Boko, Bokobaru and Busa dictionaries

Boko dictionary. By Ross Jones. (Languages of the world/dictionaries 24.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2004. Pp. vii, 313. ISBN 389586627X. $97.20.

Bokobaru dictionary. By Ross Jones. (Languages of the world/dictionaries 30.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2004. Pp. vi, 338. ISBN 3895868361. $99.60.

Busa dictionary. By Ross Jones. (Languages of the world/dictionaries 31.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2004. Pp. vi, 201. ISBN 389586837X. $92.40.

Reviewed by Michael Cahill, SIL International

These dictionaries are of a cluster of three related Eastern Mande languages, spoken mainly in Nigeria and spilling into Benin. They are a result of Jones’s decades of experience in Nigeria, and also relate to his Ph.D. dissertation on the grammar of the cluster, also published by LINCOM Europa.

The three dictionaries are almost identical in their layout, with about 6,000 entries each, though no pictures. An introduction gives a brief sketch of the grammar, including a helpful sketch of grammatical tone and the complex pronoun system, in which the form depends on case-like functions and verb aspect. In the main section, J lists a word (given by orthographic representation of the root), its part of speech, phonetic representation (including tone), a one- or two-word definition in English, and usually an illustrative sentence (except for the Busa dictionary) with an English free translation. Subentries, including many phrases using the main entry, are listed in indented separate lines. Homonyms or radically different senses of the stem are listed as separate entries with subscripts, for example, na1, na2, na3. Variant pronunciations or synonyms are sometimes given. He also includes a ‘Finderlist’ in each dictionary, with English words and their respective Boko, Bokobaru, or Busa equivalents.

The Busa dictionary is significantly smaller than the others because it has no illustrative sentences as the others do. The number of entries and subentries, however, is comparable. For example, under the letter ‘f’, Busa has 91 entries while Boko has 99. Busa has 109 subentries, while Boko has 130.

Orthography is mostly phonemic. Digraphs in these languages include <gb> and <kp>, representing the doubly articulated stops. Some dictionaries separate these alphabetically from <g> and <k>, since they are separate phonemes, while others list them in the midst of the <g> and <k> entries. J does the latter. Other digraphs are <kw>, <ky>, <gw>, <gy>, <sw>, and <zw>, which may be single phonemes or sequences, but also are listed in the midst of <k>, <g>, <s>, and <z>. By contrast, nasalized vowels are listed separately from oral vowels, presumably because they are not digraphs.

The back covers of all of the dictionaries tell us that comparison of the dictionaries ‘illustrates consonant weakening, elision, and significant changes in the tone system’. I would also add semantic shift to this list. The dictionaries are a rich source of data for demonstrating historical change of all of these types, and the forms and glosses are close enough so that recognition of cognates is not generally a problem. For example, ‘offence’ in Busa and Bokobaru is [tààrí] but is [tààé] in Boko. ‘Snot’ in Boko is mid-toned [kyã], but the corresponding low-toned [kyã̀] in Busa and [kyã̀ ~ kñã̀] in Bokobaru mean ‘catarrh,’ while ‘snot’ is now expressed by a longer word: [kyã̀kòkŋ́] and [kñã̀kòkŋ́], respectively. Interestingly, to ‘blow nose’ is kyã̀ pε in all three languages (though with mid tone in Boko).

The heart of a dictionary is the definitions. In these works, J mostly supplies one-word glosses, as is common for bilingual dictionaries, quite handy for quick reference and crosslinguistic comparisons, but of less value in understanding the pragmatic uses and semantic shades of a word. For example, he lists four words for ‘courage’ in the ‘English-Boko Finderlist’. When one looks them up in the main Boko section, they are all given the definition ‘courage’. The example sentences give some insight into their uses, but are of little help in telling when to use which term (as if a non-English speaker tried to compliment someone by saying ‘What an abnormal child you have!’ rather than saying ‘remarkable’). Sample sentences are generally the only clue to more in-depth semantics and pragmatics, and they vary in their usefulness.

I suspect the one-word definitions may be culturally misleading as well in some cases, for example, ãbaao ‘reporter’. A native English speaker reading this thinks of either television, some print medium, or a person who makes a living from his reporting. Could ãbaao be rather a ‘town crier’ type of person, who announces news in the community in a strictly oral mode?

An interesting feature of the dictionaries is the etymologies given for many of the words. Some are obviously from French or English, but the picture is murkier when it comes to words that have their ultimate origin in Arabic. He lists many of them as coming via the neighboring Dendi, and gives the corresponding Dendi form. Hausa, however, is also an influence in the area, and this raises questions—for example, did Boko ãnabi ‘prophet’ (Bokobaru/Busa annabi) come from Dendi annabi or Hausa annabi? J says it is from Dendi, which historically had a huge impact, but Hausa is also currently influential. Languages of northern Ghana such as Dagbani and Konni, two countries away, also use anabi, under Hausa influence. A sketch of the past and current sociolinguistic situation of the area would have been illuminating. It seems likely that many of the etymologies are hypotheses subject to systematic confirmation.

The parts of speech sometimes cannot be justified syntactically, and one wonders if these were written with the linguistically naïve English speaker in mind rather than the linguist. The main culprits are what in English would be adjectives that are expressed as verbs in many African languages. ‘Big’ [gbεnε] is listed as both ‘predicate adjective’ and in another context, ‘attributive adjective’. From the example sentences, it appears to be simply an intransitive verb.

At approximately $100 each, these are quite expensive, especially for paperbacks. This is a pity, because despite a few shortcomings, these are quite good volumes and deserve wider distribution than the price will allow. Besides institutional libraries, I would imagine the potential buyers would be limited to linguists with a very specific interest in the area, and expatriates who are assigned to work among one of those language groups. For these groups, though, the dictionaries are a wonderful source of well-organized information and will be quite valuable.