Musa for Yoruba
Musa fún Yorùbá

Yoruba is a Niger-Congo language with about 50 million speakers in a swath running from the center of Nigeria through Benin into Togo. It's currently written in the English alphabet, with mixed success.

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 the Yoruba 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, Ndebe 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. The same thing is happening 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.

Why is Musa a better alphabet for Yoruba?

  1. Unlike the Roman alphabet, Musa has all the letters needed for Yoruba; there is no need for digraphs like gb or ng, no need for diacritics like ẹ ọ ṣ, no need to give Roman letters unusual values like p or j.
  2. Musa has separate letters for the consonant n (the allophone of l before nasal vowels), and the syllabic nasal and nasal vowels. The latter two use the same letter , but there is no ambiguity: if it follows a vowel, it nasalizes it; otherwise, it's the syllabic nasal. The syllabic nasal is always written as a full syllable, with a nasal consonant (m n ng) before the vowel to spell out its correct pronunciation.
  3. Tone is always marked, at no extra cost in typing (the same number of keystrokes). To be fair, that's because every Musa vowel - like every Musa letter in every language - requires two keystrokes. But the important point is that in Musa, there is no reason not to spell tone out of laziness. High tone vowels are written high, low tone vowels have a level accent above them, while mid tone vowels are unmarked.
  4. Yoruba uses many foreign words, from English and other languages, and writers want to cite foreign names of people and places. They can all be written in Musa, perhaps in a different font. For example, here is the name Nigeria written in both the Njoya font for Yoruba and the Dushan font for English:

  5. More than being a tonal language, Yoruba is a vowel-centric language, in contrast to consonant-centric Afroasiatic languages like Hausa, Amharic or Arabic. In Yoruba, many words start with a vowel, and there are numerous small words of just a vowel. There are only eight different vowels (including the syllabic nasal), but they are inflected by tone, by nasality, and by length. (Other Niger-Congo languages, also vowel-centric, separate the vowels into tense and lax (or +ATR and -ATR), and many feature vowel harmony.)

    Advantages of Musa in general:

  6. Musa is featural: the graphical forms of the letters help to indicate the sounds. Vowels are short, while consonants are tall. Rounded vowels have round letters, sibilants and affricates have round bottoms, and so on: similar sounds have similar letters (unlike c k q, for example). This makes Musa easy to learn.
  7. Musa is universal: it can write almost all of the world's languages. It has almost 200 letters, and they always mean the same sound in every language. But Musa is written on a standard keyboard with only 20 keys.
  8. We could write Yoruba with Oduduwa, Igbo with Ndebe, Fulani with Adlam, Hausa with Tafi, and so on, as is done in India - every language has its own script. But then nobody could read each other's names, we couldn't share keyboards, and we would end up writing everything in English, or at least in bad romanization. It's better to share one alphabet, even if we can't read each other's languages.
  9. Musa is phonetic (we call it allophonic): we write what we say, not what we think we're saying. An example from Yoruba: we write both an and ọn, even though they don't contrast, because they sound different. The guiding principle is to write as if the reader doesn't know the orthographic rules. We'd rather teach letters than rules.
  10. The Musa alphabet and keyboard can also write numbers, many arithmetic expressions, and formulas - there are no separate digits, and no ambiguity.
  11. Musa writes intonation using punctuation, so we don't need underlining, different fonts, or emoji. This is important because scripts that don't write intonation encourage diglossia between the spoken and written languages, which we want to minimize. We want people to write what they're speaking: just sounds - not meanings, etymology (historical derivation), or morphology (grammatical derivation).
  12. Musa works fine in the digital world: Musa is Unicode-compatible, encoded in the Private Use Area (at E000-E1FF). There are numerous fonts, viewers for most browsers, and keyboard options from mechanical to virtual to remote. And there are several transcribers for converting text to Musa, including one for Yoruba.
  13. Most scripts are designed for native speakers of the language, who will mostly learn to read and write as children. Of course, that's as it should be! But every script also has other constituencies - adult speakers who are less literate than they would like to be (diaspora children, for example), speakers of non-standard dialects, people who are already literate in another language (Nigerian or foreign) who are learning spoken Yoruba at the same time as they are learning written Yoruba, and people who don't need to read or write Yoruba, but need to be able to recognize and pronounce Yoruba names and phrases. This last category includes travelers of many kinds, administrators of governments, international organizations, or companies, and librarians and archivists. Musa was designed with all of them in mind, too.

    Disadvantages of Musa

  14. As of this writing, no language community currently uses Musa; only a few hobbyists use it, and it's relatively unknown. The Musa Academy is busy promoting it all over the world, but Yoruba would be among the first to use it.
  15. It's common to encounter difficulties using Musa with software, and while there are usually workaround solutions, this problem won't go completely away until there is a substantial community of users. (But in fact you have the same complaint now with the Roman alphabet and Unicode!)
  16. Musa has no historic or patrimonial connection with Yoruba, Nigeria, or Africa - it is intended not to be an expression of national, religious, or political identity. It's an expression of the importance of education and literacy, the benefit of clear communication, and the value of bringing as many languages as we can into the future.

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. Others - like those changing from Cyrillic to Latin - have only a mixed record.

