LINGUIST List 32.2320

Thu Jul 08 2021

Review: Language Documentation; Writing Systems: Jones, Mooney (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 18-Jun-2021
From: Lionel Mathieu <>
Subject: Creating Orthographies for Endangered Languages
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: Mari C. Jones
EDITOR: Damien Mooney
TITLE: Creating Orthographies for Endangered Languages
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Lionel Mathieu, Boston University


“Creating Orthographies for Endangered Languages” is an edited volume of fourteen independent case studies that offer a transcontinental perspective on script designs and development for threatened languages spoken in a variety of sociopolitical contexts.

The eponymic introductory chapter, written by the editors, Mari C. Jones and Damien Mooney, delves right into the challenging enterprise of procuring a written form to oral languages subject to endangerment by considering key elements at the heart of orthography development (or graphization) for revitalization purposes. Hence, considerations of literacy (Section 2), standardization (Section 3), linguistic factors (e.g. the phonemic principle, the functional load, morphophonemic spelling, orthographic ‘depth’, the lexical orthographical hypothesis, establishing word boundaries, and marking tone; Section 5) and extra-linguistic factors (e.g. native-speaker input, ideological distanciation, the transfer of literacy, cognition and pedagogy, pre-existing orthographies, and practical concerns; Section 6) are formally discussed – with some reference to empirical instantiations – before providing an overview of each case study to follow.

Chapter 2 (“Who Owns Vernacular Literacy? Assessing the Sustainability of Written Vernaculars”, Christopher Moseley) reports on data from a UNESCO-backed survey on the development of Roman-based orthographies for thirty previously unwritten languages. Responses from questionnaires sent to linguists and/or missionaries across the world reveal the challenging task of designing sustainable and viable vernacular written media (underpinning literacy broadly construed) for intergenerational circulation, in an era of mass communications channeled via increasingly more accessible technologies, in a multilingual world. Factors coming into play in ascertaining the critical point of self-sustainability and viability of such vernacular orthographies are presented, along with considerations (and instantiations) about the nature of vernacular literacy in a 21st century reading/writing environment.

Chapter 3 (“Hearing Local Voices, Creating Local Content: Participatory Approaches in Orthography Development for Non-Dominant Language Communities”, Mansueto Casquite and Catherine Young) discusses orthography development for purposes of mother-tongue-based multilingual education, where native-speaker participants are fully engaged in a collaborative crafting- and decision-making process. The authors argue for greater consultation and implication of the ethnolinguistic community in the design and implementation of a novel writing system, where both linguistic and extra-linguistic elements are informed by native-speakers. An instance of participatory orthography development in the endangered languages of the southern Philippines serves as an illustrative example of such communal endeavor, where tools and methods, processes and products, issues and implications are detailed.

Chapter 4 (“Orthographies ‘In the Making’: The Dynamic Construction of Community-Based Writing Systems among the Náayeri of North-Western Mexico”, Margarita Valdovinos) “presents a case study in which mediating actors [e.g. teachers, local intellectuals, political leaders, researchers] occupy a central position in the materialization of a particular linguistic policy – namely the adoption of an orthographic system for the Chwíse’etaana Náayeri (Cora Mariteco), an indigenous language spoken by approximately five thousand people in the state of Nayarit, in north-western Mexico.” (69). By reflecting on the steps of the orthography-making process that took place in 2012, the author explores the social dynamics of orthography development ranging from the macro- (political, educational, dialectal) to the micro- (prosodic, phonetic, orthographic) levels of interactions. A particular emphasis is made on the author’s own experiences and work with actors of the language community to devise a native-speaker-informed orthographic system.

Chapter 5 (“Community-Driven, Goal-Centred [sic] Orthography Development: A Tsakhur Case Study”, Kathleen D. Sackett) describes another situation of community-driven participation in the elaboration of a new Roman-based orthography for the approximately 50,000 Tsakhur people living in Azerbaijan. Initiated in 2012, and guided by socio-linguistic/political/economic goals and principles emanating from sustained and interactive discussions with the community, the author chronicles her assignment as a linguist consultant in applying such guiding aspirations to the design and development of the Tsakhur orthographic system. Concrete, language-supported explanations of these painstaking efforts are provided, offering readers an insider’s look into the actual linguistic and orthographic work that goes into fashioning a written system for a language at risk.

Chapter 6 (“Writing for Speaking: The N|uu Orthography”, Sheena Shah and Matthias Brenzinger) describes the “Writing for Speaking” project that seeks to establish a shallow orthography for N|uu, a nearly extinct language with only three fluent speakers left (all sisters in their mid 80s) in Southern Africa. With one of the largest phonemic inventories in the world – including the presence of numerous click sounds – the challenge of rendering N|uu in a Roman-based script has been tackled by a few research groups (in collaboration with community informants), all producing slightly different written forms of the language by way of linguistic and pedagogical materials during revitalization efforts. This chapter features an abundance of language samples for readers to appreciate this ongoing feat of developing an orthographic system, along with some spelling and writing conventions, for a phonologically rich yet highly endangered language.

