Ethnography: Na(t)ive Orthographies

It is is a little-known fact that the vast majority of the world's nearly 7,000 languages have no written form at all. Writing is by no means essential for language. When languages do make the transition to written form, the oral traditions they have nurtured may be deeply affected and altered. Writing can also have socio-political implications for a community. Alphabets introduced by outsiders, that is, by missionaries or linguists, may or may not come to be accepted and used by a community.

In rare cases, native speakers of a language will invent an orthography, usually by adapting some other known writing system. I study such cases and the insights they give us into human cognition, phonological perception, and the ethnography of writing. I have been studying the dynamics of both the imposed and the emerging (natively invented) writing systems among the Tofa and the Ös of Siberia and among the Monchak of Mongolia.

Sample of Ös (Middle Chulym) writing system, invented by native speaker V. Gabov, based on the Cyrillic alphabet (2003). The text says: "The moose was coming up out of the water, so I brought my boat to the shore and grabbed my gun."

Sample of Tofa writing system, adapted by native speaker S. D. Araktayeva (2002), based in part on an orthography invented by linguist V. I. Rassadin. The text says: "Having sat down by the river bank, he called out the girl's name"

This research is funded by a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation.