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Igbo Culture | Igbo Language

Igbo Grammar

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Grammar: Language and Pronunciation

Igbo language is one of the many languages spoken in Nigeria. Since its independence, the main languages in Nigeria have been Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, also known by the word ‘wazobia’, i.e. ‘wa’ in Yoruba, ‘zo’ in Hausa, and ‘bia’ in Igbo, all meaning ‘to come’. Igbo is predominantly spoken in Abia, Imo, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi and parts of Rivers and Delta states. Speaking English, you can get by in most parts of Igboland, though in some very remote areas, only Igbo is understood.

Igbo language is classified as a Niger-Congo language and belongs to the Kwa sub-group of languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that some of these Kwa languages have been spoken in roughly the same locations as today for over 4,000 years. Main characteristics for the Kwa languages are the tones and vowel harmony.

Tones (also called contrastive pitch) are used to differentiate words that are written identically. For example, the same word in Igbo may have four different meanings depending on its pitch. In tone languages, pitch is a property of words, but what is important is not absolute pitch but relative pitch. Igbo language makes use of two main tones: the high tone (such as u as in “rule”) is pronounced with the tongue bent towards the roof of the mouth. The low tone (such as a in “father”) is produced with the tongue flat and low in the mouth and with the mouth a bit wider than for high tones. Considering the high and low tones, akwa can mean either weeping (high-high tone), cloth (high-low), egg (low-high) or bridge (low-low).

Vowel harmony involves words which are either built up of a combination of syllables with an i, e, o or u vowel, or on the other hand a combination involving syllables with an a, ï, ö or ü vowel, for example:

IgboIgbo
anümeat, animal
ezipig
ülöhouse

Syllables with both combinations of vowels rarely occur in one word, unless it is a compound word or compound verb. Also, some of the suffixes do not harmonise with the verb stem.

Igbo vowel harmony
Vowel Harmony


Many words in the language are built up from smaller words, not to say for a few English words that have been copied directly. There are a wide variety of dialects, some of which resemble each other, though others might have totally different vocabularies and pronunciations, though word order and tone are consistent throughout the grammatical Igbo structure. The two main dialect zones, Onitsha and Owerri, have most words in common, but there are some differences in the vocabulary, for example:

OnitshaOwerri
keduoleewhat, which
oneolehow many
fahathey
afaahaname

Igbo written language is phonetic and it uses most of the English alphabet. The consonants are similar to the use as in the English language, though there are separate combinations of consonants, i.e. gb, gh, gw, kp, kw, nw, ny and sh, which are official recognised letters. The sh combination is hardly used. In addition, there is one other character, ñ, which is a voiced nasal ‘n’. These characters and some of the various combinations are listed with their pronunciation below:

 as inpronounced asmeaning
gbegbee-gbehawk
ghaghaa-gawar
gwgwag-wato tell
kpakpaa-pabag
kwkwaakwaaalso, too
mmmmirim-miriwater
nnnnan-nafather
ñañülïanju-lihappy, merry
nwnwan-wachild
nynyaan-yato drive

For the vowels, the difference is more distinguishing. Some of the vowels have an umlaut (this is according to the New Standard Orthography; in previous versions of Igbo orthography there was a dot below the vowel) above the letter indicating a different pronunciation:

vowelpronounced as in
aarm
eset
isee
ïpit
ogo
öauthor
uput (verb)
üshot

The Igbo alphabet as found in dictionaries, is in the following order:

a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, gb, gh, gw, h, i, ï, j, k, kp, kw, l, m, n, ñ, nw, ny, o, ö, p, r, s, sh, t, u, ü, v, w, y, z

Grammar: Personal Pronouns

SeparableInseparable
mü, mI, me, my(verb) + mI
you , youri, ïyou
yahe, his, him, she, her, it, itso, öhe/she/it
anyïwe, us, our 
unuyou, your (pl.) 
hathey, them, their 

The pronouns in Igbo language have two forms: separable and inseparable. The inseparable forms only apply to the singular pronouns and are found as the single subject in direct combination with the main verbs of a sentence, as in

bilive (verb stem)
ebi mI live
i biyou live
o bihe/she lives

Note that for the first person singular, the m follows the verb stem.

Separable pronouns are not confined to its sole purpose as a subject with a verb and can be used as a subject, direct and indirect object, for example:

burucarry (verb stem)
anyï buru gïwe carry you
unu buru müyou carry me
mü na gï buru yame and you carry him

They can also follow a noun in possessive relationship:

dihusbanddi mmy husband
di gïyour husband
di yaher husband
nwachildnwa mmy child
nwa anyïour child


Grammar: Present Tense and Imperative

For the present tense of verbs, the verb stem is used. If the personal pronoun follows the verb (which is the case for the first person inseparable pronoun), an a- or e- prefix is attached to the verb stem in line with the vowel harmony, i.e. an a- prefix for verb stems with an a, ï, ö or ü vowel; an e- prefix for verb stems with an i, e, o or u vowel:

bilive (verb stem)chïcarry (something in the hand) (verb stem)
ebi mI liveachï mI carry

