Izi language

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Region Ebonyi State, Nigeria
Native speakers
540,000  (2012)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 izz
Glottolog izii1239[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Izi (Izii, Izzi) is an Igbo language spoken in Ebonyi state in Nigeria.[3] It forms a dialect cluster with closely related Ikwo, Ezza, and Mgbo.


Speakers of the Izi language are spread over a large area. Belonging to a larger group of people called the Igbo, the Izi distinguish themselves from their neighbors and have divided themselves into many clans. Izi speakers are found East of Abakaliki, the capital of the Ebonyi State and extend as far as the Anambra and Imo State boundaries.[3] Longitudinally, Izi speakers extend from the Plateau State to approximately 12 miles north of the Cross River which runs through the appropriately named Cross River State.[3] The maps on this page highlight the area where Izi speakers live, showing both the country of Nigeria within the African Continent and the divisions within Nigeria. Izi’s parent group, the Igbo, reside in Southeast Nigeria. The area where the Igbo live has been termed “Igboland.” Though this area is divided by the Niger River, cultural unity is maintained by the Igbo people as the River provides a convenient means of communication.


A Brief History of Igbo Speakers[edit]

Research on the origins of the Igbo is limited, but a leading hypothesis is that many different communities immigrated in waves from the West and North to the borders of the central area of Igboland.[4] These waves of immigration may have begun as early as the 9th century. From this central area, migration in the more recent past has occurred in all directions which has led to one homogenous Igbo culture. The Portuguese arrived in Igboland in the mid-15th century and from 1434-1807, contact points between European and African traders were established along the Niger coast. After slavery was abolished in 1807, the British became aggressive in its practices of industrial trade and imperialism. The British eventually conquered Igboland, and Igbo culture was compromised by British imperialism.[4]

A History of Igbo Orthography[edit]

Igbo Alphabet

Before the 16th century, the Igbo had a pictogram form of writing called “Nsibidi”.[5] This form died out most likely due to the fact that many of its users were members of secret societies who did not want to publicly discuss it. In 1854, A German philologist named Karl Richard Lepsius made a “Standard Alphabet” meant for all the languages of the world. In 1882, Britain enacted an educational ordinance to direct the teaching of reading and writing only in English. This temporarily inhibited the development of Igbo, along with other languages of West Africa. Controversy over Igbo orthography began in 1927 when the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC) published a pamphlet called “Practical Orthography of African Languages.” The consonants /gw/, /kw/, and /nw/ were added to represent Igbo sounds. The pamphlet used some symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which began a controversy with the missionary society who had used Lepsius' writing for almost 70 years. In 1929, the Colonial Government Board of Education tried to replace Lepsius with the IIALC’s orthography. The government, along with Roman Catholic and Methodist missionaries, accepted and adopted the new orthography; however, other Protestant missionaries opposed it. A standard alphabet based on a “central” dialect was proposed in 1944 by Dr. Ida Ward, but the controversy continued, and a resolution was made to use this alphabet only for government literature. A standard form was agreed upon by 1962 and is still in use today. In 1972, a standardization committee met to expand the Igbo language, borrowing words from various dialects other than the “central” one. This idea for a “Standard Igbo” was meant to be spoken and understood by all Igbo speakers. Between 1973 and 1976, the standardization committee’s recommendations for Igbo spelling were approved, and new suggestions for the rearrangement of the Igbo alphabet were taken into consideration. The standard Igbo orthography that is currently in use is based on the dialects of Owerri and Umuahia.[5] The alphabet is shown below along with the IPA transcriptions.


Comparing Izi, Ezaa, and Ikwo reveals that these dialects share about 95% of their vocabulary.[3] However, comparisons with the Central Igbo language showed only an 80% consistency in lexical items. Since Izi, Ezaa, and Ikwo are mutually intelligible with each other but not with Central Igbo, they are classified as one language separate from the Central Igbo language. However, some of the words in Izi are cognates of Central Igbo.[3]



Izi contains 26 consonant phonemes classified under six manners of articulation and five places of articulation which is shown in the chart below. Consonants are also distinguished by voicing. Both voiced and voiceless stops occur in labial, alveolar, velar, and labio-velar places of articulation. There are also corresponding nasals for each of these places of articulation. Fricatives only occur as labials, alveolars, and velars; and affricates are only formed in the labial and alveolar regions of the oral cavity. Izi has both a lateral and non-lateral liquid, but some speakers replace the non-lateral with the lateral liquid.

Table 1. Consonant Inventory [3]
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Labio-velar
Nasals m n ŋ ŋm
Stops Vl p t k kp
Vd b d ɡ ɡb
Affricates Vl pf ts
Vd bv dz
Fricatives Vl ɸ s x
Vd v z ɣ
Liquids Lateral l
Non-lateral ɹ
Semivowels w j


Izi has a moderate vowel inventory. There are nine vowel phonemes in Izi, including the canonical vowels plus two more front vowels and two more back vowels. Below is a table of the vowels divided by their places of articulation in the oral cavity as well as the position of the root of the tongue.

