A History of the Igbo Language

compiled by Frances W. Pritchett

Sources: Louis Nnamdi Oraka, The Foundations of Igbo Studies (Onitsha: University Publishing Company, 1983), and personal research. The Oraka book is excellent, and I strongly recommend reading the whole of it (64 pages plus bibliography). See also the important text *The Official Igbo Orthography as recommended by the Onwu Committee in 1961*.






pre-1500s == A form of writing called nsibidi, using formalized pictograms, existed among the Igbo and neighboring groups. It died out, probably because it was popular among secret societies whose members did not want to discuss it publicly. In 1904, T. D. Maxwell, Acting District Commissioner in Calabar, was the first European to learn about the existence of nsibidi. Apart from nsibidi writing, the Igbo acculturated themselves effectively by informal methods (Oraka pp. 13,17).


1500s-1700s == Inhuman slave trade forced Africans to North America and West Indies.

1766-1900 ==Isuama Igbo studies period. Isuama Igbo: type of dialect used in Igbo studies as a standard dialect by emancipated slaves of Igbo origin settled in Sierra Leone and Fernando Po (now part of Equatorial Guinea) in the 1800s (Oraka p. 20).

c.1766 == G. C. A. Oldendorp, a German missionary of the Moravian Brethren, went to their West Indies Caribbean mission (Oraka p. 20).

1777 == Oldendorp produced a book, Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Bruder auf den Carabischen (History of the Evangelistic Mission of the Brothers in the Caribbean). It contained a few Igbo words, numerals, 13 nouns, 2 sentences. Thus he was the first to publish any material in Igbo (Oraka p. 21).

1789 == The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa The African (London, 1789), written by a former slave, mentioned 79 Igbo words (Oraka p. 21). A good modern edition: London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969 (2 vols.; ed. by Paul Edwards).

late 1700s-early 1800s == Igbo language study transferred from the West Indies and London to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Fernando Po, because freed slaves were settled there, the larger number in Freetown (Oraka p. 65).

1828 == Mrs. Hannah Kilham, a Quaker mission teacher, published Specimens of African Languages Spoken in the Colony of Sierra-Leone. Included: Igbo numerals and some 50 Igbo nouns (Oraka p. 22).

1831 == Mrs. Kilham started a girls' school at Charlotte village, Sierra Leone. Formal education in vernacular languages is begun (Oraka p. 22).

1837 == MacGregor Laird published the wordlist he collected inside the Igbo homeland during the Niger Expedition of 1832-34 (Oraka p. 22).

1840 == Jacob Friedrich Schon, German missionary, reported that he had collected 1600 words in the Igbo language. His report remained unpublished (Oraka p. 22).

1841 == Edwin Norris, Assistant Secretary, Royal Asiatic Society, compiled wordlists from West and Central African languages to use in Niger expeditions. He used Laird's 70 words and others from two unknown sources (a manuscript, and an Igbo living in London) (Oraka p. 22).

1841 == Another Norris expedition on the Niger. He took two missionary linguists from the staff of the CMS (Church Missionary Society) in Freetown, J. F. Schon and Samuel Ajayi Crowther (the latter a Yoruba-born ex-slave and teacher), along with twelve interpreters, including Igbo who came from emancipated slave families settled in Freetown. John Christopher Taylor and Simon Jonas were among these. No permanent mission was founded. Schon was interested in Igbo and Hausa. At a stopover in Aboh, he tried to communicate in Igbo but was disappointed that people did not understand him. He then abandoned Igbo study for some twenty years (Oraka p. 23).

1843-48 == Morrick (missionary in Fernando Po) and John Clarke, Baptist missionary, together collected vocabularies of African languages. Clarke published them in 1848, including 250 words and a few numerals written in Igbo. 24 Igbo dialects were represented, including Aro, Bonny, Ndoli and Agbaja (Oraka p. 24).

1854 == Lepsius, German philologist, produced international "Standard Alphabet" for all world languages to use (Oraka p. 25).

1854 == S. W. Koelle, German missionary, published Polyglotta Africana, with a vocabulary gathered from liberated slaves in Sierra Leone. Contained some 300 Igbo words representing five dialects: Isoama, Isiele, Agbaja, Aro, Mbofia (Oraka p. 23).

1856 == Crowther and Jonas stayed together in Lagos, where Jonas taught his master Igbo (Oraka p. 24).

1857 == Crowther produced the first book in Igbo, with Jonas's help. Isoama-Ibo Primer has 17 pages, with the Igbo alphabet, words, phrases, sentence patterns, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and translations of the first chapters of Matthew's Gospel. Thus Crowther became the first to use the Lepsius "Standard Alphabet" (Oraka p. 25).

