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1.0 Background to the Study

Phonology as an important aspect of linguistics is generally concerned with the study of the sound pattern of a language. Identifying the phonemes of any given language is an important aspect of phonology; however, often times, phonological analysis entails more than that. In other words, besides highlighting the distinctive sounds of a language, a phonologist examines what happens to speech sounds when they are combined to form words and how they interact with each other. Given the fact that speech is a continuum, speech sounds are not articulated independently as series of distinct segment, rather sound segments merge and blend into one another during speech. Thus phonemes patterned in this way influence one another. Consequently, Schane (1973:49) observes that:

When morphemes are combined to form words, the segments of neighbouring morphemes become juxtaposed and sometimes undergo changes. Consider the morphologically related forms electric, electrical, electricity, and fanatic, fanatical, fanaticism. Here the final /k/ of electric and fanatic becomes /s/ before a morpheme beginning with /i/.

Such changes, identified by Schane are referred to as phonological processes. Phonological processes are those changes which segments undergo to produce the various phonetic realizations of underlying phonological segments (Ifode, 1999:144). In the light of the foregoing, Halle (2002:11) remarked that “phonology, from the mentalist-generative perspective, is concerned with the connections between the abstract underlying representations of words and morphemes in memory and their surface representations that serve as instructions to the articulators”.

Olùkùmi is a Defoid language spoken in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State, Nigeria. It belongs to Edekiri of the Yoruboid group in the West Benue Congo family of Niger –Congo phylum. This language was first identified by Arokoyo (2012) in her comparative analysis of the phonological systems of the Yorùbá, Owé, Igala and Olùkùmi languages. Probably because her interest was purely comparative, her work superficially describes the phonological system of the language. More so, her analysis of the sound system of the language is insufficient in that some of the sounds which exist in the language were not highlighted in her study and most importantly, Olukumi tone system was not discussed in her work. Apart from her study, there has been no other attempt to further study some of these other aspects of the phonology of the language. This study is therefore very necessary in that it aims at bringing to light those aspects of the Olukumi phonology that were not discussed in her work.

In other African languages like Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Igala, Efik, Urhobo, and the likes where lots of research efforts have been devoted to phonology, several phonological processes have been noted. For instance, assimilation process is known to be one of the most prevalent processes in natural languages. However, different languages have been shown to manifest different assimilatory processes. Given this fact, there is a need to further investigate the phonology of the Olukumi language in order to uncover those phonological processes that operate in the language which have hitherto not been studied. In fact observing the way the Olukumi language is spoken one can notice some evidence of nasalisation of vowels in most cases and in few instances some class of consonant. This nasalisation effect can be traced to a contiguous nasal segment. One important aspect of this assimilation process is the environment; a sound may affect another sound either preceding or following it by transferring some or all of its features.  Aside nasalisation, there are other prevalent assimilation processes that have been reported to characterise the phonology of various languages; for example cases of labialisation and palatalization have been reported to occur in some West Inland Igbo dialects (Okorji, 1999).

Also, in other cases, phonological processes are known to affect the syllable structure resulting in an alternation in the distribution of consonants and vowels. The basic syllable form in most African languages is the CV (consonant vowel) syllable structure. As such, most languages do not encourage clusters of consonants or vowels. Therefore across word or morpheme boundary, when two consonants or vowels are in sequence, languages have been observed to adopt certain phonological processes in order to maintain the preferred syllable type. In phonology, such occurrence of identical elements violates the universal principle of Obligatory Contour Principle (OCP); first proposed by Leben (1973) for tonal constraints but subsequently expanded to accommodate both segmental processes. This principle states that adjacent identical elements are prohibited. Thus it has been reported that languages undergo the processes of insertion, deletion or glide-formation to prevent either vowel or consonant clusters. These syllable structure processes are also worth investigating in Olukumi.

