Practical transcription of Tamashek
October 2, 2010 4:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to write Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg, in latin characters. I have nearly all the literature on this -- the problem is, there are a variety of proposed systems, and all of them seem to be based on a largely impractical phonetic alphabet. Most of the proposed alphabets are around 36 to 50 letters, rendering it largely ineffective, especially when trying to teach writing to illiterate native speakers or second language learners.

My question is: How does one develop a writing system? What characters can be “abandoned”? There are certain emphatic consonants and short and long vowels -- perhaps these can be neglected? I realize that written English is not the same as phonetic written English, so I'm certain a modified written language can be developed.

Background: If it's at all evident, I have no background in linguistics, but have learned basic Tamashek and am developing audio language material. I want it to be practical. I'm also aware of Tifinagh, the original writing system of Tamashek -- but in it's current incarnation, it is not ideal, a consonant only system mostly used for short poems and inscriptions, not for literature.
posted by iamck to Writing & Language (14 answers total)
Um, FWIW, you're asking the sort of question that might get better answers from somewhere like this.
posted by 5Q7 at 4:59 PM on October 2, 2010

Response by poster: I realize it's a little specific -- but I'll follow up with that. I'm just looking for any vague idea of what I should be looking for. I don't really know how to pose the question...
posted by iamck at 5:08 PM on October 2, 2010

Best answer: Do you have any background in linguistics? I'm wondering in particular if you're familiar with the concept of phonemes.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:31 PM on October 2, 2010

Best answer: I mean no offense to you at all, but if there are already a variety of proposed writing systems, why are you proposing and teaching yet another one? There really is no point in reinventing the wheel here, and frankly, you don't have the linguistic understanding of the structure of the language to invent a practical and effective writing system for it. You would be doing yourself - and your students - good service by taking the time to understand why the some of the main Latin systems that are in use are the way they are and the reasons why they are preferred by different groups of people. Those reasons can range from practicality to politics, and everything in between. But they're there for reasons too. And the differences result from how different groups or individuals have resolved some of the conflicts (and those conflicts range from representation of a distinctive sound to inadvertently prioritizing one dialect or political ideology in the character choice you make or the distinction you choose to ignore)...these are conflicts you WILL run into and have to resolve yourself if you create a new system. Maybe not right away, but as you use and teach the language and writing system, the questions will arise and will not be resolveable so simply. Better to work with something less than ideal, but established, and created by somebody who has put their linguistic expertise into the sound mappings.

I bet you anything that the more you investigate the writing systems that are already in use, the less impractical they will seem to you. Writing systems always have reasons why the characters are in can't just streamline the set without incurring a cost. Pay attention too that you are not confusing the language's phonetic or phonemic inventory with it's orthography set (alphabet characters).

Also, teaching your students a writing system that they can't use outside of the classroom might be largely ineffective. A system that mirrors the phonemic inventory and phonological patterning of the language will actually reinforce what they're learning anyway.

Good luck and remember that in the long run, you could be saving yourself a LOT of work and headache by not taking this on yourself!
posted by iamkimiam at 6:28 PM on October 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Durr. I overlooked the part where you say you have no linguistic background. Sorry about that.

Anyway, like iamkimiam, I'd recommend not just "abandoning" characters. I suspect you will find that it makes things harder for your speakers, not easier.

As an analogy, think of Arabic. (I'm assuming you know some Arabic if you're working in that part of the world.) With the vowel marks, it's very easy to read. It takes longer to learn to read it without the vowel marks — people get the hang of it eventually, but it's tricky at first. And if you take away all the dots — so that ba and ta and ya all look the same — then it's even trickier still. You can learn do it, but you sure wouldn't want to read a whole book that was written that way. And imagine trying to teach a five-year-old to read Arabic with no dots right from the get-go! I worry that the "simplified" Tuareg you're envisioning, with no indication of vowel length and no distinction between the plain and emphatic consonants, would be just as confusing as dotless Arabic.

