Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Govt not using proper writing system for Bushmen languages

Government’s plans to introduce 12 indigenous languages at primary school in June this year could have a domino effect that it has not even planning for at this point.

In fulfillment of an electoral pledge made in 2019, the Botswana Democratic Party government will be introducing Shiyeyi, ThiMbukushu, Ikalanga, Shekgalagari, Chiikuhane (Subiya), IsiNdebele, Afrikaans, Naro, Khoekhoegowab, ChiShona, Otjiherero and Sign Language. Save for Naro (spoken by the N/oakhwe) and Khoekhoegowab (spoken by the Nama), all other languages used standard orthography found in English and Setswana which are already in use. N the other hand, Naro and Khoekhoegowab have labial, dental, alveolar, palate-alveolar and lateral click sounds which are denoted in symbols that are currently not being used officially.

For decades now, the government has been taking shortcuts with regard of the proper phonetic representation of Khwe names with click sounds. Resultantly, the orthography for some names is misrepresented on official documents like school certificates, national identity and medical cards as well as passports. With the help of benefactors and minus the government’s involvement, some Khwe tribes have developed orthographies for their languages. Such orthographies, which include symbols for click sounds, have since been formally adopted and will be used when the teaching of the 12 languages starts in June.

The latter development will lead to a complication for which there is no common-sense argument against: learners will have to use, in real-life, what they would have learnt in the classroom. Otherwise, it would defeat the whole educational purpose to teach a learner whose name has click-sound symbols how to write those symbols, then award him a school certificate or Omang on which the name is written differently.

Concerned parties have given the government a pass but that may be coming to an end. Nichodimas Cooper, a board member of the BW Nama Development Trust, says that while the Trust has never taken up this matter with the government, the current developments provide an opportunity to do so. His judgement is that using proper orthography should naturally follow the introduction of the concerned languages “even if it means having to assign individuals or capable institutions to create a keypad for it.”

There may actually be no need to create a special keypad. With years of practice, Dahm Xixae, a Ju/’hoansi cultural rights activist who lives in Xangwa, has taught himself how to combine certain keys on the keyboard to produce click-sound symbols. His own language, Ju/’hoan, has not been included in the trial phase that begins in June. His addition to the substantive issue is that in some cases, the Tswanalised orthography distorts the actual meaning of Ju/’hoan words. Like Cooper, Xixae has natural expectation that the next step after introducing the teaching of indigenous languages in schools will be adoption of proper orthography on a nation-wide scale.

What the latter assertion necessarily means is that the private sector will also have to develop competence to use proper orthography. An ATM card would have to bear the proper rendition of a customer whose name has click-sound symbols.   

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