One of the most important aspects of language preservation is the ability to record the language in writing. However, many endangered languages lack an orthography, or writing system. UNESCO notes that “it is extremely difficult to estimate how many written and unwritten languages there are in the world, and there is no established source of information.” What is certain, however, is that languages that can’t be written down suffer from a competitive disadvantage, as may the people who speak them.
One such language was ciShanjo, spoken in Zambia’s Western province. Nancy Kula, a linguist at the University of Essex, told the BBC that the language “is very much under threat of extinction.”
Until recently, the lack of a writing system made it even more vulnerable, but that has changed as representatives of a ciShanjo-speaking village collaborated with linguist Paul Tench to devise and standardize a spelling system for their language.
The BBC has an excellent article up in which Professor Tench described the process:
“All of these people were literate in the [local] trade language siLozi and English; they knew from these languages the consonants and vowels of the Latin alphabet and what they stood for in those two languages. They applied this as best they could to the sounds of the words in their own language. Then they discussed things together in their mother tongue to agree solutions to any problems that arose. I kept a tally of the letters used and arranged them in a chart that reflected phonetic patterns.”
The end result of the project was a booklet on how to read and write in ciShanjo, a dictionary, and some stories written in the language, all tools that will be essential for teaching ciShanjo speakers how to write in their mother tongue and in preserving the language for future generations.
Just as important, the project has given members of the community a sense of pride and hope that they did not have before. Enoch Walubita, one of the farmers who worked on the translation, explained “We were thinking we are nobody, but now we are the same as everyone in the world.”