Tone languages and language (un)awareness

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Hollenbach, Barbara E
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SIL Forum for Language Fieldwork 2007-004
3 pages

When speakers of a tone language seem to be unaware of their tone system, there are extra challenges in developing a writing system for that language. If tone is symbolized, oral-aural prereading lessons will be needed to develop a conscious awareness of tone before teaching the tone orthography itself. If tone is not symbolized, the information carried by tone is largely lost. The context may often need to be expanded to provide enough clues for the reader to know which word is meant, and to “pronounce” the written form correctly. Partial marking of tone is another solution, but this approach also faces problems. Will only certain words be marked? Certain tones? Certain functions of tone? How will the system be taught? There are no obviously correct solutions to this problem. As in all areas of orthography design, a compromise needs to be worked out among principles that often conflict with each other. The preferences of native speakers, who are the ones who will use the orthography, should be the most important consideration in making orthography decisions.

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