The isiZulu spellchecker seems to contribute to ‘intellectualisation’ of isiZulu

Perhaps putting ‘intellectualisation’ in sneer quotes isn’t nice, but I still find it an odd term to refer to a process of (in short, from [1]) coming up with new vocabulary for scientific speech, expression, objective thinking, and logical judgments in a natural language. In the country I grew up, terms in our language were, and still are, invented more because of a push against cultural imperialism and for home language promotion rather than some explicit process to intellectualise the language in the sense of “let’s invent some terms because we need to talk about science in our own language” or “the language needs to grow up” sort of discourses. For instance, having introduced the beautiful word geheugensanering (NL) that captures the concept of ‘garbage collection’ (in computing) way better than the English joke-term for it, elektronische Datenverarbeitung (DE) for ‘ICT’, técnicas de barrido (ES) for ‘sweep line’ algorithms, and mot-dièse (FR) for [twitter] ‘hashtag’, to name but a few inventions.

Be that as it may, here in South Africa, it goes under the banner of intellectualisation, with particular reference to the indigenous languages [2]; e.g., having introduced umakhalekhukhwini ‘cell/mobile phone’ (decomposed: ‘the thing that rings in your pocket’) and ukudlulisa ikheli for ‘pass by reference’ in programming (longer list of isiZulu-English computing and ICT terms), which is occurring for multiple subject domains [3]. Now I ended up as co-author of a paper that has ‘intellectualisation’ in its title [4]: Evaluation of the effects of a spellchecker on the intellectualization of isiZulu that appeared just this week in the Alternation journal.

The main general question we sought to answer was whether human language technologies, and in particular the isiZulu spellchecker launched last year, contribute to the language’s intellectualisation. More specifically, we aimed to answer the following three questions:

  1. Is the spellchecker meeting end-user needs and expectations?
  2. Is the spellchecker enabling the intellectualisation of the language?
  3. Is the lexicon growing upon using the spellchecker?

The answers in a nutshell are: 1) yes, the spellchecker does meet end-user needs and expectations (but there are suggestions further improving its functionality), 2) users perceive that the spellchecker enables the intellectualisation of the language, and 3) non-dictionary words were added, i.e., the lexicon is indeed growing.

The answer to the last question provides some interesting data for linguists to bite their teeth in. For instance, a user had added to the spellchecker’s dictionary LikaSekelaShansela, which is an inflected form of isekelashansela ‘Vice Chancellor’ (that is recognised as correct by the spellchecker). Also some inconsistencies—from a rule-of-thumb viewpoint—in word formation were observed; e.g., usosayensi ‘scientist’ vs. unompilo ‘nurse’. If one were to follow consistently the word formation process for various types of experts in isiZulu, such as usosayensi ‘scientist’, usolwazi ‘professor’, and usomahlaya ‘comedian’, then one reasonably could expect ‘nurse’ to be *usompilo rather than unompilo. Why it isn’t, we don’t know. Regardless, the “add to dictionary” option of the spellchecker proved to be a nice extra feature for a data-driven approach to investigate intellectualisation of a language.

Version 1 of the isiZulu spellchecker that was used in the evaluation was ok and reasonably could not have interfered negatively with any possible intellectualisation (average SUS score of 75 and median 82.5, so ‘good’). It was ok in the sense that a majority of respondents thought that the entire tool was helpful, no features should be removed, it enhances their work, and so on (see paper for details). For the software developers among you who have spare time: they’d like, mainly, to have it as a Chrome and MS Word plugin, predictive text/autocomplete, and have it working on the mobile phone. The spellchecker has improved in the meantime thanks to two honours students, and I will write another blog post about that next.

As a final reflection: it turned out there isn’t a way to measure the level of intellectualisation in a ‘hard sciences’ way, so we concluded the other answers based on data that came from the somewhat fluffy approach of a survey and in-depth interviews (a ‘mixed-methods’ approach, to give it a name). It would be nice to have a way to measure it, though, so one would be able to say which languages are more or less intellectualised, what level of intellectualisation is needed to have a language as language of instruction and science at tertiary level of education and for dissemination of scientific knowledge, and to what extent some policy x, tool y, or activity z contributes to the intellectualization of a language.

 

References

[1] Havránek, B. 1932. The functions of literary language and its cultivation. In Havránek, B and Weingart, M. (Eds.). A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style. Prague: Melantrich: 32-84.

[2] Finlayson, R, Madiba, M. The intellectualization of the indigenous languages of South Africa: Challenges and prospects. Current Issues in Language Planning, 2002, 3(1): 40-61.

[3]Khumalo, L. Intellectualization through terminology development. Lexikos, 2017, 27: 252-264.

[4] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Evaluation of the effects of a spellchecker on the intellectualization of isiZulu. Alternation, 2017, 24(2): 75-97.

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One response to “The isiZulu spellchecker seems to contribute to ‘intellectualisation’ of isiZulu

  1. Pingback: ICTs for the South African indigenous languages should be a national imperative, too | Keet blog

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