Nigeria: worries about Igbo language and extinction theorists

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jan 19 13:18:59 UTC 2007

Igbo language and extinction theorists

By Robert Obioha Okere

Wednesday, January 18, 2007 Opinion Index

It is worrisome that of all the Nigerian major languages, Igbo language
has been singled out as the only one under serious threat of extinction in
the foreseeable future. At least, this was the view of the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Since the
UNESCO prediction a couple of years ago, the experts have gone to the
market square to sound it loud and clear that Igbo language is on its way
to extinction except urgent steps are taken now to stem the tide of its
sweeping movement to oblivion. But do languages really die? From my little
knowledge of Linguistics and history of languages, it is a proven fact
that languages do evolve and later die. Examples of dead languages are
catholic that it is needless recounting how such deaths occur. But I
remember my Linguistic teachers saying that Latin is a dead language even
though it is still widely used by the Catholic Church in its liturgical
services. It is no longer the language of state policy and imperial power
as at when the Roman Empire was on its high glory.

Of the over 400 or more Nigerian tongues otherwise called languages only
about seven or eight can be said to be effectively spoken and written. At
best only the major three Nigerian languages of Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa can
be said to have attained high level standardisation and can be studied in
the universities. The rest sooner or later might give way to other
languages that are in use. In the Nigerian Linguistic landscape, Igbo is
generally and widely spoken in the eastern part of the country and some
parts of former Midwest now Delta State, Yoruba is widely spoken in the
western Nigeria and some parts of Kogi and Kwara states while Hausa is
predominantly the general language of the entire northern Nigerian.

In fact, of all the three major Nigerian languages, Hausa is the most
spoken in Nigeria and some countries in the West African sub-region. It is
closely followed by Yoruba and Igbo. In terms of language engineering and
standardisation, Hausa has been the most beneficiary. Its use is beyond
the frontiers of Nigeria as a language of commerce, media and education.
The world acclaimed radio stations; the VOA and BBC have both Hausa
services. While Yoruba and Igbo languages are yet to attain this global
attention, Yoruba has some advantages over the Igbo in terms of
standardisation and widespread of usage. There is no doubt that all
Nigerian languages face extinction if nothing is done to improve their
usage and getting the young ones really interested in the study of these
languages. Any language that does not boast of new speakers in the form of
young ones is a sure candidate for extinction.

The views of the linguistic experts on the possible demise of the Igbo
language should worry every Igbo person. The death of any language goes
with a lot of loss to humanity in terms of cultural, linguistic, social
and moral values imbedded in the language. The offsprings of the black
slaves today lament the loss of their African heritage especially the
language and culture of their fore parents. For them, they knew that they
came from Africa but cannot trace effectively the African nationalities
they came from. They have lost their languages, their indigenous names and
everything about their Africanness except their colour, mood, speech
mannerisms, physique, music and other characteristics that make them
African. It is not far fetched to see the reasons why Igbo language is
under threat of natural death. My earlier interviews and interactions with
Igbo language teachers and professors in the universities of Lagos and
Nsukka confirmed the fear of the experts.

According to them, new students are no longer eager to take up Igbo
language studies except it is the last resort or except it is called
Linguistics and Igbo or whatever name that will link it with English word.
The teachers therefore are having students who are not interested in the
study of the language itself. Igbo language speakers are not helping
matters in the funny manner they speak the language with a lot of
code-mixing and code-switching which has given birth to what is generally
called Engligbosome admixture of Igbo and English. This is steadily
creeping into Yoruba and Hausa and indeed other Nigerian languages. If
Igbo language dies tomorrow, blame it first on the attitude of the Igbos
to their language and the elevation of English as number one language.
Many Igbos by their attitude are everyday contributing towards the quick
demise of the language. They do not allow their children to speak Igbo
language. Rather they encourage their wards to speak English first and
then learn Igbo later. They do not see the need to speak Igbo first before
any other language. To them, there is nothing to gain in terms of prestige
or job in speaking Igbo.

The language is not been encouraged by the media. Many Igbo news print
media are dead. There are no Igbo medium publication still in existence
except the bi-monthly publication in Igbo of Awake, a magazine of the
Jehovah Witnesses published in the USA. News casting in Igbo language by
the local radio stations and Televisions are no longer a delight to watch
because the Igbo they dish out is more confusing to the listeners who
rather prefer watching the same news in English in order to have a fuller
grasp of the message. The gains made by the Igbo language during Biafra
and immediately after have been eroded by the I dont care attitude of the
users and speakers of the language. Those who write in the language are no
longer turning out masterpiece like the distinguished late Igbo novelist,
Tony Ubesie or the erudite and foremost Igbo linguist, the late F.C

The worst thing that has befallen Igbo language is that the written form
of the language does not quite reflect the spoken Igbo. And the reason for
this linguistic aberration lies in adopting the so-called central Igbo
dialect, which is an amorphous creation in language engineering, which is
highly artificial in the evolvement of characteristics that are inherent
in natural languages.  The war over which dialect to use as official Igbo
between the Onitsha Igbo and the Owerri Igbo did not help matters in the
early development of the language. The insistence of teachers of the
language on the choice of an arbitrary central Igbo dialect is the bane of
Igbo studies.

Like Prof. Chinua Achebes stand on this issue, which I highly support, is
to allow every user of the language use or write it in his dialect for a
richer harvest of the language because besides the general identified two
major dialects, there are still other variants of the Igbo language among
all the speakers of the language that are worthy of appreciation. This is
noticeable during interactions, in traditional songs and music to the
extent that the so-called general Igbo is lost. The dialect division in
the use of the language can be gleaned upon in the use of the varieties of
the names of people and places as well as how people name other material
things like money, wealth, woman etc. Another serious bane of Igbo studies
is that Igbo is taught with English or through the medium of English in
universities. The bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees
researches/thesis in Igbo studies are written in English language. This is
a great injustice to the Igbo language. Another crime of these Igbo
linguists is that they carry over linguistic patterns of English and
translate them wholesale into Igbo grammar.

But we know that there are linguistic similarities, we also know that of a
lot more differ in languages than are similar. This is more poignant in
the case of Igbo, a tonal language and English, which is a non-tonal but
stress-timed language. Most Igbos conduct their village meetings and other
discourse in English to the detriment of the Igbo language. Primary and
secondary schools in Igbo land give few hours to the study of Igbo
language and allot more hours to the teaching of English language. More
premium is placed on English than Igbo language. The home videos that
debuted in Igbo language years ago no longer do that now. The government
of Igbo speaking states are the worst culprit as every state activity is
conducted in English to the utter neglect of Igbo. There is urgent need to
ensure that Igbo language does not die for it is our only identity and
cultural heritage in the world that we should bequeath upcoming
generations. Spirited effort should be geared towards the propagation and
use of Igbo language in Igbo speaking states. Those involved in language
planning and engineering should take note of the varieties of Igbo
language and tap on this resource to further develop the language.

Those writing Igbo should write it the way the people their writing is
portraying speak the language. Effort should be made to further
standardise and simplify Igbo so that it will attract young speakers. All
lovers of the Igbo language and identity should not treat with levity the
experts warning on the near death of the language. The time to act is now
for tomorrow may be too late.


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