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.

Traditional Nigerian Folktales

Pages from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria; Part IV: Proverbs, Stories, Tones in Ibo (London, 1914). Click here to open in a new browser window.

In the early 20th century, the disciplines of anthropology and folklore studies were very close. Prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist in 1909, Northcote Thomas was a member of the Councils of both the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Folklore Society. Folklorists, in particular, documented traditional stories and songs, and Thomas had edited a number of such collections.

During his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded many stories on wax cylinder phonographs. He transcribed and published many of these in his Anthropological Reports and in articles in the journal Man. Other than regarding these as specimens of ‘native texts’ (though, of course, they were not ‘texts’ but oral traditions), he provided little explanation or commentary. Given that his surveys were intended to be of practical value to the colonial governments that were funding them, neither did he attempt to explain the utility of collecting the stories from a governmental perspective. As with so many aspects of Thomas’s surveys, while the value of the research at the time was unclear, the significance of the recordings as historical documents is now considerable.

The recordings are, however, challenging to listen to and the transcriptions and translations Thomas provided have many errors and inconsistencies. The potential for future research is immense. To illustrate this the [Re:]Entanglements project has worked with Yvonne Mbanefo of the Igbo Studies Initiative and Ugonna Umeike of the Department of Fine and Applied Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to bring some of the stories to life. Yvonne has rendered some of the stories into contemporary Standard Igbo, re-recorded and translated them, while Ugonna has illustrated the stories, drawing upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs for visual reference. Here is one of the stories Thomas recorded in Asaba in 1913…

Akuko onye isi, onye ngwuro, ogbenye na Eze

(The Story of the Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King)

Above: Ugonna Umeike’s illustration of the story; below: some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs used as visual references informing the illustration.
Northcote Thomas’s original 1913 recording of the story. NWT 613. (British Library C51/2930.)
Re-recording of the story in Standard Igbo. Transcription/translation by Yvonne Mbanefo; voiced by Oba Kosi Nwoba.

Otu nwoke onye isi nọ n’obodo ọ maara ọfuma oge oke ụganị dakwasara ya.
A blind man was in a town that he knew very well when a great famine befell him.
Ọ gara na be Eze obodo ahụ, wee yọọ ya nri.
He went to the king of that town, and asked him for food.
Eze nyere ya ji na anụ, ọ wee were obi aṅụrị pụọ.
The king gave him yams and meat, and he walked away rejoicing.
Mana tupuu ọ pụọ, Eze nyere ya ndụmọdụ, gwa ya ka ọ ghara ịgwa onye ọbụla na e nyere ya nri.
But before he went the king advised him not to tell anyone that he was given the food items.
Ọ pụwara, wee hụ onye ngwụrọ bụ onye oke agụụ ji,
He walked  away and  met the cripple who was very hungry
Wee gwa ya ka ọ gaa na nke Eze ka ọ nata ya ihe oriri.
And he told him to go to the king to receive things to eat from him.
Onye ngwụrọ gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya nri.
The cripple went to the king and asked him for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ nwere nri.
The king asked him who told him he had food.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye isi gwara ya.
He said it was the blind man that told him.
Eze weere ji na anụ nye ya, ka o si nye onye isi.
The king took yams and meat and gave to him as he gave to the blind man.
Ọ nyekwara ya otu ndụmọdụ ahụ.
He gave him the same advice.
Ozugbo nje, onye ngwụrọ wee jiri nwayọọ wee laa.
Immediately the cripple went quietly.
Ọ gatụrụ n’ụzọ, wee hụ ogbenye, malite kwuwe n’olu ike
He went a little way, then met a poor man and began saying in a loud voice,
“Gakwuru Eze maka oke nke gị; ọ na-eyere ndị nwere nsogbu.”
“Go to the king for your share; he is aiding the helpless.”
Ogbenye gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya oke nke ya.
The poor man went to the king and at once asked for his own share.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ na-enye ndị mmadụ nri.
The king asked him who told him he was giving food to people.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze nyere ya ihe ka o sị nye Onye ngwụrọ, wee gwakwa ya ihe ọ gwara ya (onye ngwụrọ).
The king gave to him as he gave to the cripple, and told him the same word he told him (the cripple).
Ogbenye pụwara, wee hụ onye ohi.
The poor man went away and saw a thief.
Onye ohi yọrọ ya gwa ya ebe ọ nwetara ji na anụ mana ogbenye ekweghịị.
The thief begged him to tell him where he got yams and meat but the poor man refused.  
Onye ohi gakwuuru Eze ka ọ yọọ ya nri.
The thief went to the king to ask for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye ọ hụrụ n’ụzọ.
The king asked him whom he met on the road.
Ọ gwara ya na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze jụrụ ya ma ọ nwere ihe ọ gwara ya, ọ wee sị mba.
The king asked him whether he told him anything and he said no.
Ọ gwara ya gaa n’ụlọ onye isi na onye ngwụrọ, zuo ihe ha nwere.
He said go to the house of the blind man and cripple and steal what they have.
Eze gwakwara ya hapụ ogbenye, ka a ghara ikpe ya n’aka Eze.
The king told him to leave the poor man alone so that he does not get reported to the king.
Onye ohi zuuru ihe onye isi, ma onye isi ahụghị ya, zuo ihe onye ngwụrọ ma onye ngwụrọ enweghi ike iso ya.
The thief robbed the blind man who didn’t see him, he robbed the cripple who couldn’t chase after him.
Ọ bụrụ na o zuuru ihe ogbenye, Ogbenye ga- ekpe ya n’aka Eze.
If he had robbed the poor man, the poor man would have reported him to the king.


Many thanks Yvonne, Kosi and Ugonna for bringing this story to life for us!