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Igbo language

Igbo (Igbo: As s Igbo), or Igbo proper, is a native language of the Igbo people, an ethnic group primarily located in southeastern Nigeria. There are approximately 20 million speakers that are mostly in Nigeria and are primarily of Igbo descent. Igbo is a national language of Nigeria. It is written in the Latin script, which was introduced by British colonialists. Secret societies such as the Ekpe use the Nsibidi symbols which were invented by the Ejagham and were used to represent other languages like Efik.[1]

There are over 20 Igbo dialects. There is apparently a degree of dialect leveling occurring. A standard literary language was developed in 1972 based on the Owerri (Isuama) and Umuahia (such as Ohuhu) dialects, though it omits the nasalization and aspiration of those varieties. There are related Igboid languages as well that are sometimes considered dialects of Igbo, the most divergent being Ekpeye. Some of these, such as Ika, have separate standard forms.



The first book to publish Igbo words was Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Bruder auf den Carabischen (), published in 1777.[2]  Shortly after wards in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published in London, England, written by Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, featuring 79 Igbo words.[2]  The narrative also illustrated various aspects of Igbo life based in detail, based on Olaudah Equiano's experiences in his hometown of Essaka.[3]

Things Fall Apart is a novel written by Nigerian Chinua Achebe published in 1958. The novel depicts influences of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on a traditional Igbo community during an unspecified time in the late 19th or early 20th century. The bulk of the novel takes place in Umuofia, one of nine villages on the lower River Niger Niger in Igbo land southeastern Nigeria. It is possibly the most popular and renowned novel that deals with the Igbo and their traditional life.[4]

Central Igbo, the dialect form gaining widest acceptance, is based on the dialects of two members of the Ezinihitte group of Igbo in Central Owerri Province between the towns of Owerri and Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria. From its proposal as a literary form in 1939 by Dr. Ida C. Ward, it was gradually accepted by missionaries, writers, and publishers across the region. In 1972, the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC), a nationalist organisation which saw Central Igbo as an imperialist exercise, set up a Standardisation Committee to extend Central Igbo to be a more inclusive language. Standard Igbo aims to cross-pollinate Central Igbo with words from Igbo dialects from outside the "Central" areas, and with the adoption of loan words.[5]


Igbo, like many other West African languages, has borrowed words from European languages, mainly English. Example loanwords include the Igbo word for blue [blu] and operator [opareto].

Igbo has an extremely limited number of adjectives just eight: ukwu 'big', nta 'small'; oji 'dark', cha 'light'; h r 'new', ochie 'old'; ma 'good'; j 'bad'.[6]

Many names in Igbo are actually fusions of older original words and phrases. For example, one Igbo word for vegetable leaves is akw kw nri, which literally means "leaves for eating" or "vegetables". Green leaves are called akw kw nd , because nd means "life". Another example is train ( gb igwe), which comes from the words gb (vehicle, craft) and igwe (iron, metal); thus a locomotive train is vehicle via iron (rails); a car, gb ala; vehicle via land and an aeroplane gb elu; vehicle via air. Words may also take on multiple meanings. Take for example the word akw kw . Akw kw originally means "leaf" (as on a tree), but during and after the colonization period, akw kw also came to be linked to "paper," "book," "school," and "education", to become respectively akw kw d m d , akw kw g g , l akw kw , mm ta akw kw . This is because printed paper can be first linked to an organic leaf, and then the paper to a book, the book to a school, and so on. Combined with othe, akw kw can take on many forms; for example, akw kw ego means "printed money" or "bank notes," and akw kw ej j njem means "passport."


Proverbs and idiomatic (ilu in Igbo) expressions are highly valued by the Igbo people and proficiency in the language means knowing how to intersperse speech with a good dose of proverbs. Chinua Achebe (in Things Fall Apart) describes proverbs as "the palm oil with which words are eaten". Proverbs are widely used in the traditional society to describe, in very few words, what could have otherwise required a thousand words. Proverbs may also become euphemistic means of making certain expressions in the Igbo society, thus the Igbo have come to typically rely on this as avenues of certain expressions.


The oral vowel phonemes of Igbo, based on <!-- Harvcoltxt -->
The oral vowel phonemes of Igbo, based on
Igbo is a tonal language with two distinctive tones, high and low. In some cases a third, downstepped high tone is recognized. The language's tone system was given by John Goldsmith as an example of suprasegmental phenomena that go beyond the linear model of phonology laid out in The Sound Pattern of English. Due to this tone system a word in igbo pronounced with a slightly different tone will result in an entirely different meaning, example is "AKWA" which could mean "cry", "bed", "egg", "cloth".

The language features vowel harmony with two sets of oral vowels distinguished by pharyngeal cavity size described in terms of retracted tongue root (RTR). These vowels also occupy different places in vowel space: (the last commonly transcribed , in keeping with neighboring languages). For simplicity, phonemic transcriptions typically choose only one of these parameters to be distinctive, either RTR as in the chart at right and Igbo orthography (that is, as ), or vowel space as in the alphabetic chart below (that is, as ). There are also nasal vowels.

Igbo does not have a contrast among voiced occlusives (between voiced stops and nasals): the one precedes oral vowels, and the other nasal vowels. Only a limited number of consonants occur before nasal vowels, including .

