Friday, July 13, 2018

A movie on the life of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther?

Bishop Crowther, 1888
Source: Wikipedia

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1809-1891) was a remarkable figure in West African history, whose life bridged the end of the Atlantic slave trade era and the beginning of the period of European partition of the continent. Could his story be the basis of a major film production?

A compelling life story

Captured at age 12 or 13 in what is today Oyo State in southwest Nigeria, separated from his family, and sold into slavery, he was "recaptured" by a British anti-slaving force and eventually found his way back to his homeland and became prominent as a linguist and a member of the Anglican clergy (becoming in 1864 its first African bishop) in what was to become Nigeria. Towards the end of his life, however, this success collided with increasingly racist attitudes associated with the imposition of colonial rule.

This compelling story deserves more attention, and it is easy to imagine it being the subject of a major motion picture production. The idea is in no way new. From some contacts in Nigeria, notably Dr. Tunde Adegbola, and through him, filmmaker Tunde Kelani, I learned some years ago that there is interest in the production such a drama. There is at least one published dramatization of Crowther's life, a play focusing on his difficult later years, written by Prof. Femi Osofisan

Certainly the most dramatic episode in Crowther's life was the unexpected reunion with his mother in 1846, which he himself recounted in these words (as presented in an 1892 biography):
"August 21. The text for this day in the Christian Almanac, is 'Thou art the Helper of the fatherless.' I have never felt the force of this text more than I did this day, as I have to relate that my mother, from whom I was torn away about five-and-twenty years ago, came with my brother in quest of me. When she saw me she trembled. She could not believe her own eyes. We grasped one another, looking at each other with silence and great astonishment, big tears rolling down her emaciated cheeks. A great number of people soon came together. She trembled as she held me by the hand and called me by the familiar names by which I well remember I used to be called by my grandmother, who has since died in slavery. We could not say much, but sat still, and cast now and then an affectionate look at each other--a look which violence and oppression had long checked--an affection which had nearly been extinguished by the long space of twenty-five years. My two sisters who were captured with us, are both with my mother, who takes care of them and her grandchildren in a small town not far from here, called Absika. Thus unsought for--after all search for me had failed--God has brought us together again, and turned our sorrow into joy."
Although a figure of the 19th century, Crowther's life story resonates beyond that period so critical in African history. The theme of separation and reunion is universal and powerful. His encounter with some of the worst aspects of racism, which unfortunately is still a very present problem (it was not until 2014 that the Church of England finally apologized for the treatment he received). Crowther's efforts in the area of Christian-Muslim dialogue reflect an important ongoing process. And his work with African languages, particularly but not limited to his native Yoruba, have an ongoing influence.

Ajayi Crowther, translation, and transcription

Early in his time in what is now Sierra Leone, where he was settled after reacue by the British, Crowther took an interest in languages and linguistics. Aside from his mother tongue and the English he learned in Freetown, he also learned Temne. In the course of his education leading to clerical vocation, he learned Latin and Greek, which later were essential in translating the Bible into Yoruba. He also learned Igbo (and contributed to work on translating the Bible into that language), Hausa, (in the context of a trip to the north), Nupe (for which he also published a grammar and vocabulary), and Igalla (which is closely related to Yoruba).

Character combos for open-e, open-o, & /sh/
in Yoruba. The small line is the "classic" look;
a dot under seems more often used these days.
Apparently much of the early work on writing Yoruba in the Latin alphabet (an older Ajami transcription already exised, likely used mainly by Muslim Yorubas) was begun by missionaries in Freetown working with Yoruba speakers who had been settled there, and Crowther collaborated with them. The system Crowther used to write Yoruba, including marks under e and o to denote open vowel forms of them (the language having a 7-vowel system), presumably built on those early efforts. With some modifications, such as tone markings, that orthography is still in use today, a significant contribution to the written forms of African languages.

When back in what was to become Nigeria, Crowther worked on A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language, (1852), which was apparently the first linguistic work published by an African. His translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Bible into Yoruba came later.

