A Conversation

The phonograph sound recordings made during Northcote Thomasanthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are like time capsules. Between 1909 and 1915, Thomas and his local assistants made well over 700 recordings of songs, stories and ‘specimens of language‘. Many of these have been unheard for over a century.

Thanks to digitization of the original wax cylinders by the British Library, these recordings are now accessible once again. As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been working with communities and local language/dialect speakers to transcribe and translate as many of the recordings as possible. It is not easy work, partly due to changes in the languages over 100 years and partly due to the poor quality of the wax cylinder recordings.

When we are able to obtain a good transcription and translation, the results are often quite startling. They provide remarkable insights into a moment in time: a moment of colonial intrusion, of which the anthropological survey was, of course, a part.

Recording No.465 was made during N. W. Thomas’s 1910-11 tour of what the colonial authorities had designated Awka District, in the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. The recording appears to have been made in the town of Umuchukwu, also known as Ndikelionwu, in 1911. It is a recording of a conversation between two young men, John, described as ‘an Onitsha boy’, and Nwile, ‘a Nibo boy’. Judging from the conversation, it seems that they have both accompanied the anthropologist on his visit to Umuchukwu, although Nwile seems to know the local chief and acts as an intermediary.

Conversation in Igbo between John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, recorded by Northcote Thomas in Umuchukwu in 1911. (NWT 465; BL C51/2723)

We worked with Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba to obtain a transcription and English translation from the Igbo. With the translation in hand, we also discovered that Thomas had actually already published a transcription and translation of the recording in the third part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, which is devoted to ‘Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar’. Usually Thomas noted the record number alongside published transcriptions/translations, but on this occasion he neglected to do so. It was, however, easy to recognize the text once we received the translation. It is interesting to compare the original phonetic rendering and translation with the new one. (We discuss the orthographic conventions that Thomas employed in a previous blog post.)

Excerpt of the transcription and translation of John and Nwile’s conversation, publishing in Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The transcription and translation provided by Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba:

D’anyị, I noo mma?
Ano m noo!
Kedu ka ịmee?
Anọ m no ọfụma
I budi onye ebe?
Abụ m onye Nibo
Oo!
Brother, are you well?
I am just there
How are you?
I am just fine.
Where are you from?
I am from Nibo  
Oh!
Mu na gi na aluko olu na ofu ebe.
Ọmaka no-ofu.
Anyị nwa wee bia n’obodo ndị a.
Anyị bialu ụmụchukwu tata.
We work together in the same place
It is a good thing
We came to this people’s town
We came to Umuchukwu today.
Umuchukwu ndị a bụ ndị ebe?
Fa bụ ndị ikeri-ọnwụ
Ndị Ikeri-ọnwụ?
Eh!  
This Umuchukwu is in which part?
It is in Ikeri-onwu.
Ikeri-onwu?
Yes!
Kedukwa onye anyị no be ya?
Anyi no be Chief a na-akpọ Kanu.
O!
Ya na ndị be ya niile.
Esego nwunye ya na foto?
Esego nwunye ya tata 
Ya na onye du?
Ya na nke onye Ọnicha
Ezi e?
Eh!
Who are we even in his house?
We are in Chief Kanu’s house
Oh!
With his whole family  
Have they taken photograph of his wife?
The wife was photographed today
With who?
She and the person from Onitsha
Truthfully?
Yes.
Munwa bụ John ka eselu mu na ya na foto tata.
Ọ ya ka m fukwalu.
Okwu asi!
Mba, afulu m ya, hahaha!
D’anyị amuna amu n’ofu!
I na-asika asi nwoke m.  
Nwoke m, ọbụghị asi, afulu m n’anya.
Ọ dimma ebe I fulu n’anya na okwu adiro ya. K’anyị norisizi a nu.
Ma gị gwakwa ndị a na abiama bialu be fa.
Nnukwu ife bialu tata.
It is I John, that was photographed with her today.
That is what I have seen.
It is a lie!
No, I saw it, haha!
Brother don’t laugh like that
You are always lying, my man  
My man, it is not a lie, I saw it.
It is ok since you saw it, there is no disputing it. Let us relax.
But tell them that they have a visitor.
A big thing came today
Ị gwago fa na o bụ ndị-oyibo
Agwalu m fa, si fa na ndị-oyibo bialu
Ka fa kwadobe nd be fa nile.
Abụ m onye Ọnicha
Nnọọ!
Gị nwa onye Nibo.
Unu apụtachago ụla?
Ọ dimma.
Nnọọ o!
Kedu ka unu melu?
Anyị nocha nma nma.
Have you told them it is the white people?
I told them that the white people are here, let them prepare their people.
I am from Onitsha.
Welcome!
You, from Nibo.
It is well.
Welcome!
How are you people doing?
We are all fine.
Kene ndị a daalụ o!
Chief achoo I kene gị, gị daalụ o!
Si fa na onye-ocha si fa daalu o!
Onye-ọcha kenelu gị nma nma o!
Greet this people!
Chief, he wants to greet you, greetings to you!
Tell them that the white person greets them.
The white person greets you well.  
Si fa n’anyi bialu k’anyi fu fa anya o!
Anyi bialu nkata bunu
K’anyi wee nolisia o!
K’anyi nolisia olili k’anyị naa o!
Hahahaha!
Omelu agaa du?
Nma nma ka o dị.
Ọ dimma o,Nkata nkata ka ọ bụ.
Ka ọ dị n’ofu.
Nnọọ o!
Ike agwubago m, ka m naa.
Eh?
Eh!
Ọ dimma, kachifo! Ka ọ dibazia!
K’anyị nolikwa, ikekwe anyị ga-afu ozo.
Nodu nma o!
Nnọọ o!
Ka o diba!
Ọ dimma,na-eme ofuma.  
Tell them we came to see them.
We came to have a chat in your house.
Let us stay well!
When we are done enjoying our visit, let us go!
Haha!
How are things?
Everything is fine.  
It is well, they are all conversations.
Let it be like that.
Welcome!
I am getting tired, let me go.
Ok?
Ok.
It is well, goodnight, later!
Let’s be seeing, we will probably see again.
Stay well!
Later!
It is well, be good.

