Thursday, June 28, 2007


About Igbo

Ejike Eze, Ph.D.


Igbo is one of the three major languages of Nigeria, the others being Yoruba and Hausa. Native speakers of Igbo, estimated to be between 30 and 40 million people, reside predominantly in Eastern Nigeria.

Igbo belongs to the Niger-Congo language family. Greenberg (1963) classified it in the Kwa group along with six other big clusters: Akan, Gbe, Yoruba-Igala, Nupe-Ebira, Edo and Idoma. Williamson has since redrawn this picture, reducing the Kwa sub-group to Akan and Gbe. The rest she reclassified as an enlarged Benue-Congo group.


Igbo has dozens of geographical dialects. Igbo dialectology is still in infancy. Eze and Manfredi (2002), however, contend that judging by sound change and morphosyntax, the oldest division is between a contiguous northern with added auxiliaries and fewer inflecting suffixes, and southern areas with glotalized "t" and "d". The northern areas include the hilly terrain of Udi, Nike and Abakiliki, all in the part referred to as Waawaland (See map of Igboland).


The issue of orthography has been the bane of the linguistic advancement of Igbo as a world language. After many revisions, the Eastern Nigerian government accepted the report of the Onwu Committee, which proposed eight vowel symbols, one consonant diacritic and nine consonant digraphs for Igbo. Eighteen monographic consonants were carried over from the previous orthographies, bringing the letters of the Igbo alphabet to number thirty-six (36). The following are the letters of the Igbo orthography (We use the asterisk "*"to indicate that a preceding vowel, or consonant in the case of "n*" is dotted):

A, B, CH, D, E, F, G, GB, GH, GW, H, I, Ị, J, K, KP, KW, L, M, N, N*, NW, NY, O, Ọ, P, R, S, SH, T, U, Ụ, V, W, Y, Z.

Typically, dotted vowels follow undotted vowels in the arrangement of the letters.


Igbo possesses a crucial linguistic phenomenon called Vowel Harmony VH), which equally divides the eight vowels of the language into two harmony sets as shown below:

Set A: i, e, u, o
Set B: ị, a, ụ, ọ

There have been indications in the literature that Igbo VH is controlled by the advanced tongue root position (ATR) in the articulation of the vowels. Group A vowels are characterized by a relatively advanced tongue root position when they are articulated. They are, therefore, marked [+ATR]. Group B vowels, on the other hand, are characterized by a relatively retracted tongue position during their articulation and can consequently be designated [-ATR] (See Eze, 1997 and Emenanjo, 1978) for details.

The thrust of vowel harmony as a linguistic phenomenon is that, with minimal restrictions (See Eze, 1997 for restrictions to the rule of Vowel Harmony), only vowels from one vowel set may co-occur in any non-compound word of Igbo. The following illustrates:

Group A: Chineke (God), tie (beat)
Group B: Mmadụ (human), bịa (come)


Igbo is a tone language. This means that voice pitch pattern can be used to make semantic differentiation between lexical items (words). Three distinct pitch patterns have been identified for Igbo, namely High, marked by an upward slant, Low, marked by a downward slant and Step marked by a dash. Emenanjo (1978) gives a good description of tone patterns and usage.

Akwa (Cry) HH
Akwa (Cloth) HL
Akwa (Bed) LL
Akwa (Egg) LH
Azụ (Fish) HL
Azụ (Back) LH

Ego (Money) HS


Some of the largest commercial centers in West Africa are located in the area known as Igboland. This has given rise to intense contact between the native speakers of Igbo and people from other ethnic groups in Nigeria and other countries of the world. In addition, most city residents in Igboland are office workers, traders, teachers and students. All of these are occupations that require intense contact with people of other linguistic backgrounds. As expected, therefore, language mixing is prevalent among the Igbo.

As is the case in most communities, the attitude of the Igbo towards language mixture is negative. The mixture of English and Igbo, be that as Code Switching or Borrowing (See Eze, 1997, 1998 for definition of terms), is derogatorily referred to as Engligbo. Campaigns against Igbo-English mixture have been in effect since the early 70s. These campaigns have manifested themselves in the form of newspaper articles, television and newspaper commentaries and books and articles in journals. Ahukanna (1990:179) quotes a radio announcer as describing the mixture of Igbo and English as "linguistic sabotage."

Nwafor (1971:44) described Engligbo as "a new medium of communication, which is a hybrid of the English and Igbo languages." To him, Igbo-English mixture is a conscious display of the knowledge of a prestigious language, English, by educated Nigerians. Okeke (1984) described the mixture of Igbo and English as "igbonization" and strongly cautioned that "these igbonizations are to be very much discouraged." (p.54)

In reaction to the diversity of interpretations given to the mixture of Igbo and English, Ahukanna (1990), relying on judgment tasks and random surveys, set out to investigate among other things:

(a) To what extent Igbo-English mixture could be regarded as function of the dominance of English in the Igbo-English bilingual, and (b) whether Igbo-English mixture is a conscious display of a more prestigious language, namely English. He reports that speakers of Igbo and English claim they continue to indulge in Igbo-English mixture for four principal reasons:

(a) Igbo is not rich enough in vocabulary, (b) Igbo native speakers like to display their knowledge of English (c) English has become more habitual to most Igbo native speakers, and (d) English words are often shorter and easier to use.

We shall not be concerned with the causes of language mixture among Igbo-English bilinguals. It shall suffice to say that in spite of the regimentation and the widespread negative attitude towards it, the mixture of Igbo and English remains a norm.


It is virtually impossible to do justice to the Igbo language in an article as short as this. We hope, however, that this short introduction to the language will provoke your desire to find out more about the language. Please forward all questions, comments and thoughts to Omenka Ejike Eze at the following address:


Ahukanna, J. G. W. (1990) "Bilingualism and Code-Mixing in Language Use in Nigeria: The Case of Igbo-English Bilinguals". In Emenanjo, N. (ed.), Igbo Language and Culture. pp. 175-291. Onitsha: Central Books Ltd.

Emenanjo, Nolue (1978) Elements of Modern Igbo Grammar. Ibadan, OUP.

Eze, Ejike (1997) Aspects of Language Contact: A Variationist Perspective on Code-Switching and Borrowing in Igbo English Bilingual Discourse. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Ottawa, Canada.

Eze, Ejike (1998) "Lending Credence to a Borrowing Analysis: Lone English-origin Incorporations in Igbo Discourse". International Journal of Bilingualism Poplack, S. & Meechan M. (eds.) Vol. 2 No. 2. (See abstract at

Eze, Ejike & Manfredi, Victor (2002) "Igbo" in Garry J & Rubino C. Facts about the world's major languages: an encyclopedia of the world?s major languages, past and present. New York/Dublin: The H.W. Wilson Company. 322-330.

Greenberg, J. (1963) The Languages of Africa. Mouton, The Hague.L. (ed.) University Press of America. Maryland.

Okeke, V. O. (1984) Key to the Igbo Language. Obosi: Pacific College Press.

Williamson, Kay (1989) Linguistic Evidence for the Prehistory of the Niger Delta. The Early History of the Niger Delta. Alagoa, et al (eds).

No comments: