Igbo language

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Asụsụ Igbo
Pronunciation [iɡ͡boː]
Native to Nigeria
Region southeastern Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea
Native speakers
24 million (2007)[1]
Standard forms
Standard Igbo[2]
Dialects Waawa, Enuani, Ngwa, Ohuhu, Onitsha, Bonny-Opobo, Olu, Owerre (Isuama), et al.
Latin (Önwu alphabet)
Nwagu Aneke script
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]
Linguasphere 98-GAA-a
Nigeria Benin Cameroon languages.png
Linguistic map of Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Igbo is spoken in southern Nigeria.
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Igbo (Igbo [iɡ͡boː]; English /ˈɪɡb/;[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 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,[6] the most divergent being Ekpeye. 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.[7]  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.[7]  The narrative also illustrated various aspects of Igbo life based in detail, based on Olaudah Equiano's experiences in his hometown of Essaka.[8]

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.[9]


Word classes[edit]

Lexical categories in Igbo include nouns, pronouns, numerals, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and a single preposition.[10] The meaning of na, the single preposition, is flexible and must be ascertained from the context. Examples from Emenanjo (2015) illustrate the range of meaning:

(1) O bì n'Enugwū.

3sg live PREP Enugwū
'He lives in Enugwū.'

(2) O bì ebe à n'ogè agha.

3sg live here this PREP time war
'He lived here during the time of the war.'

(3) Ndị Fàda kwènyèrè n'atọ̀ n'ime otù.

those Catholic believe PREP three PREP inside one
'The Catholics believe in the Three-in-One.'[11]

Igbo has an extremely limited number of adjectives in a closed class. Emenanjo (1978, 2015)[12][11] counts just eight, which occur in pairs of opposites: ukwu 'big', nta 'small'; oji 'dark', ọcha 'light'; ọhụrụ 'new', ochie 'old'; ọma 'good'; ọjọọ 'bad' (Payne 1990).[13] Adjectival meaning is otherwise conveyed through the use of stative verbs or abstract nouns.

Verbs, by far the most prominent category in Igbo, host most of the language's morphology and appear to be the most basic category; many processes can derive new words from verbs, but few can derive verbs from words of other classes.[11]

Non-compositional compounds[edit]

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.[citation needed]


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."[citation needed]


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 autosegmental phenomena that go beyond the linear model of phonology laid out in The Sound Pattern of English.[14] 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 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/.[15]

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/.[16]

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/.

Morphological typology[edit]

Igbo is an agglutinating language that exhibits very little fusion. The language is predominantly suffixing in a hierarchical manner, such that the ordering of suffixes is governed semantically rather than by fixed position classes. The language has very little inflectional morphology but much derivational and extensional morphology. Most derivation takes place with verbal roots.[11]

Extensional suffixes, a term used in the Igbo literature, refer to morphology that has some but not all characteristics of derivation. The words created by these suffixes always belong to the same lexical category as the root from which they are created, and the suffixes' effects are principally semantic. On these grounds, Emenanjo (2015) asserts that the suffixes called extensional are bound lexical compounding elements; they cannot occur independently, though many are related to other free morphemes from which they may have originally been derived.[11]

In addition to affixation, Igbo exhibits both partial and full reduplication to form gerunds from verbs. The partial form copies on the initial consonant and inserts a high front vowel, while the full form copies the first consonant and vowel. Both types are then prefixed with o-. For example, -go 'buy' partially reduplicates to form ògigo 'buying,' and -bu 'carry' fully reduplicates to form òbubu 'carrying. Some other noun and verb forms also exhibit reduplication, but because the reduplicated forms are semantically unpredictable, reduplication in their case is not synchronically productive, and they are better described as separate lexical items.[11]

Grammatical relations[edit]

Igbo lacks overt case distinctions on nominal constituents and marks grammatical relations only through word order. The typical Igbo sentence displays subject-verb-object (SVO) ordering, where subject is understood as the sole argument of an intransitive verb or the agent-like (external) argument of a transitive verb. Igbo's thus exhibits accusative alignment.

It has been proposed, with reservations, that some Igbo verbs display ergativity on some level, as in the following two examples:[11]

(4) Nnukwu mmīri nà-ezò n'iro.

big water AUX-fall at outside
'Heavy rain is falling outside.'

(5) Ọ nà-ezò nnukwu mmīri n'iro.

it AUX-fall big water at outside
'Heavy rain is falling outside.'

In (4), the verb has a single argument, nnukwu mmīri, which appears in object position, and in transitive sentence (5), that same argument appears in the object position, even though the two are semantically identical. On this basis, authors such as Emenanjuo (2015) have posited that Igbo contains some degree of ergativity.

However, others disagree, arguing that the relevant category is not alignment but underlying argument structure; under this hypothesis, (4) and (5) differ only in the application of a transformation and can be accounted for entirely by the unaccusative hypothesis and the Extended Projection Principle;[17] the nominal argument is generated in object position, and either it is raised to the subject position, as in (4), or the subject position is filled with a pleonastic pronoun, as in (5).

Writing system[edit]

See also: Igbo Braille
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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

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:[21]

Ọ́nwụ́ alphabet
Letter A B Ch D E F G Gb
Pronunciation (IPA) /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 Ñ 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 ⟨a⟩ → ⟨à⟩, and high tones with an acute accent over the vowel, for example ⟨a⟩ → ⟨á⟩.

There are also some modern movements to restore the use of and modernize nsibidi as a writing system,[22][23] which mostly focus on Igbo as it is the most populous language that used to use nsibidi.


