Archives for category: Tone

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


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 road through our village has several very steep parts which get eroded during the rainy season, leaving nothing but ruts and sharp rocks. Passengers get thrown about in the back of the car, and it plays havoc with tyres and suspension rods.

So it’s become something of an annual tradition, between Christmas and New Year, for the entire village to descend on the road to repair it.

I joined 100 other people early this morning. The younger men dig earth and stones out of the nearby fields . The women and children transport the loads on their heads to the road. The older men fill in the holes to make the road smooth again.

Then we all go back to my place for millet beer and grilled sesame seeds.

Another day of hard work, interdependence and laughter in an African village.


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.


Analyzing a text in a Central African language (can’t remember which one – can anybody help?). The words circled in red are ones which have two or more meanings depending which tones you pronounce them with.


A whiteboard full of examples of tonal minimal triplets (groups of words that are distinguished from each other only by tone, not by consonants or vowels) in eight different Central African and Cameroonian languages.