Category Archives: publishing

Hue 1968: Round 2, March 1975

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8377-8420:

The city of Hue fell again and for good in March 1975, and Saigon followed a month later, as US helicopters scrambled to evacuate remaining American personnel and as many South Vietnamese officials as they could carry. The final images of desperate civilians clinging to the skids of American choppers as they lifted off framed the futility of the decade-long effort.

Nevertheless, in the nearly half century since, some American military historians and many American veterans have insisted that the Battle of Hue was won, and that, indeed, the entire Tet Offensive was an unqualified American victory. Westy certainly felt that way. Eight years later, in his autobiography A Soldier Reports, he was still insisting that he had not been surprised by the Tet attacks—he said he had forecast the attacks on the city but that word apparently did not reach the MACV compound in Hue. He conceded at long last that on the morning of January 31, 1968, “the MACV advisory compound was under siege and most of Hue was in enemy hands, including much of the Citadel.” Yet the battle to win back the city warranted only two pages in his 566-page book. He portrayed it in perfunctory terms, complimenting the American and South Vietnamese commanders on their excellent leadership, exaggerating enemy deaths, and underreporting the number of Americans killed by nearly a third. He lamented the destruction of the historic city, and effectively lay blame for all civilian losses on Hanoi, citing only those killed in the purges. He makes no mention of civilians killed by American and South Vietnamese bombing and shelling. If your knowledge of the Battle of Hue came from Westy alone—from his public statements at the time and from his memoir—you would view it as a thumping American victory.

You have to give the general credit for consistency. On the day after the Saigon flag was run back up the pole at Ngo Mon, he gave a long interview to reporters in Saigon, in which he again declared that the Tet Offensive had been a “military defeat” for Hanoi. He was still anticipating the big attack at Khe Sanh and did not even mention Hue. Even the fact that the enemy had surprised him (slightly) by the number of forces they deployed, to him this was not a setback but an opportunity: “In a very real sense, when he [the enemy] moved out of his jungle camps he made himself more vulnerable and gave us an opportunity to hurt him severely.” He denied that his official casualty estimates were inflated and said that the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation. Westy added that many NVA and VC had fought “halfheartedly.”

This was certainly not the experience of those who fought them in Hue. To a man, the American veterans I interviewed told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled, and determined enemy. To characterize them otherwise is to diminish the accomplishment of those who drove them out of Hue. But taking the city back qualifies as a “victory” only in a narrow sense—they achieved their objective. In any larger sense the word hardly applies. Both sides badly miscalculated. Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington and Saigon, blindsided, refused to believe the truth. Both sides played their roles courageously, and to terrible effect. In sum: Hanoi’s troops seized the city and were then forced at tremendous cost to relinquish it, while the city itself was leveled in the process. The status quo was upheld but greatly diminished, and it lasted for only a few more years. How is this victory? It takes a determined act of imagination for either side to make that claim. It makes more sense to consider the ways both sides lost.

If we use Westy’s favorite measure, the body count, the battle’s clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. In the city today, where memories of that nightmarish month are still bitter, it is said that there is a victim under every square meter of ground. It remains a shameful fact in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its citizens were dispatched deliberately by their “liberators.” The ruling Communist Party labors to promote national unity by remembering the conflict not as a civil war but strictly as a struggle for independence, so reprisals against its own countrymen are an inconvenient memory. The party has never named or punished those responsible, not least because they were following clear orders from above. Many of those who carried out the purges have been celebrated as heroes of the state. The official position is that while there were some excesses, some “mistakes,” the numbers have been exaggerated by Vietnam’s enemies.

Of those who perished, by far the greatest number were killed by accident, either in the cross fire or by allied shelling and bombing. Accidental deaths do not equate morally to mass execution but, as the writer Tran Thi Thu Van has pointed out, the effect is the same. Today we rightly weigh the cost in civilian lives whenever violent action is taken, but I found very little concern expressed in 1968, not in any of the official papers I reviewed, not in contemporary press accounts or the dozens of books and papers written since, and not, for that matter, in any of the interviews I conducted. Vietnamese civilians, when they do come up, are described as a nuisance, even though the battle, like the war, was ostensibly about them. Nearly every marine I interviewed recalled seeing dead civilians in the streets, inside buildings, and in bunkers underneath those buildings. The Citadel, in particular, was a confined area, where escape was all but impossible. Nearly all the civilians I interviewed who survived the battle described losing family members, most often to shells and bombs. The survivors described, without hesitation, bombardment as the most terrifying memory, even those who’d had family members executed. If Hanoi did not win many new friends by taking Hue, neither did the allies in taking it back.


