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Feature Article of Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Columnist: Sawyerr, Ade

African alphabets and the QWERTY Keyboard problem

– by Ade Sawyerr

London ©2013

I attended ‘ABC’ at Frankfurt House the James Manye Naa Afimpong’s House before we moved to the james Town Mantse’s Palace at Mantse Agbonaa. Our teacher was called Sigismund Owoo, but we all called him Sigi, and the school was called ‘Sigi Sigi kpee ?aa, did? ?ala ak?ye? komi’ meaning Sigi does not eat crayfish, tilapia best with kenkey, I suppose a meaningless rhyme for those of us growing up in James Town British Accra in the 1950’s. After Sigi, I was fortunate to follow an Aunt Mrs Mary Acolatse, who lived in the palatial Adorso House opposite our house, for a brief while, to the Accra Day Nursery, which she run before I started at Accra United at Adedaikpo.

I passed my entry exam into class one with flying colours, I had a lot of practice during my pre-school years, not studying as you would think, but doing a lot of hand stretching exercises because entry to primary school was determined not by what you knew but rather by demonstrating that you could touch your ears with your hand across your head. Of course there were several things that I also had to learn before then.

Primary school consisted of learning the alphabets and this is where the dualism started for all of us. Whilst we had learnt the English alphabet at home to give us a head start in school, lower primary school was also about learning the Ga alphabet, 26 letters but with differences from the English alphabet as shown below.

a b d e ? f g h i j k l m n ? o ? p r s t u v w y z

A B D E ? F H I J K L M N ? O ? P R S T U V W Y Z

The Ga alphabet does not have Cc or Qq or Xx. In their place are ??, ??, ??.

It is the fact of these special characters not appearing on the QWERTY keyboard that has created a major problem for those of us who in our old age are trying to relearn to read and write our language using modern technology and far away from the slate and chalk and pencils that we used in primary school.

I spent some part of the Christmas break thinking through what I was going to spend part of my leisure time doing this year. I decided that it would be more useful to spend some time on deepening my knowledge of cultural issues and find some better way of imparting this knowledge acquired over the past 25 years in Gadangme Nikasemo Asafo and my moderating the Gadangme Internet forum over the past 12 years and of course getting more involved in the Gadangme United Reform Church Gadangme speaking Fellowship,

I realised that though there are several things we can do in preserving the culture and making some of it more meaningful to the younger ones, in these days of technological advancements we have not been able to devise a more elegant way of writing our language though we all use the internet and send emails and continue to send texts all over the place.

I thought what better way of putting into practice all that I had thought about in composing a traditional New Year message in the Ga to all my friends especially those on facebook, a bit of showoff I am at times.

It really gets me when people use very inelegant solutions instead of finding solutions to African problems. So I see a lot of ‘3’ being used to represent the sound ‘er’ or ‘rj’ being used to represent the sound formed by ‘ng’ and ‘c’ or ‘)’ being used for the sound ‘or’.

Some years back I had to write out some libation texts in the Ga language and had really struggled, I had to rely on my knowledge of how computers work and the fact that I knew from working as a Systems Engineer some 40 years ago that almost everything can be done by a computer if you have the patience to look for it, I also knew that because special symbols are provided for use in Microsoft Word, I could use that.

The first hurdle was that not all fonts had special characters; the so called ethnic fonts were more decorative and looked rather too fancy and exotic to be used for serious writing or correspondence.

Allotey, please hurry up and design a modern one we can all use!!!

I loved the Verdana font that I used for several years in writing reports and letters, but I have lately been weaned from it and now use classic fonts, Helvetica for most of my communications. But these fonts do not give me all the special characters that I need for the occasional communication in the Ga language. I found that Unicode fonts were the best since they provided for more symbols so I tried Lucinda Sans Unicode, I could get all the symbols but did not like the typeface very much. I could well not design my own fonts, did not have the technical or design capability; I could also not design my own keyboard because I was not going to sit behind the computer typing in Ga all the time and I found the old mechanism for putting sticker on keyboards rather tacky.

What I really wanted to achieve was an elegant convenient and user friend way to deal with the er-ng-or problem.

I started thinking of my good doctor and friend Felix Konotey-Ahulu, Klo-hi??. I had heard him find a solution for the Ga and Da?me tonal issue of using colours to differentiate the three tones within the language. Details of this can be found at http://www.modernghana.com/news/136069/1/african-american-museum-in-philadelphia-award-lect.html

I also wanted to have a practical solution that was elegant and could easily be assessed by all who wanted to use the computer to write Ga but would be able to use it for English as well.

1. By far the easiest solution was to create a template in word for writing Ga so that whenever I wanted to compose in Ga, I would call that template as a new document. At the top of the template will have the special Ga alphabets: ??, ??, ??. I would then cut and paste these as I continued to write. This was by far more elegant than remembering and typing in the Unicode characters, ? = 025B, ? = 0190, ? = 014B, ? = 014A, ? = 0254, ? = 0186 and using the Alt+X key after each to release them. This meant that I would only communicate using the Arial MS Unicode font because that is where I get the special characters.

2. The better solution that I settled on was to assign the keys on my keyboard and use the Alt key to enter some of the special characters. So to get the different special characters I have assigned.

Alt+Shift+E will give me ?, the Latin capital open E, Alt+e will give me ?

Alt+Shift+N will give me ?, the Latin capital ENG, Alt+n will give me ?

Alt+Shift+O will give me ?, the Latin capital open O, Alt+o will give me ?

So this is what I use to provide me with the Ga alphabets.

But this does not work in any of the browsers, so I have to write in MS Word and then copy the text and paste in a browser and since I am constantly on the web in the different forums that I belong to, this is rather difficult. It also does not work in my Wordpress blog.

If I have to find a solution to this problem, then I need to go beyond looking at only Ga alphabets, I need to look at what to do with all the 31 African alphabets, 11 or a third of which cannot be represented on the QWERTY keyboard. These are ??, ??, ??, ??, ?ƒ, ??, ??,??, ??, ??, ??

I know that I have found a solution to the problem that will allow me to write these characters on the web without any problems. It is the best communication solution that I can find. I did not invent it, I just worked a little bit hard to program it. But it works as a truly unique African solution to an African problem and all I have been thinking of is how do I implement this and distribute to all and sundry? How do I promote this solution so that anyone who wants to write African languages on the web will be able to do so and all the pain that my eyes go through in seeing both learned and unlearnt people writing ‘ide be k3k3’ will go away.

I am looking for people to test this solution; those who have any suggestions or are interested should respond to this article and subscribe to my blog at adesawyerr.wrdpress.com or send email to me at asprispri@gmail.com or follow me on twitter @adesawyerr

Ade Sawyerr is a partner in Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy that provides management consultancy, training, and research services in the areas of enterprise strategies, employment initiatives and community development primarily for disadvantaged communities in Britain. He provides occasional comment on politics in Ghana and Africa.

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