Igbo Language – And The Lost Sounds

Igbo Language – And The Lost Sounds

I smile – machines are not pronouncing Nigerian native names very well. Yes, the Tekedia Audio reading feature does not pronounce my name well (click to listen). Nothing big there: Igbo alphabets are yet to be digitized  for training machine learning tools. No major audio software understands “d” coming after “n”, contextually, and when you have “kw”, as in my last name, circuits break, from an Igbo phonetic point of view!

The A, B, CH…. Igbo alphabets are not in digital systems. The problem is evident: since Prof FC Ogbalu and Prof Tony Obesie (author of “Isi akwu dara n’ala” and “Ukwa ruo oge ya”) died, we have experienced stunted developmental growth in Igbo language.Those legends are celebrated UNN professors who pioneered many things in written Igbo language of today. Of course, they lived when schools were funded in Nigeria!

In 1978, Igbo language scholars laid down the foundation of modern written Igbo during the first Igbo convention. After successive works, the Igbo Izugbe (general Igbo language) moved from A, B, GB… to A, B, CH… As a secondary school student, and later as an engineering undergraduate in FUTO, I had followed the trend. It was an intellectual excursion; I passed Igbo language with distinction in SSCE/WASC.

Prof Chinua Achebe had edited Okike – the journal of creative writing – and contributed in the formulation of many elements for the growth of Igbo language. In short, Achebe wrote in his native (Anambra) dialect which was problematic. Why? Those works were not easily accessible to other Igbo scholars. At the end, they agreed and converged to Igbo Izugbe drawing heavily from Igbo used in Abia and Anambra areas. 

A challenge to Igbo language came when the Imo State government stopped funding Ahiajoku lecture – an intellectual gathering of Igbo scholars. More so, with limited budgets, in celebrated Igbo research universities (UNN and ABSU), the advancement of the language has stunted. As that remains the case, pronouncing Igbo names will remain challenging for digital tools and technologies. It is not going to be solved by hack – tell the system how to pronounce “Ndubuisi”. It would be solved by the machines understanding many things contextually so that when they see “Ndukuba”,  without already having it hacked, it can get it right. Simply, unless we build the libraries and digital marks, machines will continue to struggle with Igbo reading!

 (This observation applies to other Nigerian languages. But it is important to note that Hausa is the most advanced in terms of digitization with a dedicated teams in BBC and other news organizations improving it. Hausa has marketable audio value through BBC Service and other channels. The largest researcher in Nigerian languages today is Google, and technically holds the ace to advance  everything I have noted here. Just as Harvard budget is 3x the ministry of education budget of Nigeria, Google eclipses all indigenous works here. Yes, it holds the ace to pronounce Ndubuisi digitally!)

Photo – Achebe’s last Ahiajoku lecture. (Politicians have de-funded Ahiajoku.)


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