The season has definitely changed; wet season has started and we’re suddenly seeing lots and lots of rain. There’s a double benefit to that though. One is that our water tanks are full (overflowing) and we don’t have to think about rationing our water any more (if it’s yellow…). The other benefit is rainy, miserable mornings where people just want to stay at home huddled by a fire. That means a chance to catch up on office work for us.

One thing we’ve been working on for a few weeks is revising our team strategy statement which we wrote before we moved in. We’re clearer on the challenges of living here now and were able to update lots of things. Our medical policy was the most urgent thing in need of a good rethink, but there are countless other topics.
We’ve also been ruthlessly cutting out the waffle. We wrote our team strategy during all-day discussion sessions that went on for weeks while we were waiting to get into Kovol. Now we’re in the thick of tribal living we need our strategy statement to be as lean and as useful as possible; less ideal and more real.
I’ve been quite influenced by programming: code that doesn’t get used doesn’t get updated and harbours bugs. So parts of our strategy statement that used many words but didn’t say a lot or addressed issues we don’t have here are gone.

I’ve also been working on a bit of preliminary analysis for a Kovol alphabet. I’ve got about 1,700 unique Kovol words typed up in a spreadsheet, of which about 200 have been checked by my teammates.
We’re slowly working on checking the transcription of more of them, but I’ve been using my data to figure out where the difficulties are going to be so we can make sure to get the whole team’s efforts focused on a smaller, curated list.

I spent a year studying applied linguistics during missionary training and had a go at coming up with alphabets for dozens of languages. I really loved it, but the real thing is so much more… messy.
For a start, during training I was provided with word lists and we analysed based on the hard data provided to us. Here in Kovol we’re the ones writing down the data, and we make all kinds of mistakes and have all kinds of biases!
Our team has been doing a terrible job of being consistent with writing either o or ɔ. They’re the same character in English and so we often scribble things down in our notebooks and default to o. Once we’ve got our curated list we have to deliberately check the o and ɔ’s a third time to make sure.
Then there’s personal biases. I like to write b, Philip likes to write β and Gerdine throws in an extra ʔ. Who’s right? (Me is the obvious answer, but that’s what we all think :))

Even if we all manage to write the same thing consistently people don’t say the same consistently! We’ve got three different Kovol dialects each with unique words and pronunciations, but even within the dialects, villages can vary in pronunciation, and then individuals can vary too!

After identifying the different phonetic sounds in the language we make a list of suspicious pairs – characters that only differ by a single characteristic. t and d, for example, are both alveolar plosives, and only differ by voicing. For each suspicious pair we go on a hunt for two different words where these two sounds contrast.

In Kovol I’ve found tuga “lizard” and duga “friend”. When I say “tuga, saliβ jug” (“Lizard, get up let’s go”) I get blank, confused looks, but changing it to duga “friend” works just fine. We can conclude that people intend to differentiate between t and d, and those letters should both be in our alphabet.

to lie downinesoŋoβia ɛnetype of rat
to beisinimɛsinimto stand
oldisigɛsigfather in law
to beigoŋɛgoŋto make (a bench)
to eatninimnɛnimto work
An example of some contrasting words

l and r aren’t like that though. They don’t contrast:: r only appears in the middle of words and never at the beginning and end but l appears everywhere. Different people say l and r interchangeably. From this, we’re tentatively concluding that people don’t really see a difference between l and r and only l needs to be a letter in the alphabet.
So goes the theory, but in practice, it’s never so clear! In the back of my mind are things like “well the data only says that because I wrote it” and “Oh only so and so says that word that way”. After spending a morning searching through phonetic distribution tables, histograms and searching for contrasts it turns out there are no knockdown, incontrovertible pieces of evidence for any of the sounds we’re struggling with. 🙂 That would have been too easy 🙂 We’ll have to painstakingly build a cumulative case.

I’m wondering what we’ll do with the other main dialect once we get to the stage of suggesting an alphabet for our dialect. Our dialect doesn’t use k, everyone uses a glottal stop instead. Does it make sense to just use k to represent it and teach people “It’s a silent k”? Or will they reject it saying “that’s their dialect”?
And what will we do when it’s not just a pronunciation difference, but there are entirely different words? One problem at a time 🙂

I’ve tried to cheat a few times and ask “Hey, are you guys saying a b or a v on the end of that word?”.
“We don’t know, we just talk – you guys have to figure it out, that’s your job”. Right, back to triple and quadruple checking our word list then.


Rebekka Tröger · 06/10/2020 at 7:17 pm

What is a ‘kongkong’?

    SteveStanley · 06/10/2020 at 7:31 pm

    It’s a root vegetable, a taro or something but I only know the Tok Pisin for it

English Editor · 06/10/2020 at 7:28 pm

I am particularly interested to learn that r and l are used interchangeably by some Kovol speakers. We found this was very common in a number of the highland language groups we worked in e.g. Yagaria and Aziana.

Maria · 07/10/2020 at 5:57 pm

Wow your job sounds so complicated. But what a Great insight in missionary life.

Bryan · 08/11/2020 at 9:19 am

Seems like a very tough job!
I’ll will keep praying for you there!
I really look forward to the day that they will be reading the bible in their own alfabet!
The thought really fills me up with joy!
Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply