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A written language of their own

Monday, April 4, 2005

Ettien Koffi

In the Ivory Coast village where SCSU linguistics professor Ettien Koffi grew up, his native language, Anyi, was used for everyday conversation, and French was the language for all things read or written. But in this civil war-torn West African country, Koffi is leading a quiet revolution to give his native tribe a written language of its own.

“This is every linguist’s dream, to design a writing system for an oral-only language,” Koffi said of his ambitious project. Beginning with translations from the Bible, he is building the written Anyi language from the international phonetic alphabet, a family of symbols linguists all over the world use to describe language.

Koffi speaks passionately about the limitations of a verbal-only language. “You can communicate with words only orally, mostly face-to-face,” he said. More importantly, he said, without written language there’s no possibility of development as a society as we know it, no possibility of accumulation of knowledge about history and culture or scientific development.

“Take medicine,” Koffi said. “The older generation knows so much, but if they can’t write it down to be passed on to successive generations, it’s lost. I’ve seen so many doctors die without writing down their knowledge.”

When 40 percent of people are illiterate, access to basic health care, elections, legal processes, recording history and other important uses are limited, Koffi said. “It is mind-boggling when you sit down to realize all the different implications.”

The process of giving his people a written language is no less mind-boggling. He’s finished the first of what he hopes will be six levels of textbooks. Koffi calls it a grassroots project, with members of his family already teaching farmers and small business managers Sundays and evenings. Many of the students are women, Koffi said, since they often manage family matters. This summer he’s developing a text with practical chapters about pregnancy, health care, how to purify water, and other information most western societies take for granted being widely available in written form.

“It’s quite a major undertaking that can bring you praise and headaches,” he said of the task of building native-language literacy. In his home country, which is roughly one-third larger than the state of Minnesota, 60 native languages are in existence. One-third of the 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world are indigenous to Africa, and the tradition of European-only written language on the continent is entrenched. But making a dent in a literacy problem African governments have largely ignored is a challenge well worth pursuing for Koffi.

People have had to sign legal documents with an “x,” and now people in Anyi language classes begun because of his efforts can sign their name. “By the time people finish the sixth level they’ll be as educated as anybody else and literate in the modern sense of the word,” Koffi said.

“Providing the means to disseminate local knowledge and wisdom both orally and in written form puts Dr. Koffi’s people on the map of world cultures,” said Roland Specht-Jarvis, dean of the SCSU College of Fine Arts and Humanities and former professor of foreign languages. “And that allows us to study, understand and value their way of life.”

“The whole thing started with my Ph.D. in linguistics,” Koffi said. His dissertation covered analysis of a sound system, grammar, and terminology. “Ever wonder how it is we call something a noun, verb, adjective, who decided to call it a vowel? Language is not a useful tool unless you have the functions to use it for science and mathematics, too.”

Koffi’s goal is to have a literacy program in every Anyi village within 20 years. “There are very few things I am very sure about,” he said, “but this is one of them. I don’t want to be pretentious, but I am changing Anyi society one word at a time. It’s almost magical.”

- Marsha Shoemaker

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