a thought on microsoft...

jess tauber phonosemantics at EARTHLINK.NET
Sat Nov 13 21:19:30 UTC 2004

In the situation with Yahgan, which only has two fluent speakers illiterate in the language, the issue of standardizing orthographies is a vital one, for teaching, document creation, and computerization.

Five different systems, of 20 or so used historically, are "in play". Most of the existing documentation is in two very different versions of an ideosyncratic phonetic orthography developed in the first half of the 19th C. by a British phoneticist and modified twice by the missionary living with the Yahgans. In this century there is an officially recognized standard orthography (in Chile) developed on the basis of recent work with the last speakers by Chilean linguists, an ad hoc system used by the rest of the Yahgans to render words and phrases (since I'm told they don't like to use the official system), and the one I came up with, which is just a retranscription of the first missionary system into conventional alphabetical symbols all of which can be found on a standard keyboard.

Because I'm working with documentation in all 20 systems, I've had to convert very often to the ones in play. These 5 are going to remain a problem- the heirs of the missionary insist his two systems be used in any publication (paper or electronic), the Chileans don't want multiple systems (which has been a problem for them in the case of Mapuche/Mapudungan), and the Yahgans themselves want to go their own way. I've only used my own system on-line at the Yahgan language discussion on Yahoo (since I haven't figured out how to get their system to take non-standard symbols, and they haven't answered my queries).

This is also an issue for data storage, since without some sort of encoding the nonstandard symbols mean documents have to be stored as lumps, and not strings. The Yahoo discussion limits the storage space. I've been looking around for possibilities for font development to get around this problem, but that's way beyond my rudimentary abilities.

The Yahgan population itself is in the very low hundreds, and with only two fluent speakers left it will be some time (if ever) enough of a base exists to warrent the kind of work it would take to do the kind of things being discussed in this thread. But danged if it doesn't sound interesting! Maybe by the time things are actually moving on the ground the technology/tools will have gotten to the point where much less effort is necessary to throw something usable together. Hope springs eternal.

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at earthlink.net

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