Studying a language is not always about studying syntax, grammar or linguistics. It is also about studying people, and the ebbs and flows of their cultural lives. Languages are as alive as the people who carry them. Like people, languages are born, grow, adapt and eventually die. Whether written, spoken, drawn, or signed, language gives us access to learn about societies that hold them.
You can not have a word for something you have never experienced or describe something that does not exist. Or does not exist for you. The words we use and the languages that they are connected to are the storage house for the experiences, knowledge and value systems of a people. Suppose words begin to disappear or drop out of use, or change. In that case, it often means the reason we say those words no longer happen to us, or our interpretation of an event that causes that word to be used has changed.
The birth of language like creole, or patois, often means the emergence of a people, and a way of life new to the world. The death of a language can signal that the way of lives that sustained people for hundreds or thousands of years has ended or evolved.
What does it mean to revive Igbo; a language on the verge of extinction, and can saving a language also mean saving a people? This is the question we were investigating when we spoke to Amarachi Attamah, Dr Oluchi Ibe, Ịfụnanya Nwanonyiri, Emeka Ibe, Maazi Ogbonaya, Yvonne Mbanaefo, and we gleaned from the work of Lotanna Igwe-Odunze.
Nkụ dị na mba, na-eghere mba nri. Ịfụnanya Nwanonyiri is a poet, polyglot, performer, and the founder of Oji Abiala/ The Igbo podcast. Some parts of her only come alive when invoked in Igbo. “There is something distinct about how your mother or your grandmother comforts or encourages you in Igbo. When they say Ndo, it just pulls on your heartstrings.” Learning Igbo has been a way of connecting her to the parts of her family’s experience that happened in Igbo. “There have been stories that I have now really been able to really sit, and talk to my dad about. Part of it is because I can utilize a language that speaks to his most inner parts.”
For Amarachi Attamah, the founder of Nwayidrioma TV and Oja cultural development initiative, and Maazi Ogbonnaya a translator, linguist, and the founder of Ikenga: Igbo Historical Village, Igbo language is deeply spiritual. For Amarachi, “Igbo is the language of our ritual, it is the language of breaking cola nut, the language of invocation. [ ] When you begin to open the language and dissect it, you will appreciate the spirituality and the energy in it. It has the ability to capture a stone heart.” Maazi describes the language as “a way to connect to something unspoken that is deep within us.”
Ịfụnanya, in the pilot episode of the Igbo Podcast, recites “learning Igbo is not just about learning a language, but it’s about learning how to think a thought differently.” For Igbo people that have been influenced by non-Igbo knowledge systems, reclaiming the Igbo language provides tools to interpret their experiences in the world through an additional lens.
Have you ever felt down, or blue, or off? How can you feel a direction, a colour or an adjective? You can’t. What direction is progress? Forward? Which way is good, up – heaven, 1st position, penthouse- and bad is down. That is a shorthand that we use in the English language. It may seem harmless and irrelevant, but this kind of shorthand found in language has real consequences to the way we think about the world. Most languages have this kind of structure, they are called language metaphors.
For example, if you speak a language that characterizes white as good, and black as bad, you may live all your life being afraid of the dark. But suppose you learn a language that does not have this language metaphor. In that case, you have an additional way of seeing the world, that maybe even permit you to love the darkness and discover everything it has to offer. You may find that this fear of black things is not universal, but bound to a specific cultural reality, if you have only one language, you have only one way of thinking about black things. The language is not the cause of the meaning, but it facilitates it.
“It is a really beautiful thing as an Igbo person, to learn the Igbo language because it helps you connect with your people’s thoughts and way of thinking.” Ifunnanya continues “when you tell someone you love them in Ìgbò, it translates to Afurum gi na anya. What this tells you about the Igbo Psyche is that we believed that despite where you were from, and how you were raised, it is still possible to come together and see each other eye-to-eye.” For Ịfụnanya, it is crucial to understand how language connects to and represents the thought systems of a people.
Another expression for love in Igbo is Obim. Owu obi m – she/he is my heart. The word for greed is Anyaukwu – a person with a big eye, a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person is onwu otele (ass hole). Igbo is rich with unique combinations of metaphors and language systems. Exploring these patterns in a language is critical to understanding the thought systems embedded in the Igbo language and the Igbo mind.
