Lexical Count as a Basis to Determining Dialectal Relations between Obulom and Abua Languages

  This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

Bamigbade, Oluwafemi Emmanuel (Ph.D)*1 Jayeola Waheed Ayisa (Ph.D)*2
1, 2Department of Linguistics and African Languages
1, 2Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife
1   oluwafemibamigbade@yahoo.com 08030716722, 08053678124

Abstract: This article is a sociolinguistic assessment of level of mutual intelligibility between Obulom and Abua languages spoken in Abuloma an outskirt town of Port Harcourt in Rivers State of Nigeria. The medium for this research is through cognate count. The data for the study was collected through personal interview from three speakers of Obulom and Abua languages each, residing in Abuloma using the Ibadan 400 Word list of basic items, though 200 items were randomly used in this study. Findings show that Obulom and Abua belong to the same language family 11% same items, 37% Identical items, and 52% different items. Swadesh’s principle for Mutual Intelligibility was used to measure the cognate relationship. Findings also reveal that there are evidences of vowel, consonant and tonal variations between Obulom and Abua. For instance, there was no evidence of down-stepped tone in Obulom as found in Abua. 27 items show that Obulom and Abua have structural similarities and evidence of sameness of root forms. These noticeable variation must have resulted from contact situation with some other languages in the locale and/or travels and migration.


Keywords: Linguistic variation, Mutual intelligibility, Obulom, Abua, Cognate 


Studies in language variation is such an interesting field of language studies especially with the unavoidable trend of contact in virtually all spheres of human life ranging from trade, job migration, training factors, marriage, natural disaster and other forms of motivations for language contact. In recent times,  studies  in  dialectology  is  becoming  the  vogue  as languages  break  into  dialects,  dialect  continuum,  dialect clusters and even language clusters. The trend of modernisation is another emerging factor for obvious variants of a particular language and even the harmonisation of differing languages. This  is  particularly  true  as  many  languages  tilt  towards codification, standardisation and modernisation.


1.      Literature Review


Linguistics variables are derived from the pioneering work of Labov, along with other studies from different sociolinguists e.g. Trudgill (1974) and Wolfram (1969). The linguistic variable has been defined by Wardhaugh (1986:143) as “a linguistic item which has identifiable variants”. For a long time, before the study of urban dialectology, linguists described linguistic variable as ‘free variation’. It means that the variants cannot be predicted by any factor. However, since the 1960’s, with the work of Labov on Martha’s Vineyard (1966), sociolinguists have amassed considerable evidence showing that speakers’ variability can be constrained by non-linguistic factors (things external to the linguistic system) as well as by linguistic factors. Chambers (2003) opines that the most casual observations of speech show that its variants are associated with social factors.


The linguistic variable has also been defined by Chambers and Trudgill (2003) as a linguistic unit with two or more variables involved in co-variation with other social and/or linguistic variables. Linguistic variables can often be regarded as socially different but linguistically equivalent ways of doing or saying the same thing, and occur at all levels of linguistic analysis. An example of a linguistic variant from the lexical level, for instance is ‘automobile’ and ‘car’. Another example from the phonological level is revealed in the variable /ng/ which has two variants [ŋ] and [n] as in the word ‘singing’. We can say ‘singing’ with [ŋ] variant, or ‘singin’ with [n] variant. We might find two or even more variants in one linguistic variable, but this can be more complicated.


Variables may be lexical and morphological, but are most often phonological. Labov (1972) suggests three steps in analyzing the linguistic variable in any sociolinguistic investigation:


i.           Enumerating the range of contexts in which the variable occurs


ii.           Distinguishing as many variants as is reasonably possible; and

iii.          Assigning each variant a quantitative index (Same, Identical, Difference)


Bamigbade and Oloso (2016), while tracing the various clans of the Izon group and accessing the level of mutual intelligibility between Arogbo and Mein dialects of Ijaw language, employ Lexico-semantic approach to judge the level of mutual intelligibility and ascertain the point of divergence of the dialects under study. Their findings show that 63% of the lexical items considered are Identical, 21% are the same while 16% are absolutely different, hence 84% level of mutual intelligibility between the two dialects, which is an indication that both are close dialects of Ijaw.


Dialectology studies variation in language based primarily on geographic distribution and their associated features. Invariably, from linguistic perspective, dialects are described as a local, unwritten and less standard form, which are mutually intelligible among one another and have fewer speakers. On the contrary, a language is described as having indices such as national/regional status, being written, being the standard form of a range of speech society, not being intelligible with other languages and having a relatively large number of native speakers (Heine &Nurse 2000).