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.[citation needed]

Usage in the diaspora[edit]

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, Cuba, The 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.[24] Soso meaning only comes from Igbo.[25] See List of Jamaican Patois words of African origin#Igbo language for more examples.

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),[26][27] but it may have other origins (see: Barbados etymology).

In Cuba, the Igbo language (along with the Efik language) continues to be used, albeit in a creolized form, in ceremonies of the Abakuá society, equivalent or derived from the Ekpe society in modern Nigeria

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. ^ Heusing, Gerald (1999). Aspects of the morphology-syntax interface in four Nigerian languages. LIT erlag Münster. p. 3. ISBN 3-8258-3917-6. 
  3. ^ "World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Equatorial Guinea : Overview". UNHCR. 20 May 2008. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Nuclear Igbo". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  5. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  6. ^ Ọgba Language Committee (August 11, 2013). "A DICTIONARY OF ỌGBÀ, AN IGBOID LANGUAGE OF SOUTHERN NIGERIA" (PDF). www.rogerblench.info. Roger Blench, Kay Williamson Educational Foundation, Cambridge, UK. p. 3. Retrieved April 21, 2016. 
  7. ^ a b Oraka, L. N. (1983). The foundations of Igbo studies. University Publishing Co. p. 21. ISBN 978-160-264-3. 
  8. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. p. 9. ISBN 1-4250-4524-3. 
  9. ^ Oraka, L. N. (1983). The foundations of Igbo studies. University Publishing Co. p. 35. ISBN 978-160-264-3. 
  10. ^ Green, M.M. and G.E. Igwe. 1963. A Descriptive Grammar of Igbo. Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin: Institut für Orientforschung.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Emenanjo, Nolue. A Grammar of Contemporary Igbo: Constituents, Features and Processes. Oxford: M and J Grand Orbit Communications, 2015.
  12. ^ Emenanjo, Nolue. 1978. Elements of Modern Igbo Grammar - a descriptive approach. Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press.
  13. ^ JR Payne, 1990, "Language Universals and Language Types", in Collinge, ed., An Encyclopedia of Language
  14. ^ Goldsmith, John A. 1976. Autosegmental Phonology. Ph.D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Accessed at http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/dm/theses/goldsmith76.pdf
  15. ^ Welmers, William Everett (1974). African Language Structures. University of California Press. pp. 41-42. ISBN 0520022106
  16. ^ Mary Clark, 1990. The Tonal System of Igbo.
  17. ^ Nwachukwu, P. Akujuoobi (1987). "The Argument Structure of Igbo Verbs". Lexicon Project Working Papers. 18. 
  18. ^ "Nsibidi". National Museum of African Art. Smithsonian Institution. Nsibidi is an ancient system of graphic communication indigenous to the Ejagham peoples of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon in the Cross River region. It is also used by neighboring Ibibio, Efik and Igbo peoples. 
  19. ^ Oraka, L. N. (1983). The foundations of Igbo studies. University Publishing Co. pp. 17, 13. ISBN 978-160-264-3. 
  20. ^ Azuonye, Chukwuma (1992). "The Nwagu Aneke Igbo Script: Its Origins, Features and Potentials as a Medium of Alternative Literacy in African Languages". Africana Studies Faculty Publication Series. University of Massachusetts Boston (13). 
  21. ^ http://www.omniglot.com/writing/igbo.htm
  22. ^ http://blog.nsibiri.org/
  23. ^ https://sugabellyrocks.com/2013/01/update-on-the-ndebe-igbo-writing-system.html
  24. ^ Cassidy, Frederic Gomes; Robert Brock Le Page (2002). A Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed.). University of the West Indies Press. p. 168. ISBN 976-640-127-6. Retrieved 2008-11-24. 
  25. ^ McWhorter, John H. (2000). The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages. University of California Press. p. 77. ISBN 0-520-21999-6. Retrieved 2008-11-29. 
  26. ^ Allsopp, Richard; Jeannette Allsopp (2003). Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Contributor Richard Allsopp. University of the West Indies Press. p. 101. ISBN 976-640-145-4. Retrieved 2008-11-24. 
  27. ^ Carrington, Sean (2007). A~Z of Barbados Heritage. Macmillan Caribbean Publishers Limited. p. 25. ISBN 0-333-92068-6. 


  • 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
  • Emenanjo, Nolue. A Grammar of Contemporary Igbo: Constituents, Features and Processes. Oxford: M and J Grand Orbit Communications, 2015.
  • Green, M.M. and G.E. Igwe. 1963. A Descriptive Grammar of Igbo. Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin: Institut für Orientforschung.
  • Ikekeonwu, Clara (1999), "Igbo", Handbook of the International Phonetic Association, pp. 108–110, ISBN 0-521-63751-1 
  • Nwachukwu, P. Akujuoobi. 1987. The argument structure of Igbo verbs. Lexicon Project Working Papers 18. Cambridge: MIT.
  • Obiamalu, G.O.C. (2002) The development of Igbo standard orthography: a historical survey in Egbokhare, Francis O. and Oyetade, S.O. (ed.) (2002) Harmonization and standardization of Nigerian languages. Cape Town : Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS). ISBN 1-919799-70-2
  • Surviving the iron curtain: A microscopic view of what life was like, inside a war-torn region by Chief Uche Jim Ojiaku, ISBN 1-4241-7070-2; ISBN 978-1-4241-7070-8 (2007)

External links[edit]