Tag Archives: Alphabets

Why I attend national conferences

One of the purposes of going to Cameroon this march is to attend the second “National Symposium on Cameroonian Languages”, at the University of Dschang, in Dschang, Cameroon. I assume it may not be obvious to you why this is a good thing, so I’ll lay out some of my thoughts on linguistics conferences here.

First of all, recall that I am a missionary linguist. That is, I am a missionary and a linguist, something like a missionary pilot is a missionary and a pilot, or like a missionary doctor is a missionary and a doctor. And I challenge people to see that I am not less of a missionary because I am a linguist, and I am not less a linguist because I am a missionary. One might even argue that these two vocations encourage and better each other —that I am a better linguist because I am a missionary, and that I am a better missionary (at least in some ways) because I am a linguist. I love that I get to analyze languages, serve minority (and therefore disadvantaged) peoples, and glorify God, all in one job. The work I do today helps people to read better, which helps their lives today. But it also gives them more powerful access to the scriptures, which provides “value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1Tim 4:8b ESV)

So how does my work as a missionary linguist apply at linguistic conferences? I have been tempted in the past to look at conferences as a massive information dump, and I think some people do look at them that way. But one obvious (yet astounding) observation I’ve made about conferences is that they are full of people. And they’re run by people. People presenting, people listening, people asking and answering questions. So whatever else is true of linguistics conferences (local, national, or international), they are an occasion for lots of people with similar interests to get together.

Which doesn’t mean that I man a booth at the side of the food court reading “come to know Jesus through linguistics”. Rather, I get to practice what Jesus teaches me about getting along with people, among perhaps the most secular crowd of people I ever interact with. There are people who are ornry and disagreeable. There are people that don’t know yet how little they know about something. There are people who know more than I ever will about something, and who have no interest in relating to mere mortals as myself —though most people I meet at these conferences could be described as “people”, without stretching the imagination much. :-)

I was at a conference a few years ago, where I had a particular opportunity to show compassion to another person there. It was an international conference, but hosted at a particular university in an African country, so lots of people from that area were able to come. This means that there were people who came from other African countries (like me), people who came from America or Europe, and people who came to the conference without using a passport, all at the same event. At one talk, the speaker used some words in a way that was initially at least confusing, if not just plain wrong (about a fairly basic concept that most people at the conference would be expected to know). I was not alone in this opinion; others asked questions afterward, trying to get the guy to clarify what he meant. They went around a couple times, but eventually they gave up on him, with a response that might be translated “he’s nuts.” Time for questions was up, and we were on to the next speaker, and people cut their losses.

But other missionary linguists and I caught up with him later, and asked him to explain himself more privately. It turned out that he was using a particular theory of a particular linguist that had been published, but that almost no one had heard of. And apparently he was using those words correctly within that theory, but that wasn’t enough to help us understand him without this much longer conversation. In the end, we were able to explain to him that the theory he was using wasn’t known or used many others, so he should either use more standard terminology, or else explain very clearly that he was using these words differently.

But the more important message, to me, was that we cared enough about him as a person (and as a linguist) to follow up with him, and help him get his thinking straight. It cost more time and energy than writing him off when his presentation didn’t make sense (even after questions), but it was worth better understanding him, and helping him be better understood. This idea is part of a core goal of my work: mentorship. That is, I want to have alphabets and writing systems done, so people can read (see above!), but if I can do that, and at the same time train up others to do this work, then I multiply myself, and the work gets on better and faster.

So while an introvert like me is certainly tempted to take every 15 minute brake I get for myself, those breaks are often taken up by processing things with people I know, and getting to know others that I don’t. And often all that rubbing shoulders yields unexpected results.

