Of Tone Marks and Hebrew

Sometimes the collateral benefits outweigh the intended one.

Every weekday evening for a month this summer, Ankamah and I sat for two hours and tested the book of Genesis in Nkonya.

Ankamah is in his twenties, and soon heading off to study accounting.

He’s a fluent reader so we used a different testing style than I’ve used previously. He read the passage once through then read it again and back-translated it into English. As we worked he volunteered comments on where it could be improved or where he didn’t understand the text.  I typed in his back-translation and comments,  and asked additional comprehension questions.

Up to this point in time the Nkonya Translation Team has marked high spoken tone with an accent mark in all written work.  However we’ve talked more and more about writing Nkonya without tone marks.

Every so often as he read, Ankamah would make a comment about having difficulty with the tones. One evening he missed the difference between a future and past tense verb – getting it immediately when I reread it according to marked tone. “Missing the one significant tone because of the crowd,”  I thought.

For the next day I stripped all the tones except for the high tone marking future tense out of the passage, saying nothing to Ankamah.  We worked through  together.

I said nothing about the changes.  He said nothing.

Finally, half-way through I asked, “ Is this easy to read?”

“Oh yes,” he replied”

“Do you notice any difference,” I asked?

He looked closely at the text for a few moments before he recognized the sparsity of tone marks.

In fact, it had made no difference at all to him.  He was so used to ignoring the multiple accent marks that he didn’t even notice their absence.

A couple of days later I accidently gave him a chapter with every tone removed. When I was about to add in the initial tone on future tense he stopped me. “Let’s just see how it goes without it,” he said. No glitches in that passage.

Ankamah has started writing a novel in Nkonya. Up to now he was afraid that if he didn’t get the tones right people wouldn’t understand his writing.  No longer.

I thought of this yesterday as I was reviewing Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. Writing the consonants in Hebrew isn’t difficult – putting the vowel marks in, is.  I had just made a mental note to myself that at this stage in life I would never master the zillion minute rules and exceptions that govern vowels (or worry about not being able to do so), when I started thinking about Nkonya tone.  After all, in Israel no one but language students, little grade ones and weighty scholars, write vowels. I’m thinking that marking tone in Nkonya is a very similar case.

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2 Comments »

  1. lila1jpw said

    Interesting. Much of English can also be deciphered without the vowels.

    Also, ANE experts think they’ve discovered the earliest diacritic marking a question – in Syriac. As a further bunny trail, Spanish marks both the start and the end of a question-sentence–I suspect it’s to allow for intonation over the entire sentence.

  2. Now that’s a thought. We really should mark questions at the beginning of sentences in Nkonya- often you can’t tell it’s a question until you get to the mark at the end. I wonder what people would think of it.

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