kichwa speakers anne schwarz

How To (Not) Write In An Endangered Language

In this blog series, Dr. Anne Schwarz and her colleague Karolina Grzech will share their experiences of documenting Tena Kichwa, a variety of Amazonian Kichwa, and how for the first time, a CAT tool has been used to help document an endangered language. In their previous blog, Karolina highlighted what makes a language endangered and explained the fieldwork and documentation process, which will include the use of a CAT tool for the first time.

Have you ever stumbled across the question of how to write in your language? No? That’s probably because you learnt it in school. The situation for the speakers of many endangered languages in the world is different, because their language and the writing of it are often not taught at school.

If you were a speaker of such a language and wanted to write it but were not trained as a linguist who can follow the international phonetic alphabet (IPA) where necessary, you would probably apply the script and orthography of a familiar language. Typically, that is a language of wider communication or an official language used within your country’s government and education. Only if you are very lucky, the existing graphemes of that language – probably a former colonial language, such as English, French, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Mandarin, among others – capture the phonology of your language well. It is more likely, however, that you would struggle to appropriately reflect your language in the writing system not devised specifically for it, and all the more so, if it was to be straightforwardly understood by your readers.

When Karolina and I joined forces to apply SDL Trados Studio in our work on Amazonian Kichwa, we faced a similar problem, namely how to write the Kichwa language spoken in the Napo province (Ecuador) when writing for the language communities and the general public. The issue here was, however, not the lack of an orthography, but rather its existence.

Need for localization rather than unification

The official Kichwa currently applied in Ecuadorian schools and recommended for use in other official environments is known as Unified Kichwa (kichwa unificado, shukyachishka kichwa). It is the result of standardization efforts that started decades ago with a bias towards the Kichwa spoken in the Andean highlands. Unfortunately, the orthography of this standardized language is too far from the phonological reality present in the Amazonian Kichwa varieties to allow its fruitful implementation in the Amazonian context, as recently argued by my colleague (Grzech 2017).

Unified Kichwa does not only constitute an orthographic standard of limited value for the representation of several local Kichwa varieties spoken in Ecuador. It is also accompanied by linguistic unification and purification attempts that would distort existing language ecology, if thoroughly followed through. For instance, the Unified Kichwa norm attempts to replace any Kichwa loanwords from Spanish with ‘pure’ Kichwa neologisms, which is often very confusing to native speakers.

In a study on the diversity of the crops grown in the gardens – chagra (chakra in Unified Kichwa) – in Amazonian Kichwa communities (Peñuela et al. 2016), for instance, we found that more than 20% of the 95 registered local crops are referred to by non-Kichwa local names, often Spanish words. An experienced Amazonian Kichwa farmer, locally known as chagra mama (lit. “the mother of the garden"), would certainly use these local names of whatever origin to teach her descendants about the plants and their use. Neglecting such common non-Kichwa words for reasons of language purism could jeopardize intergenerational communication and risk the loss of wisdom that was established and transmitted by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin for thousands of years.

Karolina and I realized that the official Unified Kichwa might serve well in some official settings, but that in contexts where the natural language and local knowledge matters, the application of Unified Kichwa certainly remains linguistically and culturally inappropriate. We therefore developed an orthographic standard that can capture the Amazonian Kichwa varieties we are working with. It provides us with the consistent orthographic tool that we need to input into SDL Trados Studio in order to build a locally grounded and informative bilingual corpus in the Amazonian varieties of Kichwa and Spanish.

Find out more about standardization issues and language activism among speakers of Amazonian Kichwa varieties from the slides of our recent talk at the 56th International Congress of Americanists (ICA) in Salamanca [in Spanish].

Now that we are ready to locally write, what are the topics and texts we choose for our project with SDL Trados Studio? In our next blog, we’ll tell you more about the criteria that need to be considered in selecting and preparing texts from a documentary corpus for computer-assisted translation.