Saturday, October 04, 2014

Fula and the letter H

The origin and uses of the letter "h" in various European languages was the subject of a 2008 essay by Coby Lubliner, professor emeritus of Engineering Science at the University of California at Berkeley. In "The Story of H," as he titled it, Prof. Lubliner admits it may not be the "whole story, but some interesting parts of it."

Here then is a quick complement to that essay, focusing on three hopefully interesting roles of the letter "h" in the historically more recent Latin-based orthography(ies) of the Fula language (Fulfulde, Pulaar, and Pular), and in foreign nomenclature for the Fula people and their language:
  1. The role of the letter in the language: First of all, in Fula, as in many languages, "h" represents a "voiceless glottal fricative." When in initial position in nouns and verbs, however, it typically alternates with "k," for the "voiceless velar plosive" sound, between singular and plural forms. (The system of consonant alternance or mutation of which this is a part is quite regular across the varieties of Fula spoken mainly in the West African Sahel, with the exception that in Pular - spoken in parts of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra-Leone - verbs do not feature the alternation.) 
  2. Orthography of Pular in Guinea, pre-1985: The old Latin-based orthography for languages of Guinea was established after the country's independence in order to facilitate production of materials in its various languages with existing typewriters. This orthography included various digraphs for: (1) sounds not present or carrying a meaningful difference in European languages, for which other conventions were being developed in neighboring countries; and (2) three common sounds which in written French (the language of education and government since the colonial period) represented by its own digraphs or trigraphs. In the case of Pular, the combinations, including four using "h," and equivalents in current Fula orthographies are: bh = ɓ ; dh = ɗ ; dy = j ; nh = ŋ ; ny = ñ or ɲ ; ty = c ; yh = ƴ. These conventions - particularly the ones with "h" - can sometimes be observed in use in written Pular today, even though this orthography ceased being in official use since the mid-1980s.
  3. "Random H": I've used this expression (not to be confused with the "random.h" utility) to describe the here-again gone-again use of "h" in English and French terms for the people and their language. 
    • The English "Fula" sometimes appears as "Fulah," especially in older literature. However the spelling with the "h" is used in language coding (see here and here) and hence in localization (note its use last week by The Economist in reference to computer terminology in Fula). However, one has yet to observe the random H applied to the alternative term for Fula in English, "Fulani."
    • The French "Peul" sometimes appears with an "h" before or after the terminal "l": "Peuhl" or "Peulh." I haven't been able to discern any particular pattern in use of these spellings other than that either use of the random H seems to be less common now. 

Addendum (8 Oct. 2014)

Since posting this, I've remembered another unusual instance of the "h" in Fula:

4. "Himɓe" for "yimɓe":  In most varieties of Fula, the word for "people" (as in persons) is pronounced "yimɓe." However, in Western Niger and apparently into Burkina Faso it is pronounced, and written, as "himɓe." The word yimɓe is techically the plural of "gimɗo," a term that I've never heard used, but which shows another of the consonant mutations discussed above - this one between "y" and "g." However it is usually the word "neɗɗo" that is used to refer to the singular, "person." Neɗɗo is actually derived from the root for being raised, educated. This sets up an atypical pair of singular/plural in common usage (and in materials for learners): neɗɗo / yimɓe. I first encountered the variant himɓe when working on a Fulfulde lexicon, and then later when in Niger. Without having researched the matter, I'm wondering if the "y" to "h" shift in local pronunciation was in effect permitted by the decoupling of the plural form from the rarely used singular form, gimɗo.

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