Chapter 7 (“Reflections on the Kala Biŋatuwã, a Three-Year-Old Alphabet from Papua New Guinea”, Christine Schreyer) considers the post-graphization efforts on the Kala alphabet developed in 2010 and offers perspectives and evaluations from both the community members’ work on and use of the language’s recently-created orthography, as well as that of the author accompanying such endeavor. By embracing the notion of ‘orthography as a process’, the author first retraces the impetus for and evolution of their parallel dialectal approach to orthography development, giving voice to the Kala-speaking actors who took to heart to create a writing system that is inclusive of their community’s cultural, social, and dialectal diversity. The author then goes on to elaborate on specific insights and potential revisions to the three-year-old Kala alphabet, addressing matters of orthographic representation, readability, and ease of use, as part of “a lengthy and engaged reflective process” (141).

Chapter 8 (“When Letters Represent More Than Sounds: Ideology versus Practicality in the Development of a Standard Orthography for Ch’orti’ Mayan”, Kerry Hull) focuses on the ideological motivations impacting the development and subsequent appropriation of an agreed-upon, standardized writing system for the Mayan language Ch’orti’, spoken by some 12,000 individuals in eastern Guatemala. The original designs of a pan-Mayan alphabet – by the Summer Institute of Linguistics [SIL] on the one hand, and the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala [ALMG] on the other – were met with differing views by Ch’orti’ practitioners and revitalization groups. Despite increased literacy and transmission rates, the Ch’orti’ orthography became, over the years, the terrain of disputes over ideology, power, and identity, even effecting changes in linguistic behavior in both speech and writing, in part to eradicate linguistic and orthographic traces of Spanish in the indigenous language. Comparative examples of the competing SIL and ALMG orthographic renditions serve to illustrate how notions of linguistic correctness and accuracy can be supplanted by ideology.

Chapter 9 (“The Difficult Task of Finding a Standard Writing System for the Sioux Languages”, Avelino Corral Esteban) “analyses and compares [the Lakota and Dakota varieties of Sioux, a Native American language with an alphabet-like record dating back to the early 19th century,] in order to determine which reproduces the pronunciation most faithfully.” (155). As in most situations of language planning and revitalization, linguistic facts aren’t the be-all and end-all of orthography development and standardization as is evidenced in i) the representation of dialectal variation in two mutually intelligible dialects of Sioux, and ii) the choice between a number of competing writing systems among historically and orthographically fragmented communities. The author goes into great detail to survey how Sioux’ phonological segments and features (e.g. stress marking) are represented in these various writing systems, before considering educational, socio-historical, political, and technical factors impacting the choice of a standard Sioux orthography for the sake of linguistic identity, unity, and longevity.

Chapter 10 (“Orthography Development in Sardinia: The Case of Limba Sarda Comuna”, Rosangela Lai) evaluates the effectiveness of a standard orthography (Limba Sarda Comuna [ LSC]) for two macro-dialectal varieties of Sardinian, an insular Romance language of Sardinia. At issue are the two criteria adopted to design the LSC (i.e. the etymological criterion and the ‘Sardinian distinctiveness’ criterion), which ultimately favor the northern and central dialect of Logudorese over the southern one of Campidanese. After considering both linguistic and socio-political aspects, the author comes to the conclusion that the LSC was designed to closely befit the Logudorese dialect as it reflects its diachronic development, and stems from a graphization process that saw no community consultation, involvement or testing, ultimately hindering Sardinian literacy and preservation efforts as a whole.

Chapter 11 (“Breton Orthographies: An Increasingly Awkward Fit”, Steve Hewitt) makes the case for adopting a supradialectal orthographic standard for Breton, a vulnerable language with four mutually semi-intelligible dialects in north-western France. With the support of numerous isoglossic maps and charts, the author proceeds to first exhaustively catalog all of the contrastive phonological, orthographic, and morphological features across the Breton dialects, before chronologically reviewing, with equally great detail, the drawbacks and good points of the dozen or so main orthographies (from Old Breton onward). In light of the complexities of the Breton dialects and the inconsistencies in existing modern orthographies, the author is promoting his own ‘etymological orthography’, which although more complex to learn, may be the most adequate for the range of dialectal variation at hand.