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Media Manipulation, Poland, 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4181-4218:

The Polish secret police, the SB, and its Politburo masters created a special operation called LATO ’79. (Lato means “summer.”) As archbishop of Kraków, Wojtyła had already spent nearly twenty years as the focus of a considerable intelligence-gathering effort by the SB as well as, intermittently, the KGB, the East German Stasi, and other East-bloc secret services. LATO ’79 drew most of its operational intelligence from seven moles who had served in the archbishop’s immediate entourage over the years. They included both priests and laymen; one of them, code-named JUREK, was a member of the church organizing committee. Every possible measure to limit the effects of the pope’s visit was considered. Tens of thousands of police would be deployed in the course of the nine days. The SB informants who were involved in trip planning were advised, for example, to express worries about safety wherever possible (in the hope that this calculated disinformation would reduce the number of pilgrims). No effort was spared. In the event, 480 SB agents were deployed during the four days the pope spent in Kraków during the visit.

Presumably because a large number of East German Catholics also expressed a desire to see the pope, the East German secret police, the Stasi, deployed hundreds of its own agents to cover the event. The East Germans even set up a special headquarters post on the Polish border to coordinate their operations. The famous Stasi master spy Markus Wolf had planted his own mole inside the Vatican, a German Benedictine monk whose identity was not even known to the Stasi man in charge of the operation.

The apparatchiks were especially intent on managing the media coverage. In the weeks leading up to the visit, official media issued a stream of warnings. People should stay away from the pope’s events, the government urged: chaos and hysteria were sure to reign, and spectators could almost certainly count on being trampled to death. Foreign reporters were charged exorbitant accreditation fees, which excited a great deal of angry complaint and undoubtedly boosted the country’s desperately needed hard-currency reserves. But it doesn’t seem to have kept many journalists away. Domestic reporters were easier to deal with. The party issued reams of carefully considered guidelines and talking points. TV cameramen attended special training sessions. Their instructors told them to avoid shots of large crowds. Instead, they were supposed to point their cameras toward the sky while leaving a few people at the bottom of the frame. Shots of elderly people, nuns, and priests were to be preferred; young people, families, and laypeople should be avoided. The idea was to make it appear as though the pope’s supporters were a marginal, backward bunch, and certainly nothing like a cross-section of society.

Meanwhile, the party was taking no chances. In the weeks before John Paul II’s arrival, the Polish police arrested 150 dissidents—including Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, one of the founders of KOR [Workers’ Defence Committee]. (A few weeks earlier a gang of toughs had attacked Kuron on the street and beaten him badly. No one was charged in the assault—a fact that suggested the complicity of the security services.) Another one of those detained was a Catholic activist named Kazimierz Switon, who was sentenced to a year in jail for the peculiar crime of attempting to set up an independent trade union. This was an intolerable offense in a country that claimed to be run with the interests of the workers at its heart. Surely, the dictatorship of the proletariat obviated the need for any new labor movements outside of the state.

But appearances were deceptive. In fact, by the end of the 1970s, the essential schizophrenia of life was firmly established. Publicly, officially, there was the Poland of Communist Party rule: a place of grandiose slogans, lockstep marches, and central planning. This nation coexisted with an alternative Poland defined by opposition-organized “flying universities,” underground publications from dissident groups like KOR, and the parallel moral universe embodied by the Catholic Church, long linked with the struggle to assert Polish nationhood. Poles of this era had grown up in a society were life was split into two parallel realms, the public and the private, each with its own versions of language and history. As in so many other authoritarian states, citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland learned from early on to parrot their allegiance to official ideology in public while keeping their real opinions to themselves and their families. Communist rule depended on ensuring that people persisted in paying public tribute to the official version of truth, thus preventing them from seeing how many of them actually rejected it. But what would happen when they were allowed to make their private feelings manifest, on a mass scale?

