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Review of The phonetics of Nigerian languages

posted July 18th, 2010

The phonetics of Nigerian languages. By Clara Ikekeonwu. (LINCOM language research 05). Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2007. Pp. 70. ISBN 9783895867798. $50.70.

Reviewed by Michael Cahill, SIL International

This slim volume sketches the sounds of seven major Nigerian languages: Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Igala, Idoma, Fufulde, and Efik. Suitable for introductory linguistics students, it includes basic information on articulatory apparatus (e.g. larynx, lips, uvula), airstream mechanisms, and how anatomy and airstream combine to produce sounds. For example, Clara Ikekeonwu details the mechanisms of ejectives and implosives. No language is covered in depth, but there are more details about Igbo and its dialects than any other language. In her discussion of phonation types, for example, I notes contrastive breathy voice in some Igbo dialects.

In the longest chapter, ‘Segments’, I provides a list of consonant and vowel phonemes in the seven languages as well as a discussion of phonetic variants. Several dialects of Igbo have quite unusual variants. I also examines the use of tone in the languages (all except for Fulfulde are tonal).

I presents a few basic phonological processes in these languages, first discussing concepts such as the difference between progressive and regressive assimilation. In hiatus, total vowel assimilation seems common, whereas vowel coalescence is less common. She gives no examples of consonantal assimilation: usually one of two identical consonants in adjacent syllables elides. I covers glottalization, (i.e. insertion of a glottal stop in various circumstances) and weakening of vowels to schwa. One interesting phenomenon is the epenthesis of [r] in Igbo to break up vowel clusters in reduplicated forms.

A chapter on the interference of Nigerian languages on the pronunciation of English will be useful for Nigerians, other English speakers, and ESL teachers working with Nigerians. For example, I discusses mispronunciations of English [p] as [ɸ], [b], or [ɓ], and English interdental fricatives pronounced as stops in all languages. For vowels, I provides a table that indicates whether each language either matches the English pronunciation or changes it in some way. Primary stress in English words is unsurprisingly changed to high tone in the tonal languages.

I concludes with a short comparative text: a description of the harmattan, the dry dusty wind of sub-Saharan Africa. The text is provided in English and is phonemically and orthographically transcribed in Hausa, Igbo, Igala, and Yoruba (including tone markings).

Noteworthy is the claim of the existence of a bilabial click in some Igbo dialects, which corresponds to /m/ in Standard Igbo. However, this may be the voiceless bilabial implosive mentioned by Peter Ladefoged and Ian Maddieson (The sounds of the world’s languages, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996).

This is not a detailed work but rather an introductory sketch and handy quick reference. More data would be welcome in many cases. There are some unnecessary abbreviations, such as HL (human language) and MD (main dialect) and typographical errors are not uncommon; however, these shortcomings do not interfere with understanding.