Coleman Donaldson Discusses the Social Life of Writing Systems

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On April 22nd, the Linguistics Department welcomed Coleman Donaldson, a second year PhD candidate in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. His talk, “The Social Life of Post-Colonial and Indigenous Language Orthography,” dealt with the link between language and cultural ideologies and the creation of writing systems.

Donaldson’s research focuses on Manding-speaking and Francophone West Africa. During a year in the Peace Corps, he encountered a linguistic divide in Burkina Faso. Receiving a Fulbright to study linguistics at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, Donaldson returned to West Africa to do fieldwork. He began to focus on the interface between the newly created writing system, N’ko, and the Manding language.

The creation of orthographies, or writing systems, has been at the heart of many efforts to promote literacy in post-colonial nations.When linguists create an orthography, they are hoping to create a system that can be efficiently learned and used. They look at the “depth” of the orthography; in a deep orthography, much of the script must be processed as chunks, while in a shallow orthography, processing can happen graph by graph, or character by character. Linguists have commonly assumed that shallow orthographies are more easily learned and processed.

A pure phonemic writing system is considered the “holy grail” of shallow orthographies. In a phonemic system, each letter, or graph, corresponds to exactly one sound category. Many linguists have claimed that the phonemic system is the most sophisticated orthographic system, the evolutionary descendant of several different systems. These systems include pictograms, which convey concepts through pictorial resemblance; logograms, which correspond with a total word; and syllabograms, which correspond to a syllable. English orthography is phonemic, but does not have a pure one-to-one correspondence between graphs and sounds; the graphs ‘th’ produce one sound, and the letter ‘a’ can produce several unique sounds.

In his lecture, Donaldson argued that this traditional hierarchy that prioritizes shallow orthographies overlooks their “social life.” Writing systems, he argued, are often politically charged and therefore must be tailored to the societies they are created for. Current educational theories consider literacies in terms of “situated social practice,” and Donaldson believes that orthography should also be considered in those terms. The conventions for writing a “particular language in a particular script” as well as “the norms of usage” cannot be divorced from their social use. A system that does not take into account the social structure will not be readily adopted.

The creation of an orthography for Haitian Creole illustrates this idea of a social life. Linguists wanted to create an original orthographic system based on the unique phonemic structure of Creole, yet, among much of the Haitian elite, keeping the French orthographic tradition was socially important even if it did not always correspond nicely to Creole phonemics.

Languages, Donaldson maintained, are themselves “socio-historical formations” made up of “divergent grammatical codes.” There are many different varieties of English across the country and world, each with a slightly different grammar; yet, they all call themselves English, and they adhere to practically identical orthographic codes. While some varieties of Quechua use three vowels and others use five, the speakers all consider themselves part of the same language community. This creates a dilemma when creating a pure phonemic orthography. There could be two writing systems, but it is more useful to combine them and have some speakers learn a system that does not perfectly line up with their native grammar.

Creation of a unified orthography is inherently a means of standardization. While creating a standard form will not change the way people speak, it will create a precedent for appropriate formal communication in schools and businesses. In order to be successful, a new orthography must be marketed to the needs of a language group. If the community is concerned with preserving history, this might mean basing the system on an ancestral version of the language; if there is a backlash against these outdated forms, it might mean basing the orthography on speech commonly heard in the streets. “There’s not actually a coding relationship for success,” Donaldson remarked. “You can’t say, ‘If we are purist, it will work.’”

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