At the last conference I went to (in the US), there was a team of linguists from Ghana (IIRC), who were trying to analyze a tonal language (what I do), but without any particular training or orientation. I was able to point out Tone Analysis for Field Linguists, by Keith L Snider (full disclosure: he was on my committee),  probably the most helpful and practical approach to doing tone analysis. And I was able to sit and do some actual acoustic analysis with them. That is, they got out their computers, and showed how they were looking at the speech stream in their recordings (as I described for consonants here). Because all those lines and differently shaded areas require interpretation, and because good interpretation requires experience, I was able to give them some pointers to help them see their data in a more helpful way. It took maybe an hour altogether, but it was time well spent to help someone get along better in this work, and to show friendship and solidarity as well, and that in Jesus’ name.

Anyway, because of the prejudice against Christian missionaries common in most linguistic circles I’ve been in, any time I can show people compassion, care, and honest friendship is a win, even if just a PR win (people know who I work for; it’s on my name tag). But it isn’t just people thinking better of Christian missionaries, or of the church generally. I also get to mix friendliness and compassion with excellent academics (well, I try anyway :-)). So every chance I have to help someone think more clearly, or present his ideas more clearly, or understand someone else’s ideas more clearly, is a chance for people at the conference to see that Christians worship the Truth (John 14:6).  Not that everyone receives this, of course: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1Peter 4:15-16 ESV)

So regarding this upcoming conference, there are two kids of relationship to build. One is with my expatriate colleagues, other missionary linguists like myself. I know some of them a bit, but most not at all. So it will be good to interact with them through the conference, to enable better collaboration down the road. The other kind of relationship to build is with national linguists, whether they are involved in Bible translation movement or not. I anticipate my work in Cameroon including relationship with government and university entities; this work can only be helped by knowing and being known by Cameroonian linguists. And for those that are still in training, there is a great opportunity to come alongside them, and encourage them in ways that will facilitate more mentorship down the road.

Anyway, I look forward to this opportunity to glorify God by seeking truth and loving people in a way that I am particularly enabled to do, and in a way that will amplify our effectiveness in facilitating local Bible Translation movements throughout the central African basin.

On Message

As I talk with people about our Wycliffe ministry, I feel like I’m repeating myself a lot, which makes me feel something like a politician. So to make my speech more clearly above board (for my conscience, but also for anyone else who might ask), I thought it good to lay out my “message” here. As I consider this, I see that I have three basic things to say these days, to three different audiences:

To the World

Sin, death, and hell are real, as are righteousness, repentance, forgiveness, and heaven. Trust Jesus to get you from the first to the second. I’m astounded how much these things need to be said, but in this age of increasingly divisive politics, I think it helps to remind ourselves of what is truly important for all humanity, and to focus on that.

To the Church

God’s plan for us is that we would work through local churches to build and grow the universal Church, which is composed of everyone united by the blood of Jesus: all ethnic groups, languages, tribes. Spiritual maturity includes (at least) the desire to work together with all types of Christians to accomplish this mission, which is given to us by God. I’m amazed how often I hear a christian disparage either the local or universal church. If we care about the local fellowship of believers, we should be committed to it (tithe and all). And if we care about the fellowship in Christ, then whether someone is in Christ should be more important to us than all the many other things that divide people these days (e.g., socioeconomics, ethnicity, nationality, race), and we should take joy in finding Christian brothers and sisters unlike us in these other ways, and we should mourn with them when they mourn (e.g., watch/read international news, pray for churches in other places).

To our Friends

We believe our part of God’s mission is to help African people groups develop writing systems for their languages, such that they may have powerful Bible translations which will transform their cultures and churches into the likeness of Christ. While this has been our mission for some time, some of our friends are only recently hearing more about it, and it is as true now as ever. But more specifically:

We hope to take the next step in this mission by moving to Cameron in June, after a short reconnaissance trip in March. To do this, we need your help; we need your partnership in our Wycliffe ministry, through prayer, personal assistance and encouragement, and finances.

Maybe you’ve heard this from us already, face to face. If not, or if you’d like more information about this agenda, please just let us know. :-)

Africa Night!

Have you ever wondered how people make their first alphabet?