Ajayi Crowther's place in African history

Although I had learned some basics about Bishop Crowther in my limited study of and reading on African history over the years (it is relevant to my work, but not my field), I first took an interest in his story due to his role in establishing the Yoruba orthography.² I hadn't realized until later that opinions of his role in Nigerian and West African history varied. In Prof. Osofisan's words (from prefatory notes to his play):
"Crowther has been much vilified by African scholars and historians, who accuse him of having been merely a lackey to the white colonials. His work as a pioneering missionaery who travelled widely and extensively along the River Niger, establishing missions and, above all, putting up a staunch fight against slavery, is hardly even appreciated. Even his works as translator and scholar, who established schools in many parts of the mission, and worked out the first written alphabets and primers for not only Yoruba, but also Igalla and Igbo, is always glossed over."
Maybe it's time - already a few years after the Church of England's apology for what was done to him late in his career - to "rehabilitate" Bishop Crowther's image in history more generally, and to provide the current generation with a new perspective on a complex and influential life and life's work?

A film on the life of Ajayi Crowther

Crowther achieved several firsts, as a clergy in his adopted religion, and as a prominent early linguist specializing in African languages. He engaged with African cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. He was one of the first students at the famous Fourah Bay College. He personally experienced both slavery and the institutionalized racism of colonialism, but rose above them. He left a legacy that has perhaps been underappreciated.

So, could this story, to which the above sketch does not do full justice, be the basis for a major feature film production? One involving Nigerian and international producers and actors? Could it fully, accurately, and appropriately treat the linguistic aspects of the story?

The market is there for big Africa-themed productions - including ones in which African languages figure prominently. The action film Black Panther is a recent example. The 1997 historical drama Amistad did well. Language, transcription, and translation may seem like a harder sell, but the recent sci-fi film Arrival had linguistics as a central component of the plot.

Ethnic dimensions might need care to navigate. Crowther was obviously a Yoruba figure, but also spent formative years in the Creole community of Freetown, and later traveled and worked widely in what was to become Nigeria. The episode of his capture into slavery is said to have involved "Muslim Fulani" as well as eventually Portuguese slavers - so how to be historically accurate without feeding stereotypes should be a priority.³

The biggest challenges are that there is no script or even script treatment on the subject, and that research on the subject might yield more than one reasonable plot line to tell the story, with the potential for conflict between commercial imperatives (especially the bigger the production) and the importance of historical and linguistic accuracy, and sensitivity to the people groups treated.

So this post is intended to give a little more lift to an idea that merits consideration and, hopefully, action.

1. Femi Osofisan, Ajayi Crowther: The Triumphs and Travails of a Legend, Bookcraft, Ibadan, 2006. The play was first performed in Lagos in 2002.
2. This was about 10-15 years ago when I was focusing on support for African writing systems on computers and the internet.
3. There are currently reports of conflicts in Nigeria between herders, mainly Fulani (Fulɓe), and farmers of other ethnic groups, which have led to fatalities.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"Access" itself is diverse: Typology & terminology

Two recent items - a tweet by the Office of the President of Niger touting greater internet access as a key to the digital development component its "Niger 2.0" program (below), and an announcement by IAB-South Africa (logo on right) of a campaign for free internet access in South Africa - raise anew questions about (1) what we mean by "access" in multilingual societies, especially in the service of development, and (2) how to clearly signify those meanings in ways that facilitate clear discussion, planning, and action.
In African Languages in a Digital Age (ALDA) I discussed how "access" in information and communication technology (ICT) may refer to many things, but then adopted a binary distinction between on the one hand "physical access," basically the having a functioning digital device with power and connectivity, and on the other hand "soft access," being the software and applications. In a multilingual society, localization (L10n) is, or at least logically should be, a major concern of soft access.

Nearly a decade later, the tendency still seems to be to treat access as one thing, focused on the technical or physical aspects of access (devices, connectivity), and leaving out L10n and a deeper consideration of how people in multilingual societies access and might interact with the technology. In the wake of the 2015 "Connectivity Declaration" and Facebook's initiative I discussed this problem at some length on this blog: "Access gap in the 'Connectivity Declaration'?"

What counts as "access"?

This gap in how we frame access is reflected in Wikipedia (English) articles relating in one way or another to access or to localization:
  • Internet access (corresponds roughly with physical access; no mention of software outside of network context or of L10n) & the "right to internet access" (the discussion of which is framed in terms of physical access, and doesn't broach linguistic rights; and the latter article for its part doesn't mention access to the internet or ICTs in general)
  • Computer accessibility & web accessibility ("accessibility" generally concerns people with disabilities)
  • Language access, linguistic accessibility, & variants (a set of terms not covered in Wikipedia, which have to do with a range of situations including, but definitely not limited to ICT and the internet; this terminology "sub-space" does not seem clear or well-elaborated)
  • Internationalization and localization & language localization (include processes leading to software and content in diverse languages, but does not mention access as a goal; in fact, the emphasis is more on reaching people with appropriate messages than it is in facilitating people's access and use of software and content)
  • Digital divide (makes specific reference to access, and only marginal mention of languages, but language of software/content is not clearly evoked as a factor in enhancing access to help bridge the divide; no mention of L10n)
  • ICT for development (ICT4D; references to access, with language mentioned as a consideration only in some ways that do not relate to access; a single mention of L10n)
It should be pointed out that these  Wikipedia articles do get editorial input from people who have some expertise in the topics covered, so while they may not be definitive, they offer a fair impression of thinking on these subjects.