When words disappear, the ideas that are represented by those words become harder to hold on to. Take Ofo na Ogu for example – The Igbo system of cosmic justice and sacred authority. Classical Igbo recognized Ọfọ na Ogu as justice beyond any human judgment. For the wrongfully accused this is the highest court of appeal. For anyone who wants to prove their innocence “Nya ga ju Ọfọ, nag a juo ogu” and the ultimate punishment will befall the one who knowing wrongfully accused another of committing a crime. If all the justice system fails someone who truly believes they are innocent, Ogu will not. If there is no word for Ogu or Ọfọ, the philosophy of Ogu is more difficult to hold onto, and its philosophy as a legitimate system of justice erodes.
All language gives you some insight into the psyche of how a group of people think. For the Igbo , it is enriching to understand how their ancestors processed the world around them and create value systems. It brings more wealth into how they experience the world. It opens up the world through different lenses, sets the stage to ask more questions, and to think more thoroughly about the world, our experience of it, and our place in it. Language is the firewood that cooks a community’s food.
E nwebeghị ihe mebiri emebi, n’afọ nama. As you travel across Ìgbò Land From Enugu, Anambra, Imo, Onitsha, and diasporas in Kano, Lagos, Texas, Chengdu and others, you observe shifts in tone, texture, pronunciation and variations in the language. In Ìgbò communities on the border of Igbo lands like Arochukwu, Izzi and Ezza, or Ika Ìgbò in the delta region, dialects blossom more fully. Even amongst those who may no longer consider themselves ethnically or culturally Igbo , like the Idoma of Benue, or those trafficked to Jamaica, Cuba, or Haiti, the architecture of Igbo remains in their languages.
You will also find fragments of the Igbo language and its dialects spoken on the Borders of Enugu and Kogi, In Edo, and Delta. Many of these communities were systematically redrawn on maps and local government areas that were previously in eastern Nigeria, where now dissociated with Igbo land. Some of these communities, as a way to stay connected to Igbo land, preserved their language, and others, as a tool for survival during the civil war dissociated from the Igbo , fully embraced their dialects, and with mixtures from neighboring communities, created new languages. Across Igbo land, there are dialects of the Igbo language that could be mutually unintelligible to prolific Igbo speakers.
Yvonne Mbaneafeo, a linguist and digital storyteller highlights “Igbo belongs to the Kwa language family, so it’s mainly governed by tone.” A slight shift in tone can create a whole new meaning of an Igbo sentence.
Okuko na ákwá ákwá na elu àkwà ana ákwàkwà – A cock is crowing on a bed that is being sown.
Okuko na ákwá na ákwàkwà na elu na àkwà – A cock and tears are sewing on a cloth.
Okuko na àkwá na ebé ákwá na elu ákwà ana ákwàkwà – A cock and an egg are crying on a cloth that is being sown.
Discovering Ìgbò dialects can be an adventure. Amarachi recounts her experience meeting diverse Ìgbò speakers in university. “(When I moved from the North to Enugu) I started paying attention to the style and the tonality of different Igbo dialects. I was saying ri,ri,ri. But realized this was not how other Igbo’s spoke. It was so fascinating!”
Oruka, in The History of The Igbo Language, lays out timelines of critical political and cultural milestones that have come to shape the modern Igbo language- its orthography, dialects, and syntax. It details the role of Igbo Linguists, thinkers, cultural workers, the Anglican and Catholic churches, and colonial governors in managing, regulating and transforming the Igbo language. Dialects over the centuries have been used by institutions to assert control and to facilitate the distribution of religious and political ideas. The first Catholic Church in Igbo land was set up in Onitsha. Onitsha Igbo would be used to translate much of the Catholic teachings to Igbo.
Dr Oluchi Ibe recounts his catechism.
“eyee fa dị person atọ dị na chukwu – Yes, there are three persons in one God.” Ọnịcha Igbo was the dialect of his catechism. But he is from Obowo, in Imo state. “Iyoh ha di person ato di na Chukwu..” is the way a man from Obowo should say it. His parents, alongside other Igbo Catholics, will continue to protest the standard Onitsha dialect, forcing the Igbo catholic church to localize their catechisms to the regions.
