17 March 2012

The pace quickens

Well, 'summoned' might be an exaggeration :-)

In 1972, Yap was governed as a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.  This meant that it was a United Nations responsibility - and was governed by the United States.  That was the grounds on which the US Peace Corps sent volunteers to Yap in the first place - and was how I became involved in the Yapese language at all.

The Education Department in Yap was able to be a recipient of US Education Department funds - and in particular, of funds under the US Bilingual Education Act - "Title VII" of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968.  That law was based on the proposition that the best language for primary and secondary education was the native language of the pupils to be taught.  Whether this proposition is valid or not is arguable either way - I am inclined cautiously to think that it is - but the act in question was responsible for the three months I spent in Yap from early January, 1972 through late March of that year - and for the eight years that Susan and I and our children spent there from March, 1976 through May, 1984.

The Education Department wanted to start producing schoolbooks in Yapese - but what spelling system should be used?

Yapese had been written, one way or another, at least since the second half of the Nineteenth Century.  I have copies of linguistic material prepared in the 1870s by Spanish missionaries.  Yet the spelling used by Yapese themselves had never been systematised.  Administrators working in the Education Department decided that a systematic set of spelling rules should be developed - and offered me a contract to come to Yap and meet with a committee of Yapese persons - the "Orthography Committee" - to develop such a set of rules.

I wish to state clearly at this point that I failed in this task.

A suitable orthography (spelling system) for a language ought to have two characteristics:
  1. It should be able accurately to represent the distinctive sounds the "phonemes" - of a language, without being required to mark fine differences that are not distinctive.
  2. It should be reasonably natural and convenient for the native speakers of the language to learn and to use.
Linguists will be concerned to point out other important points to me - it might be well, for example, to make clear the relationship amongst words pronounced rather differently but which have parts ("morphemes") in common - English 'divine' and 'divinity,' for instance, both use the letter 'i'  in the second syllable, although the two instances of 'i' actually represent different sounds.  But at minimum, a writing system should meet points 1. and 2. above.

My system succeeded in point 1.  It failed in point 2.

I call it 'my system' but officially it is the system chosen by the members of the Orthography Committee.  However, the members of the Orthography Committee were linguistically-untrained Yapese.  They accepted my advice.  They did not, in fact, do so uncritically.  The principal point which, I think, caused the system to fail was the single point at which they balked - and rightly so.
Note for linguists - ordinary readers should skip :-) 
For any linguists who may read this I will very briefly say that that point was the representation of glottal stop.  I chose the letter 'q' for this - and said that word-initial glottal stop should also be so represented.  Word-initial glottal stop is of some importance in Yapese as some words - mostly grammatical particles of one sort and another - begin with a smooth vowel.  I ought to have chosen the apostrophe ('), and left it unmarked word-initially.
Susan read this before posting it and requires me to add: "Yes, that's right!  The 'q' was stupid.  That's why the orthography failed!!." 
 End of note for linguists!
I met daily with a group of Yapese - many of whom became my close friends later, including Uag - now dead - the Curator of the Yap Museum, Pugram and Defeg, my companions and later co-workers, and many others.  We hammered out the issues and came up with my system.  This was officially adopted as the Education Department's system to be used for the development of Yapese materials.

Early 1970 was my first experience living in Yap as a Christian.  I became a part of the little Liebenzell-Mission Protestant church - the Yap Evangelical Church - at the time the only non-Catholic body in otherwise all-Catholic Yap.  I lived in a government house with Bob Barten, a teacher there, and a Catholic.  It is, perhaps, unfortunate that I made no attempts to get to know him as a fellow Christian.  It is quite likely that at the time I had not considered him a Christian at all.  Or it might have been that to me, a very young, inexperienced, and know-it-all Protestant, any encounter with Catholicism would be counter-productive.  God has His timing in these as in all matters.

In March, 1970, Susan and I had officially agreed that we were not engaged, until further notice - notice to be given by the Holy Spirit.  At some point between then and January, 1972 we must have decided that notice had, indeed, been given.  Whether there was some specific point in that interval when we consciously acknowledged that or not, I do not know, but when I went to Yap in January, we were already making our wedding plans.

I returned to Honolulu in late March.  I sat my PhD oral examinations (one always, I suppose, 'sits' examinations - but I wouldn't swear that I hadn't stood) - not, I hasten to add, my thesis defence; since I never wrote a thesis, I never defended it and was never graduated PhD.  These viva voce examinations made me officially a PhD candidate, no longer an unclassified graduate student - I sat my orals, was awarded my ABD certificate - "All But Dissertation" - which the Dutch dignify by the elegant Latin term doctorandus, finalised, with Susan, wedding plans, and was wedded to Susan on 20 May, 1972.

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