Syntagmatic Features[edit]

Syntagmatic features are related to the syntactic relationship between morphological or phonological units. In Izi, every syllable is marked with one or more features of pitch and quality. The three features of quality in Izi are palatalization, labialization, and neutral. They are regarded as syllable features for several reasons, but most importantly because they cause contrast between syllables rather than between individual phonemes.[3] Palatalization is phonetically realized as strong palatal friction or as slight vowel fronting in the syllable. It occurs whenever a syllable margin is the palatal /j/, and sometimes when the margin is an alveolar consonant (with the exception of liquids) or a bilabial stop. For example, /jɔ̀/, meaning ‘to shake a rattle’ and /àpjà/, ‘a bird,’ are marked by the palatalization feature because they contain a syllable with a /j/ margin.[3] The labialization feature is phonetically realized by the semivowel /w/ between a consonant margin and a vowel nucleus, as in /ákwɔ̀/, meaning ‘razor’. It can also occur when the syllable margin is a velar stop or nasal, or a liquid. The contrast in meaning is exemplified by comparing it to the word /ákɔ̀ /, which is translated as ‘story.’ Lip rounding occurs throughout the entire syllable of /ákwɔ̀/ which differentiates it from /ákɔ̀/. The neutral feature is simply the absence of the other two features of quality. There are no consonant margin restrictions other than the absence of /w/ and /j/ margins found in syllables marked by the labialization and palatalization features. An example of a neutral syllable is /únú/, which means ‘salt’ [3]

Table 2. Vowel Inventory:[3]
(Position of tongue root) Front Central Back
High Advanced i u
Retracted ɪ ʊ
Mid Advanced e o
Retracted ɛ ɔ
Low a

Syllable Structure[edit]

There are two distinguished types of syllable structures in Izi: CVN, where the consonant onset and nasal coda are optional; and N, which consists of a syllabic nasal. This yields five possible combinations of V, CV, VN, CVN, N, where V=vowel, C=consonant, and N=syllabic nasal. There are a few syllable restrictions in Izi: 1) The consonants /pf/ and /bv/ can only occur in syllables with nuclei consisting of a high back vowel and are marked by the neutral feature. 2) The consonants /ŋm/ can only occur between vowels /e/, /a/, and /o/ and are marked by the neutral feature. 3) High front vowels do not occur in a) syllables with the labialization feature. b) syllables with the neutral feature and consonant margins consisting of fricatives, velar and labio-velar nasals, and stops (except /ɡb/). 4) High back vowels do not occur in a) syllables with the palatalization feature. b) syllables with the neutral feature and a consonant margin of /ŋm/.

Tone System[edit]

Izi, like many Niger–Congo languages, has a two-tone system which consists of a high tone and a low tone. Low tone has two variations: raising low tone (L) and non-raising low tone (^L). High tone has one variation: raised high (R). The tone system also has three features: downstep (!), upstep (^) and latent low (‘ placed before the word). Rules for the operation of the tonal variations are as follows: a) There is a two-way phonemic contrast after a low tone; that is, a low tone may be followed by another low tone or a high tone. b) A three-way phonemic contrast exists after a high tone. It may be followed by another high tone, a low tone, or a downstep to another high tone. There are many minimal pairs of tone; an example is the word /eka/. Pronounced with a high tone followed by a high tone, it means ‘hand.’ With two low tones, it means ‘worm.’ The translation becomes ‘notch mark’ when pronounced with a high tone followed by a low tone, and when the high tone follows the low tone, /eka/ is interpreted as ‘place’.[3]

Morphology and syntax[edit]

Izi is a fairly isolating language, and it has equal suffixing and prefixing, as in the following example.

sʊ́ ɪꜜjá ɔ̀ɔ́ ńdʊ́ mkpùkpú ̂ànji ́kùrù mí́tìná ònó
Say him that it is people village our called meeting that
‘Tell him it is the people of our village who called that meeting.’

Instead of the morphemes all combining to form one sentence, each morpheme in this sentence is disconnected to suggest that Izi is an isolating language. This sentence also reveals that the word order of this language is subject–verb–object (SVO). This is seen in the phrase meaning ‘it is people,’ where ‘it’ is the subject, ‘is’ is the verb, and ‘people’ is the object. Another feature illustrated by this sentence is the order of nouns and genitives, and nouns and demonstratives. These structures are head-initial, where the noun head comes before both the genitive and the demonstrative. For instance, in this sentence, ‘village’ appears before the genitive pronoun ‘our,’ and ‘meeting’ appears before the demonstrative ‘that.’ Adjectives can occur before or after the noun; however the adjective-noun order is preferred. The order of the adposition in relation to the order of the object and verb is typical. One would expect prepositions in a language where the verb is placed before the object, and Izi lives up to this expectation. The following shows this preposition-object relationship:

é, lɛ́ mgbábʊ̀ ɛ̀ká ònó
yes, in garden in place that
‘Yes, in the garden there.’
ḿꜜbʊ́ ndʊ ónjìkwá
meaning people of Onyikwa?
‘You mean Onyikwa people?’


There is nothing particularly peculiar about Izi; its typological characteristics show strong associations with the Niger–Congo family. The Izi language has yet to be fully investigated. Its parent language, Igbo, has had apparent success since it has existed since at least prior to the 16th century. Izi, however, has only about 200,000 speakers all concentrated in one relatively small area of the world, causing difficulty in judging the success of the language.


  1. ^ Izi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Izi". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Paul Meier, Inge Meier & John Bendor-Samuel, A Grammar of Izi: An Igbo Language, Summer Institute of Linguistics (1975)
  4. ^ a b "The Igbo People: Origins & History (2008)
  5. ^ a b Omniglot Writing Systems and Languages of the World, Simon Ager,(2008)