The conversation would, of course, have been staged for the phonograph recorder, perhaps to document the differences in Onitsha and Nibo dialects. But, while the primary purpose of the recording was linguistic, through their exchange, John and Nwile also tell us a great deal about the broader encounter between the anthropologist, the Umuchukwu elite and their own joking relationship. The latter is most evident when listening to the men laughing together.

From this audio recording, we can build up a picture of the visit of the oyibo – the whiteman – to Chief Kanu’s compound in Umuchukwu. This entails multiple linguistic mediations between N. W. Thomas and John, John and Nwile, and Nwile and Chief Kanu. We gain insight into the formal greetings exchanged and the communication that the anthropologist has come to see the chief and to talk. We learn that the chief’s wife has been photographed that day, apparently alongside John himself! (The word ‘foto‘ has clearly entered the Igbo vocabulary by this time.)

Chief of Umuchukwu, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911. In this and subsequent photographs of the same man, the caption ‘Chief Jacob Mb[onu]’ is crossed out. If not Mbonu, could this be Chief Kanu, who is mentioned in the conversation? (NWT 2507; RAI 400.15387)

Unfortunately, the annotations accompanying the photographs that Thomas made in Umuchukwu are vague and confusing, with crossings out and omissions. The ‘Chief of Umuchukwu’ is, however, identified (though the name ‘Chief Jacob Mbonu’ is crossed out) – is this Chief Kanu? The next photograph in the sequence is of a woman with mbubu scarification marks running down her chest and stomach. Is this one of chief’s wives? (There is no sign of John besides her!) And then there is another photograph of two men dressed in European clothing. They are dressed in a similar manner to Thomas’ assistants and translators elsewhere. Might they just be John and Nwile?

The entries in Thomas’s photographic register contain no information about these two photographs taken before and after those of the Chief of Umuchukwu. The unnamed woman in the photograph on the left may be one of the Chief’s wives. Note the mbubu scarification on her chest and stomach (NWT 2508; RAI 400.15388). The men in the photograph on the right are dressed similarly to other assistants and translators that accompanied Thomas on his travels. Might they be John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, whose conversation Thomas recorded in Umuchukwu? (RAI 2506; RAI 400.15386)

Northcote Thomas’s phonograph recordings constitute an important and untapped historical resource. While they were recorded largely for linguistic research purposes, today they provide a unique opportunity for us to hear the voices of those normally assumed to be silenced in the colonial archive. The Indian postcolonial studies scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asked ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ – listening carefully to the colonial anthropologists’ wax cylinder recordings we are in no doubt that they can indeed, and that their voices provide a crucial counter-narrative to dominant historical accounts.


Thank you to Yvonne Mbanefo, Oba Kosi Nwoba and the British Library. If you are an Igbo speaker, do please let us know if you spot any errors in the transcription or translation of the conversation between John and Nwile, or have any alternative interpretations! Please leave a comment here or email us at info@re-entanglements.net.

