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The importance of the fa‘amamafa and koma liliu when designing software for a Samoan Audience
To understand the importance of these diacritic marks and how they affect the design of software for a Samoan audience it is important to have knowledge of some key differences between the Samoan language and other languages. I won't put in many examples because this is all well documented since at least 1880.
1) Samoan is a vowel based language; basically this means that unlike European languages our vowels are much more important than the few consonants.
2) There are four distinct ways of pronouncing every vowel in Samoan
‘a = ‘apefa‘i
a = ava
ā = āfīfī
‘ā = ‘āmata
This is the original, fully phonetic, way Samoan was spelt when writing was introduced. This is easy to learn, easy to pronounce and precise with no guesswork involved. Coincidently it is also perfect for use with computer software for reasons that will become clear.
3) Words with different diacritics attached to them are not only pronounced differently but have completely different meanings
mama, mamā, māmā, taua, tā‘ua, tāua, ta'ua, Tauā
4) Samoan is a contextual language. A word may have different meanings depending on the sentence that it appears in.
Add to these differences plural forms, verb forms, etc... and it makes developing software for a Samoan audience very challenging. An example of the challenges to be faced are search engines. With the diacritics a search for 'taua' would actually be five different searches. Without the diacritics the search will just be for taua. Text recognition software, which has now been available for many years in other languages, is dependent on the correct use of diacritics. The same issue arises when developing Samoan language software for use with word processing, translation, social media etc...
One of the latest trends in technology is voice recognition. With a phonetic, vowel based language, pronunciation of words, and the ability of software to be able to differentiate between the subtle intonations used in Samoan, is critical! Other languages, such as French, German, Spanish etc.. have recognized this and have developed software that can cope with these types of issues. The Samoan language does not currently have this type of software although my team and I have done extensive work in this area and are currently working on a text to speech program among other projects. Without diacritics the speech from text would become meaningless.
Another major trend is translation software. Instead of single words with a few meanings, the software would need to differentiate between multiple words, all spelt the same, with varying contextual meanings. It can be done, but without diacritics the end result is so ambiguous as to be useless.
As communication moves "online" through emails, social media, smart phones, word processors and other software it is vital for the Samoan languages future viability to have compatible development with a Samoan audience as the primary audience. If there is no such development then it would be expected that other languages, predominantly English, will become the language of communication for Samoans. Language is at the heart of culture, and, without the ability for us to continue to communicate in a technological age our culture will decline.
With technology where it is today it is not that difficult for Samoa to develop tools to allow us to continue to communicate using our own language without debasing it by removing the diacritics. For example, other cultures have recognized the importance of diacritics and designed their own keyboards and software which allow for their use. (I do not have the resources to make keyboards, so I solved it by making software based solutions that make diacritic insertion simple and intuitive, and in most cases automatic.) This allows their language to continue to be used in business, government, schools and throughout their community and removing the confusion when a word is misspelled. It is noteworthy to point out that internationally diacritics have always been used when teaching Samoan. Currently, the most used coursebook in Samoan Language courses is Lau Afioga Galumanemana Alfred Hunkin's book with accompanying dictionary.
There is a great deal of pride in the Samoan community, both in Samoa and in other countries, and part of this pride is in the use of our own language. Samoan is the oldest and purest Polynesian language. It's a huge part of our cultural heritage, and it needs to be saved and cherished. We have developed several pieces of software that enable anyone who wants to use Samoan as it should be used, leading to better interpretation of documents by readers. This is just giving Samoans access to something that many other languages already have now. The ability to communicate clearly and precisely using their own language.
To date I have funded everything myself, and, as an IT professional my whole focus is on computers and the future. I welcome any suggestions that are well thought out in this field. My own qualifications are international, A+ and Microsoft, and I have over 15 professional years in the industry with 10 at the highest level. My team is Samoan and international.
Currently the people using my software for formal work and learning, or even just for fun number in the thousands in 4 countries, and all feedback has been positive so far, especially with the younger people whose lifestyles are increasingly dominated by technology. Users include church groups, teachers, schools, students, housewives and just about everything else. We also constantly upgrade our software and regularly release new versions.
I believe that, based on the arguments above, it is absolutely critical for the survival of the Samoan language into the future that Samoan language tools that incorporate our diacritics continue to be developed. Without this type of software, and eventually hardware, the Samoan language will continue to be debased and decline in use as other languages take preeminence.
Fa‘afetai lava ma le fa‘aaloalo