Between 1929-1961, exhibitions were hosted by colonial governors to find a “medium Igbo.” Ultimately the goal of these was to create a language of ease a way to “modernize” the Igbo language, and ensure a consistent literary approach. It was a tool to further colonial exploration. Although efforts were made in the latter part of the century to add more words in local dialects, its merging with non-Igbo syntax, and its transformation through colonial institutions had already happened. Igbo would be changed forever.
The revised language was written with the Latin script, used in textbooks and formal settings and used to facilitate education, politics and commerce. The result of this would be Igbo Izugbe, or union Igbo . This is the “central” Igbo Maazi Ogbonnaya uses while he is translating for the BBC, or Yvonne Mbanaefo uses for her children books and TED translations. Yvonne Mbanefo is a linguistic and technologist. She says “As an  author, I find that a lot is lost through translation because a lot of the sense is lost when the language is translated into English.”
The problem with translation is not just from Igbo to non-Igbo, but from one version of Igbo to another. A centralized Igbo, although it may be useful in some regard, is restrictive in others. It does not allow space for local Igbo expressions, it seeks to force one Igbo language out of many. It is primarily driven by the arbitrary political and nationalistic notion of unity and identity. It also exaggerates the problem of diversity. If one can learn multiple languages, why can one not merely learn multiple dialects of the same language?
The Igbo language did not evolve or modernize with Igbo values. Modernizations did not embrace autonomy of the Igbo people and forced a union out of a profoundly diverse people. How would classical Igbo have evolved their language without a colonial straitjacket? We will never know. But the problem may not just be with the spoken, but also the written language. Igbo are forcing their language to exist on a syntax that although was amended by them, it was not designed by them.
At Ndebe.org Lotanna Igwe-Odunze writes “Our language will never truly flourish until we write and read widely in Ìgbò”. In 2009 she created the Ńdébé writing script. Ńdébé is a modern writing system for the Igbo language. The Ńdébé style seeks to create a modern functional script for the Igbo language. According to Ndebe.org, one of the challenges with the Igbo language is how it maps on the Latin syntax. “The Latin alphabet makes tone marking a chore, resulting in most people omitting it in their writing.” For a language as tonal as Igbo , this creates and institutionalizes wrong words, and corrupts the language she claims.
Igbo is a diverse language, and Igbos are enormously diverse people. To understand the strength of the Igbo language, you also have to understand the power of the Igbo dialects and account for the institutions that shaped the modern Igbo language. It is also important to note that even the most classical Igbo speaker does not speak “pure Igbo.” Pure Igbo does not exist. Oluchi Ibe says, “if my grandfather were to come back today, he would not even understand the Igbo we are speaking.” Language-like people is evolving, and who can honestly know what parts of evolution are useful and what parts are not.
From the emerging linguistic tradition of Ńdébé, to the drawings of Nsibidi, across all local and international dialects and linguistic traditions, even the ones that were influenced through colonial suppression, the diversity of the Ìgbò language can not be seen as pariah to be managed, but an ecosystem to be cultivated. There is nothing in the belly of a cow that is not useful.
Okuko na avoputa mma ana eji egbu ya. Maazi Ogbonnaya was a child prodigy. Before he began elementary school, he could read and write fluently in Igbo. In primary school, he would go on to be a teacher to his peers, and in secondary school was regularly called on to teach Igbo to the whole school. “I used to wear a red cap, with my walking stick and beads to school as an Igwe!” Maazi Ogbonanya would go on to write dozens of books in the Ìgbò language including textbooks used by him and his peers throughout university. “[When I decided to study Igbo linguistics in university] my people were not happy; they said I was too intelligent to study Igbo.” When registering for his program of choice, his proctor protested asking him “Are you sure you know what you are doing? Did you inform your parents before putting this course, you want to go to university to study Igbo? I told him yes.”
Amarchi highlights the discrimination she faced “People called me village girl, Mbaeke, Ọgbanje, all sorts of names. I tried to join a few Igbo organizations, people said that we have tried this before, and I would make nothing out of it. Sometimes I got home and cried myself to sleep. Girls would all laugh at me and call me a village girl.”
Some are convinced that to be modern means to be non-Igbo and to actively reject everything that makes you so. They believe Igbo lost to non-Igbos in the colonial period. Igbo lost to Nigerians during the civil war, and what is “this whole culture thing” for when it has no value in the “outside world” often referring to America and the United Kingdom, and sometimes now China. There are others who appreciate their tradition, but out of an abundance of caution, and for the illusion of financial security, make their children get an education will provide “opportunities.”