The impression I get from reviewing these articles is that they show exactly the kind of gap between dominant use of "access" on the one hand, and the issues of access related to language on the other, that I had hoped to help bridge with ALDA and other writing.

The back story on "soft access"

When I first started looking at the dimensions of access to ICT in early 2000 - which was around the time of the Bamako 2000 "Internet: Bridges to Development" conference - I used the term "meaningful access" as distinguished from "physical access." This was intended in part to address the language dimension that was discussed at Bamako 2000 (its Plan of Action included "plurilingualism" among its 20 "essential activities"), but was largely overlooked in most of the early enthusiasm about how the internet was supposed to transform African development.

In later work on the PanAfrican Localisation project and the writing of ALDA, however, I instead used "soft access," a term borrowed from a TeleCommons Development Group report released in June 2000. I had a brief email correspondence with that NGO prior to the release of the report, but it is not clear whether or to what extent my input regarding types of access may have contributed to their thinking. In any event, their take on "soft access" (including as it did, attention to the issue of languages) seemed to capture the essence of what I was getting at. And their emphasis on software in defining soft access seemed productive in the context of localization I was dealing with in writing ALDA:
"software and applications which are designed to enable rural African users to utilize ICTs for their own needs and uses once the physical access has been established."

When it came time to translate ALDA into French, there was the question of how to translate "soft access." The resulting formulation - "accès logiciel" - is fine, but also shades the focus even more explicitly toward software and apps. (The translation adopted for "physical access" in Les langues africaines à l'ère du numérique is "accès matériel.")

Return to "meaningful access"? Or, "real access"?

In the years since, I have occasionally wondered if I should have stayed with "meaningful access," for a harder insistence on the linguistic and cultural dimension of access to technology. And more recently whether in fact that term and soft access might not better be thought of as two distinct but complementary access issues addressed by localization: content and interface.

Meaningful access, however, is a term that can be understood - and indeed is used - in ways that don't deal with language or even content. For example, meaningful access might simply refer to the quality of physical access (which would not be meaningful to have if, say, safety or noise were problems). One recent article on helping African women and girls to get online discusses "meaningful access to the internet" in broad terms that also encompass what I've been calling physical access (although it did not mention language):
"having a good, affordable connection and then being able to use it in a way that makes sense for you."

So, perhaps meaningful access might be a useful umbrella term, covering all aspects of "access" that might be left out if the sole focus is very narrowly on hardware and connections. But that doesn't get us too far in a context where language too easily is left on the margins of the discourse.

In this broader use, meaningful access reminds of the "real access" heading used in the early 2000s by (an early ICT4D NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa & Washington, DC, US; logo on left) in recognition that access "goes beyond just physical access and makes it possible for people to use technology effectively to improve their lives".

However, Bridges broke this broad category down into 12 "determining factors in whether or not people have Real Access to ICT" sketches out the environment in which organizations like IAB in South Africa or the government of Niger might try to increase "access" to the internet and ICTs more broadly (even if such organizations are not thinking about it that way). Language is explicitly mentioned only under #5 "relevant content," but a range of linguistic factors are relevant under several others (see my comments below on nos. 2, 4, 6, & 7; I've highlighted their & my uses of language or languages):
  1. Physical access. Is technology available and physically accessible?
  2. Appropriate technology. What is the appropriate technology according to local conditions, and how people need and want to put technology to use? [Comment: Software / apps localized in locally/regionally-important languages and, where needed, appropriate fonts & input systems can also be considered appropriate tech in this context.]
  3. Affordability. Is technology access affordable for people to use? 
  4. Capacity. Do people understand how to use technology and its potential uses? [Comment: User skills including knowledge of languages and basic literacy are relevant here.]
  5. Relevant content. Is there locally relevant content, especially in terms of language
  6. Integration. Does the technology further burden people's lives or does it integrate into daily routines? [Comment: Is tech less burdensome & more easily integrated to the extent it "speaks" the language(s) of daily use in the community?]
  7. Socio-cultural factors. Are people limited in their use of technology based on gender, race, or other socio-cultural factors? [Comment: Linguistic factors, including lack of appropriate language of interface options would presumably fall under this item.]
  8. Trust. Do people have confidence in and understand the implications of the technology they use, for instance in terms of privacy, security, or cybercrime? 
  9. Legal and regulatory framework. How do laws and regulations affect technology use and what changes are needed to create an environment that fosters its use? 
  10. Local economic environment. Is there a local economy that can and will sustain technology use?
  11. Macro-economic environment. Is national economic policy conducive to widespread technology use, for example, in terms of transparency, deregulation, investment, and labour issues? 
  12. Political will. Is there political will in government to do what is needed to enable the integration of technology throughout society? 
In fact, language and L10n in the access equation can also be affected by economic and policy considerations (nos. 10-12). Language is indeed a factor, and used of languages are conditioned by, almost anything that involves communication and knowledge. (This could lead into a discussion of "localization ecology," but I'll save that for another time.)

