Musa for Igbo
Musè makà Ìgbò

Igbo is a Niger-Congo language with about 42 million speakers in central Nigeria. It's currently written in a Roman orthography called Ọnwụ, a 1961 consensus between the different spelling traditions of Protestant versus Roman Catholic missionaries. But Igbo spelling is not a settled issue at all. The Ọnwụ alphabet has two major flaws: the lack of technical support on typewriters, printers, and computers; and its lack of support for many sounds found in Igbo dialects. The first issue is being addressed by new technology, but the second issue is still very political.

The Ọnwụ orthography is associated with the promotion of a Standard Igbo dialect - Izugbe - based on the Owerri dialect, a Central dialect. But labialization, aspiration, and nasalization (discussed below) are distinctive in Owerri, and yet were omitted from Izugbe! Perhaps that's why the famous Igbo Nobelist Chinua Achebe refused to write in it. In most languages, the standard dialect is the dialect of the unifying capital (English, French) or a great literary work (German, Italian); Standard Yoruba is based on the Oyo dialect. But Standard Igbo is not Central Igbo; it has been reduced to features common to most dialects, kind of a pidgin Igbo. One goal of Musa is to enable every Igbo to write his native language (dialect) in full, even if that isn't 100% intelligible to speakers of other dialects. And of course, Musa can write Standard Igbo, too.

Nigeria is a huge and very diverse country. It has over 200 million people, and at least 500 languages, and accomodating all that diversity has been a challenge for a century. Because of its colonial history, English is the official language, so it's natural that most other Nigerian languages are also written in the English alphabet. But that hasn't worked so well: many Nigerian languages have sounds for which the English alphabet doesn't have letters.

Back in 1928, a group of scholars developed the Africa Alphabet of 36 letters. This was followed in 1978 by the African Reference Alphabet of 60 letters (in the final version), and a few years later by the Pan-Nigerian Alphabet of 33 letters for only Nigerian languages. But none of these alphabets were widely used or well supported by keyboards and fonts.

With the arrival of Unicode in this century, there are now 1350 letters in the Extended Latin Alphabet, and pretty well supported. But incredibly, some Nigerian languages are still missing letters, for example vowels with both underdots and tone marks.

Perhaps as a result of this sad history, and of a desire to write in a less colonial alphabet, many Nigerian languages now have new proposed alphabets: Tafi for Hausa, Ndẹ́bẹ́ for Igbo, Oduduwa for Yoruba, and Adlam for Fula, for example. The danger is that Nigeria will be split into regions that can't read each other's scripts, and the end result will be that, instead of promoting Nigerian languages, everybody will be forced to write in English, even to spell the names of people and places, as happens now in India.

Musa is an apt solution. It can write all the Nigerian languages (and English!) with an alphabet based on only 10 basic shapes, on a 20-key keyboard. In Musa, the same letters always stand for the same sound, which is not the case now, so that a Hausa speaker can read an Igbo name with no problems, even if he doesn't speak Igbo. Not only does it write the tones we need, but it doesn't reward you for not writing tones, as happens now - people get lazy, and omit the tone marks. And while Musa isn't a purely Nigerian solution, it's also not a legacy of the colonial past.

The problems mentioned at the top of the page can be summarized in one complaint: the Roman alphabet doesn't have all the letters that Igbo needs - a very common problem among the languages that use it. But Musa does!

Unlike the Roman alphabet, Musa has all the letters needed for Igbo. There is no need for digraphs like ch gb gh kp ny or sh, and no need for diacritics like ị ọ ụ ṅ. And Musa has all the letters needed to write every dialect as it sounds.

Musa makes it easy to write tones, so there's no reason to leave them off. But more than being a tonal language, Igbo is a vowel-centric language (in contrast to consonant-centric Afroasiatic languages like Hausa, Amharic or Arabic). Igbo features vowel harmony within each word - the vowels i e o u don't occur in the same words as the vowels ị a ọ ụ:

Like every modern language, Igbo uses many foreign words, and because Musa can be used to write any language, these foreign words can be spelled in Musa, perhaps in a different font. For example, here is the name Nigeria written in both Igbo using the Njoya font and English using the Dushan font:

 

Musa offers some other advantages:

The idea of adopting a completely new script is daunting, and presents many challenges that have nothing to do with orthography or technology: the political aspect, education, conversion of archives and literature, and many others. It's obviously a change that no community should undertake lightly.

But languages do change scripts: about 25 in the last century, and three in the last year or so (Kazakh, Mongolian, and Inuktut). Some of these changes have been great successes, notably those where a Chinese script or an Arabic abjad was replaced by a Latin alphabet (a warning to those who favor a broadening of Ajami), like Vietnamese, Turkish, or Malay.