Starting this summer, we are giving people a taste of Bible Translation work in Africa, through small group meetings designed to be interactive and engaging. We introduce people to the language work we do with Wycliffe Bible Translators, in three parts (total 90 minutes):

  1. An interactive exercise for anyone who can read short English words. See what it’s like to discover your vowels for the first time!
  2. African foods typical to many of the places we have worked
  3. Testimonies, videos, slides and information from Wycliffe Bible Translators and our own experience. Q&A as time allows.

We have worked so far with groups of 6-25 people; we’d like to keep them small enough to allow everyone to participate. If you have a small group or Sunday school class that would be interested, or if you would like to join or host a group, please let us know, and we’ll get you on our calendar.

That said, if you have any questions about Africa, Wycliffe Bible Translators or our work, please don’t be shy; we’d love to discuss it over coffee, too. 😉 🙂

The Function of Tone in Ndaka

In an earlier post I mentioned work I was doing to show the importance of tone in the Bantu D30 languages. Here I’d like to go through the conjugation of one verb in one language, to show how tone works, in relationship to consonants and vowels. To start with, here is one verb conjugated two ways:NDK Conjugation 1
If you have studied another language before, you might recognize this kind of listing of the forms of a verb for each of the people who do the action. In English, this kind of thing is boring:

  • I walk
  • you walk
  • he walks
  • we walk
  • you all walk
  • they walk

The only thing of any interest in the English is the final ‘s’ on ‘he walks‘; everything else is the same on the verb. But that’s not the case in many languages, including the languages I’m working with. For instance, there are lots of differences in forms, and you can correlate the differences in forms with differences in meaning. If you line up the verbs as below, you can separate the part that remains the same from the part that changes. You can also notice that in the meanings on the right, there is a part that remains the same, and a part that changes. This is the case for both conjugations:
NDK Conjugation 2

So with a conjugation paradigm like this, we can deduce that for each line in the paradigm, the part of the form that is different is related to the part of the meaning that is different (e.g., k- = “we” and ɓ- = “they”). Likewise, the part of the word forms that stays the same is related to the part of the meaning that stays the same (e.g., otoko = “will spit”).

But, you might ask, this logic gives us otoko = “(did/have) spit” in the first conjugation, but otoko = “will spit” in the second. Which is it? In fact, if you compare each line for each of the two conjugations, you will see that the consonants and vowels are the same for each first line, for each second line, all the way down to the sixth line. So whatever form indicates the difference between “will” and “did/have” is not found in the consonants or vowels. Where is that difference indicated? In the tone. If you compare the second column for each line of the two conjugations, you will see that the lines representing pitch for each word form is not the same between the two conjugations.

A similar problem exists for the prefixes that refer to subjects. That is n- is used for both “I” and “you all”, and the absence of a prefix is used for both “you” and “he”. But looking at this last one first, we can see a difference in the tone:NDK Conjugation 3

So even though there is no difference in the consonants or vowels to indicate a difference in meaning, there is a difference in tone which does. The same is found for “I” versus “you all”, circled here:NDK Conjugation 4

So the bottom line is that for (almost) every difference in meaning, there is a difference in form that indicates that difference. Sometimes that difference is in the consonants or vowels, as we might expect in languages more closely related to English (and even in English, with the -s above), but sometimes that difference is only in the tone.

But the story is a bit more complex than that, since the tone doesn’t do just one thing. We saw above that tone indicates the difference between “will” and “did/have” in these conjugations. But tone also indicates the difference between c, as well as that between “I” and “you all”. That means “you will”, “you did”, “he will”, and “he did” all have the same consonants and vowels, and are only distinguished one from another by the tone. And there’s another quadruplet with “I” and “you all”, and these quadruplets exist for almost every verb in the language: this is a systematic thing.

So with two minimal quadruplets for each verb in the language, it makes sense to ask what is the contribution from each meaningful word part to the tone, and how they come together. For instance, what is the contribution of “you”, as opposed to “he”, on the one hand, and what is the contribution of “will”, as opposed to “did/have”, on the other? And how to these different bits of tonal information combine to form the tone patterns we hear on full words? (Hint: they are a lot harder to chop up than the consonant prefixes above).