Experiments in language

Northcote Thomas experiments in language

Linguistic research formed an important part of Northcote Thomas‘ anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Prior to the early 20th century, most research into West African languages had been undertaken by Christian missionaries. In the context of the emerging colonial sciences, an understanding of local languages was not only useful in terms of communication with local populations, but it also served the project of mapping ‘tribal’ or ‘ethnic’ groups, their territories and their historical relation with one another.

The languages people speak and the tribal or ethnic group names they are given were often used interchangeably. In this respect, Thomas introduced a more nuanced distinction between language and ethnicity. The titles of his published reports therefore refer to the ‘Edo-speaking’ and ‘Igbo-speaking’ people of Southern Nigeria, rather than, for instance, ‘the Edo’ or ‘the Igbo’. Alas, this recognition that language and ethnicity are quite different entities was not reflected in the subtitle of his Sierra Leone report: ‘The Timne and Other Tribes’.

Northcote Thomas, Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria
Northcote Thomas’ own annotated copy of his Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria (1914). Cambridge University Library, Special Collections.

Collecting specimens of language

Methodologically, Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 were defined by practices of collecting and documentation. Thus, he collected ‘specimens’ of language in much the same way as he collected ‘specimens’ of material culture or, indeed, specimens of local botanical species. The use of the term ‘specimen’ carries an implicit assertion about the ‘scientific’ status of the anthropological surveys and the knowledge they produced, with its connotations of objectivity, rigour and authority. (Qualities that can, of course, all be contested.)

Northcote Thomas linguistic tour, Edo dialects, ,1909-10
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing dialectical differences in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

The process of collecting linguistic specimens included the compilation of word lists, phrases and stories. For this, Thomas enlisted the assistance of interpreters. Finding reliable interpreters was a considerable challenge and there is much correspondence on this issue in the Colonial Office archives, especially relating to Thomas’s initial tour as Government Anthropologist in 1909-10. We learn, for example, that Thomas regarded the first interpreter who had been assigned to him – a schoolteacher named Erumese – as ‘reckless and inaccurate’, while he was frustrated that his replacement – a Corporal Nimahan of the Police Force, who was ‘thoroughly competent’ – was obliged to return to his police duties after a period of four months.

Excerpt from Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part II: Linguistics, in which Thomas lists the names of the interpreters employed during his 1909-10 tour, including Erumese, Corporal Nimahan, Osidora, Ogbebo, James Smart, George, Oganna and Isuma.

Thomas named these interpreters and acknowledged the extent and importance of their contributions in his Edo report. Unfortunately, in his subsequent reports, individual assistants are not named, though there is no doubt that their contributions remained vital. The role of interpreters also went beyond providing linguistic assistance. In a letter sent in 1911, during his second tour in what was then Awka District, for instance, Thomas praised his ‘junior interpreter’, one Alfred Nwile, remarking that he has displayed ‘great intelligence and skill’ in collecting botanical specimens.

The actual ‘collecting’ of words, phrases and stories, whether by Thomas or his assistants, was done either through direct transcription into text or with the use of a wax cylinder phonograph recorder. In appendices to his Edo Report, Thomas provided guidance notes for colonial officials, including use of the phonograph in linguistic documentation, and advice regarding language transcription. He provided a list of 150 words and phrases for translation to allow for comparison across languages, as well as more detailed questions about language usage. These were effectively the same techniques that Thomas and his assistants used during the four anthropological surveys.

Northcote Thomas, linguistic notebook, Igbo dialects, 1910-13
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing differences in Igbo dialects. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

Recordings and transcriptions

Thomas wrote up and published the results of the linguistic research from the surveys in various books and articles. These included volumes of his main anthropological reports dedicated to ‘linguistics’, ‘vocabularies’, ‘grammar’, ‘tones’ and ‘dictionaries’, as well as separate volumes entitled Specimens of Language from Southern Nigeria (1914) and Specimens of Language from Sierra Leone (1916), which comprise of pages of tables of words translated into different local languages and dialects. These works were distributed to members of the colonial service, as well as to university libraries. How many people actually read them at the time is unknown – one suspects not many!

Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar
Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III (1913), illustrating Thomas’s method of phonetic transcription and comparing dialect differences between Onitsha, Awka and Bende Igbo. (Click image to enlarge.)

