Have you ever taken a spelling test in which the teacher didn’t actually know the answers? You had to spell words that your teacher herself didn’t know how to spell? Here, when that happened at my house two weeks ago, no one seemed to mind. In fact, we all loved the game, and it was exciting to be able to play a new game that had never before been played in the history of the world. . .
The last three weeks have been absolutely wonderful, since they were filled with a 3-week “Alphabet party.” (That’s what I call it, anyway. Other people who don’t understand quite how much fun it was may call it an orthography workshop. That sounds so much more boring!) In talking with many of you, I had said at one point or another that making an alphabet in My Language was on my to-do list. But I honestly wasn’t quite sure how to go about making it a good one, even with all my schooling. But, long story short, at the start of 2022 there had never been an alphabet in My Language and now there is one, even if it’s “tentative!”
Now for the long story quite a bit longer . . .
When I first couldn’t return to My Country in October 2018 for security reasons, God clearly led me to take a few linguistics classes in Texas for two months. In one of those classes we read a short article by a linguist who had worked in Africa for years and years, who briefly outlined a way that you could work on getting a good alphabet rather easily by working closely with native speakers of the language and relying on their ears instead of your own. It sounded wonderful, and I tried to get more information so that I could actually do it. But the linguist who had “invented” the method never wrote up more about it, so I was a bit stuck.
But last summer, when I was here to help out with a different linguistics thing, I asked a friend with Wycliffe Bible Translators if she knew how to actually put this into practice, and she said yes, that she had done it a few times, and that it was as great as it sounded in the short article I had read. She also agreed to come and lead such an “alphabet party” for My People!
Fast-forward to the beginning of January, and it all fell into place. She came. I was here. Four of My People came. Two other new missionaries from My Country who are just starting to work with My People came. Adama*, my language helper that you read about in one of my previous e-mails, had written 1000 words in My Language on small pieces of paper however he thought best, using the alphabet he had learned in French.
Then, over the course of three weeks, we worked through about 600 of those words. I’ll spare you the fascinating details, but suffice it to say that the writing in blue pen was slowly accompanied by writing in red pen – in the tentative alphabet of My People! Definitely red letter days!
We now have 29 letters – 22 consonants and 7 vowels. (Though each of the vowels can be long or short, meaning you pronounce it for a short amount of time or a long amount of time, and both the long and short vowels can also be pronounced regularly or nasally. So if you add up the number of ways that the vowels contrast, it makes 28, not to mention the dipthongs, where you pronounce two vowels in a row. No wonder I was struggling with my vowels!) And when we gave the spelling test as we were trying to figure out how to write words that had never before been written in My Language, it was exciting to see that the alphabet mainly worked!
There are still things to be figured out, like how exactly they want to write nasal vowels and whether to write compound words (like chalkboard) as one word or two. But those will get worked out in time and with meetings with leaders, etc. One of the biggest challenges yet unsolved, though, is tone. I am not a fan.
There is tone on words in My Language, but we probably don’t have to write that on every word since it rarely is the sole difference between two words (and where it is, like between “horse” and “hot pepper” or between “a person of My People” and “goat,” you can usually tell from context what or who you’re talking about). The problem is that it makes a difference grammatically. For example, the only difference in the following six sentences (and probably more) is tone. So here, we’ll have to write it somehow. (And I’ll have to learn to hear it better. Yikes!)
- A sheep returned.
- The sheep returned.
- A sheep returns.
- The sheep returns.
- It’s a sheep who returns.
- It’s the sheep who returns.
Yeah, you can pray for wisdom and a good ear for me as I work harder at hearing this tone now, and as we figure out how to write it in a way that is effective and not too annoying for My People, too.
Through the alphabet party, there were many benefits even beyond a tentative alphabet. For example, we had people sitting around my living room table discussing what the word is for words like “wisdom” and “belief.” It also helped those of us learning the language learn a whole lot more. And we got a 600+ word trilingual mini-dictionary (well, quadrilingual if you add English), in both paper and android app versions. The android app even includes audio for over 400 of the entries!
And we also got the 4 guys from My Language excited about reading and writing in their language. In fact, they were so excited that they decided that the most important next step in order to do this thing right was to show it to the chief of all of My People and see what he thought. So the day after the alphabet party finshed they all took the trek out to his village (I wasn’t able to join them this time) to introduce it to him and get his opinion. And the reports I heard back were that he was very, very happy! Now they’re working on getting alphabet charts out to all the village chiefs of My People, from the biggest to the smallest villages. So, so exciting!
If I’m being honest, one of the exciting things for me was also that this was something that made actual, measurable, can’t-go-back-able progress in a short time. With the security situation here, there are times that learning the language and culture and building relationships can be discouraging, since I never know if I’ll be around long enough that it will make a difference. But now in three weeks we made visible progress, got guys who are exciting and moving forward with or without me, and even have a WhatsApp group in which we can write back and forth now in My Language!
So thank you so much for praying for our alphabet party. It was totally exhausting, but totally exhilarating, too. (I know, making a dictionary and writing 600 words doesn’t sound exhilarating, but believe me when I say that I haven’t had that much fun in a long time.) And it ran super smoothly. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything run this smoothly in Africa, and this included 8 people meeting at my house daily for 3 weeks, including me organizing (with other people cooking, thankfully) lunch and snack breaks as well as having overnight company (my friend who led us through it). So thank you, thank you, thank you!
So what else is happening now?
Now that the alphabet party is done, Adama* and I joined in on a 3-week grammar workshop that started yesterday (Monday). So now we continue to work on fine-tuning our alphabet, and also get to figure out more details about how My Language works on a slightly higher level. Isn’t it fun that God got us an alphabet, and even a small story, in time to be able to join the grammar workshop?