On the other side, dialect may also be used to refer to a language or speech pattern socially subordinate to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but which is not a variety of it or in any other sense derived from it. For instance Igala, Yoruba and Itshekiri may be described as dialects of the Yoruboid language family with, probably, Yoruba as the standard form, of course from which may be difficult to say the other two are derived (Oyetade 1995). Arokoyo (2006) did a study on the comparative study of reduplication in Hausa and Standard Yoruba. The two languages are part of the three major languages spoken in Nigeria. Reduplication is a morphological process when a part or a whole word or phrase is repeated to form new words. Partial and full reduplication are the two types of reduplication and they are both attested in Hausa and Standard Yoruba languages.


These can be exemplified below:


 The study noted that in Yoruba language, the tone is maintained in both the partial and total reduplication while the tone varies in Hausa language. The study then concluded that reduplication is attested in both languages. Hausa language performs both inflectional and derivational functions while Yoruba language performs only derivational functions. 

Ayeomoni (2012) conducted a research on the lexico-syntactic exploration of Ondo and Ikale dialects of the Yoruba language. The study was a comparative study with a view to find out the areas of convergence and divergence between the two dialects especially in the area of auxiliary verbs. It was discovered that the two dialects are closely related in the areas of lexical usage and syntactic structures. Also, they have the same lexical items in both the subject and verbal (predicate) positions and also at the adjunct position; some of the lexemes are the same in both dialects.

The two dialects do not always make use of the same auxiliaries. They are however, different in the use of the letters ‘s’ and ‘h’, while Ondo often uses letter ‘s’ for words that require it, Ikale uses letter ‘h’ as in ‘s n’ and ‘h n’, and ‘s r’ for Ondo, and ‘h r’ for Ikale. In Ondo dialect, the auxiliary is ‘b’ and Ikale has ‘bo’, Ondo has ‘gu’, while Ikale uses ‘gbo’ as while Ikale has ‘j, Ondo has do. In fact, these two auxiliaries (j and do) are the major markers of differences in the use of auxiliary verbs in the two dialects. Phonologically, the two dialects differ significantly from each other considering the way they are produced with respect to intonation and stress. He also discovered that at the level of syntax, the major difference is in the area of auxiliary verb usage i.e. the two dialects make use of different auxiliaries.


In a Identical study, Arokoyo (2012) did a study on the comparative analysis of the phonological systems of Yoruba, Owe, Igala and Olukumi languages with the aim of finding out their similarities and differences. Olukumi language is spoken in Delta state, Igala is spoken in the eastern part of Kogi states, parts of Delta, Edo and Anambra states of Nigeria while Owe is a dialect of Yoruba spoken in Kabba area of Kogi state. The study shows that twenty three consonants are attested in the four languages. Olukumi has twenty one consonants with the presence of /gʷ/ (voiced labialized velar sound), /Ɣ/ (a voiced velar fricative sound), /z/ (a voiced alveolar fricative sound), Igala has twenty three consonants with the presence of /p/, (a voiceless bilabial plosive sound) and /ʧ/ (a voiceless alate alveolar affricate), Owe has nineteen consonants with the presence of /Ɣ/(a voiced velar fricative sound), and Yoruba has eighteen consonants. In terms of their vowel system, they four languages attests seven oral vowels; a/, /e/, /ɛ/, /i/, /o/, /ɔ/, /u/ and five nasal vowels /a /, / ĩ/, /ɔ̃/, /ũ/, /ɛ/̃. Also, the languages attest the same syllable structure; CV.


Objective of the Study


This objective of the study is to find out the level of lexical similarities and differences attested between Obulom and Abua languages to determine the level of relatedness of the two languages based on the cognates.




The data for the study was collected through personal interview from six speakers of Obulom and Abua languages residing in Abuloma using the Ibadan 400 Word list of basic items, though 200 items were randomly used in this study. The data is assessed based on Swadesh Cognate principle which indicates the level of genetic closeness among languages in a family. If the analysis shows a higher percentage of basic vocabulary much more than with other languages, then they are more related genetically. To be precise, if the analysis shows 70% of relatedness between the basic vocabulary items of two languages, it therefore follows that they are separate languages but if the result is 80% and above, they are dialects of the same language or one is a dialect of the other where the latter is said to be the language (standard) (Bamigbade 2016).

