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GUIDE TO STANDARD NAIJÁ ORTHOGRAPHY. An NLA Harmonized Writing System for Common Naijá Publications

by Christine I. Ofulue & David O. Esizimetor

1.0 Introduction

Historically, Naijá (previously known as Nigerian Pidgin) is a language that originated from the 15th century trade contact between the peoples of the Niger Delta and Europeans in the coastal areas of the Niger Delta. Attempts to write the language goes back to the late 18th century. The history of writing the language shows that different people have at different times adopted different ways of writing the language. This has resulted in numerous orthographies, without a single acceptable way of writing the language. However, despite various proposals for a standard orthography for Naijá, there had been no consensus to adopt any of them until the first conference on Naijá which was facilitated by IFRA in July 2009.

Among the major outcomes of the 2009 conference on Naijá were: (i) the adoption of Naijá as the new name for the language, because what hitherto was referred to as Nigerian Pidgin is no longer a pidgin because it has creolised in some parts of the country; its functions have surpassed the functions of a pidgin; and the term ‘pidgin’ has helped to encourage derogatory connotations about the language; hence, the term Naijá espouses the language’s distinct identity as a language in its own right as well as the Nigerian spirit; and (ii) the development of a standard orthography that provides systematic guidelines or consistent rules for spelling and writing in the language.

Working from the understanding that an orthography is a symbolic representation of a language and not the transcription of an oral message, in adopting a standard orthography for Naijá, the central question the Naijá Langwej Akedemi (NLA – an offspring of the July 2009 Conference on Naijá) had to deal with was not whether the orthography is faithful to oral productions in the language, but whether as an instrument, it is adequate to convey the nature of the message. Thus, in devising the guidelines and rules for Standard Naijá Orthography, we sought for an orthography that would (i) be consistent, (ii) reduce ambiguity, and (iii) be ergonomic or easy to use.

Hence, with a unified standard for writing the Naijá, the problems of regular use (in letters, reports, newspaper articles, advertisements etc), artistic application (in poems, novels, plays, songs etc) and scientific description (e.g. linguistic research) of the language will be resolved. In this Guide to Standard Naijá Orthography, we lay out some of the general principles and rules for effective writing of Naijá, as harmonized by the NLA following the 2009 Conference on Naijá. And so we will begin by looking at the orthographic representation adopted by the NLA.

2.0 Orthographic Representation

The general principle adopted by the academy is that the orthography of Naijá should be phonetically based. That is, words should be spelled and written as pronounced according to the sound patterns of Naijá. And that the orthography should be based on common core features of Naijá rather than on a particular regional or social dialect of the language. Guided by the principles of simplicity, familiarity and harmonization, the academy adopted the use of diagraphs and diacritics to represent sounds that are not in the Roman alphabet such as ch, gb, sh, kp, zh, similar to those used in the alphabets of many Naijá substrate languages like Edo, Itsekiri, Urhobo. Words borrowed from English or other languages should be written to fit Naijá’s sound patterns and syllable structure. For simplicity and ease of reading, minimal tone marking shall be employed in lexical/grammatical constructions where meaning is not clear from the context. In this guide, we will show you how to write Naijá using the NLA harmonized Standard Naijá Orthography (SNO) for common publications and general use.

3.0 Naijá Alphabets

Standard Naijá Orthography has a total of 28 alphabets, made up of 23 single letters and 5 digraphs for writing the language. They are: a, b, ch, d, e, f, g, gb, h, i, j, k, kp, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, sh, t, u, v, w, y, z, zh. And these letters and diagraphs directly correspond with the sounds of the language.

Notice that in SNO, letter e is used to represent 2 distinct sounds, [e] and [ε]; while letter o is used to represent [o] and [ɔ]. This is done for convenience of writing and typing. In a preliminary test conducted on the use of this orthography we discovered that many speakers of Naijá can make the appropriate switch between the sounds and can determine the meaning of the words in context with ease. Moreover, using e and o this way is a familiar and practical spelling practice that many writers are already used to.

It is important to note at this point that while SNO is designated for common everyday writing in Naijá, the NLA has also adopted a Phonological Transcription (PT) system that is suitable for use in scientific publications (where phonological accuracy is paramount, using sub-dots or phonetic symbols to mark the +/- ATR vowels). Both systems shall operate by the same set of general guidelines and spelling rules and would only vary slightly in +/- ATR vowel features. See the following table for details.

