When we finish culture and language study (hopefully within the next 2 to 3 months!) the next work on the schedule is to prepare a literacy program. An alphabet is an essential part of that, and while we missionaries have some ideas, it’s always good to check. It’s their language after all. What symbols would they like?

In theory, we could do anything! Who doesn’t want to use Wingdings symbols for an alphabet? Well, we’re not operating in a vacuum. Tok Pisin, the national language, and English are both written languages that people here have interaction with. Some kids in Kovol board in town to get an education and so they’re exposed to the English/Tok Pisin (it’s similar) alphabet. That means a p should probably be spelt with a p. You won’t be surprised to hear there was unanimous agreement!

Alice and Millie check out the tent raised for the meeting

The goal of our meeting though was to gather people and leaders from all 7 Kovol villages, all the Kovol dialects and ask them what symbols they would like where there are choices. Kovol has some sounds that are absent in English and Tok Pisin and some sounds do things like blend with other sounds. Is the proper way to say good “bili” or “biri” or “bele”? It depends on where you are from. It’s a fact of the language though that r never starts or ends words, it’s only in the middle. People make a quick tap at the top of their mouth and for some accents, it comes out as an r, rather than an l. It’s phonemic science then that the l and r are the same phoneme, and “should” have the same symbol.
The problem with “should” though is that if the Kovol people don’t agree it’s not going to work! It’s their language and they need to buy into the symbols that will be used.

The view from the front

So armed with a blackboard we wrote words on the board, said them and where appropriate showed the different options. There probably were probably over 100 people present. and there were half a dozen or so people literate in the trade language. It went smoothly till we hit our eng sound. In Kovol we have the ng sound as in “sing”, but also the ng sound as in “single”. We have one with just the nasal sound and one followed by a g. In English and Tok Pisin both are represented with an ng and it’s fine, and initially, that’s what the community wanted.
The problem is we need both.

When I wrote “pusilim tang” (stone followed by the verb throw) on the board and without saying it asked the literate contingent how many people threw the stone they immediately responded “One man”. I asked how we would write that plural people threw it and they saw the problem.

pusilim tang (as in sing) = 1 person will throw it
pusilim tang (as in single, a hard g) = Plural people threw it.

Once they saw that using the same symbol would make the plurality and tense of verbs impossible to tell when reading in this case, they started to reconsider. We ended up with nn for sing and ng for single.

The view from the back

The meeting took about 3 and a half hours in total. The illiterate participants got a bit bored about half way through. We and a small number of literate Kovol speakers discussed squiggle after squiggle on the blackboard. Then we came along to the glottal sound.

In the Imengis dialect of Kovol person is “mohis”. The sound in the middle there isn’t a h sound; it’s a glottal stop. You stop the air with your glottis, way back in your throat like you do when you say “uh oh” in English. The Matat dialect on the other hand says “mokis”; they make a k sound.
This isn’t the only difference between the dialects, but it’s a significant variation in the sound that makes it hard to know what to use for an alphabet.
We had to focus on picking the best alphabet possible for the Imengis dialect of Kovol which is the one we live in and the one we have learned to speak. Does best possible mean bespoke though? Would the Imengis people want a new, specific symbol for “their” sound, or would they want to use a k knowing that that sound exists in English/Tok Pisin and that it would work for the other dialect? Would they be able to look at a k and say a glottal? Would Matat be able to look at whatever symbol we pick and then say k?

The view from the Alice

We presented them with 4 options. Mohis, mo’is, mokis and mokhis. The consensus was that mokis was Matat and that it wasn’t suitable for Imengis, they wanted their own symbol. It came to mohis and mo’is then. They reasoned that that apostrophe was such a small symbol older people might struggle to see it and so went with mohis. In English and Tok Pisin h is pronounced as a h of course, and they are going to have to make the mental association that the symbol makes slightly different (but similar) sounds in the different languages.

The Matat folks were happy with the decision and we stressed that we’d do what works. We don’t know how well the symbols we’ve chosen will work for literacy and we don’t exactly know how to handle the dialect differences. Will separate written materials be required for both dialects? We don’t know. Will using a single alphabet work for both dialects? We don’t know. First things first though, we need to get a test group of Imengis Kovol speakers through a literacy program so we can evaluate with them how well everything works.

A nice plant

I encouraged them to speak up about any thoughts they have in the future because we don’t know what’s best. It’s like digging a deep hole I said. When you start digging you have no idea if there are rocks 1 foot under the soil, you just have to start digging. If there are rocks then you try a different spot, but if there aren’t you keep going.

With that, we’ve decided on an initial alphabet to try for the first literacy program 🙂

1 Comment

Lois S. · 06/06/2024 at 9:26 pm

Wow! Thanks for explaining what the alphabet selection process looks like. Your work on figuring out how to write the glottal stop reminds me a bit of Hebrew and related languages–though the sound is different, some of the proposed ways to write it are the same. Hesed. Chesed. Akhmad. Ahmad. The correct pronunciation in this case is (the best I can interpret it) is an explosion of air in the back of the throat that sounds sort of like an English “k” and sort of like an English “h,” and not exactly like either of them. (BTW, when I try to pronounce the example word “mohis” with the glottal stop in the middle, it comes out sounding like a “k” sound.)

Leave a Reply