A Phonemic Writing System for Khowar

Khowar, the language of Chitral in Northwest Pakistan, which is spoken by about 250,000 people, is, for practical purposes, a spoken but not a written language. For more than 60 years, since at least the 1930s, efforts have been made to develop a writing system for Khowar. None have gained widespread acceptance or popularity.

There is a fundamental problem in writing Khowar: There are 42-44 phonemes in Khowar, but the Roman alphabet has only 26 letters. There is a similar problem in writing Khowar in the Arabic/Urdu alphabet.

A solution to this problem was developed by David Munnings for his own personal use (but not for publication). I find the Munnings System (as I prefer to call it) to be the best and indeed the only practicable solution to this problem. Therefore, I am presenting it here.

A paper by David Munnings using this system has just been published in the North Pakistan Newsletter, No. 20, Sept.-Oct. 1997, Islamabad, published by the Joint Language Project of the National Institute of Pakistan Studies and the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

The Munnings solution is essentially to use capital letters to contrast with lower case letters. With 26 letters in the Roman alphabet, the use of capitals to distinguish sounds obviously increases the number of available letters to 52, more than enough.

There are obvious problems with this. In English, it is customary to capitalize the first word in a sentence. This would not be possible under the Munnings system. Also, in English, proper names are capitalized. This might create problems in the Munnings system.

The Munnings system is based in large part on the work of Rolf
Thiel Endresen and Knut Kristiansen of the University of Oslo in Norway, who themselves never heard the Khowar language spoken (expect for on a tape which I sent them) but who had the notes left by the late Norwegian linguist George Morgenstierne.

A central issue in Khowar is the question of how many phonemes there are. My own conclusion, which I published in my Khowar-English Dictionary and on my web site at http://www.samsloan.com/khowar.htm is that there are 42 phonemes. Endresen and Kristiansen concluded that there should be 44. However, they explained that this included two "holes" or phonemes which they felt must exist but of which they had not been able to find examples. Munnings in 1990 claimed that he had filled the two holes and had found the missing phonemes.

For practical writing purposes, it probably does not matter much. Even if Endresen, Kristiansen and Munnings are right (and I am wrong) that there are 44 phonemes and not 42, the examples of these two extra phonemes are so few that it might not materially affect the writing system. On the other hand, linguists interested in studying this language would be greatly interested in knowing about this feature of the two extra phonemes.

Here is the Munnings alphabet (in linguistic order). The 39 consonants are as follows: p, ph, b, t, th, d, ts, tsh, dz, T, Th, D, C, Ch, J, c, ch, j, k, kh, g, q, f, w, s, z, Sh, Zh, sh, zh, x, gh, m, n, l, L, r, y, h.

The five vowels are: a, e, i, o, u.

Please note that ph, th, ts, tsh, dz, Th, Ch, ch, kh, Sh, Zh, sh, zh, and gh are digraphs which represent unique phonemes and are not merely combinations of two letters. Also, kh is an aspirated k, whereas x is the unvoiced velar fricative so often represented by kh in other languages of the region.

Of greatest importance, note that in the following 9 instances capital letters are used: T, Th, D, C, Ch, J, Sh, Zh, L. All nine of these sounds are retroflex. The feature which makes Khowar unique from any other Indo-European language is the large number of retroflex sounds. It is difficult to know from where this feature came. Pashtu has retroflex sounds, but not nearly so many. A more likely source is Chinese, especially because of the rich variety of /ch/ sounds which Chinese also has plus the fact that Khowar has traditionally been spoken in areas bordering on China.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, retroflex sounds are written by putting dots underneath. However, these dots require non-standard fonts not available on typewriters.

If the Munnings system were adopted to write Khowar, what would probably happen is that many writers would stop bothering with the capital letters and just write everything in lower case. This is a big problem with the Munnings system, but unfortunately there is no good solution. I believe that the Munnings system is the best and indeed the only reasonable way to write Khowar.

All of the 44 phonemes in the Munnings system exist in the initial position of a word. Here is his list proving the existence of each of the 39 consonants in the initial position (in "alphabetical" order):

po footprint
phi winnowing shovel
bi seed
tu you
the then
di yes
tsir snipe, a type of bird
tshar charity
dzah curry
Tip full
Thun pillar
DaT pit
Cat touch
Chan leaf
JanJa torch
ciT drop
chat lake
ju two
ka who
khaL both
gom wheat
qaf claw
fil elephant
wa and
sot seven
za wet
Sha black
zhot early
shut sour
zho grain
xat letter
ghoT mute
maL nest
no not
lu word
Low fox
rum tail
yor sun
hes he/she/it

Please note that the C in Cat and the c in ciT will sound to the non-Khowar speaker like the ch in chat and chit. The C in Cat is an unaspirated retroflex affricate. This does not sound like the English name for a cat, a small furry animal.

