Grammar: Language and Pronunciation

Grammar: Language and Pronunciation

Igbo language is one of the many languages spoken in Nigeria. Since its independence, the main languages in Nigeria have been Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, also known by the word ‘wazobia’, i.e. ‘wa’ in Yoruba, ‘zo’ in Hausa, and ‘bia’ in Igbo, all meaning ‘to come’. Igbo is predominantly spoken in Abia, Imo, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi and parts of Rivers and Delta states. Speaking English, you can get by in most parts of Igboland, though in some very remote areas, only Igbo is understood.

Igbo language is classified as a Niger-Congo language and belongs to the Kwa sub-group of languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that some of these Kwa languages have been spoken in roughly the same locations as today for over 4,000 years. Main characteristics for the Kwa languages are the tones and vowel harmony.

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, akwa can mean either weeping (high-high tone), cloth (high-low), egg (low-high) or bridge (low-low).

Vowel harmony involves words which are either built up of a combination of syllables with an i, e, o or u vowel, or on the other hand a combination involving syllables with an a, ï, ö or ü vowel, for example:

Igbo Igbo
anü meat, animal
ezi pig
ülö house

Syllables with both combinations of vowels rarely occur in one word, unless it is a compound word or compound verb. Also, some of the suffixes do not harmonise with the verb stem.

Many words in the language are built up from smaller words, not to say for a few English words that have been copied directly. There are a wide variety of dialects, some of which resemble each other, though others might have totally different vocabularies and pronunciations, though word order and tone are consistent throughout the grammatical Igbo structure. The two main dialect zones, Onitsha and Owerri, have most words in common, but there are some differences in the vocabulary, for example:

Onitsha Owerri
kedu olee what, which
one ole how many
fa ha they
afa aha name

Igbo written language is phonetic and it uses most of the English alphabet. The consonants are similar to the use as in the English language, though there are separate combinations of consonants, i.e. gb, gh, gw, kp, kw, nw, ny and sh, which are official recognised letters. The sh combination is hardly used. In addition, there is one other character, ñ, which is a voiced nasal ‘n’. These characters and some of the various combinations are listed with their pronunciation below:

as in pronounced as meaning
gb egbe e-gbe hawk
gh agha a-ga war
gw gwa g-wa to tell
kp akpa a-pa bag
kw kwaa kwaa also, too
mm mmiri m-miri water
nn nna n-na father
ñ añülï anju-li happy, merry
nw nwa n-wa child
ny nyaa n-ya to drive

For the vowels, the difference is more distinguishing. Some of the vowels have an umlaut (this is according to the New Standard Orthography; in previous versions of Igbo orthography there was a dot below the vowel) above the letter indicating a different pronunciation:

vowel pronounced as in
a arm
e set
i see
ï pit
o go
ö author
u put (verb)
ü shot

The Igbo alphabet as found in dictionaries, is in the following order:

a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, gb, gh, gw, h, i, ï, j, k, kp, kw, l, m, n, ñ, nw, ny, o, ö, p, r, s, sh, t, u, ü, v, w, y, z

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