An Orality Primer for Missionaries


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Table of contents

Years of research are carried out by missionaries in the search for a definitive orthography.


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The "adequate" script is always psychophonemic or simply phonemic: the symbols and the graphemes always correspond to the phonological units phonemes. A second criteria concerns the necessary adaptation of writing to the national language; the choice of graphemes is thus limited by those that already exist in the alphabet of the national language. In other words, the Indigenous language is an instrument for achieving a type of literacy that acts as a baseline for another objective: learning the dominant language, taught in stages, first in its oral form and then in writing.

Furthermore, the elaboration of an orthography must take into account a number of factors that are labelled sociolinguistic: dialects, religious divisions, politics, pre-existing orthographies, age groups. Finally, the success of an orthography depends on how it is accepted by some in the group, who should come to use it with little difficulty until it becomes a part of their culture, as defined by the SIL. At this stage the task appears to be technical, so to speak, a mere conversion of codes based on scientific criteria. A whole process which involves translators and translation consultants then baptizes the new script Stoll ; Barros The alliance of linguists and translators puts writing at the service of another task, making it a strongly ideological, yet subtle, instrument for cultural and social change.

The Evangelists had given the Wapishana an orthography that had already been tried and tested, but in which the latter saw a range of problems. In the course of seminaries which I had been called to organize and conduct, the Evangelical orthography was discussed and, gradually, its architecture and background came to be understood. In spite of its efficient and scientific veneer, certain insurmountable hindrances stood before its adoption: its foreign accent and its identification with a missionary segment that was inimical to the Catholics who worked with a large part of the Brazilian Wapishana.

The first problem stemmed from the fact that the orthography had been modelled in the English language, which is the official language of Guyana, an ex-British colony. There was concern to avoid "nationalist" criticisms, which could come from the educational agencies of the local government Roraima 8 ; the script should therefore become more akin to Portuguese, so as to strengthen the proposal under consideration.

The second problem paradoxically stemmed from the most scientifically sound and convincing aspect of the Evangelical script: its phonemic "logic", through which each grapheme or letter represents a phoneme, a distinctive unit of the structure that organized the acoustic matter of the language. Phonetic writing is a historical conquest of modern linguistics and it is geared towards the introduction of writing into an exclusively oral tradition, since it is based on the application of phonological knowledge towards the establishment of an alphabet and the other orthographical norms of a language.

The process that produces a phonemic writing nonetheless implies a considerable degree of abstraction and presupposes the inevitable intervention of a linguist. Once a phonemic script is consolidated, its success in promoting literacy is seen to be a consequence of its "naturalness", since it is accepted by the literate, native speakers of the language. The apparently inexplicable rejection of purely phonemic script by the Wapishana and by many other Indigenous peoples can be seen as the expression of a tension between two "natures": on the one hand, the already mentioned association between graphemes and phonemes; on the other, the orthographical conventions of Portuguese which are perceived to be "natural" since it is a prestigious language for which writing is an integral part of its strength.

We can thus explain the desire and the need to adapt the written norms of the Indigenous language, invented elsewhere and given to the Indigenous people, to the written norms of the language of the whites. The Wapishana, nonetheless, had not only to deal with the script of the Evangelists, but also with that of the Catholic missionaries.

The Writing of the Catholics. Between the experiences registered in the very first encounter with Indigenous languages in the early days of the colony and the recent philosophy of bilingual education, the policies and practices of Catholic missions were characterized by a long period dominated by the annihilation of native linguistic diversity.


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  7. In the context of a revision of missionary work carried out by the Catholic Church within the last years, the Catholics began to be concerned with respecting the implementation of a new perspective of bilingual education. Within the Diocese of Roraima Mission of the Consolata , this was sometimes expressed in the words of the priests, other times in the speeches of the Indians themselves:. We must defend what is ours and value all that our parents taught us. Only then can we better our lives and defend our rights.

