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Igbo language

Igbo (Igbo: Asusu Igbo) is a language spoken in Nigeria by around 20-35 million people, the Igbo, especially in the southeastern region once identified as Biafra and parts of Southsouthern region of Nigeria. The language was used by John Goldsmith as an example to justify deviating from the classical linear model of phonology as laid out in The Sound Pattern of English. It is written in the Roman script. There is also the Nsibidi alphabet which is used by the Ekpe society. Igbo is a tonal language, like Yoruba and Chinese. There are hundreds of different dialects and Igboid languages that the Igbo language is comprised of such as Ikwerre Enuani (linguistics) and Ekpeye dialects.


Igbo has a number of dialects, distinguished by accent or orthography but almost universally mutually intelligible, including the Idemili Igbo dialect (the version used in Chinua Achebe's epic novel, Things Fall Apart), Bende, Owerri, Ngwa, Umuahia, Nnewi, Onitsha, Awka, Abriba, Arochukwu, Nsukka, Mbaise, Abba, Ohafia, Ika, Wawa, Okigwe Ukwa/Ndoki and Enuani. It is considered to be a dialect continuum. There is apparently a degree of dialect levelling occurring.

The wide variety of spoken dialects has made agreeing a standardised orthography and dialect of the Igbo language very difficult. The current Onwu orthography, a compromise between the older Lepsius orthography and a newer orthography advocated by the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC), was agreed in 1962.

The dialect form gaining widest acceptance, Central Igbo, is based on the dialects of two members of the Ezinehite 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.

In 1999, Chinua Achebe, the most internationally famous Igbo speaker, passionately denounced Standard Igbo and its ancestors as colonial and conservative impositions on the rich range of Igbo dialects. To illustrate his point, he delivered his lecture in a dialect peculiar only to Onitsha speakers, which was almost unintelligible to more than half the audience.


Igbo is both spoken and written language mainly in southeastern Nigeria but this usage also extends beyond these confines to southsouthern Nigeria covering some parts of Rivers and Delta States where the Ikweres, Anioma and others are geographically situated. In Anioma (Among the Eneani) especially, the Igbo language is still referred to as "Asusu Igbo" and retains much of Igbo words and idiomatic expressions.


Igbo, like many other West African languages, has borrowed many words from European languages. Example loanwords include the Igbo word for blue ("blu") and operator ("opareto").

Many names in Igbo are actually fusions of older original words and phrases. For example, one Igbo word for vegetable leaves is "akwukwo nri", which literally means "leaves for eating" or "vegetables". Green leaves are called "akwukwo ndu", because "ndu" means "life". Another example is train ("ugbo igwe"), which comes from the words "ugbo" (vehicle, craft) and "igwe" (iron, metal); thus a locomotive train is vehicle via iron (rails); a car, "ugbo ala"; vehicle via land and an aeroplane "ugbo elu" ; vehicle via air. Words may also take on multiple meanings. Take for example the word "akwukwo." "Akwukwo" originally means "leaf" (as on a tree), but during and after the colonization period, akwukwo also came to be linked to "paper," "book," "school," and "education", to become respectively "akwukwo edemede", "akwukwo ogugu", "ulo akwukwo", "mmuta akwukwo". 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, "akwukwo" can take on many forms — for example, "akwukwo ego" means "printed money" or "bank notes," and "akwukwo eji eje ije" means "passport."


Proverbs and idiomatic 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.


Igbo is a tonal language with two distinctive tones; high and low. In some cases a third, downstepped high tone is also recognized. The language features vowel harmony with two sets of vowels distinguished by pharyngeal cavity size and can also be described in terms of "advanced tongue root" (ATR).

In some dialects, such as Enu-Onitsha Igbo, the doubly articulated /g͡b/ 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.

Consonant phonemes of Standard Igbo
Bilabial Labio-
Palatal Velar Labial-
plain labio.
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ ŋʷ
Plosive p b t d k g k͡p g͡b
Fricative f s z ʃ ɣ ɦ
Approximant central ɹ j w
lateral l

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 analysed as an instance of labialization; so the phonemic form of the verb -gwá 'tell' is /-gʷá/.

Writing system

The most commonly-used orthography for Igbo is currently the Onwu (/oŋwu/) Alphabet. It is presented in the following table, with the International Phonetic Alphabet equivalents for the characters:

Igbo Alphabet
IPA Igbo Alphabet
a /a/ /ɔ/
b /b/ p /p/
gb /ɓ/ ~ /ɡ͡b/ kp /ɓ̥/ ~ /k͡p/
d /d/ r /ɾ/
e /e/ s /s/
f /f/ sh /ʃ/
g /ɡ/ t /t/
gh /ɣ/ u /u/
h /h/ /ʊ/
i /i/ v /v/
/ɪ/ w /w/
j /ʤ/ y /j/
k /k/ z /z/
l /l/ ch /ʧ/
m /m/ and /m̩/ gw /ɡʷ/
n /n/ and /n̩/ kw /kʷ/
/ŋ/ nw /ŋʷ/
o /o/ ny /ɲ/

The graphemes and are described both as implosives and as coarticulated /ɡ/+/b/ and /k/+/p/, thus both values are included in the table.

and 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 → <à>, and high tones with an acute accent over the vowel, for example → <á>.

See also

External links


  • 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-10: 1424170702; ISBN-13: 978-1424170708 (2007)
  • International Phonetic Association (1999) Handbook of the International Phonetic Association ISBN 0-521-63751-1


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