An Ukara Ekpe material covered in nsibidi characters.
Igbo (Igbo: Asụsụ Igbo) is a Niger-Congo language spoken primarily in south eastern Nigeria. There are between 18-25 million speakers that are mostly in the a part of Nigeria known as Igboland, and its speakers are primarily of Igbo descent. Igbo is a recognised language of Nigeria and is also spoken natively in Cameroon. There are many different dialects of Igbo which sometimes cannot be mutually intelligible to other Igbo speakers, for this reason a standard for Igbo called 'Igbo izugbe' has been developed. Igbo is written in the Latin alphabet introduced by British colonialists and missionaries. Secret societies such as the Ekpe use the nsibidi ideograms to write Igbo and other languages around its area of influence. Nsibidi is an ideographic writing system used for over 1500 years.
Major cities where Igbo is dominant include Onitsha, Enugu, Owerri (oh-weh-reh), Port Harcourt, and Asaba (in Igbo, ah-hah-bah).
Igbo is a tonal language with a high, mid, and low range. Accents are used to indicate the high and low tones; an acute accent such as 'ó' are used for high tones, and a grave accent such as 'è' is used for a low tone. There are further accents that indicate nasal tones. The lower dotted accent such as 'ọ' is used to indicate a low nasal tone, and an upper dotted accent such as 'ė' is used for a high nasal tone. The trema (¨) such as 'ö' is used for a mid nasal tone.
Vowels in Igbo are very similar to those in English when there is little tone stress on them. Most of the times vowels in Igbo are written with accents indicating this tone.
like 'a' in "father"
like 'e' in "get"
like 'ee' in "seen"
low tone nasal 'i'
like 'o' in "coat"
low tone nasal 'o'
like 'oo' in "pool"
low tone nasal u
Consonants do not have a tone in Igbo apart from 'n' and 'm' which are the only letters that can be written with accent marks.
like 'b' in "bit"
like 'd' in "dim"
like 'f' in "feline"
like 'g' in "give"
like 'h' in "hinge"
like 'j' in "jelly"
like 'k' in "kettle"
like 'l' in "limb"
like 'm' in "mint"
like 'n' in "nit"
not in English, but a nasal 'n', sort of like drink
like 'p' in "pit"
like 'r' in "rent"
like 's' in "seam"
like 't' in "tea"
like 'v' in "villa"
like 'w' in "win"
like 'y' in "yield"
like 'z' in "zink"
like 'ch' in "cheese"
an explosive sound not found in English, but a 'b' sound is made while shaping the mouth for 'g'
like 'gh' in "ghost"
like 'gw' in Welsh "Gwyn"
not in English, but a 'p' sound is made while shaping the mouth for 'k'
like 'q' in "queen"
like 'wa' in "wag", but nasal like a baby crying
like 'ny' in "canyon"
like 'sh' in "ship"
Igbo is considered an agglutinative language. Igbo grammar generally maintains a subject–verb–object clause order.
Using special greetings when addressing elders of the society and those generally significantly older than you is expected in Igbo society. In smaller communities such as villages, it is also expected of non-elders to greet every elder whenever you first see them in a day. Here are some of the greetings used between different levels of the society.
the most common formal greeting equivalent to 'hello'
A formal greeting that can be used to greet anyone
this is the most common polite term when addressing an elder or important person in society, this is used alongside the persons name and an honorific
a greeting mostly used in the northern part of Igboland
can be an equivalent of 'what's up'
more direct, used only by friends, insulting if used on someone older than the greeter
more direct, mostly from a friend to a friend
ogini kwanu/gini mere (AW-gee-nee KU-wa-NOO/GEE-nee meh-reh)
very direct and informal, literally 'what's happening'.
There are greetings usually made to a group of people which can also be used to boost morale.
The most common group greeting, used only by males.
Daalu nu (DAH-LOO noo)
Meaning literally 'thank you all', this can be used by anybody.
In Igbo society there are different ways of addressing people depending on their status in society. In order to show good manners and politeness, Igbo speakers are expected to use honorifics to address those that are significantly older than them (usually those old enough to be an uncle or grandparent, sure enough 'uncle' is sometimes used as an honorific). Here are some of the basic honorifics used in Igbo society.
The most basic honorific for males, about equivalent to Mister. Mazi Ibekwe: Mister Ibekwe
The most basic honorific for females, about equivalent to Misses, Miss, and most similar to madam or ma'am. Da Mgbechi: Madam Mgbechi
Another honorific for males, usually used in an informal setting, may be seen as the male equivalent of 'da', it has no equivalent in English, but is similar to saying 'big brother'. It is usually shortened to 'de'.
literally elder, used to address male elders.
a noble title for males found in the northern parts of Igboland.
can be interpreted as 'dane' or 'dutchess', a title given to the wife of a titled man.
