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Igbo language

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Igbo language

Asụsụ Igbo
Native to Nigeria
Region southeastern Nigeria
Native speakers
25 million  (2007)[1]
Standard forms
Standard Igbo[2]
Dialects Enuanị, Ngwa, Ohuhu, Ọnịchạ, Bonny-Opobo, Ọlụ, Owerre (Isuama), et al.
Latin (Önwu alphabet)
Igbo Braille
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated by Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ig
ISO 639-2 ibo
ISO 639-3 ibo
Glottolog nucl1417[4]
Linguistic map of Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Igbo is spoken in southern Nigeria.

Igbo (;[5] archaically Ibo )[5] (Igbo: Asụsụ Igbo), is the principal native language of the Igbo people, an ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria. There are approximately 24 million speakers, who live mostly in Nigeria and are primarily of Igbo descent. Igbo is written in the Latin script, which was introduced by British colonialists. 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. Igbo is also a recognised minority language of Equatorial Guinea.


The first book to publish Igbo words was History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brothers in the Caribbean (German: Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Carabischen Inseln), published in 1777.[6]  Shortly afterwards 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.[6]  The narrative also illustrated various aspects of Igbo life based in detail, based on Olaudah Equiano's experiences in his hometown of Essaka.[7]

Central Igbo, the dialect form gaining widest acceptance, is based on the dialects of two members of the loan words.[8]


Igbo has an extremely limited number of adjectives in a closed class. Emenanjo (1978)[9] counts just eight: ukwu 'big', nta 'small'; oji 'dark', ọcha 'light'; ọhụrụ 'new', ochie 'old'; ọma 'good'; ọjọọ 'bad'. (Payne 1990)[10]

Many names in Igbo are actually fusions of older original words and phrases. For example, one Igbo word for vegetable leaves is akwụkwọ nri, which literally means "leaves for eating" or "vegetables". Green leaves are called akwụkwọ ndụ, because ndụ means "life". Another example is train (ụgbọ igwe), which comes from the words ụgbọ (vehicle, craft) and igwe (iron, metal); thus a locomotive train is vehicle via iron (rails); a car, ụgbọ ala; vehicle via land and an aeroplane ụgbọ elu; vehicle via air. Words may also take on multiple meanings. Take for example the word akwụkwọ. Akwụkwọ originally means "leaf" (as on a tree), but during and after the colonization period, akwụkwọ also came to be linked to "paper," "book," "school," and "education", to become respectively akwụkwọ édémédé, akwụkwọ ọgụgụ, ụlọ akwụkwọ, mmụta akwụkwọ. 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 other words, akwụkwọ can take on many forms; for example, akwụkwọ ego means "printed money" or "bank notes," and akwụkwọ ejị éjé 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 Ikekeonwu (1999)

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. Igbo words may differ only in tone. An example is ákwá "cry", àkwà "bed", àkwá "egg", and ákwà "cloth". As tone is not normally written, these all appear as akwa in print.

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: [i ɪ̙ e a u ʊ̙ o ɒ̙] (the last commonly transcribed [ɔ̙], 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 /i i̙ e a u u̙ o o̙/), or vowel space as in the alphabetic chart below (that is, as /i ɪ e a u ʊ o ɔ/). There are also nasal vowels.

Adjacent vowels usually undergo assimilation during speech. The sound of a preceding vowel, usually at the end of one word, merges in a rapid transition to the sound of the following vowel, particularly at the start of another word, giving the second vowel greater prominence in speech. Usually the first vowel (in the first word) is only slightly identifiable to listeners, usually undergoing centralisation. /Kà ó mésyá/, for example, becomes /kòó mésyá/ "goodbye". An exception to this assimilation may be with words ending in /a/ such as /nà/ in /nà àlà/, "on the ground", which could be completely assimilated leaving /n/ in rapid speech, as in "nàlà" or "n'àlà". In other dialects however, the instance of /a/ such as in "nà" in /ọ́ nà èrí ńrí/, "he/she/it is eating", results in a long vowel, /ọ́ nèèrí ńrí/.[11]

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 /f, z, s/.

