Home / News / Local / Igbo Orthography and Standard Dialect: Work in Progress By Anthony Akubue
Dr. Anthony Akubue

Igbo Orthography and Standard Dialect: Work in Progress By Anthony Akubue

Prof. Chinua Achebe.
Prof. Ernest Emenyonu

The purpose of this article is to bring to the awareness of our children, friends and well-wishers that the term “Igbo” is the legitimate word and spelling representing our name, not “Ibo”. In addition, the article also addresses the lack of consensus on a common Igbo dialect, which remains unfinished work in progress.

I will begin with a narrative about Igbo. The word Igbo is used in three senses to refer to the collective name of our ethnic group, the language we speak, and our ancestral home. The majority of the estimated 33 to 37+ million Igbo worldwide live in their native land in Southeastern Nigeria.

Thirty-six characters make up the Igbo alphabet. The “gb” in the spelling of “Igbo” is among the nine of twenty-eight consonants in Igbo alphabet known as blends or diagraphs. The remaining eight characters are vowels. The Igbo alphabet is mostly written in English, which is the lingua franca of Nigeria – a former colony of Britain.

The speculation is that the Europeans in colonial Nigeria could not make the “gb” sound, so they removed the “g” in “Igbo” to create the word “Ibo” to supplant the indigenous name, its spelling, and pronunciation. Given that Homo sapiens can and do learn, I find the explanation that the Europeans could not make the “gb” sound not very convincing.

This presumptuous act of changing an autochthonous word or name smacks of European ethnocentrism – that subjective sense of superior power and culture in common display in erstwhile Third World European colonies. For developing Igbo language orthography and the claim that Europeans could not make the sounds of some of the Igbo diagraphs,  European missionaries and the colonial administration changed “Egbu” to “Ebu,”  “Enugwu” to “Enugu,” “Agbani” to “Abani,” “Ikokwu” to “Ikoku,” “Chukwu,” to “Chuku,” “Okwu,” to “Oku,” “Okonkwo” to “Okonko,” etc. Fortunately, these Europeanized versions of Igbo words are generally ignored and seldom used by most Igbo people.

This Eurocentric proclivity is to blame for complicity in causing disruption and polarization among the Igbo through unsolicited and incessant intervention in the cultural affairs of the colonized. The Europeans – on their own, without being asked – initiated the project to standardize the Igbo language. The missionaries and colonial officials wielded so much power that they practically did whatever they wished to do.

The Igbo have numerous dialects long in existence before the advent of European colonialism. Some Igbo dialects include the Idemili dialect, Onitsha, Bende, Isuiikwuato, Owerri, Nkwerre, Ngwa, Umuahia, Onitsha, Abriba, Arochukwu, Awka, Nsukka, Abba, Ohafia, Mbaise, Ika, Wawa, Nnewi, Ukwa/Ndoki, Okigwe, Ikwerre, Ezii, Okposi, etc. These dialects, which differ from one another by accent or orthography, can be mastered easily by any Igbo native who shows sincere interest. An Igbo man or woman can almost always tell the area of Igboland another is from by the accent of the speaker. That is why I dismiss the notion of unintelligibility of some Igbo dialects Professor Ernest Nneji Emenyonu writes frequently as the same divisive expression colonialists and European missionaries used to introduce the novel sense of dialectal superiority in Igboland. The various Igbo dialects were spoken with pride and none was considered inferior or superior to the other by their speakers. Precolonial Igbo indigenes from different and far away clans and villages traveled and traded with each other, and even intermarried with hardly any dialectal encumbrances.

European colonialists and Missionaries introduced the notion of Igbo dialect unintelligibility, especially in situations where an Igbo man or woman spoke or wrote in a dialect other than the “Central Igbo” orthography proposed by Dr. Ida Caroline Ward. Further discussion of Central Igbo is taken up in another section.

Early in the 20th century, Archdeacon Thomas John Dennis, a Sussex, England native, and a member of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), actualized the relocation of the Igbo Language Studies headquarters from Onitsha to Ebu (Egbu). The suggestion to relocate came from Lasly Probyn, the Acting High Commissioner in Calabar, who encouraged the CMS in 1904 to initiate missionary work in Egbu, Owerri, where he claimed “the purest form of Igbo was spoken, while the people were more intelligent than the average Igbo” (Bersselaar, 1998, p.116). Doubtful of the Commissioner’s linguistic observations, Archdeacon Dennis concluded after his own visit to Egbu that “the Ibo people of Owerri speak as pure a form of the language as any in the country” (Bersselaar, 1998, p. 116).

