Background to the orthography of Gonja

Gonja is a Guang language spoken in Ghana. Writing in Gonja started many years ago. The Arabic system of writing was used until the coming of the white man when the writing system was changed to the use of the English alphabet. The following English alphabet was used in the classroom to teach Gonja: a, b, e, f, g, h, i, dz, j, k, l, m, n, ng, o, p, r, s, ʃ, t, u, v, w, y, z and ʧ. In those days, tone symbols were very necessary in writing Gonja. The introduction of Vernacular Literature Bureau in 1951 brought about some major changes in the writing of Gonja letters.

There were meetings in Tamale in 1960 and another in Salaga in 1962, where it was agreed that the English alphabet used in schools be adopted in the writing of Gonja. During these meetings some letters such as ‘ɔ’, ‘ɛ’ and ‘ŋ’, were adopted for use in the literature of Gonja. Kanyasewura J. A. Braimah (Yagboŋwura Timu), and Mr. C.S. Kponkpogori (May they rest in peace) used these letters in their works as in the “Gonja Drums” and “Ngbanyato be Ashɛrkpaŋ” respectively. Again,the late Mr. J. W. Y. Amankwa, Mr. S. S. Fuseini, Mr. C. J. Natomah, Brigitta Hennnen-Benzig, E. L. Rapp and O. Rytz, together compiled the Gonja- English word list using these letters. The late Mr. Seidu Zakaria published Kanyesheŋ Turbi in 1989.

With the Introduction of the Gonja Literacy Project at Buipe in 1972, Miss J. Zwart and her team worked in literacy in Gonja. Materials for literacy, health, culture and religion, in Gonja were produced. Her works also included the New Testament of the Scriptures (1984).

By the time of the establishment of the School of Languages at Ajumako in 1973, several changes had taken place in the letters used in our writing because the use of some of them had their own difficulties. One observation that poses a problem is the spoken variety of East Gonja and that of West Gonja. This is however not a big deal because it is just the question of the use of one variant or the other of the same sound. Interestingly, the standard writing system of the language adopted by the Gonja Units of the then School of Languages in Ajumako and then the University of Education, Winneba, harmonized these varieties.

Materials in Gonja with this orthography have been used by personalities such as Mr. M. M. Mbema and Mr. I. D. Sulemana (both of blessed memory). Their works included: Gbɛadese, Ndefoso, Kesheŋaba, Awodima and Kagbene Koŋwule. Mr. Afari Twako (Chief Kechɛtopowura) published materials such as: Alɔntorwor Nɛ Ngbar be Mbra, Gonja Proverbs, and An Anthology of Gonja Lyrical Poems. He also rewrote other materials such as the Gonja Drums, Ndefoso, and works by other authors using this modern orthography. These are used as course books by the Gonja Unit of UEW, the Colleges of Education and the Senior High Schools. Mr. Seidu Sulemana also rewrote I.D Sulemana’s Kesheŋaba using the standard orthography and it is used in the University, Colleges of Education, and the Senior High Schools.

Amidu and others mentioned in the GTZ and NALAP materials have also done some writings for KGI, KG2, and P1 to P3, and for Unimax Macmillan P1 to P6. The MOLTENO Project (Break through into English), was by Mr. Twako and others. Several other manuscripts for the Senior High Schools are available with some publishing houses such as EPP, Adwinsa, Approaches etc.

Dr. Esther Goody, a British anthropologist was also concerned with mother tongue education in the Bole District. In 2004, she organized a meeting at Damongo. At this meeting, each participant was given some letters of the alphabet and required to write as many words as possible. The resulting words were to be used to compile a dictionary in the language. A second meeting never occurred; hence, the project and its laudable ideas died.

GILLBT saw the need to pick up from what was discussed by the Orthography Committee at Damongo in 2004. The aim is to continue from there to publish a document to be used by all stakeholders in writing Gonja.