1 [a] a a akada educated
2 [b] b b buk book
3 [ ʧ] ch ch chukuchuku thorns
4 [d] d d dodo fried ripe plantain
5 [e] e e egen again
6 [ε]   eg egg
7 [f] f f faya fire
8 [g] [ŋ] g g gragra hastiness
9 [ɡ͡b] gb gb gbagbati troublesome
10 [h] h h hama hammer
11 [i] i i insaid inside
12 [ʤ ] j j juju charm
13 [k] k k kainkain local gin
14 [k͡p] kp kp kpangolo metal container
15 [l] l l lait light
16 [m] m m mama mother
17 [n] n n nak to hit/knock
18 [o] o o ogogoro gin
19 [ɔ]   potopoto muddiness
20 [p] p p pikin child
21 [r] [ɹ] r r rapa wrapper
22 [s] s s sup soup
23 [ʃ] sh sh shek shake
24 [t] t t tolotolo turkey
25 [u] u u una you (plural)
26 [v] v v vidio video
27 [w] w w waka walk
28 [ j ][ ɲ] y y yansh buttocks
29 [z] z z zink metal roofing sheet
30 [ʒ] zh zh mezho measure
    30 alphabets 28 alphabets    

4.0 Word Division

Word formation processes in Naijá include affixation, compounding, reduplication, and intensification. Koffi’s (2003) principles on word formation processes serves as a useful guide, and is summarized as follows:

- 4.1 Affixation

In affixation, an affix and its root should be written as a single word.

wok (work) woka (worker)
smok (smoke) smoka (smoker)
eke (police man) ekelebe (policemen)

- 4.2 Compounds

Compound words made up of words of two different syntactic categories (where one word modifies the other) should be hyphenated.

strong-hed (stubborn) opun-ai (worldliness)
baik-man (bike rider) bush-mit (wild meat)
chop-moni (feeding allowance) akara-wuman (woman who sells akara)

- 4.3 Reduplication

In reduplication (including ideophones), where the same item (bound morpheme) is repeated to form a new word, the items should written together as a word.

potopoto (muddiness) sansan (sand)
moimoi (bean pie) chukuchuku (thorns)
yamayama (rubbish) krokro (rashes, boils)

- 4.4 Intensification

In intensification, where the same item (free morpheme) is reduplicated to intensify the meaning of the other, the items should be written as separate words.

bad bad (extremely bad/good) bai bai (always buying)
koret koret (extremely good) chopi chopi (always eating)
wel wel (extremely well) krai krai (always crying)

5.0 Marking Tones in Naijá

Naijá is a tone language with two tones: high and low. In Naijá there are over a dozen tone-based minimal pairs. Tones can be marked in Naijá using tone diacritics. Based on the principle of minimal tone marking, considering the low tones as the common tone in Naijá, we can then indicate the high tones (´) in the orthography.

baba (father, old man, master) de (PROGRESSIVE marker)
bába (a barber) (is/are, day, stay)
Naija (Niger) fo (preposition)
Naijá (Nigeria, Nigerian Pidgin) (four)
fada (catholic priest) go (FUTURE marker)
fáda (father, master) (to go)

6.0 Punctuation and Plural Marking

- 6.1 Punctuation

As applicable in other languages, such regular punctuation marks as full stops, commas, colons, semi-colons, question marks and other punctuation marks shall be regularly and consistently used in Naijá to clarify meaning by indicating separation or grammatically grouping of words into phrases, clauses and sentences.

- 6.2 Plural Marking

Naijá does not always mark plural in the same way. Many words that have their origin in English, in educated Naijá speech still retain their foreign plural marking. The word and its plural marker should be written as a single word.

  1. Di wimen we kom tode se dem go kom tumoro (The women who came today said they would come tomorrow.)
  2. Di bois we dem kach, polis tok se dem bi tif (The boys that were caught, the police said they were thieves.)

But where plural is marked by the traditional use of ‘dem’ in Naijá, the plural marker ‘dem’ should be hyphenated to the word for which it marks plural.

  1. Di lori draiva-dem na dem blok rod (It is the lorry drivers who blocked the road.)
  2. Di pikin-dem se dem neva chop (The children said they have not eaten.)