Chapter 12 (“Spelling Trouble: Ideologies and Practices in Giernesiei/Dgernesiais/Guernesiais/Guernésiais/Djernezié …”, Julia Sallabank and Yan Marquis) comments on the status of a severely endangered Norman language with no official recognition or name, spoken on one of the Anglo-Norman islands off of coast of Normandy, France. With a dwindling population of native speakers, but a growing community of second language adult learners relying on electronic means of communication, Guernesiais finds itself in a diglossic situation where the long-standing prestige of French influences spelling conventions and writing practices – fueling an ideology of orthographic ‘correctness’ among some literate speakers – despite a massive language shift towards English, the island’s dominant language. Because pervasive spelling inconsistencies due to an absence of standardization appear to be the greatest hurdle to new Guernesiais learners and future generations of users, the authors offer a more transparent orthography with a particular attention towards learners.

Chapter 13 (“Orthography Development on the Internet: Romani on YouTube”, D. Viktor Leggio and Yaron Matras) “investigates the role of new communication technologies as an alternative to the nation-state approach to language standardization” (254) for Romani, a non-standardized minority language spoken across dispersed communities in Europe. Based on a corpus of communal YouTube networks, the authors explore Romani users’ spontaneous spelling solutions as they manifest dialectal and diasporic features, revealing orthographic influences from other dominant languages of Europe. The advent of social, online networks has increasingly democratized orthographic practices and conventions, and in the case of endangered, oral languages, such public platforms have birthed a new sphere of communication, where bottom-up processes of graphization arise in polyphonic, transnational, digital environments.

Chapter 14 (“Orthography Creation for Postvernacular Languages: Case Studies of Rama and Francoprovençal Revitalization”, Bénédicte Pivot and Michel Bert) examines the case of orthography development in the absence of revitalization as a means to reverse language shift for two highly vulnerable languages with little to no intergenerational transmission and public use: Rama, an ethnic, Amerindian language of Nicaragua, and Francoprovençal, a Gallo-Roman language spoken in France, Switzerland, and Italy. After first establishing the sociolinguistic contexts and vitality status of these languages, the authors delineate the development of their orthographic systems, along with their ensuing degrees of literacy, function, and ideological stance. For both Rama and Francoprovençal, language assumes a more symbolic rather than utilitarian function, where the (un)standardized written form acts as a linguistic marker of identity and membership, something worth preserving.

Chapter 15 (“Changing Script in a Threatened Language: Reactions to Romanization at Bantia in the First Century BC”, Katherine McDonald and Nicholas Zair) deals with the alleged reasons for adopting the Roman alphabet to transcribe the Oscan language, spoken and written in the southern Italian town of Bantia between the fourth and first century BC. Based on a close reading of the language, script and orthography in the Lex Osca Tabula Bantina (100-91 BC), the longest and most detailed written record of Oscan, the authors reexamine the claim that the ancient language was already in a state of endangerment before its demise during the Social War (91-88 BC), which saw the rapid settlement of Romans in the region, thereby assuredly installing the hegemony of Latin. By carefully scrutinizing and reinterpreting misplaced word dividers, spelling and punctuation mistakes, and the deliberate use of certain graphemes, the authors contend that “the language of the Tabula Bantina provides very little support for the idea that Oscan was already endangered at the time it was written” (298).


This volume is geared towards a readership of linguists interested in sociolinguistics, orthography development (or graphization), language revitalization, planning and policy. The prose is generally clear, polished, and moderately light in terms of technical jargon and/or concepts, making its content accessible to readers with a foundational background in phonology and ethnolinguistic descriptions.

Through an array of fourteen, article-length, international case studies, this volume addresses and frames critical questions related to the creation of an orthographic system for oral languages succumbing to language shift and/or on the verge of death. Topics of focus include: orthographic standardization and language variability; literacy and learnability; structural and diacritical features; digitalization and portability of newly-created writing systems; sociopolitical ecology, community, and values system undergirding script development; and cohesion with neighboring and distant speech communities.

The editors are to be commended for assembling a set of rigorous projects that, for the most part, place the language communities at the heart of the orthography development enterprise. These case studies offer a much more collaborative and inclusive view of the role and place of the linguist expert in assisting speech communities to take ownership of their endangered language’s orthography in order to realize and sustain successful revitalization outcomes. All of the contributors recognize the fact that orthographies are not conceived, and do not operate, in a vacuum, but rather, within a community of speakers with a history, a culture, a social fabric, and, in the case of endangered languages, a future to secure. Emanating from all corners of the world, the work presented in this volume is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

A particularly remarkable feature of this volume of otherwise distinct case studies is the fact that a number of authors cite some of the same foundational studies to anchor their graphization work (e.g. Smalley, 1964; Fishman, 1991; Seifart 2006; Rice and Cahill 2014). Additionally, contributions consistently cross-reference one another, which further emphasizes the perspective of a coherent and unified field of research and undertaking.