It is proper here to note that Igbo dialects in their entirety add to the richness of the language and constitute one of the most important cultural distinctions among the different Igbo clans and villages. This notwithstanding, upon their arrival as far back as 1841, some of the European Christian missionaries, working in concert with colonial government officials, saw developing Igbo language orthography and vocabulary as their divine mandate. Of paramount importance to them was the translation of the Bible and other religious reading materials into Igbo language for proselytization and conversion of the natives to Christianity. The difficulty of this task was in deciding which orthography would be acceptable to all the competing Igbo dialects. The first attempt to confront this challenge came with the development and use of Isuama Igbo, from 1766 to 1900 (Oraka, 1983).

Isuama was spoken by emancipated slaves and their offspring in Sierra Leone, but not anywhere in Igboland. The language was incomprehensible to the native Igbo who referred to it as pidgin or broken Igbo, and rejected it when Samuel Crowther and John Christopher Taylor of the CMS translated the Bible, hymns, and prayer books into Isuama dialect (Igboanusi, 2006; Azuonye, 2002). The endeavor failed and was abandoned because Igbo natives launched a protracted resistance to the mission’s pressure to relinquish their different dialects to embrace Isuama dialect they did not understand. Translation into Onitsha dialects became the favored alternative at this time. According to Bersselaar (1998), Archdeacon Dennis and his Igbo assistants accomplished the first translation of the entire Bible in Onitsha dialect in 1906. However, it is claimed that the arrival of the Roman Catholic Mission (RCM) in 1885 (Oraka, 1983) and its eventual adoption of popular Onitsha area dialect triggered the CMS complete abandonment of Isuama Igbo and its replacement with Union Igbo (Igboanusi, 2006).

According to Oraka (1983), the era of Union Igbo lasted from 1900 to 1929. Archdeacon Dennis was said to have imposed his idea of Union Igbo at a conference convened in Asaba on August 14, 1905 (Igboanusi, 2006). Union Igbo was a hybrid of the dialects of Bonny, Unwana (Afikpo), Arochukwu, Owerri, and Onitsha. Dennis used the resulting dialect to translate and publish the Union Bible in 1913, followed later by the translation of hymn books and prayer books. In the end Union Igbo was intensely criticized and eventually rejected for being artificial, difficult to understand, and bearing no resemblance to anything in existence. As Union Igbo fell into disfavor, Central Igbo came in vogue and lasted from 1929 to 1961 (Oraka, 1983).

Central Igbo, a combination of what was described as core Igbo dialects of Owerri and Umuahia – suffused with Ohuhu dialect—was proposed by Ida Caroline Ward, a native of Yorkshire, England, in 1939 (Bersselaar, 1939; Oraka, 1983). Explaining why she proposed Owerri area Igbo for Igbo orthography and standard dialect, Ward cited its densely populated nature and the centrality of the location. However, a look at the map of Igboland area refutes the claim of centrality. Like Union Igbo, Central Igbo was an amalgam and something unnatural. A preference for Onitsha Igbo was expressed in numerous instances. As Bersselaar (1998) wrote, “Although Onitsha Igbo appeared to be in an excellent position to become the dominant dialect, Ward noted that the dialect was not accepted in the Owerri area and failed to gain influence there” (p. 128). There were some District Officers who claimed the natural speakers of Central Igbo, unlike the Onitsha area Igbo speakers, were not very literate, which could in consequence limit their ability to proliferate the literature of the standard dialect. Some individuals argued in favor of Central Igbo “as means of checking the educational advantage of the Onitsha Igbo over the others, which had precluded the Onitsha Igbo and the non-Onitsha Igbo meeting on equal terms” (Bersselaar, 1998, p. 132). Several meetings and conferences aimed at reaching a compromise and to resolve the issue failed, as Onitsha Igbo and Owerri Igbo speakers argued theirs should be the standard dialect. This author recalls the era of “township” Igbo, an epoch all Igbo in most cities communicated in Onitsha area Igbo dialect. Newspapers weighed in on the issue. The West African Pilot took the position that Ida Ward was an outsider and couldn’t decide for the Igbo about their language.  “Dr. Ward,” the paper wrote, “is only an interested student of the Ibo language and not an Ibo, and for that reason, her book should serve rather in an advisory than authoritative capacity in all matters affecting the Ibo language” (Bersselaar, 1998, p. 131). The Daily Times wrote in support of Central Igbo as the standard dialect (Bersselaar, 1998).

