The Revolution of the written Igbo language

the revolution of the Igbo Language

Pre 1500, the earlier Igbos used a form of writing called nsibidi. These were symbols using formalized pictograms. this existed among the Igbos and neighbouring groups. It died out, probably because it was popular among secret societies whose members didn’t want it discussed publicly; or because of the western influence that was more concerned with a different kind of control.

The 1500s to 17000s saw the inhuman slave trade that forced Africans to North America and West Indies; and by 1766, an Isuama Igbo studies period started.

Isuama Dialect

Isuama Igbo is a type of dialect. The dialect is used as a standard dialect in Igbo studies by freed slaves of Igbo origin who settled in Sierra Leone and Fernando Po in the 1800s. These ex-slaves originated this dialect as a way to keep the Igbo language alive.

By 1777, Oldendorf produced a book that contained a few Igbo words, numerals, 13 nouns, 2 sentences. Making him the first to publish any material in Igbo. G. C. A. Oldendorf was a German missionary of the Moravian Brethren. He was at the West Indies Caribbean mission, a place where Igbo slave traders lived.

In 1828, Mrs Hannah Kilham, a Quaker mission teacher, published Specimens of African Languages Spoken in the Colony of Sierra-Leone. Which had Igbo numerals and some 50 Igbo nouns

In 1832, MacGregor Laird published the wordlist he collected inside the “Igbo homeland during the Niger Expedition” of 1832.

The advent of the modern Igbo language

In 1854, a German philologist Karl Richard Lepsius published the Standard Alphabet. The Alphabet became universal to all languages of the world and also became the first Igbo orthography. Incidentally, Jonas an Igbo slave trader at the time stayed together with Crowther in Lagos, where Jonas taught his master Lepsius, Igbo.

Lepsius standard Alphabet is now the known alphabet of the Igbo language study. Thereby, making Lepsius the founder of the Igbo language alphabet

In 1857, when the missionaries came, Crowther produced the first book in Igbo, with Jonas’s help using Lepsius standard Alphabet; the Isoama-Ibo Primer, which has 17 pages, with the Igbo alphabet, words, phrases, sentence patterns. The book contained the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and translations of the first chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.

By 1882, Crowther wrote Vocabulary of the Ibo Language, the first comprehensive dictionary in Igbo. In 1883 Crowther and Schon jointly revised it and added more words. They finally came out with Vocabulary of the Ibo Language, Part II, an English-Ibo dictionary. By this time, Igbo had had some 50 books and booklets published in it.

In 1927, IIALC published a pamphlet, Practical Orthography of African Languages. which contained 8 vowels and 28 consonants, with “gw,” “kw,” and “nw” added for Igbo sounds. The pamphlet used some international phonetic symbols. The Pamphlet became a radical change for the Lepsius orthography used by CMS for nearly seventy years; before it started a heated controversy that almost suspended Igbo studies for more than thirty years.

The Igbo Language Controversy

The great Igbo orthography controversy lasted from 1929-1961. This was caused by the fact some groups as well as the missionaries: Roman Catholic Missionaries and the Anglican Missionaries were in a heated argument on what dialect were to be used as a taught alphabet for study. The African group noted that they were other main dialects (the central Igbo) that were more acceptable than the Isuama dialect, this generated more controversy as other unions such as the Onitsha dialect, Ohuhu dialect and other dialect speakers fought for their ideal dialect to be recognized.

By June 1962, the Government established and mandated that all school principals see that all tutors and students acquainted themselves with the official orthography. All “must use it henceforth in the teaching and studying of the language”. This official orthography became legal from 1972 till date. Standard or Modern Igbo was designed to be spoken and understood by all because it was more flexible than Isuama, Union or “Central” dialect. It was a cross-pollination and diffusion of various dialects.


  • Sources: Louis Nnamdi Oraka, The Foundations of Igbo Studies (Onitsha: University Publishing Company, 1983). The Oraka book is excellent, and I strongly recommend reading the whole of it, click here to read


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