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Democracy Wall as Proto-Internet, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2721-2761:

Most of these malcontents were incapable of articulating their demands. But someone was prepared to do it for them. In September 1978, the editors of a magazine called China Youth, which had been prohibited from publishing during the Cultural Revolution, decided to relaunch it. They decided to mark its return in style by publishing some poems commemorating the Tiananmen Incident of 1976. Party censors intervened and thwarted the editors from going ahead with their plans. The frustrated literati refused to give up, so they resorted to a time-honored technique of Chinese mass communication: the dazibao, or “big-character poster.” They decided to print the poems in poster form and paste them up in a public place. They needed a venue where a big audience was ensured, so they opted for a spot that other unrecognized writers had been using for a few months. This was a long stretch of brick wall under a row of leafless sycamore trees next to a bus depot in Xidan, a spot in downtown Beijing, just a few blocks from the Jingxi Hotel, that tens of thousands of commuters passed through every day.

China Youth’s decision to use the site dramatically boosted its notoriety. Crowds of readers quickly formed. To everyone’s surprise, the authorities declined to interfere. Posters proliferated. Soon people were coming from all over China to take a look. Crowds gathered, eager to experience the heady atmosphere of a place where a myriad of views competed for attention.

This was Xidan Democracy Wall. Young Chinese described it as their version of Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. For a few weeks in the winter of 1978–1979, it would become a key strategic asset in the battle for China’s soul.

At some point in late November, a poster appeared on the wall criticizing Mao by name. No one could recall such a thing ever happening before. The author of the poster, who called himself Work Permit Number 0538 (and gave the address of the motor repair shop where he worked), wrote: “In 1976 after the Tiananmen Incident, the Gang of Four made use of the prestige and power of Chairman Mao’s mistaken judgment on class struggle and launched an all-out attack on the cause of revolution in China.” During the Cultural Revolution, one man had been sentenced to fifteen years in a labor camp for absentmindedly scratching his back with a copy of the Little Red Book during a mass meeting. Now everyone waited to see what would happen to the author of this shocking text. Would he be shot? Surely, at least, the poster itself would be torn down. But two days later it was still there.

The posters that followed pushed the boundaries even further. One wondered how the all-knowing Mao had failed to notice that his own wife, Jiang Qing, was actually a “traitor.” Another called on the party leadership to observe the rule of law. Another demanded the rehabilitation of party leaders who had been purged by Mao in the early 1960s. Not all of the provocations were political. “Why can’t the national economy catch up with the one in Taiwan?” one poster asked. “How can the United States, a capitalist country only 200 years old, be the most developed in the world?”

By now the wall was besieged by visitors, day and night. People read, expostulated, and listened “with an openness unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic.” Some visitors spoke their messages through bullhorns. The foreign correspondents and diplomats who came to see what was going on found themselves besieged by curious locals. During the years of the Cultural Revolution, ordinary Chinese had done whatever they could to avoid even the most cursory contact with citizens of other countries. Now, liberated by the air of candor around the wall, they peppered the foreigners with questions. Roger Garside, a Chinese-speaking British diplomat who wrote one of the most vivid accounts of the early reform period in China, recalled the scene:

They bombarded me with questions on democracy and human rights: “Can you really criticize your Prime Minister? Who owns the newspapers in Britain? How do they decide their editorial policy? How is the BBC controlled? How are elections organized?”

Some were by no means ignorant but wanted to check out the information they had acquired one way or another; others were simply thirsty for knowledge.

In Garside’s description, Democracy Wall functioned like a sort of proto-Internet: posters with derivative content were quickly papered over, while those that had something new or powerful to say were left uncovered. Readers wrote comments on some of the posters with ballpoint pens; when a popular one was torn by accident, visitors quickly glued it back together. Some of the texts were written on scraps of paper torn from notebooks, while others were composed on sheets of paper three feet high with brush and ink. Some authors used paper in pink or green to attract attention.

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Three Keys to Czechoslovak Independence

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 4095-4115:

LOOKING BACK YEARS later, R. W. Seton-Watson credited three tactical achievements for the success of the Czecho-Slovak independence movement. The first was Masaryk’s decision to go to Russia in May 1917 to organize the legionnaires. The second was the work of Beneš and Milan R. Štefánik in promoting the Italian-Yugoslav rapprochement after the Battle of Caporetto and the holding of the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Rome in April 1918. The third achievement, he said, was Masaryk’s ability to reach Washington in time to influence President Wilson’s relations with Austria-Hungary, modifying his peace terms. “That America might help did not occur to me,” Masaryk said of his thinking as he left Prague in 1914. Now in America, Masaryk gave a face to the exploits of the legionnaires, which were jumping off the pages of American newspapers just as the professor began making speeches, granting interviews, and, especially, lobbying the White House. Once again, he was in the right place at the right time.

