Writing an Alphabet

Over the past week, I had the chance to work with a West African translation facilitator, Steve, to help create an alphabet and spelling rules for the Kono language. Now, you are probably thinking of English spelling rules and grimacing at this point. Fortunately, the faults of the English alphabet aren’t endemic to alphabet writing. English has a long history and influences from many languages, which is why the alphabet and spelling aren’t consistent. Though it’s a process that takes thought, it is possible to make a spelling system that is a little less confusing than English!

The first thing a linguist does when they encounter a new language is to do lots of listening. So when Steve first moved to the Kono area, he listened as people were speaking, made recordings, and wrote down everything he could using the IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA is an alphabet with one symbol for every sound that is possible for the human mouth to make. This way, he could write things down without having an alphabet already written. Usually, alphabets use the same letters that the IPA uses; it’s just a question of which sounds need a letter and which don’t! One of Steve’s questions was about a sound that Kono has, but English doesn’t. It is represented in the IPA by the letter [ʍ], and pronounced sort of like “hw”. Steve had to decide if he wanted to introduce a new letter to the Kono alphabet, or if he wanted to use two letters to represent one sound (think “ng” in English – these two letters represent the sound [ŋ] in IPA). As we discussed, we realized that there are actually four sounds in Kono which have a “w” sound as part of them: kw, gw, ŋw, and hw. However, only “hw” has its own IPA symbol: [ʍ]. The others are represented by a “superscripted” w, like this: [kʷ]. Generally, superscripted letters are not a good idea in an alphabet, so it seemed to make sense to write all four of these sounds the same, as two letters representing one sound: kw, gw, ŋw, and hw. In the end, the Kono alphabet came out to be 28 letters.

If you’re feeling a bit tired just reading this, you’re not alone. Steve feels the same way! Ha! Steve is not actually a linguist, which makes creating an alphabet a challenge, and is why I was asked to work with him for a few days. I didn’t know his full story before we started working, so I didn’t know what to expect. But, as I looked at his work and heard his story, I was both surprised and impressed. Steve and his family came to the Kono area to do community development, but when the lead translator had to leave for health reasons, he stepped into the role of translation facilitator. His linguistic training consisted mostly of talking to other translators and finding resources on his own. Based on those things, he had done excellent transcription work (writing down the words he heard) and had been able to make lots of discoveries about how the language was functioning. I am excited to see the Kono project move forward because I think God has not only called Steve and his family to do this work, but He has exceptionally equipped them to serve the Kono people. I will have more of the story of the Kono translation on my podcast in a few weeks. Be sure to listen to find out more!