Igbo Language

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ClassificationNiger-CongoVolta-CongoBenue-CongoWestern Benue-CongoIgboid. Other Igboid languages are Ikwere and Ekpeye.

OverviewIgbo is one of the major languages of Africa and one of the three principal ones of Nigeria together with Yoruba and Hausa. The Igbo live in the southeastern part of the country and are one of its largest ethnic groups. They probably originated somewhat north of their present location, at the confluence of the Niger and Benue Rivers, around the ninth-tenth centuries when their earliest works of art appeared. They didn’t have political unity and lived in autonomous local communities. The first contact with Europeans came in the mid-fifteenth century with the arrival of the Portuguese and the British. The latter ultimately colonized the country and after the independence of Nigeria the Igbo developed a sense of identity and tried to secede unsuccessfully in 1967 as the independent nation of Biafra.

    Igbo is a tonal language and has vowel harmony as well as consonants with double articulation. Nouns are invariable but verbs take prefixes and suffixes to mark aspect and tense. Word order is, like in most Benue-Congo languages, subject-verb-object.

DistributionIgbo is spoken in southeastern Nigeria, primarily in the following Southern Delta region states: Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo. It is also spoken in the northeast of the Delta state and in the southeast of the Rivers state.

SpeakersAround 24 million. Close to one-sixth of the population of Nigeria.


StatusIgbo is an official language of Nigeria. Also is used as a second language in Igboland. Igbos are usually bilingual, speaking English as well.

Varieties

The language has between 20 to 30 dialects. The major division is between the Onicha group in the north and the Owere group in the south. Since the 19th century there has been several attempts to develop a written standard language, starting with Isuama Igbo (1857-1905) and continuing with Union Igbo (1905-41), Central Igbo (1941-73), and Standard Igbo (1973 to present).

  1. Isuama Igbo was spoken by freed Igbo slaves in Sierra Leone, as a sort of lingua franca between different Igbo communities, but was quite removed from any Igbo dialect of the Igbo homeland.

  1. Union Igbo was an answer to the growing number of Christian Igbos within Nigeria but being rather artificial it was employed only as a liturgical and literary language.

  1. Central Igbo, based on the Owerri and Umuahia dialects, was the vehicle of many translations from European Literature.

  1. Standard Igbo, implemented after the independence of Nigeria, is also based on the Owerri and Umuahia dialects but it expanded Central Igbo vocabulary by incorporating words from other dialects as well as loanwords. Concomitantly,  a written standard was developed.

Oldest Documents

1777Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Bruder auf den Carabischen (History of the Evangelistic Mission of the Brothers in the Caribbean), written by a German priest, includes some words and phrases in Igbo.

1789The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, the autobiography of a former slave, includes 79 Igbo words.

1857. A prayer book in the Isuama dialect compiled by Bishop Samuel Crowther, a former Yoruba slave who became a renowned linguist.

1859-72. Translations of several evangelical works by John Christopher Taylor, an Igbo of Sierra Leone.

1932Omenuko, a short novel by Pita Nwana, is the first non-evangelical text in Igbo.

Phonology

Syllable structure: Igbo syllables end in a vowel or m. The most frequent are V, CV and CVm. Each syllable has a distinctive tone.

Vowels (8). Igbo has eight vowels that are divided into two mutually incompatible sets. The advanced tongue root vowels (ATR+) are pronounced by moving the base of the tongue forward (with expansion of  the pharyngeal cavity) being perceived as “tense” or “bright”. In ATR- vowels the tongue remains in neutral position. The ATR+ vowels are i, e, u, o, and the ATR-  vowels  ɪ, a, ʊɔ. Igbo has also long vowels.

In the Igbo script three vowels are represented with a dot underneath: ị [ɪ ],  ụ [ʊ], ọ [ɔ].

Consonants (28). The consonantal system is distinguished by two types of secondary articulations: labialized velars and labial-velars. The latter are in transition to become implosives. Many southern dialects have developed aspirated stops contrasting with non-aspirated ones.

            

 

Tones: Igbo has three tones, high, mid, and low, which are phonemic, serving to make lexical, grammatical and syntactical distinctions. The mid-tone can only follow a high-tone and, in consequence, is absent in monosyllables.

Script and Orthography.

The official Igbo orthography, known as Onwu, established in 1962, uses a Roman script of 36 monographs and digraphs. Their equivalence in the International Phonetic Alphabet is shown between brackets:

-long vowels are marked by doubling.

-tones are not normally marked.

-three vowels are differentiated with a dot mark: [ɪ] is represented by ị, [ɔ] is written ọ, [ʊ] is written ụ.  

Morphology

Igbo has a rich derivational morphology but little inflection, particularly at the nominal level.

  1. Nominal

  2. There is no grammatical gender. Nouns are neither declined for case nor inflected for number, and there is no noun-class system. Plurality may be specified by words like umu and nd(‘people’). There are very few true adjectives.

  1. However, personal pronouns are marked for person and number. They can be either dependent or independent.

  2. Dependent pronouns are monosyllabic vowels, conditioned by the rules of vowel harmony, that have only singular forms and are syntactically restricted to a subject role in direct combination with the main verb of a sentence. They cannot accept any modifiers or combine with independent pronouns.

