Monthly Archives: October 2019

Writing Systems

One of the side benefits of the consultant conference I attended in September was that it was in Thailand, where some of our colleagues are based. Specifically, those who work on WeSay, a program I have put to good use in DRCongo, and hope to continue using in Cameroon. The same group also works on non-roman scripts (Writing Systems Technology). Anyway, I got to greet them face to face for the first time, having corresponded with some of them for more than a decade.

One of the highlights of that visit was seeing different font and printing issues they had faced. As I work in writing systems development, this was particularly interesting to me. They work on a different end of the puzzle, though: I work on figuring out what are the consonants, vowels, and tones in a language, and how to represent them well in writing (#FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles). This team works on how to take a developed writing system and represent it well in a (unicode!) font for printing.

They have examples of printed Bibles with roman scripts (like our letters, though with additional signs for additional vowels, tone, or other important language features):

Even though this script is based on the same alphabet as English, you can see that there are some potential problems for typesetting it. For instance, in many places there are two distinct marks (diacritics) above a vowel, what we call “stacked diacritics”. For instance, in John 13:26 (the first verse on the page) Jesus’ second word “tônuô̌” has two different marks on the final vowel. I assume the one marks a vowel difference (i.e., “o” and “ô” are not the same vowel —like English “bet” and “bit” aren’t the same vowel), and the other marks a difference of tone (i.e., “o” is not the same tone as “ǒ” —like English “convict” (n) and “convict” (v) don’t have the same stress).

When you put these two together, and you have a potential conflict. In my browser anyway (and maybe in yours) the word “tônuô̌” has two diacritics (from ô and the ǒ) typed more or less on top of each other, rather than the diacritic on ǒ being placed above that on the ô, as it should be (and as in the printed Bible). If you scan through that page, you can see lots of variations of these stacked diacritics, meaning its is important to get this correct for printing.

But they also work with non-roman scripts:

These scripts have their own issues, though I haven’t gotten into them myself, since most African languages I have worked with use roman scripts.

One interesting issue they had to deal with was multiple scripts for the same language. In this example, there was a script of high cultural value, which was not really understood by much of the population. So they wanted to print the valuable script in parallel with the script that people could actually understand:

On some occasions, they have dealt with two (or three) scripts for the same language because it is spoken in multiple countries, and each country as it’s own mandated writing system. Converting checked scripture between these poses its own set of problems.

Here is yet another script:

I don’t remember the details of this one, though the tabs a the top of the page each indicate a problem that needed to be fixed in terms of the printing of the writing system. How one writes is typically very important, both to individuals and people groups, so we want to be able to move past making mistakes if possible —though imagine checking the typesetting on this Bible!

Often the two books that help clarify and preserve a writing system are the Bible and a dictionary, which is why we want to get the work done on the writing system early, before we do a lot of printing of scripture portions. And it is again why I pair my dictionary work with writing system development, so people can see lots of words in writing, and give us feedback on problems with the writing system, whether they are technical or aesthetic.

This hard, technical work in advance is worth it because we want the scriptures to be used, and to speak with power into the hearts of the people who read and hear them read. For this to happen, the writing system needs to be acceptable and valued so people will use it, but also accurately reflect the language, so people can use it fluently. #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles

Getting around in Yaoundé

Everyone but Kim in the back of a Corolla
Four of us in the back of a taxi

One thing that hasn’t changed much since we first visited Cameroon (in 2004) is the taxi system. They are fairly inexpensive, though they have a few drawbacks. First of all, they pack in people (normally into a Toyota Corolla), as you can see above and below (driver not pictured, but on the other side of Kim.…)

Kim and I on a single Corolla front seat.
Kim and I in the front passenger seat

But it isn’t just people who get overloaded; it is also not uncommon to see stuff sticking out the back of a taxi:

Stuff gets overloaded, too

One comment we heard that has helped us process traffic here is to not think of “my lane” and “your/oncoming lane.” Or, as we were otherwise told in understanding Cameroon, “Everything is negotiable.” How many “lanes” do you see in this photo?

Five lanes of traffic on the road to downtown

On the far right (upper right in photo), you can see a yellow taxi on the side of the road, probably picking up or dropping off a fare. Behind him is a silver car edging in between us and the taxi in front of us. Passing the taxi in front of us is another silver car, straddling the center line. On the other side of him is an oncoming taxi, who is passing cars stopped on the other side of the road. Think of it as water, flowing around whatever other is there, including cars, people, motorcycles, and potholes. Then our driver passes:

Passing with oncoming traffic

I don’t remember who we were passing, but you can see we’re across the center line with oncoming traffic (don’t do this, James!), which we managed not to hit. And yes, that truck in the oncoming lane really is labelled “flammable liquid” (probably natural gas tanks for cooking).

One benefit of all this congestion is that things really don’t go very fast. On a trip downtown, I only get up to fourth gear once or twice, and over 60kmph (38mph) maybe once. So most of my driving has been in first or second gear, negotiating near gridlock, so any accident wouldn’t be very serious. In fact, I had a motorcycle hit me the other day, and he just kept on going.…

But the trip in the taxi is only half the fun; there are so many places you can go. One of my agenda items in these last three months has been to research church options. There turn out to be lots of different churches around, each with their own particular issues (as is true everywhere, I think). After spending a good chunk of time looking for signs on our main road, I realized that might not be the best option; this sign points to something that I never could find.… 

Sign for a church (not? no longer?) there

But we did find lots of other churches, smaller and larger, more baptist and more presbyterian, more village-esque and more televangel-esque. Most seem to have teaching at least bordering on prosperity as gospel. It has been easier getting around on Sunday mornings once we were able to use group cars, though not without issues. The car we checked out last Sunday stalled on the way to the church we planned to go to. We got it push-started, but we returned to our neighborhood, rather than park it in a neighborhood where push-starting it would have been much more problematic.

Whatever trouble we have getting around,  we are glad to have on hand our missionary aviation colleagues. We visited the hangar one day, and got a few photo ops:

Joel and Anna in a Caravan

This program also has something we haven’t had before, a missionary helicopter:

All three in a helicopter

There was even some art on the wall with the aviation mission statement:

The Mission of SIL Aviation

With some of the security issues in Cameroon right now, we aren’t able to go some of the places this aviation program has flown in the past —so they aren’t getting as much flight time as they’d like. But it is good to know they are there, and I look forward to flying with them some day!

Please pray for our safety and smooth travel as go out and about in Yaoundé and elsewhere in Cameroon. Please also pray for the larger security issues to be resolved, and for peace, development, and the growth in breadth and depth of the church of Jesus Christ in Cameroon!