Re: A basic question on encoding Latin characters)

From: Edward Cherlin (
Date: Tue Oct 05 1999 - 03:39:57 EDT

At 04:40 -0700 10/3/1999, wrote:
> 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.

The figures below answer this question with sufficient accuracy, but
not the questions in the next paragraph.

> >How are we doing?

That is, how many languages have recently been given writing systems,
using proper methods, in any convenient period of time? (The last ten
years, perhaps.)

>Who works on creating writing systems?

I know about SIL and Michael Everson. Who else is there?

> How
> many new characters are we likely to need that can't be handled
> with composition?

Is there any pattern? Does every language need a few letters of its
own? Is there a range of needs?

> 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.

Would a hundred people be enough? Crude calculation suggests that if
that many people could in a sense average one writing system per year
each, they would all be able to retire with the job just about
completed. (I'm not suggesting that you work that way.)

>We do not just make orthography decisions
> unilaterally. Things are far more complicated than that.

I definitely didn't mean to suggest any such thing. I have some
experience with these issues in the contexts of YIVO orthography for
Yiddish, Shavian orthography for English, and the adaptations of the
Latin alphabet for Loglan & Lojban. I have followed the progress of
the former Soviet Republics which have dropped Cyrillic and either
returned to their previous orthography or designed a new one.

> 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
> results.
> 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.
> Peter

Sounds like a National Geographic or PBS special, no, a series, to
me. Have any of you talked to them? There is certainly a need for a
lot more public education on these matters. Is there anybody in
linguistics who knows enough and can also do the
Sagan/Bronowksi/Morris/Attenborough shtick?

Edward Cherlin
"It isn't what you don't know that hurts you, it's
what you know that ain't so."--Mark Twain, or else
some other prominent 19th century humorist and wit

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