How should I write my language?

Books in Kuanua (Tolai language).
Some PNG languages have dictionaries to help you write them.

IN THESE monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at how to write Papua New Guinean languages.
I am often asked by people how they can learn to spell their own language. In PNG most people learn to write in English, but never develop real litera-cy in their own languages. This can lead to the bizarre situation of children going to boarding school and writing letters home in English to their par-ents, even though when they are all together, they speak in their own lan-guage and never speak English.
But with the rise of texting in recent years, writing has become less formal. With this there has been an increase in local language writing, at least at the informal and short text message level. This has led to more people wondering just how to write correctly in their own language.
Each language has its own sound system, so a good writing system needs to be able to differentiate between all the sounds in the language.
Moreover, everyone in the community needs to agree on how those sounds will be represented.
For a few languages, there is a long established writing system that is well known in the community through its use in Bible translations or public signs. Motu is an example of this group of languages. For Motu writers, there is no question about how to write their language. They have high levels of literacy, and because of the use of Motu in church and the use of Hiri Motu in public signs in and around Port Moresby, most people are fa-miliar with how to read and write the language.
For other languages, there may be a writing system, often prepared by SIL or other missionaries, but it is not well known in the community.
To see if a writing system has been developed for your language, go online to This site tries to col-lect a comprehensive list of publications from SIL, universities worldwide and other sources in and about PNG languages. Many of the publications listed there can be downloaded from the internet.
When you first see your language in writing, it may look strange to you. Linguists who prepare writing systems for languages try to follow a system of one symbol for each sound in the language. Sometimes they will use a completely new symbol for a sound. For the “ng” sound, some Morobe languages, for example, use the letter “ŋ”, which is a combination of “n” and “g”.
Sometimes the letters that do not have an independent sound of their own in English— “c”, “q”, and “x”— are used for sounds in a language that do not exist in English. In Morobe languages, for example, the letter “c” is of-ten used for the glottal stop, the sound at the back of the throat that is made in English when we say “uh-uh” to say “no”. Similarly, in northern New Ireland languages, the letter “x” is used to represent a fricative sound at the very back of the throat that does not exist in English.
In other languages there are marks above or below letters to differentiate between sounds. These are often easy to make on mobile phones. On most mobile phones if you hold down on the letter “a”, for example, you will see a long line of letter “a’s” with different accent marks that are used in dif-ferent PNG languages, such as “á”, “â”, and “ã”. This makes texting in local languages easy.

Most books in PNG languages are about religion.
This letter is used in many Morobe languages for __ng__.

But what if no writing system has been devised for your language? Do you have to wait until a foreign linguist or missionary comes to your community before you start writing in your language?
Not at all. It is your language, so you can develop your own way of spelling. Just try to stick as close as you can to a one sound/one symbol principle.
Think about the sounds in your language and try to use one letter or com-bination of letters for each sound. Do not try to sound the words out like in English.
For example, you may decide to use “sh” for the sound in English “ship”. But if your language has words ending in “-shun”, do not write them with “-tion” just because English does in words like “station”. Try to use the same letters in all words for the same sound: “-shun”. This will make it easier for others to adopt your spelling system.
If your language has a sound that does not exist in English, experiment with holding down letters on your mobile phone keyboard until you come up with a letter that you think would best fit that sound. If you cannot find one letter or accented letter that you like, think about a combination of dif-ferent letters for one sound, as English does with “sh” in “ship” or “ch” in “church”.
Writing is a communicative activity between different people, so you will probably develop a better writing system if you work with others who speak your language. Sit down with them and work out what you think is the best way to write difficult words in your language. After you have a draft system, try it out by sending texts to each other. If you find there are places where you haven’t understood each other or where one sentence could have had more than one meaning, chances are you need to change or fine tune your spelling system to get rid of the ambiguity.
In the Nalik language of New Ireland, for example, people have two sounds that they wrote with the letter “a”. This meant that there could be confusion between the local word for “yesterday” that has a short “a” and the local word for “afternoon” that is exactly the same except for a long “a” sound instead of the short “a”. There are obvious consequences in sched-uling problems if these two words are mixed up! The problem was solved by using “a” for the short sound (“laraf”) and “aa” for the long sound (“la-raaf”).
As you think about how to write your language, look at how neighbouring languages are written. Neighbouring languages often have similar sound systems, so you may find that some or all of your spelling issues have been solved already in a neighbouring language. If all the languages in a region choose to spell the same sound with the same letter, such as the “c” in Morobe or the “x” in New Ireland, it helps foster literacy across language barriers and gives the languages of an area a regional identity.
Once you start writing in your language, you can go beyond just sending text messages to your friends. Some young people have started Facebook pages in their language. These can be a good way for people in urban ar-eas, who often do not speak their own languages well, to learn new words and ask questions about vocabulary or usage. They can also be a remedy to homesickness for people who are at school or work in areas far from home to keep in touch with families and friends.
An even more ambitious project is to start a blog in your language. A blog can act as a local language newspaper and guide for your community. Blogs are free to set up and there are apps for mobile telephones to help you get started and maintain your blog. Your entries do not have to be long, but try to write every week or every month so that you build up a group of regular readers.
The United Nations has designated 2019 as the International Year for In-digenous Languages. As the year draws to a close, this is an appropriate time to learn how to write your indigenous language or, if it is a completely unwritten language, to develop a writing system for it. Then practice writing in your language with all the tools of modern technology.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Face-book Language Toktok page.

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