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Living lexicons

Published on 06 December 2019 Go back to The ACU Review

From crowdfunded dictionaries to online radio shows, the plight of our world’s languages calls for us to think innovatively about new ways to revive them.

By Bolanle Elizabeth Arokoyo, University of Ilorin, Nigeria

Language is life. It permeates our being and makes us who we are. When a language is lost, with it we lose entire systems of knowledge, communication, and belief. More importantly still, we lose our identities.

Nigeria has a staggering number of indigenous languages: around 500, in fact, of various designations and classifications, and they have much to contend with. While the march of globalisation presents a threat to all Nigerian languages, large and small, some are already in grave danger of extinction.

For these vulnerable languages, the threat of endangerment eats slowly but deeply. If we are to stem the tide of language death, a concerted effort is needed to document, revitalise, maintain, and describe them. But we need to think imaginatively and innovatively about ways in which we can do this.

For me, this has meant collaborating with different organisations, communities, and individuals. It has included crowd-funding campaigns, radio shows, and new software. It has led to the creation of talking dictionaries and language learning charts, all driven by a desire to preserve two Nigerian languages struggling for survival: Olùkùmi and the Owé dialect.

Olùkùmi and Owé

The Olùkùmi language is spoken in the Aniocha area, west of the Niger River. Olùkùmi people are mostly farmers and celebrate the yearly yam (or usu) festival, at which the new harvest is presented to God and the ancestors of the land. The small cluster of towns that make up the Olùkùmi clan are enclaved by larger, Igbo-speaking communities, and this has had a significant impact on the Olùkùmi language and culture. As the language slips into extinction, the biggest challenge is how to protect the culture and heritage that will disappear with it.

Olùkùmi is an interesting language as it combines the features of many other languages it has come into contact with over time. Each of these has left its mark on the language and lend it a uniquely amorphous quality.

Owé is a dialect of the more dominant Yoruba language, and is spoken in the Kabba area of Nigeria’s Kogi State. Despite the fact that Owé is a dialect of Yoruba, its speakers identify themselves more as Owé than Yoruba. Hence the community itself has called out for help to preserve and revitalise the dialect.

The study of dialects is very important as they often reveal many linguistically significant features that might not be visible in the standard form.

Language permeates our being and makes us who we are. When a language is lost, with it we lose entire systems of knowledge, communication, and belief. More importantly still, we lose our identities.

Dynamic dictionaries

Dictionaries are an important way to record endangered languages, and for many communities they are the most familiar tool for language documentation. As such, a major focus of my work has been compiling and publishing dictionaries for both Olùkùmi and Owé, in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Data for the dictionaries was collected over a period of more than eight years (for Olùkùmi) and fifteen years (for Owé). Our reach extended to many areas of speech, including cognomen (an extra personal name, rather like a nickname), oriki  (a form of spoken poetry in praise of someone or something), àbọ̀ egún (chants used at masked masquerade ceremonies, at which ancestors are honoured), and even terms of abuse.

The two dictionaries were the first ever attempts to put Olùkùmi and Owé vocabulary, both definitions and usages, into print. Both publications are bilingual with English, and present the language and dialect as they are used today. They include appendices with information such as number systems, seasons, colours, and so on, as well as simple sample sentences, greetings, proverbs, and idioms.

To print, publish, and distribute these dictionaries came with a cost. To meet this challenge, a crowdfunding campaign was launched using an online fundraising platform. The campaign invited donors to give to the project in meaningful, tangible ways that enabled them to see how their donation would be spent. For example, donors could choose to donate $25, which we calculated was the cost of preserving 25 words in Olùkùmi. A donation of $100, meanwhile, would fund the cost of distributing a dictionary to local speakers, community leaders, and teachers. In this way, those contributing could get a better sense of the real impact of their donation.

Efforts are now underway to publish the dictionaries online, but the need for better equipment has stalled the valuable addition of sounds and pictures. However, a partial talking dictionary for Olùkùmi and a trial version of the Owé bilingual dictionary are both now available online.

Talking dictionaries allow users to hear audio recordings of individual words or phrases, as spoken by original speakers of the language. The Olùkùmi talking dictionary currently has over 200 audio recordings, ranging from words for water (omin) and hunger (ebi)  through to cats (busu) and snails (ugbin).

Cradle and table

My efforts to revitalise Olùkùmi and Owé have also embraced the development of charts for language learning and teaching, featuring alphabets, animals, numbers, parts of the body, foods, fruits, materials, colours, and household items. As neither language is taught in schools, the charts are aimed at individuals or communities wanting to learn or teach the language unofficially.

Another initiative was a language teaching programme I presented on Okun Radio, an online radio station, to help improve spoken Owé. Its 12 episodes were aimed especially at Owé speakers in the diaspora.

Olùkùmi numerals can now be found in the Numeral Systems of the World's Languages database, hosted by the Max Planck Institute. The world's myriad numeral systems are as diverse as its cultures. While most of us will be familiar with the decimal system (based on the number ten), other systems range from quinary to vigesimal (which use five and twenty as their base respectively). In other counting systems, numbers correspond to body parts, whereas some languages use only three words to count: one, two, and many. Indigenous numeral and counting systems are often even more vulnerable than the languages themselves, as users shift towards more politically and economically dominant systems.

Finally, and most importantly, is the fact that communities themselves are a central part of revitalisation efforts. In Olùkùmi communities, for example, Olùkùmi names are now given instead of Igbo names, to help young people connect to their heritage. Another example is the Owé Forum, which began life as a Facebook page created by Modupe Babajide Dare. The forum has grown to become a source of knowledge; an encyclopaedia. But it remains, importantly, a sociocultural group, bridging the gap between old and young and fostering unity and sense of purpose among Owé people.

Any endeavours to document, describe and revitalise endangered languages are borne out of the love of man’s common heritage: language. For any revitalisation effort to succeed, this love must be backed up by action. It is a shared responsibility, with the community of speakers at its heart. Only by returning their language to the cradle and the table can we help bring it with us into the future.


Dr Bolanle Elizabeth Arokoyo is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria.

Listen to Olùkùmi words at talkingdictionary.swarthmore.edu/olukumi. Or view a trial version of the online Owé dictionary at www.bolanlearokoyo.com/owelexicon