The group faced a monumental task. Their goal was to write stories, start a library in the Petats language, build awareness, and engage the community to support the translation work being done by Petats translators. Their problem was division about which letters or symbols to use in spelling the Petats language.
For years there had been inconsistent use of letters and symbols in spelling Petats words. Some outsiders had introduced foreign letters, but these were not completely accepted or understood. A much-loved and long-used hymnal utilized some “interesting”, but perhaps inadequate, spelling techniques. English, with its confusing spelling system, also influenced the mix in an unhelpful way. The result was a bit like alphabet soup: no one knew which spelling would come up next.
The language committee chairman, Jonathan, had declared that the writers workshop participants, gathered on Petats Island at the eastern end of Papua New Guinea, would be the alphabet committee to make communal decisions about spelling symbols and rules. This group of almost 50 people had four days to work together. The first day of writing stories exposed the major issues . . . and a straw vote exposed the disunity!
To work through their differences, representatives from each “faction” went to the chalkboard. Each wrote a list of dictated words with the problematic issue according to their spelling preference. Next, each participant wrote another story using the symbols they preferred. As they worked through the words by actually using them in writing, it became obvious which spelling they favored.
By the time the story-writing session was completed, there was quiet consensus about which symbols they wanted to use to represent each sound in the Petats language, and where those symbols should appear in a word. At the conclusion of their four days together, the group had set much clearer guidelines for the translation committee and their community at large as to which symbols would be included in their alphabet. They now had specific guiding principles – a standard — for writing their language.
Each word in their growing library of newly-written stories could be spelled consistently. Gone are the days of “alphabet soup!”