Re: A basic question on encoding Latin characters)

Date: Tue Oct 05 1999 - 14:26:58 EDT


>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
       Literacy Coordinator.

>> 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 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
       we'd be
>> setting e.g. a hundred people to sit down and crank
>> 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.)

       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
       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?

       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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