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The challenge non-natives face over Yoruba names

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Any time Nigerians are participating in an international sports championship, one challenge that arises is the pronunciation of names. Some sounds exist in some Nigerian languages that don’t exist in English, French, or other languages, including other African languages. Understandably, such sounds may be difficult for non-Nigerians to articulate. But it becomes a different issue when familiar sounds are pronounced differently, creating some confusion even among fellow Nigerians. The current Yoruba orthography has some letters that fall into that category.

At the current Africa Cup of Nations taking place in Ivory Coast, one can see it repeated. For example, the surname of a Super Eagles footballer like Ola Aina is pronounced as it is spelt, but the correct pronunciation is Ainọ. Similarly, in July 2022, when Tobi Amusan set a new world record in 100-metre hurdles in the United States of America, most commentators pronounced her name as A-mu-san in line with its spelling. But her name is correctly pronounced as A-mu-shọn.

Some people may then conclude that “a” is pronounced /ɒ/ in Yoruba. Not really. In some cases, it is pronounced as /æ/, but in some, it is pronounced as /ɒ/. This creates some confusion for non-native speakers or learners because there is no clear way of determining which sound it would assume.

This challenging scenario can be better explained by some names that contain either “a” and “o” or more than one “a.” The first is the word ọna (way/road), in which the “ọ” and the “a” are both pronounced as /ɒ/ (ọ). The second is the name Falana where the first two a’s are pronounced /æ/, while the last “a” is pronounced /ɒ/. The third is the name Gbolahan. Here the “ọ” is pronounced /ɒ/, the first “a” is pronounced /æ/, while the last “a” is /ɒ/.

Interestingly, a name like Banjo is pronounced as spelt, but in a similar name like Obasanjo, the “sanjo” is not pronounced the way Banjo is pronounced. Rather, the “a” is pronounced as /ɒ/, while the “ọ” is also pronounced as /ɒ/.

P is another confusing letter. The Yoruba orthography is probably the only one in Nigeria that pronounces “p” as “kp.” But unlike some Nigerian languages, Yoruba does not have “p” and “kp” as two separate sounds.

The Yoruba call rock “apata.” It is also used as a family name. Those from Edo State and some parts of Ondo State (which shares boundaries with Edo State) spell theirs as Akpata. The Yoruba-speaking people in the Republic of Benin also use “kp” in their spelling of words with such a sound. The immediate-past president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olumide Akpata, spells his name as Akpata because he is from Edo State. But in the South-West of Nigeria, where Yoruba is spoken, the same name is spelt Apata but pronounced Akpata.

Furthermore, when the Yoruba want to tell you “sorry,” they will say “kpele” but write it as “pele.” A learner of the language would end up pronouncing it like the name of the Brazilian football legend, Pele, only to be laughed at as pronouncing the word wrongly.

Curiously, the only Yoruba name whose “p” is not pronounced as “kp” is Apapa, the port city in Lagos. It is pronounced exactly as it is written. Someone noted that Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who lived in Apapa, used to call it Akpakpa. Some have argued that Apapa is a borrowed name. This could not be verified.

Growing up in my hometown, Nnewi, in the 80s, wall posters were in vogue. Actors, musicians, footballers, and wrestlers were printed on posters that people bought and pasted on the walls of their rooms. Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Diego Maradona, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, etc., donned the walls of many people. There was this beautiful female face on one of such posters. The name on her poster was Sade. Because of her name and complexion, I thought she was an American or British artiste like most of the figures that had posters created for them. Any time I saw her on a poster, I pronounced her name as an English word the way it was written, almost like the pronunciation of the past tense of “say.” It was much later that I began to hear the name Sade Adu. I also heard that Sade was pronounced as /sha-de/. I exclaimed: “So this is a Nigerian name?”

Similarly, while growing up in the South-East, we used to pronounce names like Soyinka and Solarin as written. This was because we used to see the names more than hear them pronounced. TV was not very popular then. It was in later years that I learnt that they should be pronounced as Shoyinka and Sholarin. I also noticed that some people named Shola spelt their name as Sola while others spelt it as Shola. The explanation was that Shola was the old spelling, while Sola is the new spelling.

In the current Yoruba orthography, the “sh” sound is represented with an “s” that has a sign (a diacritic) underneath (ṣ) to differentiate it from the regular “s.” In publications where the diacritic cannot be added to the “s,” it is written as a regular “s,” thereby making some non-native speakers erroneously pronounce it as /s/. That was why I pronounced Sade, Soyinka, and Solarin wrongly.

The Igbo language faced that same challenge some decades ago. The “gb” sound was represented with a “b” that had a diacritic underneath, to differentiate it from the regular “b” sound. A word like (when) was spelt as with a diacritic underneath the “b.” In newspapers and books where the sign could not be inserted, the word was written simply as mbe, which gave the word the same spelling as the name for tortoise. But the biggest culprit was the Igbo language itself, which got murdered as “Ibo” in publications and speech, because of the missing diacritic underneath the “b.” For example, in Chinua Achebe’s (1958) and (1960), it was spelt as Ibo. After many decades of using Ibo in publications, many people, including some Igbo people, began to argue that “Ibo” refers to the people while “Igbo” refers to the language.

Eventually, a new orthography was introduced, which solved that problem. The blend “gb” was introduced to create a distinct image from “b.” The language and people became spelt as Igbo, removing the confusion and mispronunciation. From 1964, when Achebe published , he began to use “Igbo” instead of “Ibo.” But the “Ibo” in and has remained over the years, still contributing to the confusion. Many decades after the “gb” was added to the Igbo orthography, some people still write Igbo as Ibo. However, those who care to do the right thing always use Igbo and never Ibo, because they have been allowed to have an alternative that is correct in spelling and pronunciation.

One feature of most African languages is that once you know the way all the letters are pronounced, you can safely pronounce any word in a particular language. Even some European languages, such as German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc., follow the same pattern. Anywhere you see a “j” in German, you know it is pronounced as “y,” while a “w” is pronounced as V. In Spanish, the “j” is pronounced as an “h,” while in Portuguese it is pronounced like a “j.” For example, while the Spanish and Portuguese translate Josef as Jose, the Spanish pronounce it Ho-say, while the Portuguese pronounce it Jo-say.

It is only in English that bow (weapon) and bow (greeting) are pronounced differently, or though, plough, through, thorough, and rough, which end with the same “ough,” are all pronounced differently. And there is no logic behind how each is pronounced. What it means is that a learner of English will have to learn how to pronounce every English word. That cannot be an easy task.

Is it possible for the Yoruba orthography to be rejigged to cut out the confusion faced by learners and non-native speakers? Or will the reaction be, “How dare you tell us what to do with our language?” Well, the ball is in the court of Yoruba linguists and the body that supervises the Yoruba language.

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