Pulaar on the Web

Short history of  the project.

One day a couple of years ago, I received a surprising e-mail message from Don Osborne in Niger, asking if I would be interested in working on translation between English and Pulaar.  My first translator was English - Xhosa - English, so I had had some experience with languages possessing huge numbers of noun classes, so I naively said, sure.  What a pleasure and what a learning experience it has been to explore the intricacies of this beautiful language!  

Since it took me over a year to acquire a copy of the text by Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo, I first started on the related dialect (Fulfulde of Maasina) for which Don had collaborated on a lexicon, and I have left the beginnings of that project on the website.  Since the various dialects are at core so similar in their grammars, I believe that eventually using very similar translation engines but specialized lexicons, one could in principle produce translators for any dialect.  But for now, I am spending the bulk of my time on the one dialect, the Pulaar of Northern Senegal.  This work is only just begun, so please forgive errors but please inform me so I can fix them!

The translators are based on a three-step process.  Taking the English to Pulaar case, an English sentence is first parsed into a sentence diagram.  This diagram is translated into the related Pulaar sentence diagram, and step three produces the synthesized Pulaar sentence.  The Pulaar to English case works identically.  One benefit of this three-tiered process is that it makes debugging code much easier, as it answers immediately the question,  "where did it break down?".  

I am trying to keep the two translators at approximately the same state to make it easier to check that what goes into the hopper at the English end is approximately the same as what goes out when the output is put into the Pulaar to English hopper.

Since the original translators could only run on a Windows 95-98 machine,  I am gradually moving code over to a new server on a machine that supports a more modern (if less transparent) operating system.  When this new server is up for formal business, I'll put up a message on this one.

Whenever I make a substantial change in the translators I bring them over to the server (which runs off the Albion College network) after running them in batch mode on the following bank of test sentences.  The test sentences are meant to reflect the current types of sentences that can be translated.  This lists the test sentences, and the hoped-for output (you may find some differences in the actual program).  All feedback will be welcomed with open arms.

Current test sentences

Note that the implosive Pulaar letters ɓ, ɗ, ƴ must be input to the translator as d*, b*, and y*. Nasal n (Engma) ŋ is input as n*. Ntilde ñ is n~. palatal hook n ɲ I don't know. When you type in a sentence into the English-Pulaar translator, the answer will first be displayed in this kind of spelling. You can copy it into the Pulaar to English Translator.
sukaab*e b*e n~aamaani?
have the children not eaten
rawaandu maa warii nagge am
your dog killed my cow
rawaandu maa waraani nagge am
your dog did not kill my cow
rewb*e b*e lobbub*e n*garii
the beautiful women have come
rewb*e b*e lobbub*e n*garaani
the beautiful women have not come
rawaandu sukaab*e debbo o n~aamii nagge am
the woman ' s children ' s dog ate my cow
rawaandu sukaab*e debbo o n~aamaani nagge am
the woman ' s children ' s dog did not eat my cow
ad*a heyd*i?
are you hungry
mid*o heyd*i
i am hungry
suka o mawni
the child is big
mid*o n~aama
i am eating
mi yiyii ma
i see you
mi faamii
i understand
mi n~aamat nayi
i eat cows
mi n~aamataa nayi
i do not eat cows
mi yahii
i must be going
a yahii
you should go
mi 'anndaa
i do not know
mi 'anndaani
i do not know yet
mi yahat
i am going to go
maa mi yah
i will go
mi yahataa
i am not going to go
mi wontaa yah
i will not go
mi n~aamii
i have eaten
mi n~aamaani
i have not eaten
mi lootiima
i washed up
a lootaaki?
did you not wash up?
mi lootaaki
i did not wash up
mi wartiima
i killed myself
a wartiima?
did you kill yourself?
med*e jogii ullundu
i have a cat
mi jogaaki ullundu
i do not have a cat
a jogaaki ullundu?
do you not have a cat?
mi wartinii mo
i made him kill himself
mi warondirnii b*e
i made them kill each other   
mi n~aamdii e John han*ki
i ate with John yesterday
oo gorko makko maayii
that husband of hers died
hol to sehil maa woni
where is your friend?
hol mo woni sehil maa
who is your friend?
hol mo n~aami ullundu ndu
who ate the cat
hol to sukaab*e b*e njahi
where did the children go
sukaab*e b*e, hol to b*e njahi
where did the children go
hol to yah-d*aa
where did you go
ko saabi n*gar-d*aa
why did you come

Bright ideas for more projects.

At Albion College, I teach a course called Computer Understanding of Human Language, one of whose projects is the production of a small translator (English-language of student's choice) based on the three-step process described above.  My students are all able to produce at least the start of a translator (simple sentences and questions - so far, they have worked in Latin, Spanish, German and Arabic) in less than two months.  Don had the bright idea that students interested both in language and computers could be taught how to produce translators for their own local languages, and the whole process of documenting and teaching languages could be brought home.  This seems especially appealing since local languages in many places are endangered or undertaught.   This project could involve as many people as were interested.  I'd be interested in feedback from anyone interested.

Thanks especially to Don for getting this whole thing going, Sonja for her offers of any help (which I took to include the right to photocopy her rare texts), and Albion College for its encouragement, technical support, and its permission to have the servers going on its network 24/7/365.25.  And of course to David Barber, the student who helped me in the writing of the original CGI interface back in 1996.  Even though I have adapted the original interface in some ways, his ingenuity at a crucial time in the development of the websites is a contribution I can never repay.  

All code for these translators is written in PDC Prolog, a stalwart companion since 1992.


D.W. Arnott, The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula, Oxford, 1970.
Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo, Introduction to Pulaar,  American Lutheran Church in Senegal, 1983.
Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo/Cheik Oumar Sy, Advanced Readings in Pulaar, American Lutheran Church in Senegal, 1983.
A. T. Fofana/ A.F. Schleicher,Pulaar Learner's Reference Grammar, National African Language Resource Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2002.
Mamadou Niang, Pulaar-English/ English-Pulaar Standard Dictionary, Hippocrene Books, NY, 1997.
Osborne et al, Lexicon of the Fulfulde of Maasina, ??.

Copyright, 2003 Martha R. O'Kennon
E-mail me with feedback and ideas to mokennon@albion.edu