- 6.3 Writing emphatic possessive constructions

Similarly, in emphatic possessive constructions in Naijá, ‘im’ which is normally used as the 3rd person singular, can also be used alongside the noun to indicate possessiveness. Grammatically ‘im’ as a possessive marker is different from ‘im’ as pronoun. So, we can mark this feature by hyphenating the emphatic possessive marker to the noun for which it indicates possessiveness.

  1. Jon-im pikin kom fo wi haus (John’s child came to our house.)
  2. Meri-im mama dé fo ospitul (Mary’s mother is in the hospital.)

However, it would be unnecessary to hyphenate verb-object forms like kil am, chop am, even when they are phonologically linked in connected speech.

7.0 General spelling rules for Naijá

  1. SNO has 28 consonant and vowel letters of the alphabet which should be used to spell and write Naijá: a, b, ch, d, e, f, g, gb, h, i, j, k, kp, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, sh, t, u, v, w, y, z, zh
  2. For consistency and uniformity of orthography, all words should be written in the same way wherever they appear in a text or whatever the phonological inclination or dialectal variety of the speaker.
  3. Single vowel letters (e.g. a, i, u) should be regularly and consistently used to represent corresponding single vowel phonemes (e.g. /a/, /i/, /u/) in SNO.
  4. Single consonant letters (e.g. p, b, t, d) should be regularly and consistently used to represent corresponding single consonant phonemes (eg. /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/) in SNO.
  5. Vowel length is not distinctive in Naijá, but where there are co-occurring vowels or emphatic pronunciation of vowels, the affected sounds should be written in the applicable vowel digraphs. Eg. A kol am soteé (‘I called for him/her for a very long time’).
  6. Consonant digraphs or two successive consonant letters (e.g. gb, ch, sh) should be regularly and consistently used to represent corresponding consonant phonemes as the palatal, palato-aveolar and labio-velar sounds (e.g. /gb/, /tʃ/, /ʃ/) in SNO.
  7. Proper nouns should be spelt like other Naijá words. Eg. Jizos (Jesus), Riva Naija (River Niger), Oktoba (October), Legos (Lagos), Wori (Warri), Yuganda (Uganda), Roshia (Russia).
  8. Naijá is a tone language and tone marks should be used to indicate the tonally significant words. Since the low tones are common in Naijá, only the high tones should be marked in tonally significant words.
  9. For convenience of writing and typing in SNO both [e] and [ε] shall be written as e, while [o] and [ɔ] should be written as o.
  10. In affixation, an affix (bound morpheme) and its root (free morpheme) should be written as a single word. Eg. wok/woka, boi/bois etc.
  11. In reduplication, where the same item (bound morpheme) is repeated to form a new word, the items should be written together as a word. Eg. krokro, potopoto etc.
  12. In compounding, where the compound is made up of words of two different syntactic categories (where one word modifies the other), the compound word should be hyphenated. Eg. akara-wuman, strong-hed etc.
  13. In intensification, where the same item (free morpheme) is reduplicated to intensify the meaning of the other, the items should be written as separate words. Eg. wel wel, bad bad etc.

8.0 Sample Texts in SNO

- 8.1 Sample 1: Some African Parables

The following texts are translations of some African parables. This sample text translation is aimed at further demonstrating how SNO works.

Awa pipul de tok se na smol pikin we wosh im hand klin na im fit chop wit elda dem. (Our people say the little child who washes his hand clean can eat with the elders.)

Awa pipul kom stil tok se wetin old-man de si fo wie im sidon, smol pikin no fit si am ivun wen im klaimb tri. (Our people also say what the old man sees where he is sitting down, the little child cannot see even when he climbs a tree.)

Wen tu tri dem fol fo ich oda bodi, na di wan we dé fo op dem de fest rimuv.(When two trees fall one on top of the other, it is the one on top that you first remove.)

Na wie de pen pesin na im dem de put fo nie faya. (It is that part of the body where a man feels pain that is put close to the fire.)

Bed no fit veks fo tri; bikos no hau i veks rich, wen i flai flai, na ontop of tri na im i go stil land. (A bird cannot be angry with a tree; because no matter angry the bird is, when it flies here and there, it must still perch on a tree.)

