The Ibo language, also spelled Igbo, is one of the more prominent languages in modern-day Nigeria.
It has gained global recognition thanks to a number of well-known Ibo writers, notably the acclaimed novelist Chinua Achebe. The depiction of pre-colonial Ibo life recounted in Achebe’s renowned book “Things Fall Apart” offers an intriguing look at the traditional life of the Ibo people and a compelling description of the effects of colonialism on traditional Ibo life.
The real-life history of the Ibo people upon which Achebe based his book is equally interesting, especially when studied alongside the development of the Ibo language.
Classification and Early History of the Ibo Language
The Ibo language is classified as a member of the Benue-Congo subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family.
The Ibo language is the native tongue of the Ibo people who reside primarily in southeastern Nigeria. Concrete evidence of a sophisticated Ibo society in southeastern Nigeria can be traced as far back as the early 9th century, thanks to the remains found at the archaeological site of Igbo Ukwu. Evidence from Igbo Ukwu reveals that early Ibo ancestors had already developed specialized tools, means of artistic production, and a well-organized society by the 9th century.
Traditional Ibo society was centered on small communities and for the most part was ruled by an assembly of common citizens, rather than a single king or priest-king. This method of pre-colonial government was rare in Western African ethnic communities.
Development of the Written Ibo Language
Initially the Ibo made use of pictographs when transcribing their native tongue, utilizing a formalized system of pictographs developed by the neighboring Ekoi people. Despite their common use among the Ibo and a number of other ethnic groups, these pictographs largely died out of use by the 1500s. Today, the Ibo language is most commonly written using a Latin-language alphabet that was introduced during the time of British colonialism.
Creation of a Unified Ibo Identity
Prior to the arrival of European colonials in the area of present-day Nigeria, the Ibo lived in independent communities and did not lay a large emphasis on a broadly shared Ibo identity. This lack of ethnic unity underwent a major change during the colonial period.
Under British colonial rule, differences among the Ibo themselves were gradually lessened while differences between the Ibo and other Nigerian ethnic groups became clearer. Thanks to this colonial influence and the Ibo’s increased contact with other ethnic groups, the Ibo had developed a strong sense of ethnic identity and community by the mid-1900s.
Civil War in Post-Independence Nigeria
This newly-found sense of a unified Igbo identity would prove problematic for the country of Nigeria after independence. In the mid-1960s, the Ibo began to make demands for secession, hoping to separate three southeastern provinces of Nigeria (all predominantly Ibo) from the rest of the country.
The escalating conflict peaked in July 1967 when the three southeastern Nigerian provinces self-proclaimed independence from Nigeria under the name of the Republic of Biafra. The drastic action was seen as an act of direct rebellion by the Nigerian government and marked the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War, also referred to as the Biafran War.
The Nigerian Civil War marked a period of great destruction and difficulty for the Ibo people. The Organization of African Unity’s attempts to establish peace failed repeatedly. Biafra finally fell in late December 1969. By this point, the Biafran army was running out of ammunition, and the people of the area were starving. Biafra formally surrendered on January 15, 1970, officially marking the end of the war. Shortly after, the states of the former Biafran were reintegrated into Nigeria.
Ibo Language in Nigeria Today
The Ibo language is found primarily in Nigeria, specifically in the southeastern part of the country, where an estimated 20 million people speak it. The Ibo people are one of the three major ethnic groups found in Nigeria, which is home to an estimated 250 ethnic groups in total. The other two major ethnic groups in addition to Ibo are the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani.
These groups are divided largely along territorial lines, with many groups claiming certain areas due to ancestral ties and inheritance claims. Each group speaks its own language and has its own traditions. Aside from Igbo, the major languages of Nigeria include Hausa, Yoruba, Fula and English Creole. Although Hausa is the most widely-spoken language in Nigeria (and briefly served as an official language in some of the country’s northern states) Nigeria’s official national language is English.
Modern Ibo Language and Dialects
A variety of dialects exist within the Ibo language. The Ibo people themselves may be divided into several major cultural groups, each with their own unique dialect of the Ibo language: the northern or Onitsha; the northeastern or Abakaliki; the western or Ika; the eastern or Cross River; and the southern or Owerri.
Due to the wide variety of dialects within the Ibo language, standardization of the Ibo language proved to be an extremely difficult task. A standardized version of the Ibo language was not developed until the 20th century.
Ibo Language Literature
The Ibo language is well-known for its literary contributions thanks to the enormous success of Ibo writers such as Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. Chinua Achebe gained global recognition and praise for his novel “Things Fall Apart,” which portrayed the pre-colonial Ibo life as well as the consequences of colonial arrival for the Ibo people.
The depiction of traditional Ibo life given in “Things Fall Apart” is for the most part accurate: the Ibo are traditionally subsistence farmers who cultivated crops such as yams, maize, cassava and beans. In his book, Achebe also examines the consequences of the colonial powers’ introduction of Christianity to the Ibo people. Although the Ibo were traditionally polytheistic, believing in a variety of gods including a creator god and an earth goddess, many modern Ibo have converted to Christianity.
Ibo Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Igbo
Language Family: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Igboid, Igbo
Spoken by Approximately 18,000,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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