Supposedly crafted to win general approval, Central Igbo did not fare very well as it was barraged with uncompromising opposition by Onitsha area Igbo speakers and some of the religious denominations. The Society for the Promotion of Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC), founded by Frederick Chidozie Ogbalu, strongly criticized Central Igbo, stating that it was “an attempt to impose the white man’s will” (Oraka, 1983, p. 41) on Igbo culture. Central Igbo, like others before it, was not generally accepted for lack of consensus.

The seemingly endemic controversies, criticisms, and conflicts associated with Igbo orthography did not vanish with Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960, when both the colonists and European missionaries departed, leaving the responsibility of forging a consensus on Igbo orthography and a compromise Igbo language to Igbo linguists, scholars, writers, teachers, etc. Be that as it may, subsequent orthographies by Igbo indigenes were guided by orthographies of both European Christian missionaries and the Onwu Orthography Committee.

Following the official Onwu orthography of 1961, SPILC set up a Standardization Committee to work on making Central Igbo more inclusive of diverse Igbo dialects. At the end of its work the Committee recommended Standard Igbo orthography, which was approved in 1973.  Standard Igbo involved not only the cross-pollination of Central Igbo with words from other Igbo dialects, but also the appropriation of foreign words dubbed loan words. Several workshops involving a myriad of Igbo stakeholders were set up with focus on the coinage of technical or specialized terms or neologisms. These new words or expressions were intended to enable the teaching, writing, and discussion of technology, science, engineering, computer science, architecture, arts, etc. in Igbo. The availability of these neologisms was to enhance Standard Igbo and raise it to the level of Igbo metalanguage—aka Okaasusu Igbo, in Igbo language. Metalanguage is a technical term denoting a body of coinages in Igbo language, in this case, needed to express contemporary concepts in various professional areas (Ajunwa, 2008).

Although Standard Igbo was lauded as a remarkable achievement, it was not without controversies and criticisms. Critics proffered the values of letting people speak and write in their different dialects. As Azuonye (2002) wrote, “Any standardization movement that does not allow for dialectal diversity is a recipe for language starvation and ultimate death” (p. 50). Azuonye (2002) further observed that “In the environment of scholarly obsession with literary standards and metalanguage instruments, Igbo is rapidly losing the idioms that are the soul of the language” (pp. 52-53). In agreeing with Chinua Achebe, Azuonye (2002) wrote that if modern Igbo writers write in their customary dialects as their oral traditional counterparts do, they can preserve the idiomatic nuances and their deep structure features of the language in a way that is glaringly impossible through the so-called literary standard Igbo. To illustrate this point, Achebe gave his speech titled Echi di Ime, Taa bu Gboo (literally, Tomorrow is Pregnant, Today is Early Enough) in Idemili dialect on September 4, 1999, at the fourth annual Odenigbo lecture in Owerri. In this speech he “passionately denounced Standard Igbo and its ancestors as colonial and conservative impositions on the rich range of Igbo dialects” (nigerianwiki.com). All this is to say that Owerri and Umuahia dialects still dominated the so-called Standard Igbo orthography. However, in his dissention Emenyonu (2001) opined that standardization is not tantamount to the demise of sectional dialects, and argued that “The spoken language need not be identified as synonymous with the written standard.” (p.17). This explains why Professor Ernest Nneji Emenyonu praised Ogbalu and described Standard Igbo as “seemingly the ultimate solution,” and implying  that it was well received “until 1978 when Chinua Achebe hurled the first ‘salvo’ challenging its linguistic legitimacy and socio-cultural authenticity” (Emenyonu, 2001, p. 3).

From the foregoing, it is saying the obvious that the development of Igbo orthography and standard dialect has been surfeit with controversies and criticisms, lending credence to its status as work in progress, or unfinished work.  In that sense, Standard Igbo is an ongoing project with room for further development and improvement as evinced with the aforementioned neologisms meant to elevate it to the level of Igbo Metalanguage. And so, Standard Igbo or Igbo Metalanguage will undergo further incremental changes until a consensus is achieved among Igbo natives with their many dialects.  This is the unfortunate process we inherited from the rivalry between the RCM and CMS especially, that factionalized Igbo natives and causing what Emenyonu (2001) called “fratricidal acrimonious controversies.”

Dr. Anthony Akubue wrote in from St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

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One comment

  1. Mrs Ngozi Oligboh

    I love this piece of writing. Extremely educative and informative. Very well articulated. Please make sure that this article is publicised well so that it’s available to many people especially the Igbos.

    I have already shared it with my children.

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