Amarachi says “I would greet a [Igbo child, in Igbo land] child Kae ke me, and the child would be looking at me,  parents were proud that their child can not understand their language.” Emeka Ibe describes himself as a man rooted in multiple cultural spaces. An entrepreneur, businessman, and my father he said, “when you go to shops in the North owned by Igbo , they all speak Igbo to each other, it is how they know who is one of them. International Igbo businessmen speak Igbo to each other.” For business people, the language is used less like a language, and more like a code to share covert communication, or at least, speak freely, in what otherwise can be a hostile environment. Oluchi Ibe adds “in the North, if two Igbo people are working in the same office, they dare not speak Igbo to each other, they would be fired.”
Emeka Ibe continues, “My daughter had asked that I speak Igbo to her going forward. Still, it is quite difficult, because all my life I have spoken to her in English. When my brain sees her, it automatically responds to her in English.” He continues “even in the village, Igbo land, there were as many masses in a month conducted in Latin as there were in Igbo.  Children abroad want to learn to speak Igbo , children here want to speak English, it is like everything is upside down.”
Much has been written about how slave trade, colonization and the civil war impacted Igbo people. But maybe not much has been understood, definitely not by myself, and those of my generation to the extent, and the psychological effect it had on people across generations. Oluchi Ibe, who wrote a piece of Fiction about the Biafra civil war described it as “total warfare designed to destroy the Igbo spirit.” For those who survived the war, not speaking Igbo was a way of survival. It was a way of making non-Igbo feel less threatened. This happened long enough, and enough people just stopped speaking it and didn’t even remember why they stopped.
When describing how she overcame the challenges and gender discrimination she faced, Amarachi said, “They didn’t know I was raised by a mother who was so powerful, and when you say something is not possible, that is the one she liked doing. I was raised by a mother who believed in the positive outcomes of things.” Amarachi found allies with members of the Nigerian author’s association. Many of them are non-Igbo. This supported her through the creation of the Oja cultural festival to empower children to express their Igbo cultural talents. But she has to raise money from donations. It did not matter that Maazi Ogbonnaya was prolific and a prodigy. There were numerous doors slammed, rejections, and no capital available to produce material on the scale. But there was a brilliant community of older Igbo scholars who would make introductions on his behalf. He would go on to be supported by Chief Chinedu Ofomata, Prof Emenanjo and others to continue to pursue the development of the Igbo language.
Ndị Igbo na-asị na ọkụkọ na-avọpụta mma a na-eji egbu ya.The cock scratches out from a hiding place the knife with which it will eventually be killed. I’ve never understood this proverb. Is it a warning for the cock or and admonition. Does the cock display foolishness, or do its instincts protect it ? I think it all depends on what the cock does next.
For the rejuvenation of the Igbo language to be sustained, it has to be systemic and supported by institutions. The Igbo political class have not proven capable of creating meaningful institutions. But the Igbo have never waited for kings to act. From the traditional and powerful Ummuada to the boisterous debates of the Odenigbo lectures, the SOAS Igbo conferences to the hundreds of small Igbo community centres and associations in the diaspora and their Twitter and Instagram pages, to the transnational Ohaneze, Igbo can lead themselves if they chose to. Like the cock, it is what they decide to do next, that matters the most.
Mgbe onye tetara ụra bụ ụtụtụ ya. Ndi Igbo are not the first to go through this language challenge, and they will not be the last. Children in Senegal are currently being provided education in one of the three national languages – Wolof, Pulaar or Serer, and these efforts are being supported by the Senegalese government. To preserve and promote the Arabic language, Quran international recitation awards happen annually, and are significant events of pride – Nigerians regularly compete and win at these international festivals. Jewish scholars lead the rebirth of Hebrew and the creation of Yiddish through government support. In Quebec, a majority French-speaking province of Canada, the French language is protected and promoted, and across Canada opportunities for French immersion is regularly available.
Language Policy is not just cultural policy, it is economic policy. A directive that all commercial advertising in Igbo land is translated in Igbo will create hundreds of jobs. A notice that any Igbo child should be able to receive educational materials in all subjects in Igbo will create a vibrant marketplace and value chain for educational materials. Funding for competition, like the Ojja cultural festival, most notably would lead to children who are confident in themselves. And what is better economic policy than developing a confident and self-actualized child?