It is very useful when discussing access to technology (internet or ICTs in general) to spread out the subject, as it were, and to see how it might be disaggregated into specific concerns for specific attention, such as what Bridges did. I'm not currently aware of other similar efforts.

What about "linguistic access"? Or the "last inch"?

So why not just identify "linguistic access" as a key component in a broader "meaningful" or "real" access that goes beyond the usual focus on physical access? That thought occurred, but in the original dichotomy between physical and meaningful access, the latter was intended to go a bit beyond just language, much as L10n also is also concerned with more than just translation.

In a redo of Bridge's approach, one might call out linguistic access as a need addressed by localized software / apps and interface. And also localized content, perhaps still under "relevant content," meaning content created in, and/or translated into relevant languages.

A completely different way to refer to linguistic access is the "last inch" metaphor introduced by Dwayne Bailey and the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc; logo on right) a decade ago. The idea here is explicitly the language of software and interfaces (and content). However the term always seemed to be used only in the sense of "last inch limitations" and "last inch barriers," thus falling into the same trap of discussing lack of a common language first in negative terms that I've discussed elsewhere.* After all, the whole point of L10n is to bridge that "last inch" and thus facilitate linguistic access. Maybe "last-inch opportunities" or "bridging that last inch" to full access?

Wait - access for what?

Maybe part of the reason that the concepts and terms seem hard to settle on is that there is a deeper question that needs to be answered first: Access for what? Bridges discussed people using tech effectively "to improve their lives."'s "Internet for all" site, home of the Connectivity Declaration), says "Internet Access is Essential for achieving humanity's potential." These are broad well-intentioned goals - everything will be better with access to ICTs, or more specifically the internet. But what exactly is the vision of what people will do with access that will yield such vaguely wonderful outcomes?

Most examples of use of the internet on site Internet for All (which by the way makes no mention of L10n for access or of languages at all outside of a few translated versions of the Connectivity Declaration) relate to consumption of information and e-commerce. No problem as far as those go - they are important. But is access for all really about increasing markets?

In other words, in what vision of access to technology would linguistic diversity not be important? Is it one where people participating in a market for info and goods are really only those speaking a small range of dominant or "elite" languages? Is our current discussion of "access to the internet" really prioritizing certain uses and certain linguistic and cultural priorities?

I pose such questions as a proponent of greater access to ICTs (powered in part by better provisions for use in more languages). One of the dimensions I see as fundamental is the creation of content which while globally accessible, might be local or regional in relevance. Such non-mainstream perspectives may be as important for global learning as they would be for cultural/linguistic survival and development.

Even if the terminology about types of access might be hard to pin down, and even contested, it is essential to begin with acknowledgement that "access" to the internet and ICTs in general is not one thing and needs to be considered from several angles including languages, whether in Niger, in South Africa, or anywhere else.

* For example the discussions at the end of "Breaking the 'dialect barrier'" or on my other blog, "Reimagining 'language barrier'."

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Hoping to resume regular posting here soon. Have been busy with other concerns and other projects.

There is always much to write about concerning a topic as wide and interesting as the one this blog attempts to address - African languages in the information society.* Which is to say that there are numerous active topics and trends at any given time, as well as a few older but enduring issues, and usually more than one angle to approach each. Many of these are, I believe (as a non-African), important to discuss in the public space. Some are just fun to explore.