1857 == Dr. William Baikie's ship berthed at Onitsha. On board were Crowther and his missionary team, including Igbo speakers Simon Jonas and Rev. J. C. Taylor. Crowther established a mission and left it in Taylor's hands. In less than a week Taylor had opened a school for young girls. Isoama-Ibo Primer served as their textbook (Oraka p. 25).

1861 == J. F. Schon apparently resumed Igbo studies, publishing his Oku Ibo: Grammatical Elements of the Ibo Language, written in the Isuama dialect, using Lepsius orthography (Oraka p. 26).

1870 == CMS in London used Lepsius orthography to publish An Ibo Primer, by F. W. Smart, a catechist posted in 1868 to the first outpost Christian Station in Niger Delta. Crowther, first Bishop of the Niger, posted him there with W. E. L. Carew. In the 1870s Smart and Carew each published an Igbo Primer and carried out translation works on church liturgy (Oraka pp. 25-26).

1880s == Crowther thought his Niger Mission was collapsing, since the Igbo dialect he chose was not a "living" dialect spoken by a particular group of the Igbo. The CMS realized its mistakes and decided to give up its effort to use one dialect only (Oraka p. 27).

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 (Oraka p. 27).

1882 == Britain enacted the first education ordinance to control and direct educational activities of Christian missions in what later became her West African colonies. It provided grants-in-aid conditional on the teaching of reading and writing of the English language only. This caused a stalemate in the development of many West African languages (Oraka p. 29).

1885 == RCM (Roman Catholic Mission) reached Igboland but did not seem to be interested in the study of the Igbo language (Oraka p. 28).

1891 == Bishop Crowther died (over 80), and the Isuama-Igbo period died with him. By this time two young men, the Englishman T. J. Dennis and the Sierra Leonean Henry Johnson, had joined the mission (Oraka p. 27).

1892 == Julius Spencer, an Onitsha-based Sierra Leonean missionary, published An Elementary Grammar of the Igbo Language. This was revised by Archdeacon Dennis in 1916 (Oraka p. 30).


1900-29 == Union Igbo Studies period.  Refers to Igbo version developed by CMS, aimed at binding or writing all Igbo dialects. Used terms understood in Onitsha, Owerri, Unwana, Arochukwu and Bonny dialects, keeping idioms and proverbs common to all.  Intended to be a sort of "central" or "compromise" Igbo, playing the role of a literary medium for the Igbo people.  The most prominent work published in Union Igbo was the Holy Bible (Bible Nso). The Union Igbo period saw major translation works. Missionaries collected materials on Igbo culture, including proverbs, folktales, riddles and customs (Oraka pp. 28, 29).

1900-29  == Rev. Thomas J. Dennis was the best, most prolific student of Igbo and writer of his time. He used an Igbo Language Translation Committee, including Igbo indigenes, to translate Pilgrim's Progress and some catechisms into Igbo. He also translated the Union Reader and the Union Hymnal. He died in a shipwreck in 1917 (Oraka p. 28).

1904 == A. Gabot, French missionary, produced a trilingual dictionary, English-Ibo and French Dictionary (Oraka p. 30).

1905 == Niger Mission saw a need to adopt a compromise dialect if the Bible were to be translated into a generally understood Igbo. CMS sent Dennis from Onitsha to Owerri to see about locating the headquarters of Igbo language studies there. Went with Alphonsus Onyeabo, an Onitsha-born catechist who later became a bishop. Dennis reported that Egbu, near Owerri, would be the ideal site, because the purest Igbo dialect was spoken there. CMS approved. Dennis, Onyeabo, and T. D. Anyaegbunam went to Egbu and opened a station  (Oraka p. 29).

1907 == P. C. Zappa, a French missionary, compiled a bilingual dictionary, Essai de Dictionnaire Francais-Ibo ou Francais-Ika, with the help of a catechist, Mr. Nwokeabia.  Zappa rightly saw Ika as an Igbo dialect and not as a language in itself  (Oraka p. 30).

1909 == Dennis and the others completed translation of the New Testament, the last part of their work.  Lepsius orthography was used. Dennis replaced "ds," "ts" and "s" with "j," "ch" and "sh."  Controversy ensued about the dialect used (Oraka p. 29).

1912 == Rev. G. T. Basden published Niger Ibos, a collection of Igbo customs and traditions (Oraka p. 30).

1913-1914 == Northcote W. Thomas produced Anthrological Report on the Igbo-Speaking People of Nigeria, in 6 volumes. Part II and Part V were devoted to Igbo-English (based on Onitsha and Awka dialects) and English-Igbo (with many words from the western Igbo dialect of Asaba) dictionaries, respectively (Oraka p. 30).

1916 == Archdeacon Dennis revised and enlarged Spencer's 1892 grammar (Oraka p. 30).