Writing Yoruba in Musa

The current Yoruba alphabet, as used in Nigeria and Togo, uses one digraph, gb, and one diacritic, a small vertical line underneath e̩ o̩ s̩ to indicate an open vowel or a postalveolar sibilant. In Benin, there is a standard national alphabet which writes these three sounds as ɛ ɔ sh. Two of the remaining letters have unusual pronunciations: p represents kp (and is so spelled in Benin), and j represents a palatal plosive like Hungarian ty. In addition, the acute accent ´, grave accent `, and optionally macron ¯, circumflex ^, and caron ˇ are used to indicate tone.

The Musa script has the missing letters. Here are the vowels:

i u
e o
e̩ (ɛ) o̩ (ɔ)

There are nasal versions of five of the vowels, although on and an are allophones:

 
in un
 
en on

In Syllabary gait, the nasal suffix is above or below the vowel.

There is also a syllabic nasal which assimilates to a following consonant. In Musa, it's written as a full syllable, with the nasal vowel , preceded by the appropriate nasal consonant: m before b f m, n before t d s n l r j sh y, and ng before everything else, including vowels and a pause. The current Roman orthography doesn't indicate the assimilation, so you have to know the rules. But in Musa, we write it out instead of using rules. The current orthography is also ambiguous when a syllabic nasal follows a vowel, which is why we write .

Many Yoruba words start with a vowel, and these vowels often assimilate with the final vowel of the preceding word, possibly with elision. Musa writes the resulting form, combining the two words.

Within a word, two different vowels 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 that may bear two tones. The current orthography simply writes the vowel twice, but Musa writes the second as a long mark . The second tone is marked on the long mark.


p (kp) t k
b gb d j g
f s s̩ (sh) h
m l n ng
w r y

Like the current orthography, Musa spells l as n before a nasal vowel, as it's pronounced. Unlike the current orthography, Musa also writes the following vowel as nasal.


Yoruba is written in Syllabary gait, and marks tone using accents:


The transcriber is a tool for writing Yoruba in Musa. It enables you to convert existing Yoruba text from the Roman alphabet to Musa. In addition, it offers three different keyboards for text entry and editing.



Now that you know the letters, why not try to read some Yoruba written in Musa?

O d&ájú d&ánu, o ò mo̩ e̩s&án me̩sàn-&án

A Dual Text

To illustrate what Yoruba looks like written in Musa, here's a dual text: the first paragraph of the Yoruba Wikipedia article on Èdè Yorùbá, first in Musa and then in the current Roman orthography for comparison. The Musa was created using the transcriber mentioned above, and is displayed in the Njoya Musa Syllabary font. The foreign names are in the Dushan Musa Alphabet font. Since I don't know Yoruba, I can't indicate the intonation, so I have used the so-called defective punctuation. There are undoubtably errors - some due to my limited knowledge, and some plain old mistakes - my apologies.


Èdè Yorùbá: Ni èdè tí ó ṣàkójọ pọ̀ gbogbo kú oótu o-ò-jíire bí, níapá ìwọ̀ Oòrùn ilẹ̀ Nàìjíríà, tí a bá wo èdè Yorùbá, àwọn onímọ̀ pín èdè náà sábẹ́ ẹ̀yà Kwa nínú ẹbí èdè Niger-Congo. Wọ́n tún fìdí rẹ̀ múlẹ̀ pé ẹ̀yà Kwa yìí ló wọ́pọ̀ jùlọ ní sísọ, ní ìwọ̀ oòrùn aláwọ̀ dúdú fún ẹgbẹẹgbẹ̀rún ọdún. Àwọn onímọ̀ èdè kan tilẹ̀ ti fi ìdí ọ̀rọ̀ múlẹ̀ pé láti orírun kan náà ni àwọn èdè bí Yorùbá, Kru, Banle, Twi, Ga, Ewe, Fon, Edo, Nupe, Igbo, Idoma, Efik àti Ijaw ti bẹ̀rẹ̀ sí yapa gẹ́gẹ́ bi èdè ọ̀tọ̀ọ̀tọ̀ tó dúró láti bí ẹgbẹ̀rún mẹ́ta ọ̀dún sẹ́yìn. ọ̀kan pàtàkì lára àwọn èdè orílẹ̀ èdè Nàìjíríà ni èdè Yorùbá. Àwọn ìpínlẹ̀ tí a ti lè rí àwọn olùsọ èdè Yorùbá nílẹ̀ Nàìjíríà ni ìpínlẹ̀ ẹdó, ìpínlẹ̀ Òndó, ìpínlẹ̀ ọ̀ṣun, ìpínlẹ̀ ọ̀yọ́, ìpínlẹ̀ Èkó, àti ìpínlẹ̀ Ògùn. ẹ̀wẹ̀ a tún rí àwọn orílẹ̀-èdè míràn bí Tógò apá kan ní Gúúsù ilẹ̀ Amẹ́ríkà bí i Cuba, Brasil, Haiti, Ghana, Sierra Leone, United Kingdom àti Trinidad, gbogbo orílẹ̀-èdè tí a dárúkọ wọ̀nyí, yàtọ̀ sí orílẹ̀-èdè Nàìjíríà, òwò ẹrú ni ó gbé àwọn ẹ̀yà Yorùbá dé ibẹ.

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