Orthography Development

Less than half of the world's 6,900 languages have an established writing system.  Oral-only languages possess well-developed, often complicated grammars and clear “rules” for speech. However, their speakers have not had the opportunity to develop a writing system that best represents their language and that enables them to record their rich treasure of oral literature and cultural knowledge.

In the past, the lack of a writing system may not have been perceived as a problem. Speakers of these languages had developed ways to communicate their history, wisdom and knowledge orally from one generation to the next.  However, as communities interact more frequently and in greater depth with speakers of other more powerful languages, their own languages are increasingly endangered. And as speakers of these oral-only languages shift to using more powerful dominant languages, their heritage languages weaken. The problem is so widespread that language experts now estimate that half or more of languages spoken in today’s world will have died by the end of the 21st century.  As these languages die, cultures die as well. To paraphrase an old proverb, “when an old person dies, a whole library is burned/buried.”  

SIL provides technical support to speakers of non-dominant languages and their supporting organizations in developing or revising orthographies.  When mother tongue speakers accept and 'own' the writing system, they are enabled to put their stories, songs, poetry, history, and wisdom into written form for present and future generations.  One shared goal of these collaborative efforts is that the mother tongue will be accepted as a legitimate language of learning in formal and non-formal education. In the 21st century, that includes, among other things, the ability to use the language for writing letters, email, text messages, new literature, community announcements, educational materials, and newspapers.

Resources for Developing Orthographies