"If your God is so mighty, why doesn't He speak my language?"

A Cakchiquel (Guatemala) man to SIL founder William Cameron Townsend



Linguistics in SIL Cameroon focuses on researching undocumented national languages, training field linguists, and providing resources to assist in linguistic data collection and analysis.

SIL Cameroon's linguists do fieldwork in partnership with mother-tongue speakers. Together they engage in the collection, analysis, and organization of language data, with the aim of promoting the use of the language in various domains. The tangible result of this cooperative research is publication of technical articles, dictionaries, practical grammars, and written literature, both native-authored and translated.

SIL Cameroon offers linguistics training at its regional centres in Yaounde, Bamenda, and Maroua. The courses offered are both theoretical and applied, with an emphasis on application to fieldwork. Of particular interest are the “Foundations for Writing” and “Foundations for Grammar” series, which are designed to assist native speakers in discovering the structures of their languages and designing a writing system. (The French versions are known as “Premiers pas à l’écriture” and “Premiers pas à la grammaire” respectively.) SIL also supports fieldwork by producing linguistics resources like textbooks and reference materials, and making software and fonts available – all of which are designed to assist linguists in the field.

Although we use current linguistics theory in our collection and analysis of data, our specialty is in employing that theory in applied linguistic tasks. Our researchers come from a variety of linguistics schools and as an organization, we take a rather eclectic approach to field linguistics.

Archiving and publishing of language data are a high priority for SIL Cameroon. As part of this effort, we are preparing an increasing amount of language data for electronic accessibility.

1 - Fieldwork and Research
SIL's field linguists work in partnership with mother-tongue speakers. Together they engage in the collection, analysis, and organization of language data.

2 - Linguistic Training
We offer training at our regional centres in Yaounde, Bamenda, and Maroua. The linguistics courses offered are both theoretical and applied, but with a focus on applied.

3 - Resources for Doing Linguistics
SIL produces resources to help fieldworkers and researchers carry out their linguistic analyses, including textbooks, reference material, software and fonts.

1 - Linguistic Fieldwork

Through its fieldwork, SIL seeks to help document the undocumented languages of the world.

SIL's field linguists work in partnership with mother-tongue speakers. Together they engage in the collection, analysis, and organization of language data. A particular focus is to help document the lesser-known languages of the world, including endangered languages. SIL endeavours to share both the data and the results of analysis in order to contribute to the overall knowledge of language.
We strive to work within the framework of our Linguistic Creed.
Examples of our research can be found in the resources listed below.

Publications from fieldwork
The work of SIL has resulted in over 11,000 technical publications, all of which are listed in the SIL Bibliography. Most of these are a reflection of our linguistic fieldwork, including research that has been carried out on Cameroonian languages. The links below are queries into the bibliography which generate lists of publications that report research of languages in various countries of the world.

2 - Linguistics Training

Our linguistics training focuses on field-tested procedures and techniques for analyzing unwritten languages.

We offer training at our regional centres in Yaounde, Bamenda, and Maroua. The sets of linguistics courses offered are both theoretical and applied, but with a focus on applied.

Our linguistics training focuses on field-tested procedures and techniques for doing language analysis. Our courses teach the crucial skills needed for describing languages, even those which are unwritten. Skills learned include the recognition and representation of the speech sounds of Cameroonian languages, orthography development, and descriptions of grammars. Courses are based upon proven techniques drawn from more than 60 years of research in more than 1,400 minority languages around the world.

3 - Linguistic Resources

SIL produces textbooks and reference materials and makes software and fonts available to help researchers carry out linguistic fieldwork.

SIL makes resources available for the purpose of assisting linguists in their fieldwork and research. These resources include textbooks, electronic and printed reference materials, software for linguistic data management and analysis, and fonts.

Examples of SIL publications that support linguistic fieldwork:

SIL Textbooks
The textbooks published by SIL have a particular focus on practical application in the field.
A catalogue of all the languages spoken in the world today.
French/English Glossary of Linguistic Terms
Contains thousands of linguistic concepts in both French and English.
Linguistic Glossary
An on-line glossary of over 950 technical terms with cross-references and sources.
LinguaLinks Library Linguistics Bookshelf
A CD-ROM filled with "electronic helps for field language work." The Linguistics Bookshelf contains over a dozen works authored specially for LinguaLinks and another dozen books that have been republished in electronic form.
SIL Electronic Working Papers
A serial publication of papers on language and culture, especially as related to lesser-known and endangered languages. Besides linguistics, subject areas include sociolinguistics, anthropology, translation, literacy, language learning, and computing.
The Phonicon
An electronic encyclopedia of the speech sounds or "phones" of the world’s languages, and ways those sounds are described, written, and analyzed. Developed jointly by Dr. M. Stanley Whitley & Bakhit Kourman, and produced & published by SIL International.

Speed up the production with Adapt It

"Adapt It" is a Windows-based computer program designed and produced by SIL. It provides tools for translating text of any kind from one language to another related language. No linguistic analysis is performed in the process, since it relies on the bilingualism of the program user who knows both languages. Thus it can be an appropriate tool for native speakers who have no sophisticated linguistic training. They must be able to read the source language orthography and write the target language orthography. If the main bilingual speaker is weak in one or more of the elements of the process, he can be assisted by others, as was done in the early phases of the adaptation of the Nomaande New Testament. There was one Tunen speaker who also knew Nomaande well, but he did not know the Tunen writing system, so someone else furnished that information.

Adapt It has been used successfully in all regions of Cameroon. It will substantially reduce the time needed to produce high quality first drafts and speed up the production of literature of all genres.