Masaryk arrived in Vancouver aboard the Empress of Asia on April 29, 1918, where he was met by Charles Pergler, the Czech-born Iowa lawyer who generated much of the exile movement’s publicity in America. Based in Washington, DC, Pergler was vice president of the United States branch of the Czecho-Slovak National Council. “During my whole stay in America he was with me, working indefatigably,” Masaryk said. The presidency of the US council was reserved for a visiting member of the Paris National Council, in this case Masaryk. While the efforts of the exiles in Europe was limited to one-on-one meetings with key officials, American democracy and the size of the Czech and Slovak communities in the United States enabled Masaryk to launch a public-speaking campaign to thank his American brethren for their financial support, raise additional funds, and show US politicians how popular the Czecho-Slovak cause was. His efforts were immeasurably aided by the generous and positive coverage in American newspapers of the emerging epic of the legionnaires battling their way across Siberia. “The effect in America was astonishing and almost incredible,” said Masaryk. “All at once the Czechs and Czecho-Slovaks were known to everybody. Interest in our army in Russia and Siberia became general and its advance aroused enthusiasm. As often happens in such cases, the less the knowledge the greater the enthusiasm; but the enthusiasm of the American public was real.”

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Finding the Real Ty Cobb

Last month, City Journal published a review by Paul Beston of a book published last year, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Beston’s review, titled A Wronged Man: Taking the spikes off Ty Cobb, outlines how the legend of Ty Cobb made him out to be someone far worse than he was, as each “documentary” account repeated and embellished stories that were completely fictional. Here’s a taste of the review:

Consider Ty Cobb, one of American sports’ legendary characters, whose greatness on the baseball diamond—he played from 1905 to 1928, mostly for the Detroit Tigers—was eventually overshadowed by stories about his fanatical racism and violence, which, in some accounts, even included homicide. Over two generations, Cobb has been portrayed as a virtual psychotic in articles, books, and films, including Ron Shelton’s 1994 feature starring Tommy Lee Jones and Ken Burns’s epic, 18-hour documentary, Baseball, in which Cobb plays the villain to Jackie Robinson’s hero.

There’s only one problem: this venomous character is predominantly fictional. In Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, published last year, Charles Leerhsen documents how Cobb’s wicked reputation largely dates to the years after his death in 1961, when sportswriter Al Stump created a mythical Cobb—“Ty the Ripper,” Leerhsen calls him—who displaced the real man in the public mind. Stump’s motives for spinning tall tales seem to have been financial. He had ghostwritten a careless autobiography for Cobb, who tried to stop its publication before his death. The book sold poorly, but Stump earned a handsome fee for a lurid magazine article filled with falsehoods, dubious quotes, and made-up incidents. Other writers repeated or expanded on these untruths over the years. “The repetition felt like evidence,” Leerhsen says. It was “well known,” director Shelton told Leerhsen, that Cobb had killed “as many as” three people, though the director didn’t explain how this was known. Drawing on Stump’s work, as well as a 1984 biography by Charles Alexander, Burns also helped enshrine Cobb’s demonic image.

Time and again, what Leerhsen discovered through exhaustive research undermined the Cobb created by Stump, who didn’t source his work (“because he produced fiction,” as a contemporary said). Leerhsen could find no tangible evidence that Cobb hated blacks. On the contrary, he spoke in support of baseball’s integration when asked—and he wasn’t asked, as best Leerhsen can tell, until 1952. “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly,” Cobb said then. “The Negro has the right to compete in sports and who’s to say they have not?” On another occasion that year, he said: “No white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man. In my book, that goes not just for baseball but for all walks of life.” The virulent racist of legend, supposedly driven to derangement if even touched by a black man, attended Negro League games, threw out a first pitch, and often sat in the dugouts with black players. He came from a family of abolitionists. He endowed educational scholarships for students of all races.

Leerhsen concedes that Cobb was complex and troubled, and while he debunks many incidents, he confirms others, such as an awful episode in 1912, when Cobb rushed into the stands to pummel a handicapped fan who had abused him verbally. Cobb was no one’s idea of easygoing, and his notoriety as a fiery (and fighting) competitor was well earned. But he didn’t sharpen his spikes before games to slash his opponents, as the myth has it. His peers didn’t regard him as a dirty player and they didn’t universally despise him, though many disliked him. The old ballplayers whom Lawrence Ritter spoke with for his 1966 oral history of baseball’s early days, The Glory of Their Times, criticize Cobb—mostly for being short-tempered and too quick to take offense—but none suggests that he was racist or otherwise hateful, and some liked him fine.