Government action tends to be a lagging actor for societal progress – if progress is ever possible. Igbo community centres around the world are taking this upon themselves and providing Igbo language education to their children. They must use educational materials that already exist. A repository for Igbo language resources be created and promoted. The creators of those resources are adequately compensated, and the value chain for education materials be produced locally.
Being Igbo is not just who we are, it is what we have. It is a gift we have received. And choosing how we go forward is not a question of choosing between the Igbo and Beke, but it is using the benefits derived from both. Investment in the Igbo language, as Iffunaya had argued, provides people with multiple tools to see and experience the world. You must not “erase” yourself to become more global or modern, but embrace Igbo as your competitive advantage in a connected world. Amarachi argues “You are first educated in your own values before you are exposed to foreign values. Reconnecting to the art, and the spirit through the language is essential.”
For Amarachi, resorting the Igbo language is the first step in restoring Omenneala ndi Ìgbò. It is about making peace with ala Ndi Igbo and restoring the confidence, and the courage Igbo people have in themselves. For Ifunanya and many Igbo learners in the diaspora, Igbo is a tool to facilitate a long-awaited homegoing. It may not be a return to the land, but a way to connect to the most intimate thoughts of parents, grandparents, elders and loved ones who sit beside them but feel worlds apart. It is learning new ways of seeing, speaking and experiencing the world. Maazi Ogbnonaya is noticing a culture shift. He says “people are now developing an incentive to think home.”
Ammarachi sees more young girls studying Ìgbò language in university. She also sees them being fashionable and trendy and incorporating Ìgbò aesthetics into their lifestyle and wear. “I am proud we continued with the program, people and young children are developing their Ìgbò cultural talents.” She says when she is called Village girl, she smiles, and now takes it a compliment. “That is how I introduce myself these days, I say I am a village girl.” Maazi Ogbannaya wants all Igbo in the diaspora, and Ìgbò learners, to be proud of where they are from and to know “there Is a road here.”
Oluchi Ibe “language is like the body, if you hit it violently, it will contract, but it will always come back. Maybe not in its original form, but in a version of it.” He is not as pessimistic as most. He believes there are now more Igbo speaking the language than ever before in their history. New things are happening to the Igbo language, and we should let them happen. But he believes we can also help them happen as well. The language has spread to more places in the world. First through the Atlantic human trafficking, and then through migration.
Studying a language is not always about studying syntax, grammar or linguistics. It is also about studying people, and the ebbs and flows of their cultural lives. It is about studying their institutions, their conflicts (with others, and with themselves), it’s about learning what is meaningful to them, and exploring what they consider valuable, and worth preserving.
Who knows what the loss or the rise of a language even means. How can you know what something means when you live in that moment. Ultimately, don’t we see what we want to see? I do know this, as long as there are people like Lottana, Yvonne, Oluchi, Emeka, Maazi, Ifunanya, and other young people who remain unsullied, and unbowed, Igbo will not die because they are alive. When a person wakes up, that is their morning.
This piece is dedicated to Sonia, and Loretta.
As I conclude this piece and hand it in, protests are happening in Nigeria. Young people are out on the streets, demanding their lives back. You need to have a life before you have a language. Kwupu okwu!
On the early morning of Monday the 19th October 2020, my family was awaken by news that our son had died. He was three years old, and had a smile that pleased God. His death was as a result of medical negligence and malpractice. There is no stronger pain a parent can hold in their body than the death of a child. The thought of his parents are in my every breath. I know it is not just our family feeling this pain. This is not a unique story to us. He was an Igbo boy, who died because of the negligence of an Igbo doctor, in Igbo land. We are killing ourselves. We are killing our children.
Ifunaya, Amarachi, Lottana, Yvonne, Ogbanyana are four pioneers who inherited from a long line of elders and Igbo language practitioners. To these elders, we are eternally grateful.
This essay was created with the in-depth mentorship and coaching of my Dr Oluchi Gerald Ibe, and the constant encouragement of my father, Emeka Ibe. All limitations are my own, all praises are reserved for them.
I had serious doubts about publishing it. For one, I conducted all my interviews in English and felt like a hypocrite for most of it. I am currently enrolled in Yvonne Mbanefo’s Learn Igbo Now program. I hope my enthusiasm for the language will soon be met with fluency in it.