1920 == Phelps-Stokes Fund (American philanthropic organization interested in education of world's black people) sponsored two commissions to Africa. Subsequently (1922) it published Report on Education in Africa: Study of West, South and Equatorial Africa, recognizing the importance of the mother tongue in education of children (Oraka p. 31).

1923 == Isaac Iwekanuno wrote the first historical essay in the Igbo language, Akuko Ala Obosi, in Obosi dialect (Oraka p. 30).

1925 == The Phelps-Stokes Report prompted the British Colonial Office to set uup an Advisory Committee on Native Education in its African colonies, stressing the importance of the vernaculars (Oraka p. 31).

1926 == The Education Ordinance and Code of 1926 was enacted, requiring that only the vernacular or English be media of instruction. The Board of Education in Nigeria was reorganized to conform to the provisions of the Ordinance. (Oraka pp. 32,33).

1926 == On June 29, 1926, linguists and others from Africa and Europe met in London and launched the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (Oraka p. 32).

1927 == IIALC published a pamphlet, Practical Orthography of African Languages. 8 vowels and 28 consonants, with "gw," "kw," and "nw" added for Igbo sounds. The pamphlet used some international phonetic symbols. This was a radical change from the Lepsius orthography used by CMS for nearly seventy years. It started a heated controversy that almost suspended Igbo studies for more than thirty years (Oraka pp. 32,34).


1929 == IIALC member Prof. Westermann was invited to Nigeria to advise the Colonial Government on orthography for languages, including Igbo.  He recommended the 1927 "Africa" orthography of the IIALC.  The Board of Education agreed, and made efforts to replace the Lepsius orthography (Oraka p. 33).

1929  == The IIALC orthography became known as the "Adams-Ward" orthography because of two people in Eastern Nigeria who fought hard for its adoption:  Mr. R. F. G. Adams, an Inspector of Education, and Dr. Ida C. Ward, a research linguist of the London School of Oriental and African Studies (Oraka p. 33).

1929  == The Protestant missions (except for the Methodists), led by the CMS (Anglican) and conservatives, opposed the "new" orthography, while the government, the Roman Catholic and Methodist missions adopted it.  Thus the old came to be dubbed "CMS" orthography and the new the "Roman Catholic" orthography (Oraka p. 34).

1930 == An advisory committee that included members of the missions agreed to set up a Translation Bureau at Umuahia (Oraka p. 35).

1933 == Omenuko, by Pita Nwana, was published after winning an all-Africa literary contest in indigenous African languages organized by the International Institute of African Languages and Culture.  Nwana was the first Igbo to publish fiction in the Igbo language.  The first edition was in the Protestant Orthography, but it was soon issued in the other orthographies.  In 1963 Longman Nigeria published an "Official Orthography Edition" transliterated by J. O. Iroaganachi.  See Ernest Emenyonu's The Rise of the Igbo Novel (Ibadan:  Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 33.

1939 == A research expedition led by Dr. Ward, to examine some dialects for possible use as a widely-accepted literary medium.  She thought this might form the basis of a growing "standard" Igbo.  Her "central" Igbo covered Owerri and Umuahia area,s with special inclination toward Ohuhu dialect.  It was gradually accepted by missionaries, writers, publishers, and Cambridge University (Oraka p. 35).

1944 == Adams arranged a series of three  meetings to urge the adoption of both Ward's "central' dialect and the new orthography.  The first meeting was in Umuahia 6/13/44, attended by 24 scholars, teachers, missionaries, and government officials.  Its recommendations included acceptance of Ward's alphabet from her Ibo Dialects and the Development of a Common Language (Oraka p. 35).

1944  == Reactions:  Anglicans stuck to the Union, Catholics insisted on the Onitsha dialect, Methodists embraced central dialect (Oraka p. 36).

1944  == June 26-27, the Ass't Director of Education at Enugu convened another meeting at Onitsha, attended by 27 persons from the above groups.  All interest groups again stuck to their ideal dialects (Oraka p. 36).

1944  == Sept. 6, another meeting, at Enugu, attended by 16 persons, presided over by the Ass't Director of Education.  It resolved that the "central" dialect would be compulsory only for literature connected with government (Oraka p. 36).

1948 == The Owerri Diocese of the Roman Catholic Mission was carved out of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, giving impetus to the RCM's growing practice of issuing readers in the two dialects of Onitsha and Central.  But CMS, while accepting Central dialect which Ward saw as her "Union Igbo" under another name, resolved never to adopt the new orthography (Oraka p. 36).


1948 == Frederick Chidozie Ogbalu, mission tutor at Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, wrote a lengthy article in the Onitsha newspaper The Nigerian Spokesman, challenging the new orthography.  Principal E. D. C. Clark of the DMGS reprimanded him for its nationalist flavor, a sensitive issue.  Clark recommended that he produce books in Igbo to convince people that the old orthography was best (Oraka pp. 36, 41).

