Step one: deit yi kuol

When a script is developed without the participation of the community, it does not support the culture and community effectively. These types of languages face greater challenges in language revitalization and are more vulnerable to the dominating language and culture.

Ohara has discussed the critical role of ethnic identity in Hawaiian language revitalization programs (2015). In Ohara’s research, ethnic identity is considered one of the strongest supporting assets in language revitalization.

Ohara, Yumiko. (2015). Re-inventing Hawaiian Identity Conception of Ethnicity and Language in the Language Revitalisation Movement. Internationales Asienforum, 47, 57–80.

My mother, her sister, and their mother, have been telling me that we do not have any writing script for the ethnic language. They told me, we used to have a system of recording. But it was gone long ago, in a time when our ancestors were trapped in turmoil brought in by conquerors who ascended from the lower plain, we lost the record of our language. Through some heritages, we can see it used to be a script system that was closely related to Chinese. The ancestral script borrowed many basic characters from Chinese, with heavily modified use of the compound ideogram and phono-semantic compounds methodology, to create a great number of characters that specifically belong to our language.

山花碑(Shan Hua Bei), the most preserved old script sample today.

In the 50s, the romanization movement of ethnic languages proposed a phonetic recording system for most ethnic languages that did not have an active script. The problem with this system is that it does not feel like it can fully represent the language. Rather than being organically raised by the community, it feels imposed. And until the last time I checked in with linguists, the Internation Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is still the preferred recording method between linguists.

The lyric singing about activities of each month, set in the standardized Roman alphabet.

It is only when I read this lyric about the activity of each month, I realized it is not optimized for us. It feels much like the pīnyīn used for Chinese characters, which is more of a phonetic transcription and improved input method of what is pronounced in Chinese. The basic unit and concept of character are lost to words. In the meantime, the standard roman spelling uses 8 different consonant letters to mark the tone unnaturally, which makes the writing very consonant-heavy and hard to punctuate and hard to build the correspondence between the tone and letter. 

The tonal mark letters greyed out

Although my research and work scope is bigger than what I am doing right now, my goal for this stage is to play with the idea of ligature. We have some interesting compound-consonant and vows that are marked by multiple letters. I would like to examine if we can create something visually unique and emphasize the concept of a character by joining more than one letter into one ligature. The concept of a character would contain a maximum of one consonant and one vow, with sometimes the absence of the consonant.

Experimenting with ligatures
The same lyric set with my experimental ligatures

I think this is a nice step toward visual uniqueness. With the unfamiliar ligatures, viewers can immediately recognize that this is a language with its own writing habits and pronunciations. However, I do not see an improvement in the transliterability of the system with these ligatures added, especially the character-word correspondence. The old script has been derived from Chinese makes it very transliterable to Chinese, and this transliterability to Chinese is especially important because the language has been deeply influenced by Mandarin Chinese.

The lyric in the old script that based on Chinese characters (left) and Simplified Chinese translation(right).
A traditional song consists of a fixed number of characters in each line.

Heading into the next stage, I am going to play with the idea of a visualized tonal mark and the making of a complex-script version of the Roman alphabet. Also, I would like to experiment with some way to type set Roman alphabets into a block unit.

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