Archives for category: Linguistics

I’ve just returned from Jos, Nigeria, where I was a visiting lecturer at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. I was teaching orthography development of Nigerian languages in the translation department to eight MA students representing the following languages:

  • Bwaatiye, Zaar, Bura, Mwaghavul (Chadic)
  • Kuce, Pyam (Plateau)
  • Eloyi (Idomoid)
  • Jenjo (Adamawa-Ubangi)

I also had the opportunity to do a couple of days of fieldwork on the tone system of Gworok (Plateau).



Just got back from Tanguieta (Benin) where I was staying with my good friends Carl and Ursula,  and researching the best way of writing contour tones in Nateni with Esaïe, one of the Bible translators. After 25 years work, the New Testament is now complete and will be dedicated later this year. Spot the African grey parrot in the background.20180125_162214.jpg

Omniglot is a treasure trove. It’s an encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. You can use it to learn about languages, to learn alphabets and other writing systems, and to learn phrases in many languages. There is also advice on how to learn languages.

End of week 11 and the end is in sight. This week we recorded 22 volunteers reading their language using two different spelling systems, then scored the results syllable by syllable.

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End of week ten, and the training phase is over. Altogether we’ve trained 68 volunteers in four different versions of the orthography.

The daily visit to the pool is paying off in more ways than one. Yesterday I dived in and found a 5000 cfa note (£6.50) on the bottom.

End of week 9. Yesterday morning we recorded 13 people reading versions three and four of the orthography. Then I slept for the entire afternoon. This research project is a marathon!

End of week 8. We’re at that point in the marathon when it already feels like we’ve been here for ever, but still have a long way to go. Only swam twice this week, by Wednesday the water was lurid green.

End of week four. The last couple of weeks we’ve been busy teacher training. Emmanuel and Josephine are doing an amazing job juggling two spelling systems, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we lost 3 of the 8 candidates on the way, but on Friday we were still able to recruit two of them, Odile and Abednego, to help us with the teaching next week. If all goes according to plan, 30 volunteers should turn up 8am Monday morning.


The workshop participants always return home with their exercise books crammed full of notes which they took during the lectures.


In most African languages, tone plays an important role in verb conjugations (e.g. ‘you eat’ vs ‘he eats’; ‘you eat’ vs ‘you ate’; ‘you ate’ vs ‘you didn’t eat’ etc). That’s why the Yaoundé workshop participants spent a lot of time writing down lists of verbs in various tenses, and discovering for themselves the patterns in their own languages. That painstaking work lays the foundation for deciding whether and how to include tone in the writing system.