Topical Resources


Checklist of factors to consider

Briefly annotated bibliography of resources, a good number of which are not listed here.

Cahill, Michael and Elke Karan. 2008. Factors in designing effective orthographies for unwritten languages. SIL Electronic Working papers 2008-001.

Cahill, Michael, and Keren Rice (eds.). 2014. Developing Orthographies for Unwritten Languages. Dallas: SIL International.

Karan, Elke. 2006. Writing System Development and Reform: A Process. Thesis. University of North Dakota.

Smalley, William A. 1959. “How Shall I Write This Language?” The Bible Translator 10.2: 49-69.


Methodology – participatory workshop procedures


Decades ago, the usual procedure for developing an orthography was for an outside linguist to come and collect data on the language, analyze it, and on that basis to propose an orthography. It was basically a one-person process. Local speakers of the language were mostly isolated and frequently had little formal schooling, and so their participation in the initial stages was limited to providing data. This is still the situation in some areas, but it is getting increasingly rare. Education levels worldwide have risen, local language speakers are multilingual and connected, and so the norm these days is for them to take a much more active role in even initial orthography development. An outside linguist can act as a knowledgeable and crucial facilitator, but both strategies in the articles below are aimed at uncovering the knowledge and intuition of the native speakers of the language. The articles below describe a few general types of workshop (starting with either individual words or texts) in which an initial orthography can be developed. (There will predictably be issues that will take further time and attention in both scenarios.)

Cahill, Michael, and Keren Rice. 2016. “Orthography Development: The ‘Midwife’ Approach.” Orthography course presented at CoLang Institute. June 27-30, 2016. University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Easton, Catherine. 2003. “Alphabet Design Workshops in Papua New Guinea: A Community-Based Approach to Orthography Development.” Paper presented at Conference on language development, language revitalization and multilingual education in minority communities in Asia. Bangkok, Thailand, 6-8 November 2003.

Kutsch Lojenga, Constance. 1996. "Participatory Research in Linguistics." Notes on Linguistics 73:13–27.

Page, Christina Joy. 2013. “A new orthography in an unfamiliar script: a case study in participatory engagement strategies.Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, DOI:10.1080/01434632.2013.783035,


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