Blogging is, in my experience at least, a peculiar kind of writing exercise. It is neither journalistic nor academic in any formal sense. And with a few exceptions like the present post, I am not that comfortable with it slipping into the zone of entirely personal reflection, like an online diary or journal. But it can have elements of all three (newsiness, scholarship, and personality).

Writing regularly on Beyond Niamey, which I only did for brief periods until the 3 years from late 2014 to late 2017, both consumes time and energy, and generates energy. Time is the critical limiting factor in that equation, as it must of course be shared with other important activities.

There is also another limiting factor that intervenes periodically in any creative enterprise, and that is when the perpetual motion machine of writing both taking and generating energy just needs a break. I don't want to make too much of that, since this is only a blog (or actually one of two I write), and not a major writing project, but it is real. Part of that relates to re-tuning the vision - after writing a while you are not in the same place, of course, and you may not even be along the same line you had imagined when setting out. Some ideas in the hopper, as it were, don't seem to have the same allure or urgency. Some others do, but also require a lot more time than available, and a few of those because issues are complex (and not so easily divided into bite-sized portions). Time for reflection is needed.

But often intervening factors - the need to attend to other matters - are are the main reason for pauses in the blog. Most recently those included some personal transitions (including a move) and other writing projects (more about those another time).

Current plans (this is 2018)

Without committing myself to too much at this point (never good to overpromise), my hope is to post some short items and then to bring out some longer pieces that have been in draft for shorter or longer periods.

On the latter, for me writing, and the researching that goes into it, inevitably generates tangential avenues. Sometimes those are of sufficient interest to pursue at least to a certain point, with the hopes of bringing them to a conclusion. Some "present" themselves at a later opportune time (serendipity to have begun work already), but others require deliberate intent and effort to locate, resituate, and complete (have quietly doing this with a few side projects over the last couple of years).

Another need that others have brought up as a question at various points, is to return to various items in African Languages in a Digital Age (ALDA), in particular those discussed in the conclusion. That issue, and the future of ALDA as a book, are matters to discuss in another post.

Finally, a major consideration that is that this year, 2018, marks 40 years since the 1978 Niamey conference on transcription and harmonization of African languages. I had hoped that a follow-on meeting could be organized this year, but that did not work out. So I would like to take some time to consider the meaning of that meeting (and the series of expert meetings it was part of) for the future of written African languages.

* I interpret "African languages" fairly narrowly, and "information society" fairly broadly. That is, languages native or "indigenous" to Africa, including creoles, and those "indigenized" by generations of use by African populations (specifically Afrikaans, Arabic, and Malagasy). Europhone languages established on the continent, and languages brought from other regions are of secondary interest. In other words, the linguistic focus is more "African languages" than "languages of Africa." As for "information society," one could argue that that describes the contemporary condition anywhere, at least indirectly if not directly.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

International Mother Language Day 2018

This year's International Mother Language Day (IMLD), observed as always on February 21, is focusing on multilingualism and linguistic diversity, with mention of their importance for sustainable development and peace.

I would like to share the UNESCO director's message for IMLD, which makes some important points about why mother languages, linguistic diversity, and multilingualism are worth our attention in schooling, technology, and public life in general. With the mention of multilingualism, these points seem very relevant to the situations in African countries.

First, it important to remember that while UNESCO plays a central role in the annual observance of IMLD, having brought it to an international event from one originating in Bangladesh, IMLD is most importantly an occasion for local, national and regional communities around the world to celebrate the "unity in diversity" of human languages, beginning with those we first learn in families and communities. I hope it will be possible soon to compile some examples of IMLD events across Africa - or pass on the references if someone else takes that task on. 

Message from Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2018

Today, UNESCO marks the nineteenth International Mother Language Day. This is an opportunity to recall our Organization’s commitment to defending and promoting languages. 

A language is far more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within it. It is through language that we transmit our experiences, our traditions and our knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the incontestable wealth of our imaginations and ways of life. 

In order to preserve and vitalize this essential component of the intangible heritage of humanity, UNESCO has been actively engaged for many years in the defence of linguistic diversity and the promotion of multilingual education. 

This commitment concerns mother languages in particular, which shape millions of developing young minds, and are the indispensable vector for inclusion in the human community, first at the local level, then at the global level.