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From Books-internet to Television-internet

I’ve belatedly discovered that Persian-blogging pioneer Hossein Derakhshan ( was released from prison in Tehran just over a year ago and has returned to book blogging in Persian. Last year he published a long essay on the Medium publishing platform titled “The Web We Have to Save: The rich, diverse, free web that I loved — and spent years in an Iranian jail for — is dying. Why is nobody stopping it?”

Here are excerpts from his essay about how the web has evolved:

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.

Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others, insecure social services, are far more paranoid. Instagram — owned by Facebook — doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realize that they’re using the Internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage — and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: novelty and popularity, reflected by the real world dominance of young celebrities. That philosophy is the Stream.

The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex –and secretive — algorithms.

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.

But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.

Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilized lives, and it just gets worse as time goes by.

In early 2000s writing blogs made you cool and trendy, then around 2008 Facebook came in and then Twitter. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram, and no one knows what is next. But the more I think about these changes, the more I realize that even all my concerns might have been misdirected. Perhaps I am worried about the wrong thing. Maybe it’s not the death of the hyperlink, or the centralization, exactly.

Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. After all, the first visitors to the web spent their time online reading web magazines. Then came blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now it’s Facebook videos and Instagram and SnapChat that most people spend their time on. There’s less and less text to read on social networks, and more and more video to watch, more and more images to look at. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?

[T]he Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.


Filed under blogging, democracy, economics, industry, Iran, philosophy, publishing

Writing Consonant Symbols for Vowels

New orthographies for Pacific Island languages have had very mixed results. I’ve blogged about some of the less successful attempts at new orthographies in Micronesia: for Yapese and Marshallese. By contrast, the first Hawaiian orthography, developed by missionaries, proved enormously successful, leaving a huge legacy of Hawaiian-language publications now being digitized and translated.

I recently came across another new orthography in a Pacific language that looks bizarre to people who read widely in Latin-based alphabets, but that seems to work for the 4,000 or so people who speak Natqgu, a language in the Reefs-Santa Cruz islands off the southeastern end of the Solomon Islands. A local language committee revised an earlier orthography that was difficult to type because it relied on diacritics to distinguish 10 vowel positions, plus distinctive nasalization on a few of them. Fortunately, they didn’t need all the plain consonant symbols on standard keyboards so they decided to substitute consonant symbols for the diacritic-laden vowels and mark nasalization with a trailing apostrophe.

Language Project advisor Brenda Boerger describes the local committee’s thinking in Natqgu literacy: Capturing three domains for written language use in Language Documentation & Conservation 1 (2007): 126–153:

But by the mid-1990s, when Wurm’s [diacritic-dependent] Natqgu orthography had been in use for over ten years, there had still been little increase in vernacular literacy. So the local community was again asked by the Natqgu Language Project to consider modifying the orthography in order to eliminate the diacritics. This time there was sufficient support for it, and with the consent of the leader who had had reservations, the language group decided to change the orthography. Their reasons were primarily two-fold. The first was exactly what was reported above. That is, speakers continued to find it difficult to learn to read and write Natqgu, apparently as a result of their lack of experience in identifying the letters with diacritics as separate symbols and sounds from those without. Their second reason was related to producing printed materials. Typing the diacritics demanded a special typewriter with at least a tilde. The double quote mark was often used in place of the umlaut. For vowels with both an umlaut and a tilde, it was necessary for the typist to scroll the paper slightly, so that the tilde would be over the umlaut (double quote mark). Typing was tedious, and the end result was not the clean copy normally expected for printed texts. Furthermore, no printing business in the Solomons at that time was able to typeset text with the Natqgu diacritics.

Since the earlier language committee had become inactive, an ad hoc orthography committee composed of leaders literate in Natqgu was formed to make the change. They discussed a number of possible ways to modify the alphabet. For each proposal a paragraph was printed so the committee members could see text in the revised orthography. One proposal included using digraphs to replace the letters with diacritics. Another pattern suggested digraphs, which had Natqgu attempting to follow English pronunciation and spelling conventions, by representing /ə/ as uh and /a/ as ah. However, since this went against the convention for most languages in the world, including Pijin and other Solomons vernaculars, all of which represent /a/ as a, this alternative was rejected. As other digraphs were examined, the committee quickly rejected them all. They realized that not only would using digraphs add to the length of words, but that the added length would also make them even more difficult to read, especially since three of the vowels with diacritics occurred most frequently.

