by Paul Thiessen
BURKINA FASO–The Siamou language was not a written language when we started learning it 30 years ago. Along with the task of Bible translation came the job of linguistic analysis. We had to study the consonants and vowels in order to develop an alphabet.
The tone was even more complex. If the Siamou people were going to benefit from the written Word of God, they would have to learn to read their language. In order to read fluently, with good comprehension, the writing system would need to be well done.
We learned at first that there were three basic tone levels: high, mid and low. Then we noticed that there were also falling and rising tones. Eventually we discovered that there were two kinds of high tone, two kinds of falling tone, and three kinds of mid tone.
But there was one elusive word that kept slipping out of our grasp, in defiance, refusing to be caught. It was the word “ki.” This tricky little critter sometimes showed up as high tone, sometimes as mid tone, and other times as a falling tone. Not only that, sometimes it caused the tones that followed it to change.
The result was the beginning of a treasure hunt. I began wondering whether identifying the underlying tone of the word “ki” would help people to be able to read the Siamou language more fluently. I became convinced that it would.
We had already discovered that a falling tone word causes a following high tone to be lowered, but a high tone does not cause a following high tone to be lowered. For analysis purposes, we mark very high tone as a number one (1) and a lowered high tone as two (2). Sometimes “ki” causes a following high tone to fall from very high tone (1) to a high tone (2). Sometimes it doesn’t.
Solo and I were correcting our Luke translation, working at a distance using Skype. We were looking at Luke 13, reading the parable of the vineyard. In verse 8 the man, referring to the fig tree, says, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.” The word for fertilizer, núkwá, has high tone on both syllables. In this verse, the word ki comes just before núkwá.
All three syllables are very high, so I marked those as 1-1-1. But when I asked Solo for the meaning of the sentence with the high tones of núkwá lowered to level 2, he said that would make it into an event that had already happened instead of a plan for the future. But our tone marking system doesn’t differentiate between those two meanings.
And so, tone analysis continues alongside Bible translation. Our goal is to help Siamou people to read the Word of God, to understand it and to listen to the Holy Spirit revealing the meaning of the text. Having a good orthography with the correct consonants, vowels, and accurate tone marks helps reading comprehension and helps people to hear what God is saying to them.
The treasure hunt continues.
Paul and Lois Thiessen (Blumenort) live within the village of Tin and serve in literacy and Bible translation.