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Reinventing the Alphabet

By choosing their language’s written form, some groups are preserving their own histories, cultures, and tongues

Statue of King Sejong the Great, who introduced the Hangul Script to Korea, replacing widely-used but inapt Chinese characters

When the Cia-Cia people of Indonesia’s Buton Island, off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, finally adopted an alphabet for their language, locals and international linguists alike rejoiced. An endangered language of some 79,000 speakers at the time, many feared that as global tongues and cultures became more locally popular, younger generations would be unable to engage with the knowledge and sense of identity stored within the Cia-Cia oral tradition. This new script would attempt to contain a 600-year-old cultural history, preserving their tongue and giving future generations all the benefits of literacy without the dislocation of language loss.

It’s a story common to many oral societies that, under the imposing tutelage of European missionaries, famously adopted Latin-based scripts from the age of exploration to the early twentieth century. But the Cia-Cia didn’t adopt a Latin-based script, and they didn’t do it back in the distant mists of history; they adopted the Korean Hangul script—itself a breakaway from Chinese scripts that didn’t do justice to the Korean spoken language—and only finally did so in 2009. And as it turns out, the Cia-Cia are one of many still-oral societies adopting alphabets and (often still with help from missionaries or foreigners), taking a considerably more bespoke and self-directed approach to the process, to the ultimate benefit of the language itself.

But getting a new script to really catch on doesn’t come easy; in the case of the Cia-Cia, a small community with limited resources, a disagreement with the area’s sole Hangul instructor nearly closed the program in 2011. Barely a year later, funding shortages temporarily scuttled another important Hangul learning partnership. But after four years of struggle (and despite apparent prohibitions on specialized scripts by the Indonesian central government) by 2013 the script had taken hold in the Cia-Cia-populated Bau-Bau City.

About a fifth of the world’s 6,900 languages only developed their alphabets in the past four decades. In Indonesia, home to 700 languages, dozens remain oral-only to this day, and many are endangered. As they reached deeper into the most disconnected parts of the world, missionaries attempted to create local vernacular versions of the Bible, playing a large role in developing languages well into the mid-to-late twentieth century. Some languages were missed because of the sheer remoteness of the peoples. In other places, regional politics—like Ethiopia’s imperial and Derg era suppression of non-Amharic languages and limitations on proselytization—restricted the spread of alphabets (by missionaries or self-directed initiatives) not only to the region’s 17 endangered languages, but also to major tongues like Afan Oromo, right up to the end of the twentieth century.

The Hunmin jeong-eum haerye, showing the shapes of Hangul consonants

In the case of the Afan, Cia-Cia, and many other groups, this isolation seems to have only spurred a greater self-initiative in developing a script when the time finally came, in many ways a great improvement on the 18th-century sweep of missionary-imposed orthographies. Missionaries of the era often simply tried to transliterate the sounds they heard into their native script system, notoriously missing unfamiliar sounds or inflections. And while modern missionaries like those currently active in Papua New Guinea take great pains to become fluent in a language before beginning transcription, the whole process can still yield a clunky script with characters that might not appeal or make intuitive sense to the local speaking group.

In Africa, the Afan people convened in the early 1990s to create a new, modern script for Afan Oromo, the second most spoken language south of the Sahara. They weighed the merits of Arabic, Ethiopic, and Latin orthography, all of which had been used for haphazard and non-systematic transliterations in the past. After much debate, they developed a modified version of Latin script known as Qube based on the sounds of their language, ease of learning, and desire to access and use other Latin-script based materials (like common computer keyboards). Now groups like the Cia-Cia, who selected Hangul for similar reasons of self-directed logic and preference, have been repeating this process worldwide. And through that process, they’re preserving their own cultures, histories, and tongues in a far more robust and meaningful way than imposed, imprecise missionary scripts ever could.

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