Duplicates of the wax cylinder sound recordings were also made available at the Horniman Museum in South London and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford for scholarly consultation. Again, these seem to have been little used. The recordings have now been digitized by the British Library and we have been working with these throughout the [Re:]Entanglements project. In particular, we have been taking the recordings back to the communities in which they were recorded over 110 years ago, and it has been wonderful to witness as people listen to the voices of their ancestors and reconnect with this aural heritage.

In many cases, Thomas published transcriptions of the audio recordings, and it is fascinating to reunite these sounds and texts.

Experimenting with tones

Edo, Igbo and Temne are all tonal languages, in which lexical or grammatical meaning is altered by the pitch contour in which words are spoken. Thomas’s anthropological surveys took place at a time when the science of phonetics was becoming established in universities in Europe. Thomas was a friend of the phonetician Daniel Jones, who ran the Experimental Phonetics Laboratory at University College London. Jones had developed a method for determining what he termed phonetic ‘intonation curves‘ using phonograph cylinder recordings. Jones and Thomas worked together applying this technique to document the tonal changes in the specimens of Igbo speech that Thomas and his assistants had recorded during his 1910-11 and 1912-13 tours. According to Jones’ biographers, Beverly Collins and Inger Mees (1999), this was a pioneering piece of research on tone languages.

Daniel Jones, experimental phonetics, UCL, 1918
Daniel Jones demonstrating the use of the kymograph, an instrument for recording air pressure variations during speech. Experimental Phonetics Laboratory, University College London.

Thomas wrote up the experiment in Part VI of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, providing transcriptions with musical annotations for some of the recordings they worked with. The specimens of Igbo language they worked with include such memorable expressions as ‘Does the goat frighten the dancer?’, ‘He took an egg, cried for a cloth, passed the bridge’ and ‘He put his foot on her waist and caused a big palaver’!

Northcote Thomas, Tones in Ibo, 1914
Top: Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part VI (1914), providing a tonal transcription of phrases recorded in Awka Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 505 ‘Spoken sentences in Igbo’, recorded 1911 (British Library C51/2785). Thomas’s voice can be heard between the Igbo phrases giving the translation in English.
Top: Pages an article entitled ‘Some Notes on the Tones of the Ibo Language of Nigeria‘ (originally published in 1914), providing a tonal transcription of vowel sounds recorded in the Asaba Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 627a ‘Asaba vowel sounds’, recorded 1913 (British Library C51/2975). After Thomas’ introductory ‘ident’, the voice pronouncing the words is probably that of one of Thomas’ assistants, who also provides the English translations.

Orthographic debates

In his guidance for colonial officers, Thomas wrote that ‘For the collection of Vocabularies or native texts, two things are essential, one is, a certain amount of training of the ear, the other is an adequate system of transcription’. With regard to this system of transcription, he added, ‘the cardinal principles are, that each sound should have a sign peculiar to itself and that each sign should represent one and only one sound’.

At the time of Thomas’s surveys, there were a number of competing phonetic alphabets in use. Thomas used a system based on modifications to Latin script through diacritical marks. This was based on a Standard Alphabet devised by Karl Richard Lepsius for ‘reducing unwritten languages and foreign graphic systems to a uniform orthography in European letters’, published in the 1860s and recommended for adoption by the Church Missionary Society.

Northcote Thomas linguistic orthography and diacritical marks
Excerpts from Appendix A of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part I (1910), setting out the orthographic system that he uses for different speech sounds. Thomas explained in some detail how it should be used and modified. (Click image to enlarge.)

In a review of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone published in the Times Literary Supplement published in 1916, the reviewer criticized Thomas’s use of ‘inverted vowels and coined accents’, which he found confusing and wondered if there were not a more simple system. This provoked a lengthy exchange in the letters pages of the TLS that lasted seven months, in which numerous authorities debated various issues concerning phonetic spelling.

In Nigeria, the Lepsius system was superseded, first, by the adoption of a ‘Practical Orthography of African Languages’, developed by the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures in the 1920s, and, subsequently – in the case of Igbo – by the Ọnwụ system in the 1960s. The Ọnwụ system consists of 28 consonants and 8 vowel sounds.

The Ọnwụ system of orthography widely used in Nigeria today, with equivalent sounds as represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet in square brackets.

N. W. Thomas, linguist?

As may be discerned in the discussion above, Thomas was as much a linguist as he was an anthropologist. In 1914, while he was working in Sierra Leone, he was asked to advise on the introduction of linguistics in the training of new Colonial Service staff. Candidates who passed the examination were entitled to salary supplement. In the National Archives in Sierra Leone we discovered a draft paper Thomas had prepared entitled ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’, which was evidently intended as a introductory text for teaching purposes.

