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National or state writing system?

Should alphabets be based on the national or state writing system?


When a primary oral society gets their language in writing for the first time ever, it is a momentous occasion. It is accompanied with tears of joy, deep pride and a sense of immense self-worth among the people. They feel like they have been placed on the map. They are recognised and have their place in the world around them. Our modus operandi is a grassroots approach, whereby mother tongue speakers are trained in various linguistic subjects and guided through the process of developing their own orthography for their own people. Although the process is somewhat tedious, within a relatively short space of time, a language community can boast a trial orthography. This accentuates their sense of pride and also ensures that the final product will be one that they are happy with and one that they will use. This is essential in the process of standardization of an orthography, particularly in primary oral societies.


Newly developed orthographies are usually designed based on the existing national or state writing system of the country in which the language is spoken. Since each language is unique, it is essential that the alphabet accurately represents the sound system of the target language (the language that is getting the new orthography). This can make developing an orthography a tricky and somewhat ‘messy’ process. The state language usually has letters or characters that are not needed in the target language simply because those sounds do not exist in that language. Since they do not have that sound, the character or alphabet letter is simply not used – it does not exist in their alphabet. Sometimes the opposite problem arises, where the target language has a sound but there is no letter to represent it in the national alphabet. Then we are required to adapt an existing character to represent that particular sound in the newly-developed orthography.


It is mostly best practice to stick with the same format of alphabet used within a region when designing the alphabet for an oral society. The source alphabets that are used in many of the writing systems in Asia are often non-Roman. In other words, they are not the ABC that is commonly used in the West. They are syllabic or based on Sanskrit and other ancient systems. When the same type of alphabet is used, it helps an ethnic group to identify with their nation, and it also helps them to ‘bridge’ to reading in the national or state language once they have become literate in their own language. Alternatively, it makes the transition to reading in the mother tongue much easier for existing readers of the national or state language. In standardising orthographies, this is an important consideration, but one that ultimately needs to be made by the people. It is their language, their decision.

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