  3. Independent pronouns, on the other hand, can be used as subject, direct and indirect object, as well as possessives, and are able to accept all sorts of modifiers and participate in various constructions. There are also emphatic personal pronouns.

  1. Dependent pronouns have 2nd singular, 3rd singular and impersonal forms only. Each form has two alternative varieties because they must accord with the vowel of the verb stem, following the rules of vowel harmony:

  1. I jere ahịa

  2. You went to the market   (i and e are ATR+)

  1.  gwara gị

  2. He told you ( and a are ATR-)

  1. E zuru akwụkwọ m

  2. Someone stole my book (e and u are ATR+)

  1. Independent pronouns are not affected by vowel harmony and they have the same form whether they function as subject, object or possessive adjective. As subject they precede the verb, as object (direct or indirect) they follow the verb, and as possessives they follow a noun.

  1. anyị buru gị

  2. We carried you

  1. nwa gị

  2. Your child

  1. Sometimes, 1st sg and 3rd sg subject pronouns may follow the verb:

  1. atara m ji

  2. I ate yam

  1. eriri ha ji

  2. They ate yam

  1. When this inversion happens the verb must be obligatorily prefixed with a or e depending on vowel harmony.

  1. Demonstrative pronounsa (‘this’), ah (‘that’).

  1. Interrogativeonye/ochu (‘who?’), gn (‘what?’), maka gn (‘why?’), ked (‘how?’), ebee (‘where?’).

  1. VerbalAspect and tense are conveyed by tone and affixes (prefixes and suffixes), person and number by personal pronouns.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s: 1p, 2p, 3p. There is also an impersonal form.

  1. tenseaspect-moodpresentpresent continuouspresent perfectpastfuture, imperative.

  2. The present is formed by adding a vowel to the root (a, e, o, ọ), the past is formed by attaching r + the vowel of the stem (ri = riri; ta = tara), the present continuous is made by prefixing na + a/e to the stem; the future by prefixing ga + a/e. The present perfect is made by prefixing a/e to the present and suffixing la. The affirmative imperative is the stem. The negative imperativeis formed by prefixing a/e and suffixing ne or la. Other negatives are formed by suffixing  ghi/gh to the verb. Below we show the conjugation of ri (‘to eat’).

  1. present: rie

  2. pastriri

  3. pres. cont.naeri

  4. futuregaeri

  5. pres. perf.eriela

  6. imperativeri

  7. negat. pasterighi

  8. negat. pres. cont.ena-righi

  9. negat. futureega-righi

  10. negat. imperativeerila

  11. infinitiveiri

  1. non-finite formsinfinitivegerundparticiple. The affirmative infinitive is formed by prefixing i/ị and the negative by prefixing a/e and suffixing ghi/ghị: iri and erighi for the verb ri. Gerunds are made by prefixing and reduplication (oriri). Participles are formed by prefixing  e/a to the verb stem (eri).

Syntax

Igbo is a typical Subject-Verb-Object language. It is head-initial and, in consequence, genitives, quantifiers, demonstratives and some adjectives follow the noun (but some adjectives precede it). There is a single all-purpose preposition (na/la).

Lexicon

Igbo has, like many other African languages, ideophones which are a special class of words with particular sound characteristics associated with vivid sensory or mental experiences. 

Basic Vocabulary

one: otu

two: abụọ

three: atọ

four: anọ

five: ise

six: isii

seven: asaa

eight: asatọ

nine: itolu

ten: iri

hundred: nari

father: nna, papa

mother: nne, mama

brother: nwanne nwoke

sister: nwanne mnwanyị

son: nwoke, okpara (first son)

daughter: nwanyị, ada (first daughter)

head: isi

face: ihu

eye: anya

hand: aka

foot: igidi

heart: obi

tongue: ire

Key Literary Works

Three famous Igbo writers use English as their medium: Christopher Okigbo, a poet, and  Cyprian Ekwensi and Chinua Achebe, authors of short-stories and novels (see English literature). The following works are written in Igbo.

1933    Omenuko. Pita Nwana

  1. It is the first novel in Igbo. It narrates the life and adventures of a merchant, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, who sells his neighbor’s children into slavery in order to recover from his losses. Afterwards, he tries to undone his awful deed.

1937    Ala Bingo (Bingo’s Island). D. N. Achara

  1. This second pioneering Igbo novel is allegorical. It tells the story of a king who spends six months in the sky and the rest of the year on earth bringing about the change of seasons. On earth he is forced to undergo all kinds of humiliations in contrast to his former all-powerful position.

1963    Ije Odumodu Jere (Odumodu’s Adventures). Léopold Bell-Gam

  1. It is another allegorical novel inspired, partly, in Gulliver’s Travels. After a shipwreck, the Igbo protagonist reaches a desert island where he finds a race of small white men to whom he teaches agriculture and various crafts as well as Christian values. 

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati


Further Reading

  1. An Introduction to the Ibo Language. I. C. Ward. W. Heffer & Sons (1936).

  2. A Descriptive Grammar of Igbo. M. M. Green & G. E. Igwe. Akademie-Verlag (1963).

  3. Igbo Grammar. M. A. Uwalaka. The Pen Services (1997).

  4. Aspects of Igbo Grammar. Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology, and the Tonology of Nouns. J-R. Anyanwu. Lit Verlag (1998).

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