- 8.2 Sample 2: Man no de rili dai ontil pipol foget am (A man is never truly dead until he is forgotten)

Wan taim we don teé, i get wan gret honta we i get fó man-pikin. Di tiri sinio pikin kom bi majishan, an dem tok se dia smol broda neva big rich to len eni wok. Wan dé, di honta kom enta bush go hont anima, na dat dé im pipol tek tek dia ai tek si am. Im famili kom wet fo am soteé dem kom tok se di man don dai. Bot di man smol pikin go de aks dem evridé, “Wie mai papa? Wie mai papa?” Na so di smol boi sinio broda-dem kom tek tok se dem de gó luk fo dia papa. As dem enta bush nau, dem kom jam wie dia papa spie brok fol fo graund an dem kom si wie dia papa bon-dem de fo wan kona. Kwik kwik, di fest pikin join ol di bon togeda bikom skeletin, di sekond pikin du flesh put fo di skeletin, an di ted pikin kom blo briz put fo im papa noz mek i fo de brit. Di gret honta kom wek op. An i kom get op kom folo im pikin dem go haus. Ol im famili dem an evribodi fo dia vilej kom de hapi. As dem de du pati nau, na im di man kom tok se i go giv spesha gift to di pesin we bring am kom bak fo laif. Bot di man tiri sinio pikin-dem kom bigin de kworel wit ich oda. Na so ol of dem kom de shaut an kworel se, ‘Giv mi, na mi wok pas’,. Bot dia papa kom tok se, ‘A go dash mai smolest pikin di gift bikos na im trutru bring mi kom bak fo dis laif, bikos man no de rili dai ontil pipol foget am.’

Once upon a time, there was a great hunter who had four sons. The three elder sons became magicians, and said their youngest brother was not yet old enough to learn a profession.

One day, the hunter went into the forest to go hunt for animals, but that was the last time his people were to set their eyes upon him. His family waited a long time until they gave him up for dead. But the man’s youngest son kept on asking every day, "Where is my father? Where is my father?"

That was how the little boy’s elder brother then decided to go in search of their father. In the forest, the found their father’s broken spear and a pile of bones. The first son assembled the bones into a skeleton; the second son put flesh upon the bones; the third son breathed life into the flesh.

Then the great hunter arose and walked home with his sons. There was great rejoicing in his village as his family and the entire village were glad to have him back. While a feast was being held in his honour, the man rose up and said he had a special gift for the one who brought him back to life.

But the man’s three elder sons began to quarrel among themselves. Each one of his sons cried out, "Give it to me, for I have done the most." Then their father said, "I will give the gift to my youngest child. For it is this child who really saved my life. A man is never truly dead until he is forgotten!"

9.0 Conclusion

It is our hope that at this point that you will now be sufficiently familiar with the principles, processes and rules of spelling all of Naijá words. It is expected that you should now be able to spell your way through Naijá from simple words to longer texts. The efficacy and dexterity of writing in any language, of course, cannot be achieved from just reading a spelling guide alone, but it can be achieved faster by constantly and consistently using the standard or unified writing system in all instances and situations. In addition, reading texts written in the unified writing system, it will definitely go a long way in improving your Naijá literacy skills.


- Agheyisi, R. (1971). West African Pidgin English: simplification and simplicity. University of Stanford Ph.D thesis Ann Arbor. University Microfilms.
- Elugbe, B. O. and A. P. Omamor (1991). Nigerian Pidgin: Background and Prospects. Ibadan, Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria PLC.
- Esizimetor, D. O. (2009). What Orthography for Naijá? Paper delivered at the Conference on Naijá organised by the Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA), July 07-10, 2009, University of Ibadan Conference Centre.
- Koffi, E. (2003). The Design of an Optimal Orthography. A seminar given to Bibles International’s Consultants, Grand Rapids, MI, August 21-22.
- Ofulue, C. (2009). Developing a Standard Orthography: a case study of Nigerian Pidgin. Paper presented at the Conference on Naijá, organized by IFRA, University of Ibadan. July 8-9, 2009.
- Oloruntoba, Y. 1992. Sociocultural Dimensions of Nigerian Pidgin Usage (Western Niger-Delta of Nigeria). Indiana University dissertation: UMI Dissertation Information Service.
- Williamson, K. (1984). Practical Orthography in Nigeria. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria PLC.

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