Friday, February 1, 2013


Today's Ute Word of the Day (1 February 2013), Neyanwahke [neˈjãw̃ḁkɛ] 'Handgame', presents a puzzle for a practical orthography of Ute. In Sapir's description of Southern Paiute, the stem naiyáŋwi'handgame' contains a labiovelar nasal (ŋw = /ŋʷ/). In Ute, the labiovelar nasal corresponds to (heavy) nasalization of the first vowel in a vowel cluster. So vowel nasalization is important in Ute and ought to be represented in a practical orthography. In the practical orthography for White Mesa Ute that I'm developing, my first solution for representing vowel nasalization was to follow the vowel with n (e.g., Nuuchiun [nuːtʃiũ] 'Ute people; Indian people', the Ute Word of the Day for 17 January). This parallels my treatment of voiceless vowels as a vowel followed by hThe trailing h for voiceless vowels works because /h/ is otherwise unattested as a consonant phoneme of Ute, so there's no ambiguity: Vh is always and only a voiceless vowel. However, /n/ is amply attested as a consonant phoneme in Ute, so ambiguity could arise in sequences of orthographic VnV: is it [ṼV] or [VnV]? However, in all of the words that I can find with vowel nasalization, the vowel is back and round (/u/ or /o/), or, as in the present case, it is followed by /w/--either nasalized [w̃] or plain [w]. So my current thinking is to use Vn(V) when the vowel is round and Vnw(V) elsewhere. Alternatively, I could use Vnw(V) in all cases (except word-finally; in those cases a trailing n seems sufficient). 

Do my Numicist friends have any thoughts?


  1. The days of typewriters and early laptops are (thankfully) gone, and I'm not sure that there's any need for an orthography that is limited to the 26 letters of the English alphabet. Why not use an Americanist orthography--one that is phonologically accurate and therefore readable for non-Numicists--as your practical orthography?

    1. I'm not surprised you think that way, Alex. :-)

      I think part of the problem might actually be what one means by "practical orthography." By "practical orthography" *I* mean the orthography intended for use by members of the language community, and not the orthography intended for casual consumption by language scholars, whether or not they are familiar with the language. (My apologies for the little lecture if we are in fact thinking of "practical orthography" in the same way.)

      That said, I don't think it's true that the days of limiting an orthography to the 26 letters of the English alphabet are over. Most members of the White Mesa Ute community (the intended audience for the Ute orthography that I'm designing) are barely computer literate, and may or may not be able to access characters beyond the ASCII set. (I'm worried that characters like ï [ɨ] and ö [ø] might even be too much.)

      A common desideratum among orthographists (!) is that each speech sound should be represented by a single symbol. This necessitates the use of diacritics and odd character mappings (Pinyin ‹q› for [ʨʰ] is hideous). The "one sound - one character" dictum is not a consideration for me; I have no problems with digraphs (or even trigraphs), and will use them if possible to *avoid* diacritics (notice that I still have ï and ö).

      Now for professional use I insist on IPA or Americanist (I lean towards IPA these days), and will not compromise on that, especially in discussions about the phonetics and phonology of the language. For morphology and syntax a practical orthography might come in handy, but I'm not that far along yet :-).