Yoruba Name project

On Friday 1st July 2016, IFRA Nigeria organised, with the help of it’s Phd student Sara Panata, the presentation of the Yoruba Name project by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, its founder/curator, and Laila Le Guen, the communications lead and researcher. The conference took place in Drapers’ Hall, within the Institute of African Studies. It was attended by a motivated and very reactive public of professors and students of all levels. After the presentation, the convenors facilitated an interactive workshop, followed then by the screening of the documentary Family Name (USA, 1998) by Macky Alston, organised by the Thursday Films Series movie club.

Presentation of the Yoruba Name project

During the first part of the afternoon, Kọ́lá and Laila presented the Yoruba Name project, a first multimedia online dictionary of Yorùbá names aimed to preserve and document Yorùbá personal names in a multimedia format, with the broader objective to promote linguistic and cultural diversity online through the use of African languages. At the moment, the dictionary contains about 3400 entries at various stages of completion. To collect this wide database of names, their meanings and their histories, Kọ́lá, Laila and a small team of volunteer researchers of various profiles, carried out research both online and through fieldwork around Nigeria and Benin Republic before the launch of the online dictionary, around five months ago.

The presentation was followed by a live demonstration of the dictionary. For a user, the first port of call is the search bar, where one has the option to use a virtual keyboard to type characters present in the Yorùbá alphabet that may not be accessible on one’s keyboard. The search will be successful with or without tone marks and subdots so the use of the virtual keyboard is entirely optional. However, the team has shown a sustained commitment to providing user-friendly solutions to type Yorùbá and now Igbo via specially-designed keyboard layouts for Mac and Windows.

Each name entry includes the meanings of the name, its breakdown, the geolocation of the name in the Yoruba space, the famous people who bear this name and its variants. The user is constantly reminded that they can contribute to the growing dictionary, either by suggesting a new name or by opting to improve an entry. For such a site to function properly, individual entries and feedback messages are regularly monitored via the dashboard, where one can approve new names to be published and directly fix entries.

In the future, the Yorùbá Name team also aims to offer a full multimedia interactive experience in adding to the dictionary an audio functionality allowing the user to listen to the pronunciation of each name. This is especially useful for users who are new to the language but may also turn out handy for confident speakers who are not yet familiar with the Yorùbá standard orthography including subdots and tone marks.

The Yorùbá Name online dictionary is a dynamic site, reflecting the constant flow of updates suggested by users as well as new input from on-the-ground research. So far, their focus has been somewhat Nigeria-centric, with a bit of Beninese influence, of which Laila’s French background has been notably felt, but their hope is that curious minds and knowledgeable strangers from all over the world will benefit from and possibly contribute to the site. For this to happen, they plan to translate the platform into several languages including Yorùbá, French and Portuguese.

The workshop

After the presentation, Kọ́lá facilitated an interactive workshop, with Laila’s help, to let the public contribute to the project. The audience got a chance to contribute their knowledge to clarify the meaning of sixteen names that had remained difficult to identify. In a very interesting and lively exchange, a lot of people, both students and professors, tried to provide a breakdown for the names and meanings were found for more than half of them. They have now been added to the dictionary. Others were partially decoded and have been added to a list of incomplete names for future research. Moreover, during the last part of the workshop, participants were asked to submit their names to let the team add them to the dictionary. One moving story testifying to the need for such research was that of a student stemming from Ondo state who struggled for many years without knowing the meaning of her name “Ìpínṣe” and finally found it out during a visit to her grandmother’s village.

Screening of Family Name, a film by Macky Alston (USA, 1998)

Our rich afternoon ended with the screening of the film Family Name. In this documentary, the film-maker, Macky Alston, sought the origin of his family name after he discovered that it was common to several families in South Carolina, his own, descended from big slaves owners, as well as numerous African American families, descended from slaves. The documentary gave us the opportunity to discuss the importance of the study of the history of personal names in Yorubaland, Nigeria and beyond, a history that could reveal important information about an individual, a family, and a whole community as was for the case of the Alston.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a linguist, teacher, translator and writer. He holds an M.A. in Linguistics/TESL from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (2012) and a B.A. in Linguistics from the University of Ibadan (2005).

Laila Le Guen has just completed a three-year diploma course in Yorùbá and African studies at INaLCO (Paris). She is a translator and an editor.

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