For those younger than yourself, they can be called by their gender, 'nwoke' male or 'nwanyi' female, or by 'nwa' (WAHN) meaning child. This form of address can be patronizing.
Reading and writing
The Igbo language was first written down with ideographs known as nsibidi which originated in the cross river region of Africa. Nsibidi characters or symbols were used to represent ideas and some words. British colonialism since the late 19th century till 1960 has wiped away nisbidi from daily use and has led to the introduction of the latin-script-based önwu script which is now used to write Igbo. The first book written in Igbo was an Ibo-Isuama primer by Bishop Ajayi Crowther, a Sierra Leonean creole of Egba-Yoruba descent in the 19th century. As a tonal language, the Latin script has been modified to fit the different tones and sounds of the Igbo language.
Igbo-language literary works have been few since colonialism introduced an alphabet. Literature in English by Igbo writers on Igbo society, however, have achieved international acclaim, the most popular of these books, Things Fall Apart, written by author Chinua Achebe, deals with the subject of colonialism and the destruction of Igbo society in the late 19th century.
The Igbo languages' tonality may be confusing at times as one word may have different meanings according to the way the tones are used. Diacritics are used to signal tones in written Igbo along with other special characters such as the dot over (˙) and underneath (.) A popular example of this is ákwà ('cloth'), àkwá ('egg').
There are hundreds of Igbo dialects and Igboid languages spoken by different clans and former nation-states. The high variation and low mutual intelligibility between many Igbo dialects has been a hindrance to written Igbo and Igbo literature over the years, this has lead to the development of a standard form of Igbo known as 'standard Igbo' or Igbo izugbe. This standard form was based on dialects around the central parts of Igboland. Although it is was created to boost Igbo literature, it has received backlash and opposition from Igbo speakers such as author Chinua Achebe, who prefer to speak their own dialects. Igbo izubge is the standard used in the curriculum of Igbo-language studies.
Although most signs in the Igbo-speaking areas of Nigeria may be in English, it will still be helpful to learn some of these signs in case you find your self in a more rural community.
Úzọr Èzí (OO-zor AY-ZEE)
Ihe Nsọ (I-HYEAH IN-saw)
How are you?
Kedu kà ímèrè? (keh-du kah E MEH-REH)
Fine, thank you.
Ọ di mma. (AW DEE MM-MA)
What is your name?
Kedu áhà gi? (keh-DO AH-HA gee)
My name is ______ .
Áhàm bụ ______, or Afam bu (: AH-HAM BOO _____ .)
Nice to meet you.
Ọ di mma. (AW DEE MM-MA)
Éeyi, Ëhh. (ey, AEH)
Mbà . (IM-BAH)
Excuse me. (getting attention)
Biko, chètú. (BEE-coe, CHE-too)
Excuse me. (begging pardon)
Biko, é weli íwé. (BEE-coe, A WELLI E-WAY)
Ndo; Gbághàrám. (in-DOH, BA-gah-RAM)
Ka omesia. (KAH O-MEH-SI-YA)
Ka anyi húní. (KA-NYEE HOO-NEE)
I can't speak Igbo [well].
A nam a sú Igbo [ọfuma]. (AH nam AH sue EEG-BOW [AW-FOO-MAH])
Do you speak English?
I na sú Bèké ? (EE na SOO BAY-KAY?)
Is there someone here who speaks English?
Ọ di onye nọ nga nweríkí súfù bèké? (OR dee on-yeh NOR in-GAH weh-RI-KI SUH-foo beh-KEH?)
Nyem áká! (NYEM AH-KAH)
Lèmá kwá! (LAY-MA KWA)
Ibọla chi. (e BORLA CHI)
Ézígbó mgbede. (AY-ZEE-GBO MM-GBAYDAY)
Ka chi bọ. (KA CHI BAW)
Good night (to sleep)
Ka chi fọ. (KA chi FOR)
I don't understand.
À ghotaghím. ()
Where is the toilet?
Ké ébé mpọsi dì? (keh EH BEH mmPosee D)
ihü áká (EE-HUE AH-KAH)
nkwekọ áká (nn-kweh-koh AH-KAH)
mkpisi áká (mm-KPEE-see AH-KAH)
Leave me alone.
Hafum áká. (HAH-foom AH-KAH)
Don't touch me!
É mètùlum áka! (EH meh-too-loom AH-KAH)
I'll call the police.
M gi kpọ ndi ùwé ojié. (IM gee POR in-di oo-WEH OH-JI-yeah)
Poleesi/Uwè ojié! (poe-LEE-see/OO-way oh-JEE!)