Anyway, that’s the essence of what I do, in brief. By looking at the actual pronunciations of words in a system, we can deduce what the contribution of each meaningful word part is, then make hypotheses about how they come together, and test those hypotheses until we come up with a coherent system.




For those of you that have followed my analysis of sound systems in (so far) unwritten languages, I’m sure you’ve already heard enough about tone and vowels. So today, I thought I’d write about consonants!

Language sound systems generally store information in three places. We know consonants (with obstructed airflow) and vowels (with shaped, but not obstructed airflow) from English, but probably about half the world’s languages also use tone (and some estimate 80% of those in Africa). Other languages (which are more like English) use contrastive stress, meaning that the stress on a word changes not only the pronunciation, but the meaning. If I say emPHAsis instead of EMphasis, you get what I mean, though it sounds wrong. But CONvert and conVERT are two different words, the first being a noun, and the second being a verb. We don’t do this kind of thing much, but this is just one of the several ways languages communicate the difference between one word and another.

So you know that tone is like stress (though more complicated, and used a lot in Africa, but not really in English). And you know about ATR, which gives some African languages interesting vowel harmony patterns (and more vowels than Spanish, but less than English). But what about consonants? You might think that I don’t work with consonants much, since I’m studying tone, but that’s just not so. First of all, almost every word has consonants, so they can’t be avoided.

Secondly, and slightly more importantly, there are slight and meaningless (i.e., not changing word meaning) but potentially distracting changes to pitch made by consonants, as in the spikes circled in the following picture:

calculated pitch spikes surrounding voiceless consonants

It would be easy to look that those quick jumps and drops in pitch, and say “wow, something’s going on there”. But there isn’t. These are just a result of the vocal folds starting and stopping vibrating as they go between vowels (with vocal fold vibration) and voiceless consonants (where the vocal folds are relaxed). So as I look at pitch traces with these effects, its important to understand what they are, and to abstract them away, rather than pay much attention to them.

There is a third reason, which is more important to my research. Not only do I work with tone, but the languages I’m working on now have what we call Consonant-Tone Interaction. That is, the tone of these languages is actually impacted by the consonants around them. So it’s important to understand what consonants are in each word.

Normal consonants (in these languages) have a slight negative pressure (sucking) before release, and these consonants don’t impact tone. But those where the airstream is more like typical English pronunciation are less common, but they impact the tone. So how do we tell the difference? There are many ways, but one I’d like to show you can be seen in the following picture:Find the egressive, implosive, and voiceless consonants

I originally developed this image as an exercise, so rather than just go and give you the answer, I’ll pose the question, and you can submit answers in the comments. 😉

I’ll help you out with a few points:

  • The three categories are named and described in the key on the right
  • The vowels are the dark vertical bands; the consonants are between those. 🙂
  • Most of the vertical space for consonants is blank/white, but there is a small dark band at the bottom for some, which indicates voicing.
  • If you look at pitch, recall that tone is relative pitch, so compare the drop over a consonant to the pitches over the vowels on each side, which may not be the same.

So, which consonant types can you find? How many of each, and in what order?




I just finished drafting the line “good progress on dictionaries for each of the languages” for the newsletter we’re hoping to put out in the next couple days, and I realized I’m not sure that it is clear to all why that is a good thing.  So here’s a bit of a rationale.

From what I understand of the history of dictionaries in English, one of the main reasons people do them is to help standardize the writing system.  Have you ever asked how to spell a word, and been told to look it up in a dictionary?  Perhaps that doesn’t happen so much anymore, but in any case, dictionaries can be an authoritative source for spelling information. I have even understood that one of Webster’s goals was not only the standardization of American English spelling, but also the creation of a distinctly American English. Have you used the words colour, litre, practise, paralyse or programme? If so, you’re probably British (or learned your spelling from a Brit). Nothing against the Brits; it’s just that spelling is one way of saying “this is who we are”. While I’m hoping that the communities we work with in the DRC won’t spend much time distinguishing one dialect of their language from another, I do hope they will spend time clarifying their identity in their writing system.