Tonal process is another interesting aspect of phonological processes. In most African languages, when tone bearing units (vowels or syllabic consonants) undergo the process of deletion, the tones they bear do not always get elided with them. They resurface, aligning with the tones of neighbouring segments. There are also cases where tones affect their neighbouring tones resulting in a lowering or raising effect and in some other cases creating contour tones. These features of African tone laid the ground work for Goldsmith (1976) autosegmental theory. In the light of this tonal dynamism, it becomes necessary to examine how the tones of Olukumi interact with one another.

Another rich aspect of African phonological system is the way in which certain restrictions are imposed on the strings of vowels occurring in a word, thus permitting or forbidding certain set of vowels from co-occurring. This phonological process known as vowel harmony occurs in very many African languages such as Igbo, Urhobo, Akaan, and Yoruba.

For proper analysis and comprehension, the study has been systematically divided into five chapters. This first chapter gives an overview of the research work. In our chapter two, related literatures will be reviewed on all the relevant terminologies and theoretical approaches. Chapter three will deal with all the methodological concern of this work. In chapter four, data will be presented and analyzed. Finally, chapter five will centre on summary of findings, conclusion and recommendations.

1.2 An Overview of Ukwunzu Speaker of Olukumi

1.2.1 History of the Ukwunzu People

            The traditional ruler of Ukwunzu, his Royal Highness Obi Christopher Ogoh 1, gave a very detailed account of the origin of the Ukwunzu people of Delta State. According to him, many decades ago, when Benin and its environs were still under the Ife Empire whose ruler was Oba Oduduwa, the Bini’s were directly governed by lesser kings who reported back to the Oba of Ife.

It was during this era that Ojiso and Odiowere emerged as the direct rulers of Bini subject to the Oba of Ife. Due to their high handedness and lack of leadership charisma, the people protested and appealed to the Oba of Ife to send them one of his sons to be their king. The Oba who agreed to their plea, agreed to send his first son Orumiha. As a prince, during his journey to Benin, Orumiha was accompanied by advisers, soldiers, friends and slaves. On getting to Benin, he was crowned as the first Oba of Benin, to have directly descended from the Oba of Ife. After his coronation, most of those who accompanied him refused to go back to Ife rather they chose to stay back in Benin.

The new king Orumiha married from amongst the Binis and then gave birth to Iweka who became the crown prince. Iweka 1 ascended the throne after the demise of his father as the first Oba, born and brought up in Benin. During Iweka’s reign, there were series of wars, owing to the fact that Iweka intended for the Benin Empire to extend across the Niger towards the Igbo lands. Stiff resistance were met from the Igbo settlements across the Niger.

It was during this war era that Eko (a place that was later known as Ukwunzu) was formed as a war camp. This was due to its strategic position, being close to both the citadel of power (Benin) and the Igbo lands across the Niger. It should be noted here that Eko in the Bini language means war camp. Being a war camp, it was from Eko that troops of soldiers were sent out into Igbo lands during this conquest. History has it that this conquest was quite successful because the Bini Empire was able to capture some areas around Onitsha. On the other hand, it was not a total success because penetrating further into the Igbo land was met with tough resistance by the rulers of those areas. It was at this point that the king decided to regroup his army at Eko with the intent of ending the war and amalgamating his newly conquered territories. On getting to Eko, he marched his soldiers back to Benin, signifying the end of the war. However, some soldiers refused to go back to Benin and chose to remain in Eko. Their reason cannot be detached from the fact that the war lasted for a very long time and during the cause of the war, some have started living their normal lives in Eko.

The leader of this extraction who refused to go back to Benin after the war was Ogbe. Though this group were later joined by Igbo immigrants, both traditional and empirical evidence gives credence to the fact that the present day Ukwunzu was founded by Ogbe and his followers around later 11th century to late 12th century. One of the proofs that the Ukwunzu’s were the first to settle in their present day location is their Olukumi language. Historians are of the opinion that if the Ukwunzu people were not the first to settle, they would have dropped their language Olukumi for the new language of their host. However, the reverse is the case because the Igbo settlers who later joined them picked up Olukumi.

