In­dige­nous al­pha­bet on the cards for SA

CityPress - - News - GAR­RETH VAN NIEK­ERK gar­reth.van­niek­erk@city­press.co.za

A group of South African lin­guists, soft­ware pro­gram­mers and de­sign­ers have been work­ing for the past two years on a new in­dige­nous writ­ing sys­tem that could soon be­come recog­nised of­fi­cially.

The isiB­heqe Sohlamvu script – made up al­most en­tirely of tri­an­gu­lar char­ac­ter forms – is a syl­labic sys­tem, which those in lo­cal lin­guis­tic cir­cles have been say­ing is more ef­fi­cient than the “colo­nial” al­pha­bet sys­tem in use.

The Latin al­pha­bet, they say, of­ten re­sults in very long or dis­junc­tive words in the or­thogra­phies of the lan­guages in the South­ern Bantu group­ing – which in­clude most of the in­dige­nous lan­guages of South Africa, Mozam­bique, Zim­babwe and Botswana.

Isib­heqe Sohlamvu, also known as Ditema tsa Di­noko, could soon be recog­nised by the global Uni­code Con­sor­tium, the of­fi­cial body that spec­i­fies the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of text in mod­ern soft­ware prod­ucts and stan­dards.

Doc­toral re­search by San­dra Land of the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Na­tal on eye move­ments while read­ing isiZulu re­vealed that long words make read­ing in isiZulu sig­nif­i­cantly slower than in English. “It is a bit like teach­ing chil­dren (or adults) to play squash and ten­nis. Al­though they just have to learn how to run around the court and hit the ball, you would never ex­pect them to use the same racket for both games,” says Land.

What she sug­gests – an idea echoed by Pro­fes­sor Mark de Vos of Rhodes Univer­sity – is “a syl­labic script sim­i­lar to that of Ja­panese, which might have led to a writ­ten form that was eas­ier and swifter to read”.

Lo­cal lin­guist and artist NRH Pule Welch, one of the fig­ures lead­ing the de­vel­op­ment of isiB­heqe, says the sys­tem hopes to cor­rect this.

“Our lan­guages in South Africa, tech­ni­cally called Sintu or South­ern Bantu lan­guages, are ag­glu­ti­na­tive – mean­ing all the gram­mat­i­cal in­for­ma­tion is stacked on to one word,” he says. “So you have verbs and pre­fixes and suf­fixes to get all the in­for­ma­tion con­tained in the word. For in­stance, if I say ‘I’m go­ing to show you very well’ in English, that trans­lates to ‘Ngi­zokubon­i­sisa’ in isiZulu. So that is one word, which is a whole sen­tence. When you write it in the Latin al­pha­bet, you end up with th­ese very long words.”

The geo­met­ric sym­bols of the isiB­heqe script are not lin­ear; rather, they are ar­ranged into syl­labic units that form pat­terns made of tri­an­gles – which rep­re­sent the vow­els – filled with cir­cles, arcs, crosses and curves, rep­re­sent­ing the con­so­nants.

The units are based on the sym­bolic de­sign tra­di­tions of south­ern Africa, such as Se­sotho litema mu­ral art or Zulu amaBhele bead­work. Th­ese have some­times been con­sid­ered ideogra­phies (let­ters, sym­bols or signs used to rep­re­sent whole ideas) sim­i­lar to the Adinkra sym­bols of west Africa that have in­formed the de­vel­op­ment of an­cient African writ­ing like Egypt’s hi­ero­glyphs, or Nige­ria’s nsi­bidi.

“The word ‘isiB­heqe’ comes from the isiZulu word ib­heqe, which are those things that in English are some­times called ‘Zulu love let­ters’ – those lit­tle pieces of bead­work that have cer­tain geo­met­ric de­signs and colour sys­tems on them,” ex­plains Welch.

“It is some­thing a young woman gives to a man that says cer­tain things about their re­la­tion­ship, be­cause dif­fer­ent colours and shapes have dif­fer­ent sym­bol­isms. You see the same thing in Nde­bele house-paint­ing, which is an amal­ga­ma­tion of the Sotho tra­di­tion with Nguni bead­work and bas­ketry. In all of th­ese, the fun­da­men­tal form is the tri­an­gle. Hence, isiB­heqe Sohlamvu: ‘Sohlamvu’ means ‘of the syl­la­ble’, a sys­tem of writ­ing that is syl­labic.

“The sym­bols are not ar­bi­trary. They are ac­tu­ally di­a­grams of the mouth when you speak the words. So it is not dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber be­cause, if you can feel how your mouth is pro­nounc­ing the words when you speak, you can write the words us­ing the sys­tem. Thus, it is very sim­ple to learn and rep­re­sents all the Sintu lan­guages of South Africa un­der one or­thog­ra­phy, or writ­ing sys­tem.”

Should the IsiB­heqe Uni­code ap­pli­ca­tion be suc­cess­ful, it will al­low the fastest and most prac­ti­cal dis­per­sal of the isiB­heqe sys­tem, the group says, but th­ese pro­pos­als fre­quently take years to move from an ini­tial draft to fi­nal stan­dard­i­s­a­tion.

Even with­out it, Welch says, the pro­ject al­ready boasts an on­line ty­pable key­board which peo­ple can use to cre­ate their own isiB­heqe texts, with in­for­ma­tive charts ex­plain­ing the sys­tem on their web­site, isib­heqe.org. It will con­tinue to de­velop on­line with YouTube videos and art col­lab­o­ra­tions.

“The apartheid state and the colo­nial sys­tem that founded it has cre­ated th­ese divi­sions in our lan­guages – which we can see po­lit­i­cally in the Ban­tus­tan idea,” says Welch. “Many of the more than 35 mi­nor lan­guages and eth­nic­i­ties, like Bhaca, Hlubi and Sepu­lan, were never of­fi­cialised and are slowly be­ing lost to a mono­lin­gual sys­tem. IsiB­heqe fos­ters the idea of mul­tilin­gual lit­er­a­ture with a PanAfrican­ist sys­tem along the lines of other de­colo­nial lit­er­acy move­ments in Sintu-speak­ing Africa, such as Man­dombe in the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo and Mwang­wego in Malawi.”

NEW NAMES The isiZulu script ti­tle isiB­heqe Sohlamvu (top) and Setswana tiles (below) Sekhut­lotharo sa Di­noko writ­ten in isiB­heqe script

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