1949 == After his transfer to St. Augustine's Grammar School, Nkwerre, Ogbalu used an existing association he had formed (Society for Promoting African Heritage) as a nucleus for the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC).  One of his purposes was to fight the new orthography.  Membership was at first limited to staff and students of St. Augustine's, but through its activities it soon was making an impact on Igbo people and led to a great turning point in the development of Igbo Studies (Oraka pp. 36, 41).

1950 == SPILC was formally inaugurated by a large percentage of the few educated Igbo men meeting at Dennis Memorial Grammar School chemistry lab, Onitsha.  Officers appointed:  President, Dr. Akanu Ibiam; 1st Vice-president, Dr. S. E. Onwu; 2nd Vice-president, Bishop John Cross Anyogu; Chairman, Mr. D. C. Erinne; Secretary, F. C. Ogbalu.  The Central dialect was seen as an attempt to impose the white man's will.  A new battle line was drawn between Government, RCM, and Methodist Mission on one side and SPILC and CMS on the other.  SPILC acquired a public character (Oraka pp. 36, 37, 41, 42).

1952 == By the early fifties, many patriotic Igbo worried about unresolved orthography question.  The Government convened another conference at Aba.  Mr. R. I. Uzoma, Eastern Nigeria Minister of Education, presided.  SPILC strongly opposed the "new" orthography.  No decision was reached (Oraka p. 39).

1953 == Aug. 25: a select committee, chaired by Dr. S. E. Onwu, met at Owerri to evolve a compromise orthography.  The four phonetic symbols in the new orthography were removed, but the suggestion to replace them with diacritical marks was rejected.  All parties except SPILC were either satisfied or no longer interested in contesting the issue (Oraka p. 39).

1954 == Another committee meeting, headed by Mr. Alvan Ikoku.  SPILC presented a "modified" orthography.  It was rejected.  SPILc members walked out on the meeting (Oraka p. 39).

1955 == F. C. Ogbalu issued his "compromise" orthography.  Many other suggested orthographies were issued at different times by different groups and individuals.  Controversy lingered until 1961, when the Government set up another committee, the Onwu Orthography Committee, chaired by Dr. S. E. Onwu, Assistant Director of Medical Services for Eastern Nigeria (Oraka p. 39).

1961 == Sept. 13: the eleven members of the Onwu Committee met at the W.T.C., Enugu.  The Minister of Education warned them to reconsider use of diacritical marks, in line with SPILC recommendations.  They produced a pacifying orthography using diacritical marks to distinguish "light" and "heavy' vowels which, with other recommendations, brought to an end the 32-year-old controversy.  All parties were satisfied (Oraka pp. 34, 40). Here is that important text: *The Official Igbo Orthography as recommended by the Onwu Committee in 1961*.

1962 == In June, the Government ordered all school principals to 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" (Oraka p. 40). For more details about the membership, aims, objectives, and accomplishments of SPILC, see Oraka pp. 43 ff.

1968 == Igbo:  A Learner's Manual, and Igbo:  A Learner's Dictionary, were privately published by Prof. William E. Welmers and Beatrice F. Welmers.  Welmers, now deceased, taught at the University of California at Los Angeles.  Using what they call "compromise Igbo," and aiming to prepare U. S. Peace Corps members for work in Igboland, the authors have made a comprehensive presentation of Igbo in graded lessons, including tests, suggestions for teachers, and a great deal of accurate cultural material.  These have been the most helpful books to me in my studies.


1972 == SPILC set up its Standardization Committee.  Its main objectives were to adopt words from different dialects of Igbo, whether or not they belonged to the "Central" dialect areas, for the purpose of enriching the Igbo language.  It was also liberal with the adoption of loan words where there were no Igbo equivalents.  Thus, 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 dialects (Oraka p. 56).

1973 == August: SPILC approved the recommendation of its Standardization Committee about the spelling of Igbo words (Oraka p. 46).

1974 == By intensive obblying, SPILC brought about the establishment of the Dept. of Igbo Language and Culture at Alvan Ikoku College of Education (Oraka p. 48).

1976 == August: SPILC recommended the rearrangement of Igbo alphabet (Oraka p. 47).

1978 == The Department of Igbo Language and Culture was started, with the opening of Anambra State College of Education at Awka, with F. C. Ogbalu as Head of Department.  In September, another Department of Igbo was established at Federal Advanced Teachers College, Okene, Kwara State (Oraka p. 48).

1999 == Chinua Achebe, the most internationally famous Igbo speaker, passionately denounced Standard Igbo, in a lecture sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Owerri. Here is *his lecture on that occasion*. 

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