases, a community may
       simply not be interested in literacy, in which case we can do
       at most preliminary work, but no established writing system

       In addition to a count of languages in the Ethnologue, I have
       access to some statistics regarding Bible translation
       (something we try to keep track of) that don't talk exactly
       about # of languages with writing systems, but are suggestive
       of how many languages have writing systems:

       # of living languages (current Ethnologue count): 6809

       Bible translation needs:
       Definite need: 914
       Definite need but work is on hold: 3
       Probable need: 270
       Possible need: 2250
       Unlikely need: 175
       Reported bilingual: 246
       Nearly extinct: 413

       Need revision or new translation: 51
       Bible: 333
       NT: 876
       In progress: 1278

       I divided the BT needs statistics into two parts: the first
       part are those that likely *don't* have writing systems
       (#=4271); the second part represent those languages that would
       probably already have writing systems (#=2538), though some of
       these may no longer be viable languages.

       These are rough estimates only. An exact amount would be much
       harder to work out. E.g. for how many languages did someone
       translate all or some of the Bible where literacy never got
       established, or where there was a tradition of literacy that
       has not continued? (E.g. Northern Thai had an established
       tradition of literacy, and the Lanna script was adopted for
       neighboring language groups, such as Tai Lue, over which they
       had influence, but literacy in N. Thai began to die off as
       government schools teaching Siamese became establish in N.
       Thailand in the earlier part of this century. Today, only a
       very small portion of N. Thais can read Lanna script, though
       the Tai Lue writing system based on Lanna script is still very
       viable, even though the government in PRC introduced a new
       writing system - New Tai Lue script - in the 1950s.) There are
       also situations in which several writing systems may have been
       developed but none has become established; it may not be easy
       to determine in some such cases whether to count that language
       among the "already have"s or the "don't yet have"s.


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