On that note, one possible objection concerns the introductory chapter, written by the editors. While it presents readers with critical considerations in the development of an orthographic system for vulnerable languages, the authors/editors do not make mention of the content/findings of the case studies featured in the volume to support their more abstract/theoretical explanations. Instead, they reference other studies, other contexts, and other languages of wider communication to serve as illustrative examples of, for instance, extra/linguistic factors in creating orthographies. The content of the fourteen case studies is only summarized in a closing, overview section that makes reference to the previous, more formal, ones. In that respect, the introduction may lack a sense of cohesiveness for a volume of already independent case studies (that nevertheless effectively acknowledge one another). Hence, a greater integration of the latter into the more formal discussions would have been particularly welcomed (also to elevate the status of endangered languages in formal work).

Furthermore, the introductory chapter heavily cites, or makes reference to, Grenoble and Whaley (2006) (64 times), Sebba (2011, 2012b) (33 times altogether), Seifart (2006) (29 times), and Lüpke (2011) (27 times) to the point where the reader may be left wondering about the editors’ original contributions to the larger conversations surrounding the challenges, components, and issues of orthography development that haven’t been discussed previously. As well-written and informative as it is, the introduction may at times read like a mere review of the aforementioned studies (among others) – especially given the fact that it doesn’t make mention of the featured case studies until the last, overview section of the chapter.

As for individual chapters, a few deserve particular mention and comments.

Chapters 4, 7, 11 and 14 can be read as ethnolinguistic studies supported by maps, photos, phonemic and alphabetic charts, and representative language excerpts. They provide readers with concrete illustrations of the languages under consideration as well as personal experiences from authors with the language communities. Chapter 7 in particular faithfully recounts thoughts and opinions of community members on the functionality and use of their collaborative orthography, thereby transcribing for readers the polyphonic and dynamic process of orthography development amongst stakeholders.

On the contrary, and unlike most other chapters, Chapter 10 is a revealing example of an orthography development process that failed to take into account speakers’ opinions and input by modeling its writing system in a unilectal and top-down approach. It stands in contrast with other approaches that opted for a much more inclusive and participatory procedure, providing readers with tangible examples of both successes and failures in creating orthographies for endangered languages.

Chapters 9 and 11 are particularly heavy in detailed descriptions of linguistic and orthographic features, and Chapter 11 is also dense to read due to an overuse of abbreviations. Specialists may nevertheless appreciate the level of precision and specificity that these authors provide.

Chapter 13 also sets itself apart from other case studies in that it presents a quantitative study of inter-user, computer-mediated organic exchanges in a non-standardized minority language that showcases how bottom-up processes are at work in the absence of top-down, institutionalized language planning efforts. The authors methodically examine the emergence of self-organizing spelling conventions in an orthographically unregulated domain of communication, the Internet. This is a particularly nice addition to this set of case studies, which predominantly spotlights the collaborative work of linguists and community members in the development of an orthographic system.

Likewise, Chapter 15 may contrast with all the other contemporary case studies – as it has more to do with paleographic work than orthography planning – but it nevertheless provides insightful words of caution about ascribing modern-day practices and motivations behind orthography creation (for revitalization purposes) to ancient languages that have long gone extinct. The authors help us recalibrate our understanding of the past by reconsidering some of our present perspectives on language death and revitalization as applied to writing orality.

Despite differing political, social, historical, and cultural circumstances, speakers, orthographers, and community members face a common set of transversal challenges (e.g. domains of literacy or questions of standardization) in their efforts to slow down or reverse language shift. This volume of case studies brings it all together for readers to not only learn about, but also pause and marvel at the astounding amount of work that goes into creating an orthography for unwritten and vulnerable languages.


Fishman, J. A. 1991. Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Grenoble, L.A. and L.J. Whaley. 2006. Saving languages: An introduction to language revitalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lüpke, F. 2011. Orthography development. In P. K. Austin and J. Sallabank (eds.), The Cambridge handbook of endangered languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 312-336.

Rice, K. and M. Cahill. 2014. Introduction. In M. Cahill and K. Rice (eds.), Devoloping orthographies for unwritten languages. Dallas, TX: SIL International, pp. 1-6.

Sebba, M. 2011. Sociolinguistic approaches to writing systems research. Writing systems research 1(1): 35-49.

Sebba, M. 2012b. Spelling and society: The culture and politics of orthography around the world. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Seifart, F. 2006. Orthography development. In J. Gippert, N. P. Himmelmann, and U. Mosel (eds.), Essentials of language documentation. (Trends in linguistics. Studies and monographs 178). Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 275-299.

Smalley, W. 1964. How shall I write this language? In W. A. Smalley (ed.), Orthography studies: Articles on new writing systems. (Helps for translators 6). London: United Bible Societies, pp. 31-52.


Lionel Mathieu holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Arizona. He is a Lecturer in French in the Department of Romance Studies at Boston University. His research interests in linguistics focus primarily on the phonology-orthography interface in second language acquisition, bilingualism, loanword adaptations, and historical linguistics.

Page Updated: 08-Jul-2021