Consonant of Standard Igbo (with nasal vowels)
Bilabial Labio-dental Dental/Alveolar Post-alveolar Palatal Velar Labial-velar Glottal
plain labio.
Approximant central

In some dialects, such as Enu-Onitsha Igbo, the doubly articulated and are realized as a voiced/devoiced bilabial implosive. The approximant is realized as an alveolar tap between vowels as in r . The Enu-Onitsha Igbo dialect is very much similar to Enuani spoken among the Igbo-Anioma people in Delta State.

To illustrate the effect of phonological analysis, the following inventory of a typical Central dialect is taken from Clark (1990). Nasality has been analyzed as a feature of consonants, rather than vowels, avoiding the problem of why so few consonants occur before nasal vowels; has also been analyzed as .[7]

Consonants of Central Igbo (no nasal vowels)
Labial Palatalized Alveolar Alveo-
Velar Labial-velar Glottal
plain labio.

Syllables are of the form (C)V (optional consonant, vowel) or N (a syllabic nasal). CV is the most common syllable type. Every syllable bears a tone. Consonant clusters do not occur. The semivowels and can occur between consonant and vowel in some syllables. The semi-vowel in is analyzed as an underlying vowel " ", so that -b a is the phonemic form of bj 'come'. On the other hand, "w" in is analyzed as an instance of labialization; so the phonemic form of the verb -gw "tell" is .

Writing system

An ikpe 'court case' recorded in nsibidi by J. K. Macgregor in the early 20th century. The Igbo people have long used Nsibidi ideograms, invented by the neighboring Ekoi people, for basic written communication.[1] They have been used since at least the 16th century, but died out publicly after they became popular amongst secret societies such as the Ekpe, who used them as a secret form of communication.[8] Nsibidi, however, is not a full writing system, as it cannot transcribe the Igbo language specifically.

The wide variety of spoken dialects has made agreement on a standardize orthography of Igbo difficult. The current nwu () alphabet, a compromise between the older Lepsius alphabet and a newer alphabet advocated by the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC), was agreed to in 1962. It is presented in the following table, with the International Phonetic Alphabet equivalents for the characters:[9]

nwu alphabet
Letter A B Ch D E F G Gb
Pronunciation (IPA)
Letter Gh Gw H I J K Kp
Letter Kw L M N Nw Ny O
Letter P R S Sh T U
Letter V W Y Z

The graphemes gb and kp are described both as coarticulated and and as implosives, so both values are included in the table.

m and n each represent two phonemes: a nasal consonant and a syllabic nasal.

Tones are sometimes indicated in writing, and sometimes not. When tone is indicated, low tones are shown with a grave accent over the vowel, for example a , and high tones with an acute accent over the vowel, for example a .

Usage in the Diaspora

With the devastating effects of the Atlantic slave trade, Igbo was consequently spread by enslaved Igbo individuals throughout slave colonies in the Americas. These colonies include the United States, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Belize, Barbados and The Bahamas among many other colonies. Examples can be found in Jamaican Patois: the pronoun , used for 'you (plural)', is taken from Igbo, Red eboe describes a fair skinned black person because of the reported account of a fair or yellowish skin tone among the Igbo.[10] Soso meaning only comes from Igbo .[11]

The word Bim, a name for Barbados, was commonly used by enslaved Barbadians (Bajans). This word is said to derive from the Igbo language, derived from bi mu (or either bem, Ndi bem, Nwanyi ibem or Nwoke ibem) (),[12][13] but it may have other origins (see: Barbados etymology).

See also



  • Awde, Nicholas and Onyekachi Wambu (1999) Igbo: Igbo English / English Igbo Dictionary and Phrasebook New York: Hippocrene Books.
  • Emenanjo, 'Nolue (1976) Elements of Modern Igbo Grammar. Ibadan: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-154-078-8
  • Surviving the iron curtain: A microscopic view of what life was like, inside a war-torn region by Chief Uche Jim Ojiaku, ISBN 1-4241-7070-2; ISBN 978-1-4241-7070-8 (2007)
  • Obiamalu, G.O.C. (2002) The development of Igbo standard orthography: a historical survey in Egbokhare, Francis O. and Oyetade, S.O. (ed.) (2002) Harmonization and standardization of Nigerian languages. Cape Town : Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS). ISBN 1-919799-70-2

External links

kbd: af:Igbo bn: br:Igboeg cs:Igbo tina de:Igbo (Sprache) es:Idioma igbo eo:Iboa lingvo eu:Igboera hif:Igbo bhasa fr:Igbo gl:Lingua ibo hr:Igbo jezik io:Ibo-linguo ig:As s Igbo id:Bahasa Igbo it:Lingua igbo rw:Ikigibo sw:Kiigbo kv: ( ) la:Lingua Igbonica lt:Igb kalba nl:Igbo (taal) ja: no:Igbo nn:Igbo pms:Lenga Igbo pl:J zyk igbo pt:L ngua igbo qu:Igbo simi ru: ( ) stq:Igbo simple:Igbo language sk:Igbo tina sh:Igbo jezik fi:Igbon kieli sv:Igbo ta: uk: ( ) yo: d gb zh:

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