Nsibidi and Ndẹ́bẹ́

Before Igbo was written, the Igbo people were familiar with Nsibidi ideograms, borrowed from the Ekoi. Nsibidi is a written language, but it is not the written form of any spoken language - it's its own language. Musa is a way to write spoken Igbo, not a different language.

Ndẹ́bẹ́, a modern script, is a way to write spoken Igbo, inspired by Nsibidi. It's lovely ... but not practical. Here are some of the problems:

  1. A major flaw of Ọnwụ is that writers get lazy and leave off the tone diacritics. And yet Ndẹ́bẹ́ uses dots as diacritics to indicate tone.
  2. The idea of mutating consonants sounds great ... until you think about it! We already have mutating consonants in the Latin alphabet: for example, the letter j sounds different in English John, German Johann, French Jean, and Spanish Juan, which all share the same origin. But that's not a good thing - in fact, it's one of the major disadvantages of the Latin alphabet. Fixed consonants like m that have the same sound everywhere are much better.

    And the worst of it is that Ndẹ́bẹ́ writers have to remember, when it comes time to write a word, whether that word is pronounced differently in any other dialect (in which case they should write the mutating consonants), or whether every dialect pronounces it the same (in which case they should write the fixed consonants). It's not enough to speak your dialect - you have to speak all the dialects!

    The diversity of dialects in Igbo is a challenge, but not a barrier. Igbos should simply write their own dialect - in fixed letters - and make an effort to learn to understand each other's dialects in writing as they already have to do in speech, just as we do in English, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese or any of the many other languages with multiple dialects. Yanks say bæth and truck, while Brits say bɑth and lorry, and that's OK. In the end, it enriches the language.

  3. Ndẹ́bẹ́ is not quick to write. For example, the word Ìgbò is written with 13 strokes, compared with 10 in the Ọnwụ alphabet, and only 8 in Musa.
  4. Another major flaw of the current Ọnwụ orthography is the lack of technical support: keyboards, fonts, and so on. For example, there's no Unicode character for the e with both underdot and acute accent that appears twice in the name Ndẹ́bẹ́. (What you see here was encoded by composition in two different ways.)

    Ndẹ́bẹ́ is even worse! Not only are the Ndẹ́bẹ́ glyphs absent from Unicode, but it's not even clear how they would be encoded. If they were to be encoded as complete syllables, there would be a lot of them - that's the approach that Unicode took with Korean Hangeul, which uses one-sixth of the Base Multilingual Plane to encode a simple alphabet. That approach would require a lot of support on the part of keyboards and fonts, making them more difficult and thus less available.

    It would make much more sense to encode each possible Ndẹ́bẹ́ element - stems, radicals, vowels, and tones. That's how Musa handles the Fangzi gait, which also composes several elements into a single block. It's definitely feasible ... but it requires OpenType, which is not supported by all renderers.

    And even that approach would require a fairly large keyboard: 6 stems, 7 radicals, 9 vowels in 3 tones plus 1 standalone form each, plus 20+ digits and punctuation symbols: a total of about 50 keys if vowel and tone are separated. If consonants and vowels are each unified (stem + radical, vowel + tone), we end up with about 80 keys. Musa uses 20.

    A demonstration of the technical difficulty is the simple observation that as of this writing - twelve years after the invention of Ndẹ́bẹ́ - there is neither a keyboard nor a font available for Ndẹ́bẹ́ on the market (and Nigeria exports keyboards). In comparison, Musa has half a dozen keyboards and two dozen fonts available.

  5. Instead of having a fourth form of each vowel for when it stands alone, why not just add a "silent" consonant, for example in that empty space in the middle of the consonant chart?
  6. There doesn't seem to be any pattern in the consonants; similar sounds are spread all over the chart.
  7. Is there an alphabetical order? Do the letters have names?
  8. Standard Igbo seems to have a downstep tone, but no rising tone. Other dialects have rising tone, but also falling tone. The letters for rising-tone vowels often use different symbols from the other tones - why?
  9. Even if Ndẹ́bẹ́ were ideal for all the dialects of Igbo, it could still not be used to write Yoruba, Edo, Ijaw, Efik, English or the many other languages of Nigeria and the world. When an Igbo travels to Lagos, Abuja, Kano, or another country, they won't find keyboards or fonts for Ndẹ́bẹ́.

The big advantage of Ndẹ́bẹ́ is that it's Igbo in origin, and looks like it. It's an expression of Igbo identity, but it's not a very good orthography. I agree with all of the criticisms of Ọnwụ that Ndẹ́bẹ́'s author and many others have expressed, but Ndẹ́bẹ́ isn't the best solution.

The Musa Alphabet isn't Igbo in origin, but neither is it colonial, and it does a better job writing Igbo than Ndẹ́bẹ́ does. Because it can also write all the other languages of the world, it will have much broader use, and thus better tools. It already has fonts and keyboards, and good (but not full) digital support. Igbos could start using it tomorrow ... and they should!