(Also, as iamkimiam says, standardization is important. Iff yoo hadd lurned too spell Inglish lyke thiss, yoo wudd bee verree frustraytidd wen yoo tryde too reed things thatt uther peepul hadd rittin. You know?)

One more thought. Is part of the problem that you're having trouble typing the letters that Tuareg uses and English doesn't? Because that is totally a solvable problem, and folks here can give you good advice on how to do it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:44 PM on October 2, 2010

harder for your speakers

harder for your students, I mean.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:44 PM on October 2, 2010

Response by poster: I understand this -- part of the problem I'm having, is I'm trying to work out a way to use either system, Latin characters or Tifinagh. I suppose the solution lies in the middle, maybe using the most simplified latin systems and adding a few vowels in Tifinagh.

I'll try and research the reasons for these choices by contacting the individuals promoting each writing system. I suppose reinventing the system is a bit out of my expertise...
posted by iamck at 7:31 PM on October 2, 2010

Wiikipedia says there is a standard orthography used by Mali's DNAFLA literacy project to teach Tamasheq literacy, and provides a key right there on the page. Looking at it, it's not that complicated. Tuareg languages are well documented, and there are (relatively) many speakers of these languages, and many more of related Berber languages, and I would be very surprised to discover Tamasheq orthography was as nebulous as you say. Again according to Wikipedia (meaning I didn't go far) there seems to be a standard reference on Tamasheq (the usual spelling of the actual language name) orthography:

Sudlow, David. (2001). The Tamasheq of North-East Burkina Faso. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:08 AM on October 3, 2010

Response by poster: fourcheesmac -- I have the original DNAFLA manual. I also have a lot of the texts mentioned, including the dictionaries by Heath, modern Malian classroom materials, and books of proverbs. The problem is the lack of agreement -- some of the alphabets simply disregard certain emphatics if they're not used that often, others introduce versions of vowels that were not present but for the IPA phonetic transcription. But it certainly makes it difficult to decide on why one should be used rather than the other.

I should also point out that the Malian states program for language is politically hopeless. Most of the teachers sent to the North to teach can't speak Tamashek, so it isn't taught in the schools. Most of the kids I talk to on the internet developed their own way of writing that is mutually understandable, but again, differs from any official system...
posted by iamck at 10:26 AM on October 3, 2010

Response by poster: I guess I would emphasize that it just seems that new efforts at transcription utilize phonetic alphabets to fully explain the linguistic intricacies of a language -- although our languages themselves don't do this, and we don't write English in dictionary IPA...
posted by iamck at 11:30 AM on October 3, 2010

If you want a shallow orthography for a phonemically complex language, you cannot "abandon" emphatic or short/long vowel contrasts. You need to mark them somehow, so that the distinctions between meanings will be represented (visibly noticeable and prompting the corresponding pronunciation distinction).
posted by iamkimiam at 12:15 PM on October 3, 2010

Yeah, it sucks when one language has a bunch of competing writing systems. I totally sympathize on that one. K'ichee' — the language I work with — has the same problem, and it's a royal pain in the ass.

Still: if it's complicated having three writing systems, it'll be even more complicated having four. If four is bad, five will be even worse. If the problem is having too many writing systems, then by creating yet another system, you'll just be part of the problem. Better to pick one that's already in use and stick with it. That way you won't be contributing even more confusion to an already confusing situation.

(For what it's worth, too, have you asked your students which system they'd like to learn? Where I work, there's a lot of political baggage attached to the choice of writing systems. I was surprised to discover that even totally illiterate people still had strong feelings about which writing system was the "correct" one. I don't know if it'll be the same way in your part of the world, but it can't hurt to ask around. Your students might surprise you by knowing what they want — and if they do, it'll save you making a decision.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:04 PM on October 3, 2010

I wish I could go back in time and make sure that there was only one writing system: The International Phonetic Alphabet, which is capable of expressing all sounds that humans make.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 1:16 PM on October 6, 2010

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