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How Do You Spell the Sound at the End of “Garage”?

September 18, 2012

One of the many interesting things about our work to translate the Bible into Nsenga is that there is no official Nsenga orthography – that is, there is no “right” way to spell Nsenga words: no dictionaries, no spell checkers, no newspapers, almost no literature of any kind.

Of course, many other Zambian languages are written down, and there is a Ministry-of-Education-approved orthography for the seven official languages, one of which is similar but not identical in its sound system to Nsenga. In addition, many Nsenga people have been taught to read English, which affects (for better or for worse) their ability to make sense of written Nsenga.

For the most part, we are writing Nsenga words just as you would expect them to be written with the “regular” Roman alphabet that we are all familiar with. The vowels are the five basic vowels, just like Spanish. Other letters pretty much make the sounds that you would expect them to. But there are some exceptions:

  • Nsenga does not have the letters x, r, or q.
  • Instead of making its own sound (like in the English word “hard”), the letter h adds a puff of air, called “aspiration,” to the letter just before it (which is always p, t, c, or k). If you can hear the difference in the /t/ sounds in the words “top” and “stop,” then you can hear the difference between Nsenga th and ordinary t. (There IS a difference! Some people notice it more if they put their palm in front of their mouth when they say the words.) It’s confusing to English speakers that “ph” doesn’t equal “f,” but we adjust quickly.
  • In some spelling systems, the letter c makes the /ch/ sound (like writing “church” as “curc”), and writing ch makes a /ch/ sound with aspiration /tʃʰ/. Thanks to the influence of English, though, most people are writing the /ch/ sound as ch, and ignoring the difference between the aspirated and unaspirated forms.
  • Nsenga has both w and ŵ. The letter ŵ is technically a “labial approximant,” and is the sound you get if you make a /w/ sound with your lips flat and close together instead of rounded. The difference between these sounds is very important in Nsenga – for example, it grammatically marks the difference between a singular and a plural pronoun form. (I still can’t really say it right!)
  • Nsenga has a sound that’s like the /ng/ sound at the end of “sing,” where your tongue is back like you’re about to make a /g/ sound but you don’t – kind of like you’re swallowing your /n/ sound. We spell this sound ng’ – as in the word ng’anda, ‘house.’ Even though there is a g on the page, you don’t make any /g/ sound, unless there is no apostrophe, as in ngozi, ‘accident,’ or at the end of Nsenga.

All of the above issues are relatively well-settled, either by common sense or by association with other Zambian languages.

An early draft of Mark’s Gospel in Nsenga. In this version, we use “zy.”

But this brings us around to the problem in the title of the article: how do you spell the sound at the end of the word “garage”? Linguists have a character – ʒ – from the International Phonetic Alphabet that is used for that sound (technically a “voiced palatal fricative.”) The language of wider communication in Eastern Province, Chewa, doesn’t have that sound. English does, but it’s very rare (found, I think, only in a handful of French loanwords), and besides, English spelling is anything but consistent.

The /ʒ/ “garage” sound is very common in Nsenga, though – common enough that we need to find a good, consistent, and predictable way to spell it. When people see a word with that sound in it, the way we’ve chosen to spell that sound has to be logical enough that people can read the word “automatically,” and have the pronunciation come out right the first time, every time. We don’t want people stumbling or back-tracking as they try to read the Bible.

Two options immediately present themselves: zh and zy. (That’s a “zed” down here, by the way, not a “zee.”) Two Nsenga grammar sketches I have use zh, based on an orthographic convention in some other African languages. A local school uses zy on its sign: “Mizyu School.” Some old Nsenga church literature uses zy.

However, one of the most convincing arguments for zh is the consistency with the other Nsenga sound we haven’t talked about yet: /sh/ as in “ship” (IPA: ʃ). Ask an English speaker how to spell /sh/ and they’ll tell you sh every time. It just “makes sense.” In the same way, any Nsenga person who has learned to read English will “automatically” read sh as /sh/.

Thinking about how you make the two sounds /ʃ/ and /ʒ/, it seems logical to spell them in a similar way – after all, the difference between /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ is the same as the difference between /s/ and /z/: vibrating vocal cords.

So, you would think it would be natural to spell the two sounds sh and zh, and leave it at that. Except for one thing: so far, in our very limited “field testing,” no one likes zh. And that puts suspicion on sh as well. People read a word with zh, like Asambizhi, ‘teacher,’ and it doesn’t always come out right. They seem to be expecting Asambizyi. Sometimes, words with sh aren’t read correctly either. But sy tested even worse – confronted with a word ending in –sya, people kept reading it like “see ya” instead of “sha.”

One possible solution is to “un-hook” sy/sh and zy/zh. Just because the sounds are made in a similar way doesn’t mean they necessarily have to be spelled in a similar way. We could use sh for /ʃ/ and zy for /ʒ/.

The solution we’re going with for the moment, though, is another possibility. Confronted with a choice between zh and zy, we’re going to use both, and spell the sound zhy, and the same with shy. So now the word is Asambizhyi. People who are looking for the y to know what sound to make will find it. People who are influenced by English orthography will find the h they need to make the palatal fricative instead of the alveolar one. The hope is that people will quickly “adjust” to seeing all three letters and that it will become automatic quite quickly. If not, back to the drawing board.

A trigraph is slightly less elegant than a digraph, but certainly better than a confusing spelling. And of course, we can easily change back for our next draft printing!

So, how DO you spell the sound at the end of “garage”? In our current Nsenga orthography it is “garazhy.” Stay tuned to see how many times we change THIS decision!

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