Consonants of Standard Igbo (with nasal vowels)
Bilabial Labio-
Palatal Velar Labial–
plain lab.
Plosive voiceless p t k k͡p
voiced b~m d ɡ~ŋ ɡʷ~ŋʷ ɡ͡b
Affricate voiceless
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ
voiced z ɣ ɦ~ɦ̃
Approximant central ɹ j~ɲ w
lateral l~n

In some dialects, such as Enu-Onitsha Igbo, the doubly articulated /ɡ͡b/ and /k͡p/ are realized as a voiced/devoiced bilabial implosive. The approximant /ɹ/ is realized as an alveolar tap [ɾ] between vowels as in árá. 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; [CjV] has also been analyzed as /CʲV/.[12]

Consonants of Central Igbo (no nasal vowels)
Labial Alveolar Alveolo-
Velar Labial–
plain pal. plain lab.
Plosive voiceless p t k ƙ͜ƥ
aspirated pʲʰ tɕʰ kʷʰ
voiced b d ɡ ɡʷ ɠ͜ɓ
voiced aspirated bʲʱ dʑʱ ɡʱ
Fricative voiceless f s
voiceless nasalized
voiced v z ɣ ɣʷ
voiced nasalized
Trill plain r
Approximant voiceless h
voiceless nasalized j̊̃ w̥̃
voiced l j w

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 /j/ and /w/ can occur between consonant and vowel in some syllables. The semi-vowel in /CjV/ is analyzed as an underlying vowel "ị", so that -bịa is the phonemic form of bjá 'come'. On the other hand, "w" in /CwV/ is analyzed as an instance of labialization; so the phonemic form of the verb -gwá "tell" is /-ɡʷá/.

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.[13] 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.[14] Nsibidi, however, is not a full writing system, because 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 Ọ́nwụ́ (/oŋwu/) 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:[15]

Ọ́nwụ́ alphabet
Letter A B Ch D E F G Gb
Pronunciation () /a/ /b/ /tʃ/ /d/ /e/ /f/ /ɡ/ /ɓ~ɡ͡ɓ/
Letter Gh Gw H I J K Kp
Pronunciation /ɣ/ /ɡʷ/ /ɦ/ /i/ /ɪ̙/ /dʒ/ /k/ /ɓ̥~k͡p/
Letter Kw L M N Nw Ny O
Pronunciation /kʷ/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /ŋʷ/ /ɲ/ /ŋ/ /o/
Letter P R S Sh T U
Pronunciation /ɔ̙/ /p/ /ɹ/ /s/ /ʃ/ /t/ /u/ /ʊ̙/
Letter V W Y Z
Pronunciation /v/ /w/ /j/ /z/

The graphemes gb and kp are described both as coarticulated /ɡ͡b/ and /k͡p/ 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 aà, and high tones with an acute accent over the vowel, for example aá.

Usage in the diaspora

As a consequence of the Atlantic slave trade, the Igbo language was spread by enslaved Igbo people throughout slave colonies in the Americas. These colonies include the United States, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Belize, Barbados, and the Bahamas. Examples can be found in Jamaican Patois: the pronoun /unu/, used for 'you (plural)', is taken from Igbo, Red eboe refers to a fair-skinned black person because of the reported account of a fair or yellowish skin tone among the Igbo.[16] Soso meaning only comes from Igbo .[17]

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) (English: My people),[18][19] but it may have other origins (see: Barbados etymology).

See also


  1. ^ Nationalencyklopedin "Världens 100 största språk 2007" The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007
  2. ^ Heusing, Gerald (1999). Aspects of the morphology-syntax interface in four Nigerian languages. LIT erlag Münster. p. 3.  
  3. ^ "World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Equatorial Guinea : Overview".  
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nuclear Igbo". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ a b Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  6. ^ a b Oraka, L. N. (1983). The foundations of Igbo studies. University Publishing Co. p. 21.  
  7. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. p. 9.  
  8. ^ Oraka, L. N. (1983). The foundations of Igbo studies. University Publishing Co. p. 35.  
  9. ^ Emenanjo, Nolue. 1978. Elements of Modern Igbo Grammar - a descriptive approach. Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ JR Payne, 1990, "Language Universals and Language Types", in Collinge, ed., An Encyclopedia of Language
  11. ^ Welmers, William Everett (1974). African Language Structures. University of California Press. pp. 41-42. ISBN 0520022106
  12. ^ Mary Clark, 1990. The Tonal System of Igbo.
  13. ^ "Nsibidi". National Museum of African Art.  
  14. ^ Oraka, L. N. (1983). The foundations of Igbo studies. University Publishing Co. pp. 17, 13.  
  15. ^
  16. ^ Cassidy, Frederic Gomes; Robert Brock Le Page (2002). A Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed.). University of the West Indies Press. p. 168.  
  17. ^ McWhorter, John H. (2000). The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages. University of California Press. p. 77.  
  18. ^ Allsopp, Richard; Jeannette Allsopp (2003). Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Contributor Richard Allsopp. University of the West Indies Press. p. 101.  
  19. ^ Carrington, Sean (2007). A~Z of Barbados Heritage. Macmillan Caribbean Publishers Limited. p. 25.  


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