A time to plant or a time to kill?

Several people balancing on each other to form a very precarious looking human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014
Human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014: Writing Gworog can be rather precarious too!

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about the Gworog project. That’s largely because the project has faced personnel management issues and then a funding crisis, and then technical problems and they just haven’t had much for me to work on. I’ve also been pretty busy. But yesterday I had a (nother) meeting with the Gworog translation coordinator and 3 other linguists and literacy people to help come up with a plan for a really necessary meeting.

Perhaps to you “Community Orthography Consensus Meeting” doesn’t necessarily sound like the world’s most exciting knees-up but it could really be a matter of life and death.

Let me back up and explain a couple of things about the Gworog language.

Gworog reviewers meeting to help check the draft scriptures

They really love interesting consonant combinations — so that many variations in sound that aren’t significant in English or in Hausa make the world of a difference in Gworog. But all the people starting to write the language have been influenced by Hausa and English for their literacy, so a lot of these vital distinctions in the spoken language get all muddled up when people come to write it, and there really needs to be some degree of widespread community consensus so that people can actually understand each other reliably.

This struck me very clearly about 3 years ago when I decided that we’d try to translate some of our procedures and technical language into Gworog. (We had terms like ‘interlineariser’ which almost no-one could say, let alone remember.) Interlinearising a text is where you write it out with gaps between each row of text and put in glosses — brief English equivalents or hints — in between the Gworog text. It’s a kind of ‘cheat’s guide’ to the text. After some discussion we turned up a nice analogy from farming where you might intersperse different crops, and so we used that term for it. “Cwi hyai“, is what I committed to memory. I even made sure I got the tones right. High tone on the first word (sounds like ‘chwee’) and low tone on the second (sounds like ‘high’ but with a y sound after the initial h).

I merrily used that for weeks, until one day introducing the term to new members of the translation team someone looked puzzled… and then one of the translators laughed! It turns out that ‘mix planting’ is “cwi hyyai” but if you say the “y” of the “hyai” too quickly then it means ‘killing’ instead of ‘planting’. Oops! So I was unwittingly talking about ‘mix killing’ the text.

Lelna people farming in Kebbi state, where I lived and worked for a year in 2001.

Obviously it makes a big difference whether someone is coming intent on planting or killing, and so this sort of distinction absolutely must be maintained clearly and consistently. The translators’ current plan is to write the longer, slower y doubled and the shorter one as a single y.* But they do need to get a certain momentum going so that readers and writers can confidently agree what they mean. And that’s why we have the consensus meeting. It’s no longer really a matter for technical experts to weigh in, but for the community together to decide which paths they’re going to take. The local community development association is calling the meeting around 20th May.

So you might want to pray that some consensus can be reached to save everyone going round in circles so much. It may seem strange to outsiders, but arbitary writing decisions tend to provoke the fiercest fights. That would never happen in English, of course. We all know how unreasonable and illogical it is for Americans to drop ‘u’ all over the place and put ‘z’s instead of ‘s’s. No ink (or vitriol) has been spilled on that issue, has it?


* OK, if you really want to know, the Gworog situation actually gets even more complicated, so that about 4 distinct words are sometimes being written in a random assortment of 6 or so similar ways: ba/bia/bya/byia/biya/byyia/biyia…
Add tone distinctions into the mix and it’s theoretically possible that a single syllable word could have ten different meanings. And this is the situation after considerable settling down of the writing system over 6 years!

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