There are two ways of writing Kabiye: the standard spelling, developed by the Kabiye National Language Committee, and an alternative one developed by a Kabiye catholic priest. Long ago, the debate polarised into two camps. This has been very difficult for people learning to read and write Kabiye for the first time, because they are likely to come across both ways of writing.

As an outsider, I felt that the best contribution I could make was to write an article simply documenting the differences between the two and comparing them from a linguistic point of view. The article was published in a linguistics journal. When the Catholics saw it, they felt that it provided the ideal opportunity to renew discussions with “the other side”, so they took the initiative and invited us all to a meeting.

So yesterday the two groups met around the table for the first time in over 20 years. There was a good turnout. I thought we might see some sparks fly, but it wasn’t like that at all. There was a positive atmosphere of listening and genuinely trying to understand the other’s point of view. The meeting went on for six hours, way past lunchtime, because the chairman was determined to discuss every single one of the 150 data items in my article!

This meeting has no decision-making authority, but the important thing is that yesterday the silence was broken. Everyone was positive about meeting again and that there should be greater Catholic representation on the National Language Committee.

It was a memorable day for me, because it proves to me that linguistic research can have a direct impact at grassroots level.