The tone languages of sub-Saharan Africa raise challenging questions for the design of new writing systems. Marking too much or too little tone can have grave consequences for the usability of an orthography. Orthography development, past and present, rests on many sociolinguistic issues having little to do with the technical phonological concerns that usually preoccupy orthographers. Some of these issues are familiar from the spelling reforms which have taken place in European languages. However, many of the issues faced in sub-Saharan Africa are different, being concerned with the creation of new writing systems in a multi-ethnic context — involving residual colonial influences, the construction of new nation-states, detribalization vs. culture preservation and language reclamation. Language development projects which crucially rely on creating or revising orthographies may founder if they do not attend to the various layers of identity (colonial, national, ethnic, local, or individual) that are indexed by orthography. This study reviews the history and politics of orthography in Cameroon, with a focus on tone-marking. The article concludes by calling present-day orthographers to a deeper and broader understanding of orthographic issues.
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