This prefix falls away with the other pronouns. The second and third person inseparable pronouns harmonise with the verb stems:

i biyou liveï chïyou carry
o bihe livesö chïhe carries

Separable pronouns do not require harmonisation:

anyï biwe liveanyï chïwe carry
unu biyou (pl.) liveunu chïyou carry
ha bithey liveha chïthey carry
mü na gï bime and you livemü na gï chïme and you carry

Other example:

be (verb stem)
abü m MikeI am Mike
ï bü emekayou are Emeka
ö bü emekahe is Emeka
anyï bü Mike na Emekawe are Mike and Emeka
unu bu Mike na Emekayou are Mike and Emeka
ha bü Mike na Emekathey are Mike and Emeka

The negative present tense is formed by harmonising the verb stem with the harmonising prefix a or e and suffix ghi or ghï in the following manner:

abüghï m NickI am not Nick
aha m bü Michael; aha m abüghï Nickmy name is Michael; my name is not Nick.
anyï chï anüwe carry meat
unu akwöghï anyïyou do not carry us
ebi m na Achara LayoutI live in Achara Layout
ebighi m na GRAI do not live in GRA

The imperative uses the verb stem without any prefix:

nyegive
gwatell

The imperative can be followed by a noun or pronoun:

nye m egogive me money
gwa mtell me
kwuo yasay it
züö akwabuy a cloth
unu zaa alayou (pl.) sweep the floor
ka ha gaalet them leave
ka anyi laalet us go (home)
ka anyi gaalet us leave

The negative imperative is formed with the prefix e- or a- and suffix –ne or –la, both harmonising with the verb stem:

erinedo not eat
azalado not sweep
unu azalayou do not sweep the floor

Grammar: Numerals

otu1
abüö2
atö3
anö4
ise5
isii6
asaa7
asatö8
itolu9
iri10
iri na otu11
iri na atö13
iri abüö 20
iri abüö na otu21
iri atö30
iri atö na otu31
iri asatö80
iri itolu90
narï100
narï abüö200
puku1,000
puku atö na iri abüö na iri3,210
nde1,000,000
ijeri1,000,000,000
ökarahalf

Only otu and ökara precede the noun; the other numbers follow the noun:

otu ülöone house
ülö isefive houses
otu nairaone naira
naira abüötwo naira
ökara nairahalf a naira

Note that the noun does not change if it is in plural.

The ordinal numbers are as follows:

mbüfirst
nke abüösecond
nke atöthird
nke anöfourth

Examples:

ülö mbuthe first house
ülö nke abüöthe second house
abü m mbuI am first

Grammar: Infinitives, Participles and Auxiliaries

Infinitives have a vowel prefix, i or ï, harmonising with the vowel of the verb stem.

Examples:

imeto do
isito cook
ireto sell
igbuto kill
izuteto meet
ilito bury
ikwöto carry on one’s back
ïtato chew
ïnüto hear
ïchöto want
ïzato sweep
ïmüto learn

The negative infinitive has the e- or a- prefix and ghi or ghï suffix, both harmonising with the vowel of the verb stem:

emeghinot to doazaghïnot to sweep
etoghinot to growamüghïnot to learn

Participles are formed by a preceding vowel, e- or a-, and the verb stem:

esicookingagagoing
emedoingamülearning

The participle is used with an auxiliary to specify its action. The auxiliary precedes the participle and is connected with it through a hyphen if immediately followed by the participle.

Examples:

naused as auxiliary to specify continuing action in the present:

ana m azü anüI am buying meat
ö na-esi anühe is cooking meat

gaused as auxiliary to indicate future action:

aga m azü anüI will buy meat
ö ga-esi anü he will cook meat

The negative form has an a- (or e-) prefix and ghï (or ghi) suffix attached to the auxiliary:

anaghï m azü anüI am not buying meat
ö anaghï esi anuHe is not cooking meat

Grammar: Adjectives

In Igbo, adjectives can immediately precede or follow the noun or pronoun to which it belongs. Most commonly used adjectives are:

ömagood, beautiful
öchawhite, clean
ojiblack
öjööugly, bad
ukwubig
obelesmall
niile/dumall, each, every

Examples:

ö bü akwükwö öchait is white paper
ewu dum nö ebeaall goats are here

If the adjective is not directly preceding the noun or pronoun, the noun form of the adjective is used:

adjectivenoun form
ömamma
öchaücha
öjöönjö

Examples:

akwükwö dï üchathe paper is white
ewu dum dï mmaall goats are good

The same principle as described above, applies to demonstrative adjectives, they can only follow or precede the noun immediately:

-athis, theseahüthat, those
ülöathis house, these housesülö ahüthat house, those houses

These adjectives also form the demonstrative pronouns:

nkeathisnke ahüthat
ndïathese (group)ndi ahüthose (group)
iheathis (thing)ihe ahüthat (thing)
ebeahere (place)ebe ahüthere

Examples:

nkea dï mmathis is good
nke ahü dï njöthat is bad
ndia di mmathese are good
ihe ahü dï njöthat (thing) is bad
ebe ahü dï njöthere is bad

Note:
The verb ‘to be’ can be translated by three different verbs: , and . The verb is most commonly used for ‘to be’; is used with a noun and not adjectives and indicates the quality or location of something ; is used for the presence of someone in a location:

ö dï mmait is fine
ö dï n’elu akpatiit is on top of the box
ö nö ya?is he in?
ö nö ebe ahu?is he there?