Northcote Thomas Elementary Sketch of Phonetics
Handwritten manuscript of Thomas’s ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’ in a correspondence file concerned with language training for officers in the Colonial Service, probably drafted in 1914. The manuscript includes annotated excerpts from proofs of Daniel Jones’ An Outline of English Phonetics (1918). Sierra Leone National Archives. (Click image to enlarge.)

In the event, it appears that this text was not adopted, and George Noel-Armfield’s book, General Phonetics for Missionaries and Students of Languages (1915) was used alongside reprints of the linguistic appendix to Thomas’s earlier Edo report. The latter was used as a guide for candidates who were expected to collect specimens of language from the colonial territories in which they served.

Thomas’s career as a government anthropologist came to an abrupt end in 1915 at end of his Sierra Leonean tour. He did, however, continue to write articles on linguistic themes, including a broader survey of what were then called ‘Sudanic languages‘ (languages of the Sahel belt) published in the Bulletin of the newly established School of Oriental Studies in 1920, and an attempt at reconstructing historical population movements through linguistic analysis in a paper entitled ‘Who were the Manes?‘ published the same year in the Journal of the Royal African Society.

Thomas also taught African languages, as an occasional lecturer at the Imperial Institute in London’s South Kensington, as part of the Tropical African Services Course. Candidates were evidently required to collect and transcribe language samples, as evidenced in a letter we discovered from Llewellyn Travers Chubb, sent to Thomas in 1925 from Bende in present-day Abia State.

Travers Chubb letter to Northcote Thomas regarding Tropical African Service course, 1925
Letter from Llewellyn Travers Chubb to Northcote Thomas, 21 February 1925, from Bende, Owerri Province, referring to Thomas’s teaching on the Tropical African Services Course in the autumn of 1924, and enclosing his word list assignment. (Click image to enlarge.)

Nothing of significance?

What are we to make of all this endeavour today? More recent linguists have been quick to dismiss the value of Thomas’s work. Betram Okolo, a linguist based at the University of Benin, Nigeria, argues that ‘nothing of significance’ was written on Igbo linguistics between 1890 and 1930, and describes Thomas’ efforts as ‘grossly inadequate’ and ‘misleading’. However, his remark that Thomas’ work ‘represents one of the most idle performances offered to the public on the Igbo language’ seems somewhat unfair. Indeed, it seems Okolo was not aware that the records on which Thomas conducted his tonal experiments were also recorded by him and his assistants over six years of fieldwork using primitive equipment in challenging conditions, or just how pioneering were his attempts with Daniel Jones at documenting tonal languages using ‘scientific’ methods.

Excerpt from Betram Okolo article, The History of NIgerian Linguistics
Excerpt from Betram Okolo’s article ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey‘, published in 1981, in which he dismisses Thomas’s linguistic research, perhaps without fully appreciating its vast scope or pioneering nature.

While we might contest the assertion that Thomas’s linguistic work was an ‘idle performance’, its entanglement in the colonial project cannot, of course, be denied. Joseph Errington argues that ‘Colonial linguistics needs to be framed … as a nexus of technology (literacy), reason, and faith and as a project of multiple conversion: of pagan to Christian, of speech to writing, and of the alien to the comprehensible’ (Errington 2001: 21).

Furthermore, as Judith Irvine has recently noted, ‘These early projects contributed to the shape of African linguistics as we inherit it today, and – as part of the colonial enterprise – they had effects on the lives of the African languages’ speakers’ (Irvine 2008: 324). This is perhaps most evident in the use of (modified) European scripts to render many of Nigeria’s and Sierra Leone’s languages, and in the use of English as their national languages, such that younger people especially are turning away from their local languages.

Revisiting Thomas’s linguistic research

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In a future article, linguists Gloria Tochukwu Okeke and Ogechukwu Miracle Uzoagba will report on their experimental research on dialect change, comparing Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings with recreations of the same texts by present-day speakers of the same dialect. Their fascinating work suggests that the value of Thomas’s recordings may lie in the future rather than in the past.

Dr Gloria Okeke of the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, University of Nigeria, introduces her work exploring sound changes in the Awka Igbo dialect using Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings.

Selected references

  • Collins, B. and I. M. Mees (1999) The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. Berlin & New York.
  • Errington, J. (2001) ‘Colonial Linguistics’, Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 19-39.
  • Irvine, J. T. (2008) ‘Subjected Words: African Linguistics and the Colonial Encounter’, Language & Communication 28: 323-343.
  • Okolo, B. A. (1981) ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey’, Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 6: 99-125.