Yapese Spelling Reform: "That Damn Q!"

Like Marshallese speakers at the eastern end of Micronesia, Yapese speakers at the western end seem to be resistant to spelling reforms designed by outside linguists.

The most recent Yapese Bible orthography makes do with only 5 vowels, but writes all the consonants. However, it spells glottal stop inconsistently. A glottal stop is implicit between any two adjacent vowels in a word, as in gaar ‘to say’, which has two syllables with a glottal stop in between. People used to use the same device to indicate final glottals, as in pii ‘to give’, but the most recent Bible orthography now writes the final glottal with an apostrophe, thus pi’. Except on a handful of grammatical forms, like u ‘at’, i ‘he, she, it’, glottal stops are predictable on words written with initial vowels, just as they are in English or German, so the Bible orthography doesn’t write them at all.

In the new orthography, however, the glottal stop is everywhere spelled with a q, and resistance to the new orthography centers on “that damn q” in new spellings like Waqab ‘Yap’, girdiiq ‘people’, qarcheaq ‘bird, bat’, and even Qapriil ‘April’ and Qaawguust ‘August’. (Imagine German Qach, du lieber Qaugustine!)

The decision to use q in place of the apostrophe for glottal stop was motivated by the fact that the apostrophe was already used to indicate a glottalized release on consonants. Yapese, like Navajo, has a whole series of glottalized consonants in addition to plain equivalents in initial, medial, and final position within the word, thus:

p, t, k vs. p’, t’, k’

m, n, ng vs. m’, n’, ng’

f, th, vs. f’, th’

l, y, w vs. l’, y’, w’

So, in theory, it is possible that rung’ag ‘to hear’ might be ambiguous between rung+’ag and the nonexistent forms *ru+ng’ag or *rung’+ag. In practice, this seems to be an awfully weak justification for introducing “that damn q.

Writing more vowel distinctions, on the other hand, seems well motivated. Yapese distinguishes among 8 long vowels, with a further possibility of 8 short vowels–although length is partially predictable from the position of the vowel in the word. All eight long vowels show up in the following minimal octet, so convenient for linguistic analysis: miil ‘to run’, meel ‘sail rope’, meal [æ] ‘rotten’, mael [a] ‘war’, maal [a] ‘taro type’, mool ‘to sleep’, moel ‘adze handle’, muul ‘to fall’. Using digraphs to write vowels, of course, precludes the old reliance on adjacent vowels to indicate glottal stop.

Examples of the old and new renditions of the most common greeting exchange follows.

  • ‘Where are you going?’

    Old: Ngam man ngan

    New: Nga mu maen ngaan
  • ‘I’m (just) going over there’

    Old: Nggu wan ngaram

    New: Ngu gu waen nga raam

The Pacific Area Language Materials website gives a sample of what the Japanese story Momotaro looks like in the new orthography. Look at all those paragraphs beginning with Q, especially on Qeree ‘and then’, which in the Bible is written Ere.

Once again, a socially optimal orthography in actual use can get by with even fewer alphabetic distinctions than a linguist might desire for the purpose of distinguishing each word in isolation from the sentential, semantic, and social context in which those words are normally used. A simpler, underspecified writing system would allow more Yapese to write their own language without having to run everything by someone with sufficient linguistic training to understand the New Orthography. It would take literacy out of the hands of experts and give it back to the people who need it most.

SOURCES: John Thayer Jensen, Yapese Reference Grammar (Hawai‘i, 1977; out of print) and Yapese-English Dictionary (Hawai‘i, 1977; out of print); Thin Rok Got nib Thothup [‘Word of God that’s Holy’ = the Bible].


Filed under language, Micronesia

3 responses to “Yapese Spelling Reform: "That Damn Q!"

  1. Pingback: Linguists Bearing Orthographies, 3: Dempwolff vs. Labialized Labials « Far Outliers

  2. Pingback: Writing Consonant Symbols for Vowels | Far Outliers

  3. Pingback: Yapese “See something, say something” | Far Outliers

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