At this point of the process we’ve found our phonemes and allophones. Phonemes are the significant sounds that will need to be represented by a symbol in the alphabet and allophones are little variations of our phonemes that the alphabet doesn’t need to worry about.
If we’ve done our job well readers won’t get hung up as they read because they can’t distinguish what a word is (we have too few phonemes), nor will they get confused that there are lots of different symbols for something they intuitively consider to be a single thing (we have too few allophones).
In some ways picking symbols is the easiest part, but it depends on the audience.
Our goal in picking symbols is that we’d end up with an alphabet that people are motivated to read and write with.
We could in theory use wingdings and all kinds of fancy symbols, and if the community the alphabet was for wanted that then I guess it would be a good choice!
In the real world though people want to use what they’re familiar with. The national languages of Papua New Guinea are English and Tok Pisin, both of which use the English alphabet. The Kovol people know that if they go to town for school and if they go on to university in PNG they’ll be using the English alphabet. It has prestige to it.
There’s also the fact that people who learn to read and write using the Kovol alphabet may go on to learn to read in Tok Pisin or English and we want that to be as smooth as possible. Where possible we want to follow the conventions of the country the alphabet is being used in.
So in Papua New Guinea we’ll use English characters (mostly), but of course the story would be very different in other parts of the world. The characters you choose to use come with a pre-existing identity. English characters are associated with the English language and that’s a positive connotation in PNG. If the Kovol people were very hostile to the outside world they might prefer a more unique looking alphabet, something they can look at and say ‘that’s ours’.
Readability is a big thing too. We want learning to read to be as friction free as possible (it’s going to be a hard road to begin with!). We may need to trial different orthographies with anyone who is literate in the trade language to see what seems to work best, what do they get easily and what seems to cause stumbling?
With computers and mobile phones proliferating (Kovol teens save up their vanilla money and by cheap old-school mobile phones in town), we need to consider the digital keyboard too. Can our alphabet be typed in a text on a standard English keyboard phone?
On computers we can design our own keyboards, and we can do things like make the ‘z’ key show ‘p’ instead, but is that intuitive? Also then we need to install that keyboard on every computer the Kovol alphabet will be used on – better to keep it simple.
Choosing which characters to use is a balance of satisfying all these competing demands.
In Kovol we’ve got some decisions to make:
First up is that we need to pick a symbol for [ʔ], which is pronounced as a [k] in the other Kovol dialect. /k/ seems the best choice, but will speakers in our dialect accept a /k/ for /ʔ/ or will they reject it as belonging to the other dialect? We’d love to use an alphabet that works for both dialects without needing to change it.
We also have 6 vowels: i e ɛ u o and ɑ. The English alphabet only has 5 vowels, and those map pretty well leaving just [ɛ] (the e sound in bet). Our neighbours in Pal use the ə symbol for their 6th vowel. Should we follow suit? The Pal alphabet is what’s known in our area after all, or should we use something like ‘ee’ so we can use an English keyboard?
Lots of things to check out and experiment withǃ So after all that the Kovol alphabet I’m suggesting isː
p b t d k g v s m n ng l y w
i e ə u o a
I’m including the ə for now, but I want to kick that decision to my teammates ːD I’ve done my part ː)
Here’s what it would look likeː
mogut məmi kigong, nimənde pjag bili tuguv pigong, nim kənə ogo pigong kolo sog nələ tang simong ipundung, ipunduv pigong nim ogul ipunduv pigong wi aga