Orthography Services

Orthography is the writing system of a language. Without a good writing system, people can’t read fluently. If they can’t read fluently, they can’t read the Bible well. If people don’t want to use the writing system, they won’t want to use Scripture, either.

In Orthography Services, we balance literacy concepts, linguistic analysis and political smarts.

We advise on choices for characters, word breaks, punctuation and capitalization. Orthography workers might deal with Roman alphabets in Africa or non-Roman scripts in southern Asia. Some of the people we work with have little or no education. Other local speakers have seminary training.

One of SIL’s schools will train you in linguistics, literacy and sociolinguistics. Then you’ll help an experienced orthography worker before you set out on your own.

With us, you’ll join a team. You’ll work with local speakers of the language and talk to teachers, political figures, linguists and literacy workers. With an unwritten language, you’ll learn the sound system and grammar. Then you’ll decide how many symbols the alphabet needs and where words should join or break. 

You need the brains to digest complex language data, but you need people skills, too. You’ll have to see several sides to an issue. You’ll have to work well with others and understand social factors. To agree on the best writing system for a language, you’ll advise, discuss and negotiate with local speakers.

How Do You Write an Unwritten Language?

“How are you going to write our language?” a group of Koma villagers in the north asked Mike Cahill.

Mike had traveled for several days by borrowed motorcycle to visit all five of the Koma villages in Ghana. He drove past scrubby trees along sandy paths with a Ghanaian pastor clinging to the back. They slid and crashed many times. 

In each village, Mike explained they wanted to live with the Koma people, learn the language, write it down and translate the Scriptures. The people immediately expressed their excitement at having the Bible in their own language.

But the fifth village asked the question that stumped Mike. “How will you write it? How we talk or how the other villages talk?”

Mike had no idea how to answer their question. He didn’t know anything about the language—after all, he was speaking through a translator.

So Mike said, “I don’t know.” And he left it at that.

Before joining SIL, Mike taught chemistry, physics and math at a high school in rural Iowa. But partway through his teaching years, he began to wonder what he would do for the rest of his life. Maybe he would move to a bigger high school or even a college.

Three things happened within two weeks to change his mind about teaching.

First, a friend gave him a pamphlet that said every Christian should go into missions unless specifically called otherwise. 

Second, Mike’s church held its missions conference. 

Third, another friend announced he was joining Wycliffe Bible Translators. Mike had never heard of the organization, so his friend sent him more information.

That summer, Mike attended an SIL session in North Dakota. “I just fell in love with the idea of giving people a Bible in a language they could understand,” he said. He applied to work with linguistics and translation in SIL and was accepted.

He explained that language learning and linguistic analysis are two different skills. Language analysis requires a science/engineering/math mentality. “That was one of the things that attracted me about linguistics. I had no idea that you could actually put language patterns into formulas and derivations and make real semi-mathematical sense out of it.”

When asked where in the world he wanted to serve, Mike felt a big pull toward Africa. But he admitted he wasn’t fond of French, which much of Africa speaks. That’s how he ended up in English-speaking Ghana.

There he met his wife, Virginia, who traveled from village to village teaching translators’ children. Mike and Virginia returned to the United States to get married and to receive more linguistics training.

Then they returned to Ghana and started on the Koma translation.

Passing On the Project

Mike and his wife lived in a Koma village and built a traditional Koma house. Then they learned the language. They didn’t become fluent in Koma, Mike explained, but they could follow some conversations and name everything in sight. They started on some literacy work and a little bit of trial Bible translation.

After a few years, they decided they needed to return to the United States with their three children. Their middle child was mentally challenged, and they knew she could benefit from the special education opportunities back in the States.

“It was really the most difficult decision of our married life to cut short our translation work in Ghana,” Mike said. But Mike and Virginia reminded each other that God loved the Koma people more than they did. God’s work wouldn’t stop just because the Cahill’s weren’t there to continue it.

Back in the States, Mike taught for a year and earned his Ph.D. He worked as SIL’s international linguistic coordinator for 11 years and as editor-in-chief of academic publications for three years. Then he was asked to be the orthography services coordinator.

His daily work now involves writing and answering a lot of emails. He advises staff on orthographic issues they’re facing and shares resources. He sets up an orthography conference every other year. Sometimes he speaks at universities for recruiting. He also reads linguistic and orthography discussion lists and responds when needed.

“This is a good fit for me,” Mike said. “It’s fascinating work.” 

In orthography, workers have to consider many angles: Can people use the writing system? Do you have the right symbols? Have you counted the right number of vowels? Do they want to use the writing system? Do they want their writing system to look like their neighbor’s, or do they want it to look distinct?

“I know the right questions to ask at this point,” Mike said, and he’s good at seeing both sides of an argument.

For example, he talked about a tonal language in East Africa that has seven vowels. The tone differentiates some words from each other but also differentiates some verb tenses from others, such as the difference between “he will go” and “he went.” From a linguistic and usability point of view, the writing system should have seven vowels and also mark the tone.

But, Mike explained, from an acceptability point of view, the local people really liked Swahili, which has only five vowels and no tone, and they wanted the orthography to look like that.

“Bang,” Mike said. “We have these principles that are in conflict. What do you do? Negotiate. Explain. Be patient. There’s not an easy answer. That’s the kind of thing we run into all the time around the world.”

Finding an Answer

So, did the Koma people get their own writing system—and the Scriptures?

It turns out the village that asked Mike how he would write their language had a distinctly different dialect from the other four Koma villages.

“That’s one of the things you’re always wanting to deal with when you’re developing a writing system or orthography for a language,” Mike explained. “What are the dialect issues? Do you try to combine the dialects into one kind of mish-mash that combines them? Or do you favor one that’s more prestigious or powerful or better known?”

The two Koma dialects had some vocabulary differences. But the real difference was in the phonology, or the sound system. The main dialect used an H sound where the southern dialect used an NG sound. To say “wife” or “woman,” the main dialect pronounced it hago and the southern dialect pronounced it ngago.

After living in a Koma village and learning the language, Mike and his team decided to follow the main dialect in writing H. But they taught the southern Koma to pronounce the letter H as NG. “And that has seemed to work pretty well,” Mike said.

When Mike and his family returned to the States and changed their roles in SIL, a Ghanaian man from another language group built on their foundation to continue their work with the Koma language. 

In 2007, Mike and his family traveled back to Ghana for the Koma New Testament dedication.

“It was an amazing time,” Mike remembered. “I don’t use the word awesome very often because I think it’s overused, but it was an awesome time there.”

When he first started in orthography, Mike didn’t know how to answer the questions the Koma people asked him. But years later, he now advises other orthography workers in similar issues.

“[Orthography] is a really valuable thing to do. It’s essential to Scripture use.” And soon, Mike said, the Koma people will have the entire Bible written in their language.