A Storehouse of Cultural Knowledge

A major milestone in the development of a language is the appearance of a dictionary. Not only does a dictionary serve to guide the native speaker in the proper writing of his language, but it serves as a storehouse of cultural knowledge for those who speak the language and those who do not.

The making of a dictionary is not simply just a compilation of a list of words in a language done in a short period of time. The making of a dictionary is a work of years and, in a sense, is never complete because the language keeps changing and growing.
The Mofu-Gudur dictionary is a case in point.

The Mofu dictionary has as its basis several word lists: a list compiled by SIL researchers Ken and Judy Hollingsworth, based on their language and cultural learning of over 30 years; an extensive corpus of words collected by priests at the Mokong mission, especially Fr. Gerard Sireau; the lexicon published by Dr. Daniel Barreteau in 1988; the list of verbs collected by SIL colleague Jim Pohlig, and the list of bird names and identification collected by Jim’s late wife, Annie Whaley Pohlig. An ad hoc committee of Mofu men reviewed and added to this list of words and their French and Fulfulde equivalents. This ad hoc committee, composed of Mofu-speakers from different dialects, included BAYO MANA Alioum, ABDOULAYE S. Justin, BOUBA H. Nicolas, FARIKOU M. David, GONDJI David, KOTCHITANG Jean-Pierre, and LADDE KAWALIDAMA Clément. Judy Hollingworth chaired the group and helped them come to decisions. One of their big jobs was writing example sentences for many of the words with a free French translation.
MAL ADAMOU Oumarou, a non-Mofu agricultural specialist knowledgeable in Fulfulde, , spent weeks with BAYO MANA cross-checking and adding the Fulfulde equivalents.

As the ad hoc committee worked on editing and compiling the dictionary, it was decided that illustrations were needed. The committee and editors were fortunate to find a talented Mofu artist named ARABO BOUBA who, working in collaboration with the committee, drew approximately 80 illustrations for the dictionary.

Just having lists of words with equivalents does not make a dictionary. For that reason SIL has created over the years different computer programs to collect and organize dictionary data in a systematic way. One of the first programs is “Shoebox,” so named because in the days before computers linguists often filed their word data on cards and kept them in a shoebox. This program has been updated and is now called “Toolbox.” Many researchers in Cameroon, both SIL and non-SIL, use Toolbox for their linguistic research. A Windows-based program was developed during the 1990s called LinguaLinks. As computer operating systems evolved, SIL saw the need to develop a new generation of software for linguistic field use. The latest software suite is called “FieldWorks.”

With the coming of the Internet and more and more sharing among linguists from various areas of the world, there arose a need for a unified way of encoding data so that an “eng” (ŋ) on one computer would look the same on any computer without having to also share fonts. This has given rise to the adoption of Unicode fonts for linguistic data.

Most of the original data was entered into LinguaLinks by Judy Hollingsworth. Several members of the ad hoc committee were also trained to input new words or edit the entries on LinguaLinks. Although entries were printed for checking, the committee found it helpful if they all could see the LinguaLinks entry. A second monitor was purchased, which allowed all the committee to view the computer entry at the same time and make real-time comments and edits on each entry.
As the work of the committee drew to a close, SIL computer trainer Jenni Beadle worked with Judy Hollingsworth to convert the data to Unicode fonts and begin the typesetting process, using all the SIL dictionary programs (Toolbox, LinguaLinks, and FieldWorks) plus other programs to bring the data up to international publishable standards. Decisions had to be made as to what fonts would be used for what parts of an entry and how the entry should appear. These decisions were made with the help of Dr. Robert Hedinger, the SIL dictionary editor-in-chief, along with Dr. Roger Blench of the Kay Williamson Educational Fund (KWEF), with the view that a precedent was being set for the many dictionaries to follow the Mofu-Gudur dictionary. We were very pleased to learn that KWEF accepted to fund the printing of the Mofu dictionary.

Recognizing that a dictionary by itself can not adequately reflect the richness of a language, the Mofu-Gudur dictionary also contains an introduction to the Mofu-Gudur people and their language, an orthography statement, appendices on Mofu counting, Mofu musical instruments, instructions on how to read Mofu, irregular verbs, and maps.

Language Software Support Training

YAOUNDE – All across Africa SIL is using specialized software to assist in the development of local languages. In March 2009, a number of people from around French-speaking Africa gathered in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, to be trained in the use of some important software tools. These tools – Paratext, Pupitre du Traducteur, Adapt-it, SIL Converter, Flex, Lexique-Pro, Keyman and others – are used to assist in the development of alphabets, dictionaries and related materials in many of the local languages of Francophone Africa. Attending the training were four Cameroonians working in SIL and the Bible translation effort in Cameroon: Francis Barah from Bamenda, Halilou Zacharia from Maroua, and Bébiyémé Nkono Raymond and Balan Marc, both from the region north of Yaoundé.

As Course Director Doug Higby states, “In its third year now, the Outilingua [oo-ti-LIN-gwa] consultant training effort has trained 21 participants from 11 countries, many of whom started with basic computer knowledge, as the consultants who will deploy software tools across Africa and train translation teams to use them.”

What makes our training effective? Bringing these scattered folks together as peers for two to three weeks each year as we worship and learn together enables them to build a sense of vision, community and purpose. Knowing each other in a personal way helps them to collaborate via Internet communication despite the vast distance between them. Already, two weeks after the workshop, there have been several pleas for help:“What do I do when I get this error message?!” But this time, others in the group are beating the trainers to the reply! Praise the Lord for this effective training, and pray “…that the word of the Lord may speed on and triumph” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 RSV) through the ministry of these consultants.

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