Bootstrapping a Runyankore CNL from an isiZulu one mostly works well

Earlier this week the 5th Workshop on Controlled Natural Language (CNL’16) was held in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I presented progress made on a Runyankore CNL [1], rather than my student, Joan Byamugisha, who did most of the work on it (she could not attend due to nasty immigration rules by the UK, not a funding issue).

“Runyankore?”, you might ask. It is one of the languages spoken in Uganda. As Runyankore is very under-resourced, any bootstrapping to take a ‘shortcut’ to develop language resources would be welcome. We have a CNL for isiZulu [2], but that is spoken in South Africa, which is a few thousand kilometres further south of Uganda, and it is in a different Guthrie zone of the—in linguistics still called—Bantu languages, so it was a bit of a gamble to see whether those results could be repurposed for Runynakore. They could, needing only minor changes.

What stayed the same were the variables, or: components to make up a grammatically correct sentence when generating a sentence within the context of OWL axioms (ALC, to be more precise). They are: the noun class of the name of the concept (each noun is assigned a noun class—there are 20 in Runyankore), the category of the concept (e.g., noun, adjective), whether the concept is atomic (named OWL class) or an OWL class expression, the quantifier used in the axiom, and the position of the concept in the axiom. The only two real differences were that for universal quantification the word for the quantifier is the same when in the singular (cf. isiZulu, where it changes for both singular or plural), and for disjointness there is only one word, ti ‘is not’ (cf. isiZulu’s negative subject concord + pronomial). Two very minor differences are that for existential quantification ‘at least one’, the ‘at least’ is in a different place in the sentence but the ‘one’ behaves exactly the same, and ‘all’ for universal quantification comes after the head noun rather than before (but is also still dependent on the noun class).

It goes without saying that the vocabulary is different, but that is a minor aspect compared to figuring out the surface realisation for an axiom. Where the bootstrapping thus came in handy was that that arduous step of investigating from scratch the natural language grammar involved in verbalising OWL axioms could be skipped and instead the ones for isiZulu could be reused. Yay. This makes it look very promising to port to other languages in the Bantu language family. (yes, I know, “one swallow does not a summer make” [some Dutch proverb], but one surely is justified to turn up one’s hope a notch regarding generalizability and transferability of results.)

Joan also conducted a user survey to ascertain which surface realisation was preferred among Runyankore speakers, implemented the algorithms, and devised a new one for the ‘hasX’ naming scheme of OWL object properties (like hasSymptom and hasChild). All these details, as well as the details of the Runyankore CNL and the bootstrapping, are described in the paper [1].


I cannot resist a final comment on all this. There are people who like to pull it down and trivialise natural language interfaces for African languages, on the grounds of “who cares about text in those kind of countries; we have to accommodate the illiteracy with pictures and icons and speech and such”. People are not as illiterate as is claimed here and there (including by still mentally colonised people from African countries)—if they were, then the likes of Google and Facebook and Microsoft would not invest in localising their interfaces in African languages. The term “illiterate” is used by those people to include also those who do not read/write in English (typically an/the official language of government), even though they can read and write in their local language. People who can read and write—whichever natural language it may be—are not illiterate, neither here in Africa nor anywhere else. English is not the yardstick of (il)literacy, and anyone who thinks it is should think again and reflect a bit on cultural imperialism for starters.



[1] Byamugisha, J., Keet, C.M., DeRenzi, B. Bootstrapping a Runyankore CNL from an isiZulu CNL. 5th Workshop on Controlled Natural Language (CNL’16), Springer LNAI vol. 9767, 25-36. 25-27 July 2016, Aberdeen, UK. Springer’s version

[2] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Toward a knowledge-to-text controlled natural language of isiZulu. Language Resources and Evaluation, 2016. DOI: 10.1007/s10579-016-9340-0 (in print) accepted version


One response to “Bootstrapping a Runyankore CNL from an isiZulu one mostly works well

  1. Pingback: Surprising similarities and differences in orthography across several African languages | Keet blog

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