Ukwunzu, formerly known as Eko, is one of the oldest towns in present day Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State.

  • Language Situation

The people of Ukwunzu, along with their Ugbodu neighbours, speak Olukumi as their native language. These communities are surrounded by the Enuani speaking people of Aniocha North and South, and Oshimili. Consequently, the Olukumi language is believed to constitute a ‘linguistic island’; being the only Defiod language spoken in the heart of Igbo speaking communities in Anioch-south. Olukumi in both the Yoruba and Igala languages (Onukumi) means ‘my friend’. Though people have tried to classify Olukumi as a dialect of Yoruba, however, the Ukwunzu people agree that though they originated from Yoruba land hundreds of years ago (like every other people have their history traced back to migration from someplace), they do not see themselves as Yoruba people. It is important to note here that the Olukumi spoken in this area is not mutually intelligible with Yoruba. This is because their history of migration (from Yoruba land to Benin then later to their present place in Delta State) has led to a lot of ‘cultural and linguistic diffusion’ in the language. This is evident in the language which has a mixture of Igbo, Yoruba and Bini.

One interesting peculiarity of the Ukwunzu people is their linguistic diversity expressed in form of ‘communal bilingualism’. In this community natives speak both Olukumi and Igbo. However, historians have it that in their earlier formative years, the Ukwunzu people only spoke Olukumi. Over time, due to the need to interact and relate with their Enuani speaking neighbours who surrounded them, it became imperative to learn the ‘Delta Igbo’ language. From thence, every child born in the community acquires both Olukumi and Igbo. One important thing worth taking note of here is their language attitude. Within the community, the Ukwunzu people speak mainly Olukumi, except in cases where they may have strangers in their midst. In such instances, they either communicate in English language or in Igbo (where the person is from an Igbo speaking community). This positive attitude in the form of language loyalty has ensured the preservation of the language even when its speakers are very few and the language liable to ‘linguistic colonization’ by their Igbo neighbours, who are greater in number. Outside the community, the Ukwunzu people interact with their neighbours in Igbo (or in English when the need arises). With the gross increase in language endangerment due to lack of intergenerational transmission and too much borrowing from Igbo into Olukumi, puts Olukumi language in a very delicate position. This forms one of the foremost bases for the interest in this research. It is important to note that code switching and code-mixing between Olukumi and Igbo is also a general norm amongst speakers. This is due to the fact that every child, born and bred in Ukwunzu is competent in both Olukumi and Igbo.

1.2.3 Geographical Location

Ukwunzu is located in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State Nigeria. It lies closely to the equator being only about lat 6°27’45E and 6°25’35N. Ukwunzu is the head of the Odiani clan with a population of about 39,526 people according to the 2006 National Population Census. Ukwunzu is bounded on the east by Ezechime, on the north by Obomkpa on the west by Idumuje and on the south by Onicha-uku in Issele-uku. There are seven quarters that make up the Ukwunzu community. Namely: Idumu-afo, Idumu-akwu, Ogbe-agidi, Eko-onicha, Odo, Ogbe-okwe, Inyogo. All these quarters speak both Olukumi and Igbo fluently. For the map showing the Olukumi speaking people (see appendix I).

1.2.4 Linguistic Classification

The most comprehensive and widely accepted genetic classification of African languages is that by Greenberg (1963). Greenberg grouped African languages into four phyla, namely: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Khoisan, and Niger-Kordofanian which was later renamed Niger Congo by Heine and Nurse (2000). Olukumi is a Defiod language spoken in Aniocha North Local government area of Delta State Nigeria. It belongs to Edekiri of the Yoruboid family of the Niger Congo Phylum (Lewis 2009).