Grammar: Tense and Suffixes

In Igbo language, verbs do not distinguish between present and past tense. The meaning of the verb is generally changed by the suffix that specifies the action in the present or past. Some of these suffixes harmonise with the verb stem, others do not, and sometimes multiple suffixes can follow each other in a combination.

The most commonly suffixes used are:

-tara/-tere
-ra/-re
action in the past (he did)
-la/-lecompleted action (he has done)
-bü/-bua past continuous action (he used to do)
-ripast completed action (he did)
-bacontinue doing, starting an action (start doing)
-goalready completed the action (have done)
-bagoalready completing the action (already doing, already done)
-luto indicate an intensification of the action of the verb
-tabrings an action to completion
-kwazialso, as well
-represent continuous action (is doing)

Examples:

ö zütara anühe bought meat
o butere yahe brought it
ï bïara?did you come?
o gwülait is finished
o ruleit is time
ana m azübü anüI used to buy meat
o biri ebeahe lived here
o riri anühe ate meat
o bigo ebe ahühe has lived there
o rigo anühe has eaten meat
o ribago nrïhe has already started eating
anabago mI am already going
ö nabagohe has already gone
cheluwait!
weta egobring money
abukwazi m MikeI am also Mike
Olee ka i mere?How are you doing?

There are more verb tenses in Igbo language. One tense is used to start a conversation or speech or is used in a sentence introduced by another verb. This tense is formed by a harmonising a- or e- prefix with the verb stem:

unu enwere mmiri na ökülatrïk?do you have water and electricity? (opening question)

To go in more details would go beyond the scope of this book, and I would suggest to read the grammar books mentioned in the references.


Parts of the Body

parts of body
Author depicted by young neighbour



enwere m isiI have a head
o nwere mkpïsï aka irihe has ten fingers

Grammar: Prepositions

Prepositions are words used before a noun or pronoun to specify a place, position or time. In Igbo, there is only one preposition na. When preceding a vowel, it has the tone of that vowel and is written n’ instead.

ö nö n’ülöhe is in the house
ö dï n’alait is on the ground
ö dï na jiit is on the yam

In combination with a noun, it can specify the location of the preposition in more detail:

NounPreposition
enutop
okpuruunderside
imeinterior
aküküedge
nain, at, on
n’enuon top of, up
n’okpuruunder, below
n’imeinside
n’akükübeside

Examples:

ö dï n’enu akpatiit is on top of the box
ö dï n’okpuru akpatiit is under the box
ö dï n’ime akpatiit is inside the box
ö dï n’ akükü akpatiit is beside the box

Grammar: Interrogative Pronouns

Interrogatives are used to ask a question. In Igbo, a question can only be initiated by either an interrogative or a personal pronoun.

Following interrogatives are commonly used:

olee
kedu
how, when, where, which
gïnïwhat
maka gïnïwhy
ebeewhere, which place
olehow much, how many
onyewho

The pronoun could be followed by ka or ihe in case the interrogative is not the sole subject of the sentence.

Examples:

olee maka ndi be gï?how about your family?
olee ihe ha kwuru?What did they say?
olee ka i mere?how do you do?
gïnï ka unu na-eme?what are you (pl.) doing?
ebee ka ï nö? where are you?
ego ole ka ö bü?how much money is it?
onye ka ï bü?who are you?
onye mere ihea?who does this?
onye ka ihea mere?who does this happen to?

If the interrogative is missing in a question, the verb must be preceded by a pronoun:

ö nö ya?is he in?
adï m mma?am I good?
ö nö ebe ahühe is there

Grammar: Conjunctions

Words that can connect two words or sentences are called conjunctions. Most of the conjunctions start with an initial consonant:

kamainstead of
mgbe ahüthen
tupuuntil
makaas, so
otuas, that
manabut, if, that, whether
naand, that
ka mgbesince
kaso that, that

Examples:

achörö m anü kama öküküI want meat instead of chicken
i risie nrï mgbe ahü gabayou eat, then you go
eri kwala nrï, tupu na mü agabado not eat until I go
maka na ihea dï mma, ka m jïrï goro yaas this is good, I buy it
ö dï mma otu osighi wee dï önüit is good, as it is cheap
ïhea mara mma mana ödï önüthis is good, but expensive
mü na gï nö ebeame and you are here

Orthography

Igbo Vocabulary

The official Igbo orthography refers to a characterset with dots below the characters instead of umlauts above them. However, this characterset is not yet internationalized and accessible through webbrowsers. Once this characterset will be available for webbrowsers, this website will be updated. For now, a PDF file using the correct character notation is downloadable here (right-click and "Save as" if you want to download the file).

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