University of Western Australia
A Uniform orthography can be defined as one which is segmental and phonographic. Each graphic segment is pronounced and has a distinct value. Internal consistency in transcription is achieved by defining each segment and the sound that it represents in the orthography. Each sound of a language is assigned a segment: a letter or a combination of letters which is outlined in statement of the orthography or ‘phonetic key’. By contrast, a non-uniform writing system involves writing languages where the value of each segment is unspecified. If the language of transcription is English, there is a poor correspondence between the letter and sound. The problem is particularly acute with English vowels. The five vowel letters of English are polyvalent; that is they each represent a number of English phonemes. Ten English phonemes are represented by <a> in English (Coulmas 2003: 186). Also, each English vowel phoneme can be represented by different graphemes. The spelling may be at the word level and based on what Dench (2000:59) says is ‘subjective impression of similarity to particular English words’. Individual segments in this ‘logographic’ spelling have little or no phonetic interpretation.
Uniform orthographies were the forerunners of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The first Australianist linguist to use the IPA appears to have been John McConnell Black (1855-1951), for a language of the Western Desert (Black 1915). I claim that some early investigators of Australian languages used Uniform orthographies in their writing of Australian Aboriginal languages and avoided the problems of English-based spelling.
Antecedents: Uniform orthographies in the late 1700s
Amongst English-speaking researchers of the late eighteenth century there were opposed views of the way in which words from Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit should be transliterated from their original scripts to the characters of the roman alphabet. Halhed and others advocated the use of English sound values (Master 1946). The year 1788 is significant as the date of the first British settlement in Australia, and is also the date of publication of the Dissertation on the Orthography of Asiatick Words in Roman Letters (Jones 1788). Its author, Sir William Jones (1746-1794), realised that the languages of the Indian subcontinent couldn’t be written consistently using the sound values of the English alphabet. He wanted to represent vowels with their ‘continental’ (particularly Italian) values. There was little difference between Jones and his opponents in the representation of consonant sounds. According to Jones, ‘each original sound may be rendered invariably by one appropriated symbol, conformably to the natural order of articulation, a perfect system of letters ought to contain one specific symbol for every sound used in pronouncing the language to which they belonged’ (Cannon 1990:249). I use ‘roman’ in lower case for the twenty six letters of the roman writing system, as distinct from that of a particular language.
The widespread adoption of the Jonesian system
The Dissertation excited great interest in Britain and Europe (Master 1946:7). There were many attempts to represent the sounds of hitherto unwritten languages according to Jones’ conventions. John Pickering (1777-1846) recommended the use of the Jonesian system for recording American Indian languages (Pickering 1820). In 1807 the Reverend John Davies sent the Congregationalist London Missionary Society (LMS) a copy of his manuscript for a “Tahitian Spelling Book” for publication, using the occasion to argue for the ‘continental’ system (Schütz 1994:107). The LMS adopted the system for Tahitian. Lancelot Threlkeld (1788-1859) worked for the LMS in the 1820s and used the ‘South Sea Islands’ orthography in his Australian Grammar (Threlkeld 1834).
Royal Geographical Society conventions 1836
Travellers needed a guide to the correct pronunciation of foreign names. Number three of the Journal’s aims was the development of a ‘more uniform and systematic orthography than has hitherto been observed, in regard to the names of cities and other objects; and a more precise and copious vocabulary than we at present possess, of such objects’ (Prospectus of the Royal Geographical Society: xi). The first explicit statement of the RGS orthographic conventions appears to have been in a footnote to Observations on the Coast of Arabia between Rás Mohammed and Jiddah (Wellsted 1836). See also Aurousseau (1942:245). Wellsted’s use of the RGS conventions was to write place names of Arabic, an Afro-Asiatic (Semitic) language with a Classical literature.
The vowel letters would be pronounced as for Italian and as read in selected English words: the <a> in ‘far’, <e> in ‘there’, <i> in ‘ravine’, <o> in ‘cold’ and the <u> in ‘rude’.
The consonants were to be pronounced as for English. The footnote reveals the writer’s familiarity with the sounds of British languages and English dialects and show an attempt to explain the unfamiliar by the familiar. The ‘Northumbrian r’, probably [ʁ], the use of the voiced uvular fricative allophone/variant of post-alveolar approximant /ɹ/ (Hughes, Trudgill and Watt 2005:124) is compared with a ‘guttural’ sound of Arabic, probably غ gayn, the voiced velar fricative [ɣ], transliterated <gh>. The voiceless velar fricative ch [x] of Welsh and Scots is compared with Arabic, خ xā’, and transliterated <kh>. Digraphs and the apostrophe were used to represent sounds for which there was no conventional spelling in European languages. Ain ع, a voiced pharyngeal fricative [ʕ] was transliterated with an apostrophe.
The use of the RGS conventions in Australia
The RGS conventions were used for the transcription of hitherto unwritten languages and this was the case in Australia where all the Aboriginal languages of the continent were unwritten until the arrival of Europeans. In Australia, as elsewhere, some early researchers used uniform orthographies and others wrote sounds according to their knowledge of English.
Dr John Lhotsky (1795-1865) collected language data in the Australian Alps from January to March 1834 and from Tasmania in 1836. His contribution to the Journal (Lhotsky 1839) appears to be the first example of the application of RGS conventions to an Australian language.
Recognition of consonant sounds
Early researchers had a pioneering role in recording sounds on paper for the first time. Awareness of foreign sounds increased with time spent in the field. Threlkeld (1834:6) had already encountered the velar nasal [ŋ] word-initially, based upon his hearing of Polynesian languages in which the sound commonly occurs at the beginning of a word. His recognition of the velar nasal probably led later other Australian researchers to recognise the sound in Aboriginal languages.
