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Ky or ch? That's the Question


Discourse on Buli Orthography

For many decades the question whether the [] and [d]-sounds should be written either ky / gy or ch / j has been more than a theoretical question to be decided by the individual writer. Two hostile camps seemed to oppose each other in an implacable way: on the one side the ky/gy-adherents, favoured by Wiaga and the catholic mission, on the other side the ch/j -supporters, backed by Sandema, the Presbyterians and the Protestant bible-translators. I do not know if the question played a role in political election campaigns, but if was so, certainly the two biggest parties would have backed one of the orthographic groups each. The conflict was not only a local one, for far away in Southern Ghana the allies are still fighting for the same good course: the Akan people (ky/gy) against the Ewe (ch/d). A storm of protest was aroused when the government decided in favour of ky/gy (in the 1980s?), so that at last they had to withdraw their decree.

When I visited the Bulsa area again in 2001, I could not believe my eyes, when my Wiaga assistants gave me a Buli text written in the ch/j spelling. They even told me that Wiaga had nearly completely adopted this way of writing. After every conflict there are usually winners and losers. Here, however, I can only see a winner, namely the Bulsa people, who have settled a problem and spared all learners, Bulsa pupils and foreigners, much orthographical confusion.

Together with the ch/j writing the Bulsa seem to have made up their minds for adopting three phonetic symbols that are not used in European orthographic systems and therefore cannot be found on most typewriters, namely , e and ]. Also this decision should be respected, although I plead for a certain degree of tolerance, e.g. if the typewriters or computer text pro-grammes do not provide these characters. Writing ng, e and o will not make a text unreadable.

I myself have some problems in writing ] and e, because - to my understanding - the openness of these sounds does not only change in the pronunciation of some dialects, but seems also to be influenced by their syntactical und grammatical forms and contexts. So for Buli "woman" I have heard pok as well as p]k. And is the /e/ in teng (land, earth) open [te], half-open or closed [te]?

The use of phonetic symbols in one's orthography may have advantages and disadvantages. For the foreigner who is learning Buli it may be a help in pro-nouncing Buli vowels correctly (though a much greater problem for him are the tones, which usually are not marked). For the Bulsa themselves these symbols are not necessary, for they know how to pronounce a word. The argument that something of the subtleties of the Buli language will get lost, if the openness of vowels is not marked in their spelling, is not very convincing to me, since our experience from other languages has taught us that spelling, which is learnt by the child several years after the ability of talking, rarely influences pronunciation. What would happen to the English spoken language if it were influenced by its quite illogical orthographical system?

Links: Buli Language Guide