UNESCO thus supports language policies, particularly in multilingual countries, which promote mother languages and indigenous languages. It recommends the use of these languages from the first years of schooling, because children learn best in their mother language. It also encourages their use in public spaces and especially on the Internet, where multilingualism should become the rule. Everyone, regardless of their first language, should be able to access resources in cyberspace and build online communities of exchange and dialogue. Today, this is one of the major challenges of sustainable  development, at  the  heart of the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

Every two weeks, one of the world’s languages disappears, and with it goes part of our human history and cultural heritage. Promoting multilingualism also helps to stop this programmed extinction. 

In the wonderful words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. On the occasion of this international day, UNESCO invites its Member States to celebrate, through a variety of educational and cultural initiatives, the linguistic diversity and multilingualism that make up the living wealth of our world.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Two questions as the Language & Development Conference concludes

The 2017 Language and Development Conference (LDC) in Dakar wraps up tomorrow, 29 November. This blog featured a post about it last May.

As one who has long been interested in the importance of languages in development - which in Africa means attention to African languages (as obvious as that sounds) -  I regret not being in a position to attend. However I hope in the future to highlight some aspects of this LDC, the twelfth in a biennial series, and the third to be held in Africa.

In the meantime, here are a couple of questions for the conference as it concludes:

First, are there terms that participants think make sense to use for (a) the languages that need more attention in development work and research, and (b) for the languages that tend to dominate, often to the point of eclipsing first languages and local lingua francas in development processes and the developnent discourse? And how would one distinguish between one and the other?

Part of the reason for this question was reference to "colonial languages" in a tweet from the LDC:
While this is historically accurate, is it the best term today? I've tended to use "Europhone" in discussing those same languages (in the African context mainly English, French, and Portuguese) - is that more helpful? Or is Prof. Eyamba Bokamba's term "European languages of wider communication" (ELWCs), which I borrowed in African Languages in a Digital Age, better?

The point is having clear categories and names for them as a way of facilitating analysis and discussion of languages in development, education, etc.

The second question is an attempt to see progress in using diverse languages in the development process through the lens of concern about misuse of social media in widely used and well resourced languages such as English: Is there a point to which African languages - or more accurately content expressed in African languages - might become a problem?

There have of course been instances of inflammatory speech in particular languages, generally directed against different ethnic groups. There has also been misinformation, circulated in local languages, such as about the causes of and cures for ebola during the epidemic. But beyond that, could articulate use of diverse languages be directed at deliberately misinforming people in order to manipulate public opinion? Is there a risk that the good of doing more education and development in diverse languages could facilitate undesirable outcomes?

If so, how to proactively address this potential?

Lest this latter question become the gist for suggesting to limit speech to official "Europhone" languages (however we term them), please review the premise for the larger (second) question. We generally don't solve problems in the area of knowledge and opinion by limiting the languages used - and in fact such limitation is the cause of other ills (which I understand to be one of the premises for the LDC).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Extended Latin in Lonely Planet's Africa Phrasebook

Among phrasebooks for African languages, there are some that focus on individual languages - Amharic for English speakers1 and Bambara for German speakers,2 for example, are in my collection - and some that cover several languages. Among the latter, my personal favorite has Wolof, Fula, and Manding (actually Bambara) for English and French speakers, and has the African languages in their correct orthographies.3

Berlitz, which is famous in this category of publications, first published in 1996 an African Phrase Book with Arabic, French, Hausa, Malagasy, Portuguese, Shona, Swahili, Tswana, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu for English speakers.4

This post, however, will focus on what appears to be the most recently published multilingual African phrase book, Lonely Planet's 2013 Africa Phrasebook & Dictionary (2nd edition), with particular attention to Hausa, Wolof, and Yoruba, which are normally written in extended Latin alphabets.

Lonely Planet's publication covers 13 languages, and a slightly different selection than Berlitz: Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, French, Hausa, Malagasy, Portuguese, Shona, Swahili, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu.5 It is apparently in revision for a new edition due out in mid-2018.

What is extended Latin?

Extended Latin is a technical term from Unicode (characters in several blocks of characters beyond the basic Latin we use in English), but it basically refers to modified letters and some letters with accents (diacritics) to indicate a wide range of sounds that are either not used or don't distinguish meaning in West European languages like English or French.6 Many of these are important in writing some African languages and have been adopted in standard orthographies in Africa since the 1960s, or in some cases earlier. A sampling of extended Latin characters with some languages they are used in include:
  • ɓ and ɗ in both Hausa and Fula
  • ɛ and ɔ in Bambara, Lingala, and many others
  • and some other "subdot" letters in Yoruba and Igbo
  • ŋ in many languages from Wolof to Dinka (and some outside of Africa)
Such extended Latin characters and diacritics presented problems on older computer systems because of limitations on font encoding, but since Unicode became standard some years ago, these characters (and non-Latin scripts) are readily displayed.