Table 4. Vowel Equivalences in the Old and New Natqgu Orthographies [truncated here]
old = new = IPA
a = a = a
e = e = e
i = i = i
o = o = o
u = u = u
o = c = ɔ (open o)
ü = q = ʉ (barred U)
ö = r = ɞ (close reversed epsilon)
ä = x = æ
ë = z = ə

That situation left the committee with the “one sound, one symbol” alternative. As an advisor to the committee, I showed them orthographic and IPA vowel symbols from other languages in the world to consider as possibilities, some of which had the same disadvantages as the orthography with diacritics. They expressed a strong desire to stick to the letters they already recognized as symbols for written language — those on an English typewriter. As a consequence, they decided to represent the five diacritic vowels by using consonant letters from the English alphabet which were not necessary for writing Natqgu words. The inventory of possible letters was: c, f, h, q, r, x, and z. They rejected the use of f and h because, “Vowels should only be one space high,” leaving only five letters remaining for the five vowels under consideration. They compromised on the descending leg of q because, “Its body has the round shape like most vowels.” Assigning each vowel to a symbol was fairly straightforward. There was already the practice of writing /ɞ/ as ir, so leaving out the i seemed logical. The letter c was the mirror image of the open /o/ which they’d been shown. The pronunciation of the name of the letter q was similar to the sound of /ʉ/. And the name of x sounded almost like axe, which begins with the sound /æ/. That left z to represent /ə/. Thus, the spelling of Natügu became Natqgu, as in the majority of the relevant bibliographical references in this article. They also decided to represent phonemic nasalization with a straight apostrophe following the vowel symbol, so that it could be typed sequentially and no vowel would require a diacritic.

Given that there was little local identification with the old orthography, the new one was easily accepted, even though orthographies have been hotly disputed elsewhere in the Solomon Islands. Occasionally a leader from a more distant village would drop in and say, “I heard you changed our writing.” I countered that a committee of Natqgu speakers had made the change, and gave a quick lesson on how to read the new orthography, complete with a handout delineating the correspondences between the two orthographies and giving key words for each vowel. Each key word used the focus vowel twice. The handout contained the material in Table 4, minus the IPA symbols, and could be used to explain the changes to others.

A side benefit of the orthography change was the continued production of this half-page handout, which over the years took on a life of its own. The team eventually requested that it be the first page in all of our publications. People would regularly come to the door and say, “I want the vowels,” meaning they needed a copy of the pronunciation guide. These copies were simple and cheap to produce, so they could be given without charge. Having a copy of the vowel handout was the starting point for those who decided to informally teach a friend to read, and demonstrated their desire to use Natqgu in its written form, as well as its spoken one. I suggest that the “vowel paper” became so popular because it significantly increased the ease of access to Natqgu literacy using the new orthography, in part by eliminating the need for a teacher on the part of those already literate in English.

As reported in the next section, the most important result of adopting the new orthography has been that speakers are able to learn to read and write in it more easily, apparently because it is more intuitive to them.

The New Testament, Psalms, Ruth, and the Anglican Book of Worship have been translated into Natqgu in its new orthography. Here’s what Psalm 23 looks like in the new orthography.

Sam 23
Kxaolve Sip

Nabz ne Devet

1 Yawe, aolve-zvzq ninge apux sip nem.
X trtxpnz’ngr da kx mnctxpx-ngrneng.

2 Mailz-zvzq ninge me ycngr lue x dakxnzng,
Murde naamax mrgc tqycngr nrwx.

3 Amrnaq nzlu-krnge.
X aelwa-zvz-ngrme lrpzki kxtubq, murde drtqm tr zlwz.

4 Nctrko scm tzmle nzti bange.
X bz scm abrmle drtwrnge mz da kx prtz.

Kxmule-esz’ vztrx mz nzlo, a’ trtxpnz’ngr da kx namwx’lrtix.
Murde nim Yawe, kc tqmncme bange.

5 Alebzme nange dakxnzng,
X aelubzme narnge tolo,

Mz mzlir enqmi rngeng.
X drtwrnge elalzm.

6 Krlz-angidrx kx sa naka-zvzme bange zmrlz x nzokatr-krm,
X namnc-zvzx ma nyz’m.


Filed under language, Pacific, publishing, scholarship