Igbo language (Asụsụ Igbo)

Igbo  (Igbo: Asụsụ Igbo), is the principal native language of the Igbo people, an ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria. Igbo is one of the four official languages of Nigeria and is a member of the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. It is spoken by about 18 million people in Nigeria whom are primarily of Igbo descent and Equatorial Guinea.

There are over 20 Igbo dialects. There is apparently a degree of dialect levelling 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 such as Ika, Ikwerre and Ogba that are sometimes considered dialects of Igbo, the most divergent being Ekpeye. Igbo is also a recognised minority language of Equatorial Guinea.

G. C. A. Oldendorp, a German missionary, was the first person to produce a book containing material written in Igbo, which consisted of a few words and phrases. His book, Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Bruder auf den Carabischen(History of the Evangelistic Mission of the Brothers in the Caribbean), was published in 1777. 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.  The narrative also illustrated various aspects of Igbo life based in detail, based on Olaudah Equiano’s experiences in his hometown of Essaka.

The first book in Igbo, Isoama-Ibo a primer, was produced in 1857 by Samuel Ajayi Crowther, an ex-slave and teacher who was also an outstanding African linguist, leader, and Africa’s first Anglican bishop.

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.


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

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 wordakwụkwọ. 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.


 Igbo is a tonal language with two distinctive tones, high and low. In some cases a third, down stepped high tone is recognized. The language’s tone system was given by John Goldsmith as an example of auto segmental phenomena that go beyond the linear model of phonology laid out in The Sound Pattern of English. Igbo words may differ only in tone. Tones (also called contrastive pitch) are used to differentiate words that are written identically. For example, the same word in Igbo may have four different meanings depending on its pitch. In tone languages, pitch is a property of words, but what is important is not absolute pitch but relative pitch. Igbo language makes use of two main tones: the high tone (such as u as in “rule”) is pronounced with the tongue bent towards the roof of the mouth. The low tone (such as a in “father”) is produced with the tongue flat and low in the mouth and with the mouth a bit wider than for high tones. Considering the high and low tones, 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.
Vowel Harmony

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 mésjá/, for example, becomes /kòó mésjá/ “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/.

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/.


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  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/.


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

The Igbo people have long used Nsibidi ideograms, invented by the neighboring Ekoi people, for basic written communication. They have been used since at least the 16th century, but died out publicly[dubious ] after they became popular amongst secret societies such as the Ekpe, who used them as a secret form of communication. Nsibidi, however, is not a full writing system, because it cannot transcribe the Igbo language specifically. In 1960 a rural land owner and dibia named Nwagu Aneke developed a syllabary for the Umuleri dialect of Igbo, the script, named after him as the Nwagu Aneke script, was used to write hundreds of diary entires until Aneke’s death in 1991. The Nwagu Aneke Project is working on translating Nwagu’s commentary and diary.

An ikpe ‘court case’ recorded in nsibidi by J. K. Macgregor in the early 20th century.

The wide variety of spoken dialects has made agreement on a standardized 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:

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. Soso meaning only comes from Igbo.

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), but it may have other origins (see: Barbados etymology).

In recent times, Igbo people in the diaspora are putting resources in place to make the study of the language accessible.


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