Nevertheless, some publishers and webmasters don't seem to have completely caught up. Lonely Planet seems like an example. The extended Latin script of Yoruba, including subdots and tone marks, appears to be all correct, and they seem to have had no problem with the more difficult non-Latin scripts for Arabic and Amharic. But Hausa and Wolof do not fully conform with standard usage in the countries where they are most spoken (Nigeria and Senegal, respectively, although both are cross-border languages spoken in other countries). In these cases, Lonely Planet may have repeated non-standard usage by earlier Berlitz publications (checking).

Lonely Planet layout

A company publishing phrase books will follow a set format, which facilitates readers finding the right information in different languages - whether these are in separate books, or sections of one book as in this case.

In its Africa Phrasebook, Lonely Planet introduces the pronunciation for a language in a page at the beginning of the section on it (as in the image on the left from the Hausa section).

From what I can tell, the orthographies used for most of the languages in the book are correct.  Again I am focusing here on three languages written with extended Latin orthographies that have been and sometimes still are mishandled in print and on the web.


Hausa's consonant system includes some sounds (implosive b & d, and ejective k & y) that are not conveyed by the traditional Latin alphabet. In the standard Latin-based "Boko" orthography, these are denoted by "hooked" consonants -  ɓ, ɗ, and ƙ - plus either 'y (in Nigeria) or ƴ (in Niger). There is also a strong ʦ sound that is represented by the digraph ts (much like the sh digraph represents a sound familiar to English speakers).

In its presentation of Hausa, Lonely Planet uses letter combinations with apostrophes in its pronunciation guide to denote these 4 consonants, and the ts digraph. However it also uses these rather than the Boko hooked consonants in the Hausa text. (As a rule the pronunciation guide includes word/phrase in the language, how to pronounce the word/phrase, and the English meaning.) In the blow closer look at the pronunciation page for Hausa I have circled in red their symbols and added the standard characters after (the 'y and ƴ are alternatives, as indicated above).

It is not clear why Lonely Planet decided to use these non-standard "apostrophied" combinations for the Hausa text in a 2013 publication. Their parallel use for pronunciation in a publication like this, on the other hand, can be argued. (Worth noting that Xhosa, which is included in the phrasebook, also has an implosive b and ejective k - but while these are not distinguished in its current orthography, providing a pronunciation guide for them using b' and k' is certainly helpful.)

There is certainly no technical reason today not to use the hooked consonants in Hausa text. Using apostrophes is the same workaround for Hausa found in earlier Berlitz phrase books (not clear if there is a connection). But even in pre-Unicode days, typesetters had ways to include modified letters in text (see also the below comments about Yoruba in this same phrasebook). The hooked letters are distinct even in small print, though more so in some typefaces than others.

Points in its favor: Lonely Planet does appear to use the correct Boko orthography apart from the apostrophied characters; and the latter are better than the "ASCIIfied" approach commented on previously in this blog (a topic to be revisited later).


With one exception, Lonely Planet's Africa Phrasebook seems to use the correct Wolof orthography alongside its own pronunciation system. That is indicating the velar n with ng rather than ŋ (the letter "eng").

Part of the problem in using the ng in this way is that this digraph also is pronounced as two letters in quick sequence - technically a "prenasalized" g (basically like the ng in mango in English, or in the Wolof example mangi that I circled in red on the pronunciation page above). The whole reason for the ŋ letter was to accommodate the "velar" n (ng as in ring) as distinguished from the n+g combination. In Wolof, as in many West African languages (but not Hausa or Yoruba), ng and ŋ are not the same, so it is not helpful for a phrase book to avoid the distinction.

For example, in the glossary includes a Wolof word spelled as ngemb (diaper, nappy). The pronunciation guide uses the same spelling, so one is left to determine if that is meant to be "n-gemb" or "ŋemb." For an English speaker, the velar n in initial position is unfamiliar, and because Lonely Planet doesn't avail itself of the Wolof ŋ to disambiguate pronunciation in such situations, the user is left to guess. Although the letter ŋ is also new to most users, it is easily explained and then becomes a new tool in understanding this small but not unimportant part of Wolof phonetics.

For info: The only review I found on Lonely Planet's Africa Phrasebook was a short one on the Wolof section of the first edition, in the Janga Wolof blog.