Writing Igbo in Musa

In this section, we'll teach you how to write Igbo in Musa - it's easier than you might think.

The letters on yellow are not part of the Ọnwụ orthography. They aren't needed to write the Izugbe standard dialect, but they are used for other dialects.


We'll start with the vowels:

u o i e

a ə

The replaces a in, for example, Item, Nsuka, Mbieri, and Abo. The ə is found in Item, Ikwo, and other dialects. Some have proposed that the letter for schwa ə be split so as to be able to indicate its vowel harmony class, but that isn't necessary phonetically: they sound alike.

Long Vowels

Within a word, two different vowels - or two of the same vowel with different tones - are separated in Musa by a Break , and the two are pronounced distinctly as two different syllables. But reduplicated vowels - often the result of assimilation - are pretty common, resulting in a long vowel. The current orthography simply writes the vowel twice, but Musa writes the second as a long mark . Both the Break and the Long mark are simple vertical lines, but the Break is as tall as a consonant, while the Long mark is as short as a vowel.


Nasal Vowels

Many Igbo dialects have nasalized syllables, which we attribute to the vowel (and we speak of nasal vowels). In at least some dialects, nasality is phonemic: nasal vowels contrast with oral vowels in minimal pairs. But in most dialects, the appearance or disappearance of nasal vowels is strongly conditioned by phonological context, so that nasal vowels seem allophonic. For example, vowels both before or after nasal consonants are often nasalized, vowels around fricatives may or may not be nasalized, and vowels around plosives are seldom nasalized. Some analyses attribute the nasality to the consonant in order to explain its occurence, postulating nasalized and non-nasalized pairs of fricatives.

But Musa is phonetic anyway, so we don't care whether the nasality is phonemic or phonologic! We want Musa to write the sounds of each dialect as if we were writing for people who don't speak it. We write nasal vowels by adding a nasal suffix to the oral vowel letter, even in cases where its occurence is phonologically predictable and the oral vowel cannot occur.

We use the same symbol to spell a syllabic nasal, but in this case it doesn't follow a vowel: it's preceded by the consonant that indicates the pronunciation. So far example the word nta spells the syllabic nasal as n followed by the nasal suffix, since it assimilates to the t, as if it were spelled ñta.

 
ọma nta
good small


Igbo has at least three tones: high, low, and downstep. Musa writes them by varying the height of the vowel: vowels with high tone are high, and vowels with low tone are low. Vowels with downstep tone, which can only follow high tone, are written as high vowels with a falling accent mark below. Some dialects have falling or rising tones as well. Here are some examples:

   
ísí ísì ìsì ísī î ǐ
head smell blindness to cook falling

In addition to tones, Igbo uses intonation to carry meaning and/or attitude. As in other languages, intonation is written in Musa using punctuation. See the page on Intonation for the details.


Igbo is interesting in its use of four ways to modify consonants, although none of these features occur in every dialect:

The chart below presents all the consonants of Standard igbo, plus numerous consonants from other dialects. It also presents the suffixes that Musa uses to create nasalized, palatalized, and labialized consonants. Aspirated consonants are shown in blue - Musa doesn't use a suffix to write them. But this chart is not exhaustive: there are undoubtedly additional consonants in some Igbo dialects, perhaps pf, ð, or the bilabial click. In most cases, Musa has a letter to write them.

m n ny nw ˜

b gb d dz j g gw

p kp t ts ch k kw q

vb v z ż gh h

ph f s sh sw

l r y -y w -w break


A Dual Text

To illustrate what Igbo looks like written in Musa, here's a dual text: the first paragraph of the Igbo Wikipedia article on Asụ̀sụ̀ Ìgbò, first in Musa and then in the current Roman orthography for comparison.


Asụsụ Ìgbò bụ asụsụ Niger-Congo nke mmadụ ruru ndè iri abụọ na ise nke ndị juru na ya bụ ndị Ìgbò. Na ndida-owuwa anyanwụ Naijiria na ebe Niger Delta, Ìgbò bụ díàlà. Ha dèrè ya na édé Latin, nke ndí mpaghara Britain nwètèrè. Nkárị ndị ọzọ bụ nké Èkpè búrú nkárị Nsịbịdị. Asụsụ Ìgbò bụ ólú nke a na-akpọ n'ezigbo hanwa. Ọ dị ike taa ndi ọbịá ịsụta ya, dịkwa ike taa ndi Ìgbò ọzọ bi na ámá nkẹ ọzọ ịmátá ihe ndi nke ọzọ na-ekwu, maka na ndi Ìgbò na olu Ìgbò hiri nne. E nwere mkpụrụ edemede Ìgbò dị 36, ụdaume asatọ na mgbochiume ọgụ na asato.

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