Study Locale: Rivers State


According to census data of 2006, Rivers State has a population of 5,185,400. Its capital, Port Harcourt, is economically significant as the centre of Nigeria’s oil industry. Rivers State is bounded on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, to the North by Imo, Abia and Anambra States, to the East by Akwa-Ibom State and to the West by Bayelsa and Delta States. It is home to many indigenous ethnic groups Ikwerre, Ibani, Opobo, Eleme, Okrika, Kalabari, Etche, Ogba, Ogoni, Engenni, Obolo among others. The Rivers State was created in 1967 with the split of the Eastern region of Nigeria. Until 1996 the state contained the area now known as Bayelsa State. Between 1941 and 1952 agitation for the creation of Rivers province began with the formation of the Ijo Rivers People’s League. Rivers State consists of 23 local government areas all of which handle local administration, under an elected chairman. There are 23 languages spoken as first languages in Rivers State. The major languages are Igbo, Ikwerre, Kalabari, Khana, and different varieties of the Ijo cluster. The other languages are minority languages.




Obulum is the founder of Abuloma. Obulum has twelve sons namely: Otopo, Gosu, Ada, Gobi, Igbile, Gudi, Gebu, Gein, Pina, Obu, Ekpeli, and Mbo. There are sons of Obulum that migrated with him from Ikibiri in Ekpetiama Clan. He first settled in Obomotu present day Borokiri in Port Harcourt. It was in 13th century and later moved southward to Okeinodo which is called rainbow town or Mother-cat and finally settled in present location which is Abuloma today. The twelve sons re-grouped into two groups on arrival at Abuloma town and are referred to as themselves Opiakam and Ekerema. (Olajide, 2017). Opiakam comprises Adah, Gebu, Igbile, Pina, Ekpeli, and Otopou while Ekerema comprises Gosu, Mbo, Gobi, Gudi, Gosu-Gein and Obu. As population starts to grow and increase these twelve children automatically formed the first twelve houses of Abuloma.


Abua Language


Traditions relate the history of Abua to the migration or movement of the Delta cross speakers prominent among these theorists are the linguist and university historians such as Alagoa (1989), Williamson (1987) and Faraclas (1987). Abua people migrated from the Bantu heartland and moved downwards to the point where they currently occupy through the eastern Niger Delta. From our interview Abua was among the seven Efut towns that grew out of the seven Efut settlements. The founders were believed according to him to be an offshoot of the Bantu speaking people. These people migrated from the neighborhood of Usha in Cameroon. They left their original place of residence in a convoy of about seven boats and reached the Nigerian coastline.


Abua migrated from the same place with ancestors of the present day Efik of Cross Rivers State and the group probably arrived where they are now in the late 13th century. This view is strongly supported by similarities in the numbering system of Abua, Efik and Ibibio. It is also supported by some socio political Similarities. Abua, Efik, and Ibibio among others belong to the broad language group known as Delta cross. It is suggested that these three ethnic groups: Ibibio, Efik and Abua among other belong to the Bantoid sub-group of the Niger-Congo family based on linguistic evidence. 

2                    Data Presentation and Data Analysis

Table 2: House-hold Items

Table 3: Relational Items

Table 4: Numeral


Table 6: Animal

Table 7: Places I


Table 9: Nature


By implication, according to Swadesh’s Mutual Intelligibility principle, Obulom and Odua belong to the same language family, though not dialects of the same language.


Furthermore, it is necessary to examine the linguistic features of variation between the Obulom and Abua. This is shown in the data below:


Table 12 Vowel Variation

Table 14 Tonal Variation


4. Findings


Based on the statistics presented above it is apparent that Obulom and Abua Languages are not dialects of the same language. However, evidence shows that they belong to the same language family. Going by the percentage of same lexical items (11%) and Identical (37%) and the percentage of the lexical items that are different is (52%), and considering that Swadesh’s principle indicate that languages with less that 80% cognate count should be regarded as belonging to the same language family and not dialects of the same mother language, it is convenient to conclude that Abua and Obulom belong to the same family since the cognate count is quite low.


However, there are evidence of vowel, consonant and tonal variation between Obulom and Abua as evident in Tables 12, 13 and 14 above. We noted that most high tones in Abulom are lowered in Abua except in data 3 [Òtù – Òtú], where a low tone changes to a high tone. Equally, there was no evidence of down-stepped tone in Obulom as found in Abua. From the list of items that are Identical in our data 27 items were brought out to show that Obulom and Abua actually has structural link in terms of grand-parenting. This is the reason these 27 items has structural similarities and evidence of sameness of root forms.


5. Conclusion


In conclusion, we observed, though not absolute, that these noticeable divergence in terms of the vowel, consonant and tonal variation must have resulted from contact situation with some other languages in the locale and/or travels and migration. However, since this work is not focused on historical approach but sociolinguistic assessment of level of mutual intelligibility through cognate count, it is therefore recommended that a future study is engaged in this regards. Such work may include the structural relations between this duo and Okrika and/or other languages in the locale to examine the level of influence among the languages Wolfram, W. 1997. ‘Variation and language, an overview”.

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