One of the most complex Latin orthographies in Africa is that of Yoruba. The writing system dating back to Samuel Ajayi Crowther uses marks below three letters - , , and - to distinguish open and closed e and o, and s from sh. The classic form of the marks is a small vertical line, but these days commonly a dot under or "subdot" is used (also in Igbo and some other languages of southern Nigeria). And as a tonal language, it also features tonal marks over vowels. In African Languages in a Digital Age, I called this a "category 4" Latin orthography - the most complex - since it uses extended Latin characters plus additional diacritics (in the same classification system, the standard orthographies of Hausa and Wolof are "category 3").

In this section, Lonely Planet has on the one hand given words and phrases in what appears to be the correct Yoruba orthography, including subdot characters and tone marks, and on the other hand used their own system to explain pronunciation (per the page pictured below). Their bridge between the two is to tell users "not to worry" about the "range of accent marks" above and below the letters.

As a practical approach, this works for the intended audience and purpose. As in the Amharic and Arabic sections, most readers will not make use of text in a scripts they don't read, but having it makes it available for learning, and also for the eventuality one needs to show the text to a person one is trying to communicate with in the other language.


I wasn't sure what to expect before looking at these three sections. In the Hausa and Wolof sections I saw somewhat familiar problems - shortcuts on special characters within otherwise solid efforts.

These may have been the result of lack of information, but that wouldn't be much excuse given how much is out on the web and in print on and in these languages. Indeed, Lonely Planet's success (as it looks to me) with the Yoruba section of its phrasebook - not to mention its presentation of two sections in the more complex scripts used for Amharic and Arabic - shows that they should have no trouble with other complex writing systems.

Or it could have been a determination that some details of orthographies involving modified letters were somehow unimportant - an attitude I've encountered with regard to African languages in other circumstances (which brings to mind a previous post on this blog about how scholars treat "official orthographies"). This would be problematic and ultimately self-defeating.

There are only up sides to using the official standard orthography for a language especially if you are also providing pronunciation guides. Hopefully the next edition of Lonely Planet's Africa Phrasebook will do for extended Latin in Hausa and Wolof what the current edition did for Yoruba.

1. Alem Eshetu, Amharic for Foreign Beginners, of which there are several editions - latest seems to be 6th ed., 2007.
2. Tim Hentschel, Bambara für Mali - Wort für Wort, Reise Know How, Bielefeld, 2009. The Bambara text in this book is in the official Latin orthography.
3. Pathé Diagne, ed. Manuel de conversation - Wolof/Francais/English, Mandeng/Francais/English, Pulaar/Francais/English - Conversation hand-book, Sankoré, Dakar, 1978.

4. There are at least two editions of the Berlitz phrasebook. In addition to the 1996 publication, another edition came out in 2005.
5. The first edition was published in 2007. It apparently had the same 13 languages covered in the second edition.
6. That's admittedly a bit of an oversimplification.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

One's campaign for girls' education & mother tongue-based teaching

Photo from One's girls' education petition webpage
Today is the International Day of the Girl Child, and the NGO One is using the occasion to highlight the fact that 130 million girls are not in school and promote a petition campaign to urge funding by world leaders.

This is an important issue and a laudable effort. It is also an issue that exists alongside the lack of instruction in first languages - and arguably efforts to increase the number of girls in school could work well in tandem with efforts to expand mother tongue based (and multilingual) education. One's campaign seems to miss this dimension.

Medium of instruction important for girls' education

In many countries in Africa school instruction is only in a Europhone official language (from day 1, or from early in primary school). This poses difficulties for all students, and also introduces a linguistic divide between daughters and mothers, who more often than fathers tend not to have facility in the school language.

A pair of UNESCO documents in 2005 for example spotlighted connections between girls education and first language instruction: "the learner's mother tongue holds the key to making schooling more inclusive for all disadvantaged groups, especially for girls and women." These are:

The toughest places

One also has produced a report "The Toughest Places for a Girl to Get an Education" which found that 9 of the 10 most difficult countries were in Africa (starting with the most difficult): South Sudan; Central African Republic; Niger; Afghanistan; Chad; Mali; Guinea; Burkina Faso; Liberia; and Ethiopia. This report, however, also does not mention language of instruction.

Education is one of the sectors in multilingual Africa in which the linguistic dimension of policy and action has been relatively well discussed - even if the quality of debate and policy results may vary. The question of language(s) of instruction is certainly also related to the issue of getting and keeping more girls in school, and it deserves explicit attention from outside organizations seeking to increase that number.