Creating a language access plan for an unwritten language

Translating a well-documented, widely spoken language is hard enough. Translating one that doesn’t even have a standardized writing system is even harder.

That’s the dilemma Nye County, Nevada is currently facing. 

The sparsely populated county located in southern Nevada recently became the first in the country to offer voting services in Shoshone, a language indigenous to the Mountain West region of the United States. However, Shoshone speakers do not have a standardized writing system, making it difficult to create written voting materials in the language. As a result, Nye County will work with Shoshone interpreters at the polls to help Shoshone speakers cast their votes through the 2024 and 2026 elections.

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, regions with significant populations of linguistic minorities must provide language access accommodations for voting services — this typically means translating written documents into the target language. For example, Nye County’s neighboring Clark County provides voting ballots in Spanish and Tagalog, in addition to English. Recent census data has shown that Nye County is home to a significant population of Shoshone speakers, making it the first county in the country to mandate voting materials in the language.

Shoshone has long been an oral language only, however, making it difficult to create truly accessible written materials in the language. Speakers of the language have historically been resistant to adopt writing systems — some believe it could potentially allow outsiders to the Shoshone community to access and exploit indigenous culture and cultural knowledge.

“Some speakers of oral languages do not necessarily even want a standard representation on paper,” Samuel Broncho, a Shoshone speaker, told the British Council in 2016. “We Shoshone appreciate each other’s individuality and embrace different pronunciations. With standardization, we might lose that personalization.”

While there are a handful of Latin-derived scripts used for documenting the language, Shoshone speakers have not accepted them unanimously. As a result, translating a voting ballot or other document from English to Shoshone becomes difficult. In cases like this, US law requires the presence of interpreters at the polls — however, this doesn’t account for other voting-related documents like vote-by-mail ballots or information guides. 

The county is currently in the beginning phases of devising a language access plan for these additional documents.

“There really isn’t a program in place as of now, hopefully eventually there will be something,” Sandra Merlino, Nye County clerk, told the Idaho Capital Sun. “Right now it’s just a start.”

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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