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    The Macuxi language is, for us, a weapon that we can use to better communicate between ourselves and which, furthermore, the whites do not understand [ The book Waparadan , presented as a sort of guide for learning the Wapishana language, had been the first essay published by the "Catholic" press, and it had been elaborated with help of laymen advisors to the mission with superficial knowledge of anthropology and linguistics. No sooner was the book printed and published, problems with the new script began to be manifested. There are a series of linguistic mistakes in the script that was created.

    It is basically a mixture of imprecise phonetic registers, extreme adaptation to written Portuguese, and mistakes due to a hurried and superficial study of the structure of the language. Had the Wapishana not been exposed to the "Evangelical" script, they would no doubt have failed to notice other, even greater problems with the "Catholic" script. The Indians were well-aware of these problems, and could criticize them one by one.


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    Missionaries began to produce written material in Macuxi and, to a lesser extent, in Wapishana. Along with the inevitable hymn books and translation of texts aimed at conversion, a considerable amount of work was dedicated to the editing of books of Indigenous "stories", accompanied by commentaries on the value and meaning attributed to this type of preservation and publication of oral memory:. We have tried to write differently from the writing contained in the Gospels [ The Indians thus came to believe the words of the whites [ What are, in fact, the myths and the stories of the Indians?

    In the Macuxi tales, the Jaguar represents danger, the threat of violence, the strongest: the "civilized oppressor" who wants to eat the Tortoise-Indian, with his lands, tradition, language, everything. The Jaguars represent the Violent Ones against whom the Tortoise-Indians must fight, with cunning and wisdom [ The Wapishana pondered over the "Indigenous literature" books, some of which were produced by the Catholics, others by the Evangelists, and others still through the initiative of the State.

    The existence of texts written in Indigenous languages would attest to the originality of this "literature", most of it being in Macuxi. The Macuxi, too, had to deal with a Catholic and an Evangelical script. In spite of a discourse that proclaimed self-determination and proposed "education for freedom", contrasting itself from the integrationalist discourse, the Catholic missions' organization of books of Indigenous stories was equivalent to the output of the Evangelists.

    They were both, in the end, the same type of "literature". Both appropriated a knowledge language, narratives which they then drastically re-elaborated before returning it, devoid of its character, to those who originally produced it, now with a reinterpretation that imposed upon it an incontestable authority. Stoll's criticism of the output of the Summer Institute of Linguistics can be extended to all of this "Indigenous literature": an abyss separates the sophistication of the Indigenous intellectual systems from the poverty characteristic of most of the material aimed at those who could read.

    What Kahn says applies, in the final analysis, to all of it:. Before the authority that writing assumes for the Indian, this language, constructed and adapted, can come to be a new language, the language of new times. This is the place of alphabetization in the maternal tongue in the work of the missionary, which serves to give legitimacy to that procedure. What is taught in the texts extrapolates the conversion of sounds into symbols writing and creates texts that, once "adapted" to the symbolic universe of the group, actually create a new language, a new formula through which they can experience and live their lives [..

    Only the professionals of the language of God, the agents of civilization and "enlightenment", can create this new pattern.

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    Writing was this new "language", a simultaneously religious, social and political means for conversion, diffused by the West and imposed upon others so as to fulfil, at whatever cost, its civilizing mission, in the process levelling and limiting the expression of forms of orality. This encounter between oral cultures undergoing disaggregation and the universe of writing can be studied through the concepts of "restricted code" and "elaborate code" proposed by sociolinguists.

    What we have here is a type of inversion of the contexts found among the marginal segments of large cities: for Indigenous societies with the institutionalization of a restricted code of a monitored written expression what is lost is the elaborate code of verbal arts and oral tradition. In this passage from orality to writing there is a clear contrast in the ways in which, on the one hand, Indigenous stories and traditional narratives are treated and, on the other, how the stories of Christian texts are treated. The first undergo a process of reduction that results in impoverishment; the second, on the contrary, are the objects of a faithful translation, with all of the care of exegesis and the transposition of synthatic and semantic equivalencies.