Lyon (1833) heard a sound which he compared with Classical Hebrew ע ayin, a voiced pharyngeal fricative [ʕ]: ‘the Ain of the Hebrew, the pronunciation of which has been so long a desideratum to the philologists of Europe, these people (Nyungar speakers) seem to possess in perfection’ (Lyon, Perth Gazette 30th March 1833). Lyon doesn’t identify the sound in Nyungar which the ayin resembles. Although [ʕ] doesn’t occur in Nyungar, this instance shows Lyon attempting to describe the unfamiliar by the more familiar. However, ayin had become a ‘silent letter’ in Hebrew and its sound value would have been difficult for Lyon to recover. Lhotsky (1839) noted that would be ‘more accurately rendered by Polish z’ which has no equivalent in the English tongue’.He was referring to /ʑ/, the voiced palatal fricative.
The consonant letters of the roman alphabet which were discarded are as significant as those which were included. Early researchers edited their work and made orthographic choices, using a selection of letters. Redundant letters such as <c> and <q> were discarded. Lyon (1833), comparing sounds in the Nyungar language with the Classical Hebrew alphabet noticed that the Nyungar language had ‘neither the Zain [z], the Samedi [s], nor the Schin [ʃ] of the Hebrews. The letter s, they are incapable of pronouncing’. He felt that he was ‘obliged to throw out every letter which was in the least allied in sound to the letter s’. George Fletcher Moore (1798-1886) read the RGS Journal and utilised the RGS conventions (Moore 1842:vii). In 1833 he obtained the name ‘carrar’ for the black goanna (Varanus tristis) from Weeip, one of his Nyungar-speaking informants (Cameron 2009). The entry was changed to ‘kardar’ for the Descriptive Vocabulary (Moore 1842:56) after <c> had been eliminated from the orthography. Salvado (1851) wrote <c> in his transcription of Nyungar words for the palatal plosive /c/ which Moore represented with <dj>:
Table 1: Transcription of Nyungar word for ‘Wedge- tailed Eagle’.
|Salvado 1851||ualce, ualge|
Although the IPA eventually adopted [c] for the palatal plosive, the use of non-English consonantal values would not have helped the English-speaking reader. The users of the RGS were English-speaking Britons and so the use of English consonantal values, where this aim was realistic, was practical. Even though researchers were encouraged to use the values of English consonants they found ways to be creative in representing unfamiliar sounds.
Scott Nind (1831:47) noted that the Nyungar language ‘abounds in vowels’ but the values of the individual segments are not spelled out and no phonetic key to his transcription is provided, as can be seen in comparison with that of researchers who used the RGS:
Table 2: Early Transcriptions of Nyungar word for ‘Black Duck’
Travel and levels of education
The use of uniform orthographies presupposes a level of language awareness, often lacking among settlers in the frontier Australian communities of the nineteenth century. Then, as now, there were those who sought to write Aboriginal words according to English spelling conventions. Educated and travelled researchers were familiar with European languages and the languages and English dialects of Britain and Ireland. They had often engaged with what Clarke (1959:176) describes as ‘that form of foreign travel which we know as the study of the classics’, including Hebrew, Greek and Latin. They tended to be more aware of the limitations of English spelling because they had experience of foreign language scripts in which each letter had a distinct pronunciation which had to be learned.
The late nineteenth century
The RGS conventions were published as a ‘System of orthography for native names of places’ in the Proceedings (RGS 1885). The RGS aimed for a pronunciation of the ‘true sound pronounced locally’. Characters were selected from the twenty six letters of the roman alphabet. Of the thirty-four characters of the RGS, four digraphs represented consonant sounds and four other digraphs represented dipthongs. Hyphens were not allowed, and accent marks were only allowed for indicating stress.
As more sounds were discovered, the resources of the roman alphabet were found to be inadequate. Augmentation of the roman alphabet was necessary to write new sounds. The consonant digraphs were increased to nine in the 1892 revision. The RGS authors remained committed to the letters of the roman alphabet with limited additions: ‘Those who desire a more accurate pronunciation of the written name must learn it on the spot by a study of local accent and peculiarities’ (RGS 1885). The letters of the 1885 orthography:
The RGS in the history of Australian linguistics
In Australian linguistic writing, there has been little appreciation that uniform orthographies represented a genuine advance on English-based spelling. Uniform orthographies and their value to linguistic research are unacknowledged in the literature on the history of Australian language research. Dixon, Ramson and Thomas (1990:7) dismiss the work of R.H.Mathews (1841-1918) and others: ‘Unfortunately, these early recorders were not trained linguists and wrote down Aboriginal words in terms of English sounds rather than in a phonetic alphabet’. However they (1990:15) also claim that Aboriginal languages are now written according to a Roman (sic) alphabet, implying that uniform orthographies utilising roman characters were only created in the twentieth century by professional linguists. Surely R.H. Mathews used the resources of the roman alphabet (Koch 2008). As argued in this paper, the aim of the RGS orthography was to circumvent the need for English spelling conventions.
It is fortunate for language documentation that many Aboriginal languages were written according to the RGS orthography. There are differences in quality in early wordlists and it is more likely that words were transcribed accurately with a uniform orthography. The RGS orthography was in use from the 1830s and gradually refined over the following century. The RGS system enabled English-speaking researchers to transcend the inconsistencies of English spelling. The extent to which the researchers recorded sounds accurately according to the RGS conventions must be answered in individual cases.
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How to cite this post
Moore, David. 2013. ‘A uniform orthography and early linguistic research in Australia’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/10/16/a-uniform-orthography-and-early-linguistic-research-in-australia