Monday, October 10, 2016

"Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ" & Ghanaian language input support

Came across mention on Twitter of the Ghanaian play "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ - A Tale of Two Men" but with the Ga words in the title written "Wogb3 j3k3":
In fact, looking at Twitter and at the web via a Google search, one notes both this workaround and the correct spelling, as well as the ASCIIfied version, "wogbe jeke."

7 vowels and a 5 vowel keyboard


Ga, a Ga-Dangme language of southernmost Ghana, has a complex vowel system, with seven vowels distinguished in its writing system: a; e; i; o; and u; plus ɛ ("open e") and ɔ ("open o"). The latter two are used to write many other African languages such as Akan, Ewe, Mende, Bambara, and Lingala.1 (These characters, like a number of other Latin letters, are also in the International Phonetic Alphabet.)

Many fonts include the ɛ and ɔ, however typing them is not facilitated by standard keyboards. There are keyboard layouts specially conceived for Ga (see below for a list), as well as for Akan, Ewe, and others. However, there apparently are not any keyboards to enable multilingual input - such as an Akan title included in a tweet in English. Or if there are, they are not widely used. Hence resort to "3" for "ɛ" and ")" (the right parentheses) for "ɔ."

In African Languages in a Digital Age (p. 61) I outlined several workarounds for text including extended Latin characters not supported in fonts or input systems, a summary that was a revision of something published a decade earlier.2 I had not, however, noted the use of numbers or symbols among the "substitution solutions." Ade Sawyerr, who has worked with Ga input issues, mentions observing these particular substitutions - "3" and ")" - as well as others, such as "rj" for the letter "ŋ" ("eng"), which is also used in Ga.

In any event, the resort in the mid-2010s to 3's and )'s to type words in languages like Ga, Akan, and Ewe that use them is evidence of missing input options on the devices used, or inconvenience of existing options, or perhaps lack of awareness of available keyboard apps on the part of users.

Some keyboard layouts for Ga


Over the last couple of decades, and especially since the availability of keyboard utilities like Keyman and Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator (MSKLC), there have been many keyboard layouts developed for languages such as those of Ghana that have extended Latin orthographies. A full discussion is beyond this blog post, but generally speaking, keyboards incorporating characters not on the standard computer keyboards work either through changing key assignments (such as "q" is not used in Ga, so "ŋ" is substituted for it) or via a combination or sequence of key strokes. The solution with changed keys seems to be more common on mobile device applications, whereas both approaches are found in keyboard layouts used on computers.

Kasahorow Android keyboards
menu selection
A selection of Ga keyboards:
There likely are others for Ga (and the closely related Dangme). There definitely are a number for other languages of Ghana such as Akan (or its varieties, Twi Ashanti, Twi Akuapem, and Fante), Ewe, and Dagaare.

However, more could be done to facilitate multilingual typing, so that one doesn't have to switch keyboards or keep track of key sequences to insert something like Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ in an English tweet, or say a Hausa word with a hooked letter in a text in Akan (hooked letters are not part of the Akan orthography). Could for example an extra line of keys be added to touchscreen keyboards - say on a Ghana English keyboard - with the extra characters needed for Ghanaian languages?

About "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ"


Wogbɛ jɛkɛ is a Ga term with meanings of "we have come from far" and "our journey is still long." It is used in the title of two plays written by Chief Abdul Moomen Muslim about the historical events, beginning with "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ: Birth of a Nation," which depicts pre-colonial history of what is now Ghana, and followed by "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ: The Tale of Two Men," which is centered around the stories of J.B. Danquah and Kwame Nkrumah during Ghana's independence struggle.

1. Some Nigerian languages like Yoruba and Igbo instead use sub-dotted characters - and - for these vowels.
2. Don Osborn, 2001, "The knotty problem of using African languages for e-mail and internet," Balancing Act News Update, 69.

1 comment:

Andrew Cunningham said...

Don,

the fonts are there, although some African glyph variants may not be supported by individual fonts, but a core set of fonts are available. With SIL making Keyman free, it is possible to develop more sophisticated keyboard layouts in a cross-platform manner, since Keyman is available on Windows, OSX, iOS and Android.

The idea of a Ghanian English layout that provides access to non-English characters that are required by Ghanian languages would be fairly simple to implement.

The key issues seem to be:

1) access to developers willing to build solutions for local languages
2) a willingness to step outside European keyboard conventions and the limitations they impose on input frameworks
3) availability of orthographic information to build more sophisticated input solutions on
4) availability of lexical data that could be reused for word prediction in touch input systems

Andrew