    The result contradicts and demystifies the rhetoric of the chorus "writing in the service of salvage". In sum, the first result in the restricted code of so-called Indigenous literature and myth, with common-sense negative connotations; the second result in the elaborate code of a "true story-history", carefully distinct from the literary and mythical genres. Through bilingual education, the Wapishana were beginning to skim the surface of Evangelist and Catholic rhetoric and, at the same time and along with the other actors on the scene, were appropriating the ambivalent double-speak of civilization and salvage.

    The Wapishana want to Write.

    Resource Description

    In spite of all their explicitly ideological force, neither the script of the Evangelist missionaries nor that of the Catholic missionaries left the Wapishana satisfied. Let us re-approach the matter through the written diary of a Wapishana teacher, who was then the principal of the school of Malacaxeta. His recollections begin with his time in a Catholic boarding school:.

    That was when I began to feel the first difficulties with writing, because we had a book called Wapishana Primer [produced by the Evangelists of Guyana] in which everything was written, but, to me, it was all wrong and I could not understand anything, and now how was I to go about teaching since I had to teach Wapishana [ That was when we began to mount the skeleton of written Wapishana.

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    We changed many things in our writing until we made a book called Wapishana Pardan , or Wapardan, meaning "our words" or "our speech". From then on we began to think that the writing in our language was not at all correct and we began to research what the correct writing might be [ This same teacher, commenting on these recollections, told me something that I heard from many other Indians: "I always had the impressions that our languages are hard, maybe even impossible to be written properly".

    The ups and downs of their passage to one or another orthography and the oscillations in the search for what was "right" through religious and national disputes had left them with a strong feeling of inferiority which was re-enforced by the representation of Portuguese as a language naturally gifted with writing. Cardon reports a similar situation in the history of the "alphabetization" of the languages of Africa, revealing how the introduction of writing accompanies the entrance of autochthonous peoples into the colonial world:.

    More than any pedagogic or technical consideration on the utility of the various systems, it is the political and religious affiliations instituted by each system that counts [ Yet in came Evangelization and the simultaneous but independent introduction of two similar albeit distinct orthographical systems based on Latin, one by English protestant missionaries and the other by and French Catholics. The two systems, which corresponded to the two different religious and political affiliations, were superimposed onto the conflictuous situation of the country, divided into those who were loyal to the king and favourable to the Catholic missions and the anti-royalists, who had been educated by Protestants.

    The choice of script thus immediately made explicit the type of education and political positions of those who wrote. There was thus a need to find a system of compromise that, in unifying both systems, guaranteed the anonymity of those who wrote. Two meetings in and allowed a unified script to be chosen, but the resistances remained for a long time, sometimes leading to serious conflict [ In administering among other things reference to the Evangelists, the influence of Catholic missionaries and the pressures of the state, the Wapishana of Malacaxeta wanted, in fact, a new script that would distance itself, inasmuch as possible, from the existing proposals, leading both to an experiment of critical confrontation and to a sort of bricolage of graphemes.

    I was present for various orthographical rehearsals before they decided upon an orthography which, even if it could not be definitive, was at least the result of a collective discussion, and which could generate the official teaching texts promised to the authorities. The process of this discussion was the most interesting aspect of the "orthographical creation" of the Wapishana, regardless of its consequences success or failure in the service of a process of linguistic salvage.

    An example can better illustrate the conflict and the development of the orthographies, as well as the whirlwind of letters and alphabets into which the Wapishana were drawn. The table below compares the writing of some Wapishana words in the different orthographies, which will be commented shortly: that of the Evangelists, the Catholics, the Wapishana in their first autonomous attempt Wap and, finally, the solutions proposed in the official texts.

    Citation Tools

    We can see how the spelling in Wap, initially created autonomously by the Wapishana, differs from the others.

    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries An Orality Primer for Missionaries
    An Orality Primer for Missionaries

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