I want this for two reasons.  First of all, a lot of Bible Translation is about identity.  If we are going to help someone translate what will be seen as a foreigners’ Bible, then we might as well stop today, since these people already have second and third language Bibles. Additionally, this is not the promise of the scriptures. Rather, it promises “…a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages… crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God…'” (Rev 7:9-10 ESV). I don’t see this promise as just lots of different Christians, but people from each of the 6,000+ languages of the world seeing God as their own God, and worshiping Him as such. We don’t want to just translate and print books; we want to see the impact in individuals and communities of the Holy Spirit working through the written Word of God. This impact is hampered if you’re reading a Bible that continues to tell you that God is talking to someone else, not you.

The second reason I’m in favor of standardization has to do with fluency.  I’ve seen a lot of non-fluent reading of the scriptures, and I personally find it painful. And I imagine it must be difficult to have the kind of impact I mention above if the reader stumbles often in the reading, and/or has to read something multiple times to get the meaning. As a result, one major motivation for my work is to see people reading fluently. I want them to read without stumbling, and to get the sense the first time they read. I want pastors to be able to read the scriptures in the middle of a sermon without creating a major break in the thought flow. And I want to do everything I can to remove any barriers to fluency which arise as a result of the writing system. That normally starts with getting the consonants, vowels and tone correct, but it also includes people knowing how words are spelled, and identifying the correct word and its pronunciation quickly as they read.

There are two other arguments for dictionaries as part of language development, one of which is sociological, the other linguistic. Related to the identity question above, many peoples I’ve interacted with don’t see their language as valuable, and this opinion is often shared by outsiders. I once heard a “real language” as “you know, one with books”. I think I know what that person meant, but if it takes a book to give a language respect, then I want to be a part of giving them their first book. And people get this. Seeing someone look at the first booklet in their language (as little as 15 pages, with lots of pictures!) is an amazing sight. They immediately get that someone does finally care about them.

The linguistic argument is that in order to do good dictionary work, you need to do a lot of other things which you already should be doing anyway: collecting and analyzing texts, checking pronunciations, helping the community decide how words should be spelled, including diacritics, spacing, and punctuation. All of this analysis helps build not only the dictionary, but our understanding of the language more generally, perhaps more particularly how the sound and writing systems will interact. I hope it is clear why one would want to do this before publishing much in the language; anything you publish without really understanding how the writing system will work may need substantial revision, and anything you publish creates a precedent that you will have to fight against in making later changes (and if you don’t see how precedent can trump sound reasoning for spelling changes, just look at English).

So our ultimate goal is life transformation through the Bible, but to get there, we want to see that the community is well placed to have and use a Bible that is theirs, that can and will be read fluently and with power, and dictionary work helps further all of those goals.




Prepping the Congo trip

imageToday I started printing the posters I’m making for my trip to DRC at the end of June. They should be large enough to be seen by people a long distance away, so they can be used in large classrooms/venues.  The last time I was in Nia-nia, they did some basic teaching with small drawings on a chalk board; hopefully this will help make grassroots literacy more effective. In another location, I had the opportunity to help our local movers and shakers present alphabet work in an open marketplace –so we’re ready for anything!

For interested readers, Anna is pointing to the poster for the egressive (air going out) voiced (vocal cords vibrating) stop (consonant where no air passes) made just behind the teeth. This is different from the implosive (air going in) stop at the same place, on the right. They have a similar contrast for stops made with the lips (‘b’ and ‘bh’). I’ve also made posters for the nine vowels, to help teach contrasts between vowels that they have not been writing (similar to the difference between ‘beet’ and ‘bit’ in English), for a total of 13 posters for this language.