1.3 Statement of Problem

            In understanding the phonological system of a language, aside from being able to properly identify the phonemes, there are some relevant phonological information (such as assimilation, deletion, insertion, tonal processes) which can only be properly understood when adequate consideration is given to the way sound segments interact and influence one another. As mentioned earlier, the only known study of the Olukumi language is a comparative analysis of the sound system of Owe, Igala, Olukumi and Yoruba by Arokoyo (2012). In her study, she observes that Olukumi has twenty-two consonants, seven oral vowels and five nasal vowels. She further notes that the language has a V, CV, CVV and a C̣ syllable types. Aside that nothing more was said about the phonology of the language, thus leaving out important areas such as tone for instance. Her phonological analysis therefore excludes vital information such as the phonological processes these sounds undergo when they interact with each other within a word/morpheme and across morpheme boundaries. In summary, the phonological information about the Olukumi language as provided by previous study is not descriptively adequate; as such necessitating the need for this study.

1.4       Research Questions

Thus from the forgoing observations, we propose the following questions:

  1. What segments and features (consonant, vowel, tone, syllable) characterise the sound system of the Olukumi language.
  2. What are the various assimilatory processes that segments and features undergo in this language?
  3. What syllable structure processes do words undergo in this language?
  4. What are those processes that affect tones in the language?

1.5 Research Objectives

Generally, the goal of this study is to adequately describe the phonology and examine the various phonological processes that segments and tones undergo in the Olukumi language.

The specific objectives are to:

  1. Properly describe the sound system of the language (this will include, vowels, consonants, tone and syllable types).
  2. Examine the various types of assimilation process that are prevalent in the language
  3. Account for those syllable structure processes like deletion, insertion and coalescence that affect the distribution of vowel and consonant within a word.
  4. Explore the various tonal processes that are evident in the language.
    • Scope and Limitation of the Study

This work sets out to properly describe the sound system and highlight phonological features in the Olukumi language. To this end, the scope of this work will include identification of distinctive sounds (phonemes), tone and syllable types. Some phonological processes which are obtainable in the language will be discussed. We shall investigate such common phonological process of assimilation (such as palatalization, labialization, nasalization, homoganicity) where they apply in the language. Emphasis will also be given to syllable structure processes such as deletion, insertion and glide formation and finally we shall pay attention to some common tonal processes in the language.

However, as a result of the colossal financial involvement associated with this kind of study, given the fact that the language has not been studied in much detail, and also coupled with time constraint, this study has been limited to first investigating the Olukumi spoken in Ukwunzu. Again, given the fact that the researcher is not a speaker of this language, we can therefore only be able to account for only those prevalent processes in the language based on the linguistic data gathered from informants.

1.7       Significance of Study

Phonological process plays a crucial role in understanding the overall phonology of a language. Thus the main significance of this study is to provide a better understanding of the regularities and patterns which underlie the sound system of the Olukumi language when they interact with each other within a word/morpheme or across morpheme boundaries. Studying the sound system of the language again (after the work of Arokoyo 2012) serves as a means of validating her assertions about the language and also providing more accurate evidence in light of the shortcomings of an earlier study. Thus the work is significant in that it provides a more authentic and vast information on the nature of the sound system of the language considering the amount of data gathered for this study.

Again, there are various principles that govern the organisation of sounds in a language, and understanding these principles play a very vital role in explaining some phonological features in the second language learning process, for instance the English word school /skʊl/ being realised as /sukulu/ by Igbo speakers. This is so because since the Igbo language does not manifest closed syllables and consonant clusters, then such words undergo vocalic insertion to conform to Igbo syllable structure. Such information only comes from the understanding of the phonological processes of the Igbo language. Thus, this study gives us a better understanding of the phonological constraint of the Olukumi language.

Theoretically, as Hyman (2003) notes, African languages have contributed immensely to the development of various phonological theories most especially in the areas of tone (autosegmental phonology, Goldsmith 1976), nasalisation and vowel harmony (Clements 1981). In line with this observation, it is hoped that examining such phonological processes in the Olukumi language will contribute to a better understanding of the applicability of such linguistic theories. It will also add to the body of literature on African languages generally and the Olukumi language in particular, while providing impetus for further research.