Learn more about Igbo language
|Spoken in:||Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, others|
|Region:||Nigeria and other countries|
|Total speakers:||18 million|
|Language family:|| Niger-Congo|
|Official language of:||Nigeria|
|Regulated by:||no official regulation|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.|
Igbo (also known, less commonly, as Ibo; asụsụ Ndi Igbo in Igbo) is a language spoken in Nigeria by around 18 million speakers (the Igbo), especially in the southeastern region once identified as Biafra. 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. Igbo is a tonal language, like Yoruba and Chinese.
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), Owerri, Ngwa, Umuahia, Nnewi, Onitsha, Awka, Abriba, Arochukwu, Nsukka, Mbaise, Ohafia, Wawa and Okigwe.
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 Igbos 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 mainly a spoken and colloquial language today, and not much Igbo literature exists. Reading and writing Igbo is not very widespread either, and Igbo is mostly used as a spoken language. Although Igbo is taught at all levels in eastern Nigerian schools, English remains the literary language that is to be studied extensively.
In many urban areas, Nigerian Pidgin English often replaces Igbo. In fact, many Igbo today do not use the Igbo language, but instead use local dialects of pidgin English.
Igbo, like many other West African languages, has borrowed many words from English. 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 green is "akwukwo nri," which literally means "leaves for eating," or "vegetables." 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 mean "paper," "book," "school," and "education." This is because printed paper can be first likened 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."
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.
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:
|ch||/ɓ/ ~ /ɡb͡/||kp||/ɓ̥/ ~ /k͡p/|
|m||/m/ and /m̩/||gw||/ɡʷ/|
|n||/n/ and /n̩/||kw||/kʷ/|
The graphemes <gb> and <kp> are described both as implosives and as coarticulated /ɡ/+/b/ and /k/+/p/, thus 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> → <à>, and high tones with an acute accent over the vowel, for example <a> → <á>.
 External links
- Ethnologue report on the Igbo language
- Igbo Language Center
- A History of the Igbo Language
- Achebe and the Problematics of Writing in Indigenous Languages
- Uwandiigbo: Learning Igbo on the Internet
- An insight guide to Igboland’s Culture and Language
- 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
- International Phonetic Association (1999) Handbook of the International Phonetic Association ISBN 0-521-63751-1