>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?
One of the people in our International Literacy Department
could probably answer this better - this really isn't my area
of expertise - but I'll take a stab:
I know there are several Christian mission agencies and several
national Bible Societies that occasionally get into this. Also,
SIL has regularly partnered with a number of national Bible
translation organisations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa,
and I think that often they will do this. Some governments have
or are working on developing writing systems for their
minorities, though I think this doesn't happen all that often,
and I'd guess that when it does that they don't necessarily
cover all of the smaller groups. I understand that UNESCO and
perhaps other internation organisations on that level have
begun to focus on the many minority languages and cultures of
the world (I know our Int'l Literacy Dept has had some
interaction with them on such matters), but I really don't know
what kind of activity they have been involved in as far as
actual writing system development is concerned.
There are also the people groups themselves. While this may not
represent the typcial case, some have undertaken on their own
to develop their own literacy and, as part of that, their own
writing systems. In some cases, they may have the assistance of
linguists not connected to SIL. These situations may not all be
equal in the sense that some may involve good solidarity within
a language community, while others may involve competing
proposals. In the latter cases, the competing alternatives
might be defeating one another, but in other cases several
competing alternatives may be viable. If I recall correctly,
Hmong may be moving in the direction of the latter category,
though I gather that things are still very much evolving.
All of this I can describe only in impressionistic terms. I
don't know myself of any source of good statistics. When I have
an opportunity, I'll see what I can learn from our Int'l
>> many new characters are we likely to need that can't
>> with composition?
>Is there any pattern? Does every language need a few letters
of its own? Is there a range of needs?
I don't have any good answers to these questions at this time.
(I don't know for sure that I ever will have.) My suspicions
are that, as has been suggested, existing characters and
combining marks in the std already cover the vast majority of
cases, but I believe there may be a small number of additional
existing needs. As for future developments, who can tell. I
just learned that one of our SIL linguists working with a
variety of Chinantec has invented some glyphs to indicate tone
in place of using the awkward superscript digits. I have no
idea what the status of this is: whether it's experimental,
whether the user community has embraced it, etc. There have
been SIL people working in Chinantec and Mazatec for decades,
and until this people have always used familiar glyphs:
superscript numbers, accentual diacritics; all of a sudden,
somebody thinks that perhaps there may be a better way for a
particular community. This kind of thing could potentially
happen at any time.
>> 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
>> setting e.g. a hundred people to sit down and crank
>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
I suppose if someone wanted to operate that way, by your
calculations a hundred might be enough. But, no, we shouldn't
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 didn't think you did. I just wanted to make sure that nobody
else got the impression that SIL operates that way.
>Sounds like a National Geographic or PBS special, no, a
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
Do you mean, any of us in SIL, or any of the rest of the
membership of this list? I have no idea whether anyone in SIL
has ever approached or been approached by someone in public
media on this topic. In the US, National Public Radio recently
did a show on endangered languages, and Barbara Grimes, our
soon-to-retire editor-for-many-years of the Ethnologue, was one
of the four panelists.
By the way, the August 1999 issue of National Geographic has an
article on writing systems around the world that is of some
interest. I learned for the first time that Hebrew is (or can
be) written with a hanging baseline, like Devanagari! (There's
a wonderful close-up photo of a scribe at work, and this fact
couldn't be revealed more plainly.)
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