KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
A New Standard Orthography (NSO)
~ Michael J. C. Echeruo ~
A new standard orthography for Igbo is proposed. The New Standard Orthography (NSO) reproduced below is an update and modified version of the official Onwu Orthography (1961): A, B, C, D, E, F, G, GB, GH, H, I, I, J, K, KP, KW, L, K, KP, KW, L, M, NW, NY, Ñ, O, O, P, R, S, SH, T, U, U, V, W, Y, Z
The new Standard Orthography (NSO) makes three changes to the 1961 Orthography.
a) Sub-dotted vowel characters:
The Onwu Orthography allowed Igbo to be written entirely in the Roman script, with only the exception of the three closed vowels— i*, o*, and u*—with subscript dots under them. This particular exception has led to technical typographical complications which could not have been foreseen in 1961, Underlining of Igbo texts has hitherto been plagued by technical problems; in both handwritten and some type texts, the sub-dots have invariably been over-written or typed-over by the underlining character.
Moreover, by using the sub-dot, the Onwu Orthography consigned Igbo, unintentionally, to a script group to which, by the very nature of its sound system, it did not belong. In any event, although some Nigerian languages use sub-dotted vowels (e.g. Efik and Yoruba), there are other Nigerian languages which use "unconventional" characters. An example is Kanuri with an absurd minuscule "o" as a sub-dot under "a" and "e." Igbo does not, therefore, jeopardize any pan-Nigerian orthographical convention by simplifying its practices. To resolve these problems, the New Standard Orthography (NSO) replaces the sub-dotted vowels with umlauted ones (ï, ö, and ü).
b) The "ch" Digraph
"Ch" is redundant as a digraph, just as a "sh" would be in Yoruba. Nowhere in the Igbo language does a situation arise in which "ch" is in complimentary distribution with "c." In addition, the Önwü Orthography does not allow Igbo to have a simple "c" although it is well understood that Igbo "ch" is neither "a clear-cut cluster" nor "a combination of c and h" but "a single sound," (Emenanjo, 1978). Whereas with other Igbo consonant clusters (gb, gh, gw, kp, and sh), the component elements are themselves characters within the alphabet, in their own right, the matter is different for "ch. "
We thus have a character made up of "c" and "h" when the "c" does not occur independently in the alphabet. One consequence of this situation is that in enumeration, an alphabetical listing that begins with "a" must skip "c" —because "c" is not a letter in the alphabet. The New Standard Orthography (NSO) resolves this difficulty by replacing the digraph "ch" through with a simple "c." It is a modest but important change.
c) Sort Order:
It has long been recognized that the order of the Igbo Alphabet in the Onwu Orthography needed modification. In proposing a revision to "simplify the work of lexicographers and in consonance with existing international practices, the Standardization Committee recommended the following order: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, gb, gh, gw, h, i, ï, j, k, kp, l, m, n, ñ, nw, ny, o, ö, p, r, s, sh, t, u, ü, v, w, y, z.
The New Standard Orthography (NSO) has modified this order further by moving "ñ" to a position after "nw" and "ny," as had indeed been proposed years ago (Igwe and Green, 1964). This change realizes the full logic of an alphabetically-ordered orthography. Accordingly, just as agö and agü come before agba, so also anwü and anyü come before aña, and so on.
d) The Status of "sh"
Although initially "sh" appears in only a handful of words, but relatively more frequently in medial positions, yet it does not replace "s" in those positions, and so justifies its existence as a distinct item in the Igbo orthography and sound system. The instances of initial occurrence are mostly dialectical, but medial occurrences cut across zones. It is possible that its fate in a future Igbo language, like that of "v" (and, in certain contexts, of "f") will be determined by the relative pace of standardization in conjunction with the discernible movement of the language in the direction of increasing devoicing of many of its consonants.
Michael J. C. Echeruo, Ph.D. is the William Safire Professor of Modern Letters at Syracuse University, New York. Onyeozizi Echeruo presented the first Ahiajoku Lecture: "Afamefuna: A Matter of Identity" . The Lecture series has featured a long line of prominent Igbo intellectuals since Okaa Echeruo.
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