According to Munnings, all consonants can be found in the final position, except for the aspirated and voiced stops and affricatives, of which there are 14. Here is Munnings' list of 25 examples (in "alphabetic" order according to the last letter) of consonants in the final position:

bap grandfather
tat father
bits breast area
heT open area
oC green
ghec eye
bok wife
qaq parched
nyuf nine
cow stick
mas moon
mez table
haSh such
uZh erect
mosh man
wazh hatchet
bax hole
gogh worm / insect
krem back
bran ram
gol stream
goL throat
gor witch
roy person
gunah sinner

The questionable phonemes which cause the discrepancy as to whether there are 42 or 44 phonemes are /tsh/ /dz/ /zh/ and /J/. Here are Munnings' examples proving the total number to be 44 and not 42.

xondza princess, as in Honzagool
kindzu bumps on the hand, a type of disease
ChonJer stone-bow, sling-shot
krenJi wrinkle
pLinju polo ball
tonjeik to lose
phatrantsk scarecrow
Tintsk Indian Pipit, a type of bird
Dontsk horse-fly

Here are some more examples of Khowar words spelled under the Munnings system:

tshatur spindle
tshondzur awl
tshowu orphan
petshik to throw
bLatsheik to gather up
bLats small and round
dzox thorn
dzehc yellow
padzgah clean/neat
JenJer chain
isptsar/ispusar/isprar younger sister
roxtsik/roxsik to forget
shoxtsik/shoxsik to pass (intransitive)
shaxtseik/shaxseik to pass (transitive)
i one
an alpine meadow
oshT eight
bo much/many
zhur daughter
Dang hard/tight
bLok bud
frosk straight
prash rib
phrashal haystack
brar brother
trup salt
thringuL pitch-fork
drung tall/long
tsrix coal
Trak truck
kruts numb
gras millet
frax loose
wrazun wing
srung horn
zran startled
ghruts cluster of fruit
mraC mulberry
pLinju polo ball
bLok bud
kLok clucking
qLuc korik to swallow
xLik korik to gasp
ghLatsheik to knead
plash soft
blax slope
flaiT flight
siliper slipper
kilip clip
oChi greenness
ghechan eyes
past low
bosk thick
isptsar younger sister
griShp summer
ShirghiSht a type of bird
xaShk soft
xoshp dream
amisht mixed
pheshk egg-shell
ishq love
quzhd shout
taxt throne
saxt cruel
waxt time
Shaxc shelter
maghz brain
bend sitting place
draghanJ famine
ponj five
phankshal a type of bird
pong foot
phorp fold
thurt ford
borj falcon
buzurg saint
melp village name
mulk country
boht stone
duwaht door
dzehc yellow
geht dust
ohts bear
kia what
kiagh what (pronoun)
khio what (oblique)
Shieli beautiful
gie come!
pai goat
kai older sister
paisa money
faida benefit
aih up
flaiT flight
roi person
khoi cap
oroik to sleep
lei blood
reini dog
CiCheik to teach
bau sheaf
zhau son
sauz ready/prepared
aurat woman
aulad descendant
cou stick
krui red
chui night/dark
Chui hungry
hui call
korum work
droxum silver
sharum shame
garum hot
reShun a village named Reshun
shutur thread
Chetur field
axur manger
sikul/iskul school
shilogh/ishlogh folk-tale
kilip hair-clip
moTer motor-vehicle
fasal crop
bakas box
fikir thinking
brargini brothers
zhizhaw sons
phuk little/child
phuphuk children
tsiq little/child
tsitsiq children
zaq big/big one
zazaq elders
loT big
liloT elders
pazhal shepherd
qawqaw very old
pelpel very sharp
cawcaw very hard
hamo this
he that
hate that
hato him/his
hamoghar from this
heghar from that
hateghar from that
heghen by that
paiso cent
paisan cents
pardo curtain
pardan curtains
bacho king
bachan kings
kumoro girl
kumoran girls
ruzhayo daughter-in-law
lesho cow
porik to lie down
poritam I lay down
parim I lie down
poreik to lay down
koritay he did
koroy/koy he does
koreik to arrange
kardu done
reShu ox
'asur frozen earth
a'sur he is (note the shift in stress)
awa I
paxti rice
andreni inside
pongen by foot
garmi heat
Shapik bread
him snow

The above provides 250 examples of Khowar words written under the Munnings system. This clearly constitutes a fully developed phonemic system for writing Khowar. I believe that the Munnings system is the best yet and ought to be widely adopted.

Ismail Sloan

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Contact address - please send e-mail to the following address: Sloan@ishipress.com