Kushí! Onye óshi/ohi! (koo-shee! OH-NYE OH-shi)
I need your help.
Á chom kí nyém àkà. (AH chom kee nyeah-m AH-KAH)
It's an emergency.
Ọ bu ihnyé óbì ọsịsọ. (OR boo i-hi-yeh OH-bee OH-si-sor)
À mághim ébém nọr. (AH MAH-gim EH-BEH-m NOR)
I lost my bag.
Akpám è fuólé. (ak-pam EH FU-OH-lay)
I lost my wallet.
Akpá égóm è fuólé. (AK-PA EH-gom EH FU-OH-lay)
Àhụ nà anwụm. (ah-HOO NAH woom)
I've been injured.
Á meruolam àhú. (AH MEH-RU-AW-LAM ah-hoo)
I need a doctor.
Onye ògwò orịá kam chọ. (OH-yeh OH-gw-oh OH-ri-ya KAM chor)
Can I use your phone?
M nwèríkí jítú fonu gí? (IM weh-RI-KI JI-TOO fo-nu GEE)
The traditional week in Igbo speaking communities consists of 4 days, each are indicative of a particular market of many different communities. The market days were established by the god-like Eri, an important Igbo ancestor of the 1st millennium AD. Market days are very important to various Igbo communities as they are used to mark major events in the community. Each community is assigned a special day for their market; in a village group no other markets are to be held on a particular villages day. The names of the market days are also used for cardinal directions in some Igbo communities.
These traditional market days are:
corresponding to the north
corresponding to the south
corresponding to the east
órie, oye (OH-ree-yeah)
corresponding to the west
úbọchi ta (oo-BOH-chi tah)
chi làràni (CHI lah-RAH-nee)
izù nka (ee-ZOO in-KAH)
izù làràni (ee-ZOO lah-RAH-nee)
izù nábiá (ee-ZOO nah-BYAH)
Úbọchị úkà (oo-BOH-chi oo-KAH)
Oguaro/afọ - Traditional calendar
The calendar of the Igbo people is known as Oguaro or Oguafor (lit. 'counting of the years'). Month in Igbo is ọnwa (lit. 'moon'), year is 'afọ'. The traditional Igbo year has 13 months which are usually named after their position in the year; most are named after a religious ceremony or after a certain deity such as Ana the mother alusi (deity) of the earth. The traditional 13 month calendar is rarely used in Igbo society, instead the Gregorian 12 month calendar is used. Below are the months of the year in the traditional 13 week Oguaro calendar and their Gregorian equivalents.
Ọnwa Mbụ (AW-wah MM-BOO)
3rd week of February
Ọnwa Abuọ (AW-wah AH-bu-wor)
Ọnwa Ife Eke (AW-wah EE-fay AY-KAY)
Ọnwa Anọ (AW-wah AH-nor)
Ọnwa Agwụ (AW-wah AH-goo)
Ọnwa Ifejiọkụ (AW-wah EE-fay-jee-OR-koo)
Ọnwa Alọm Chi (AW-wah AH-LOHM chi)
August to early September
Ọnwa Ilo Mmụọ (AW-wah EE-low MM-MORE)
Ọnwa Ana (AW-wah AH-NAH)
Ọnwa Okike (AW-wah OH-kee-kay)
Ọnwa Ajana (AW-wah AH-jah-nah)
Ọnwa Ede Ajana (AW-wah AY-DAY ah-jah nah)
Late November to December
Ọnwa Ụzọ Alụsị (AW-wah oo-ZOR AH-LUH-SEE)
January to Early February
The Gregorian calendar is translated into Igbo either by naming the twelve months by their position in the calendar, or by using loan words from English.
Ọnwa Iri na Ótu, Novemba (AW-WAH ee-REE nah OH-too, NO-vehm-BAH)
Ọnwa Iri na Abuọ, Disemba (AW-WAH ee-REE nah ah-BWORE, DEE-sem-bah)
There are only two seasons in the Igbo homeland; the dry season and the rainy season. There is also a dusty trade wind known as harmattan throughout west Africa.
Ùdù mmíri (oo-doo MM-MEE-REE)
Writing time and date
The Igbo have adopted the Western way of writing the time and date, most of the times dates are written as they would in English speaking country's (dd/mm/yyyy). These are soome of the terms for date and time in Igbo.
Afọr iri (AH-fore ee-REE)
colour attribute, emit
Ọ dị... (AW dee)
It is coloured...
Ọ nà chá... (AW na chah)
ntụ ntụ, gre (in-TOO in-TOO, GREY)
otánjèlè (sort of cosmetics), blu (AW-TAHN-jeh-leh, BLOO)
Ebole ka ha na gbanwe turavulas cheki? (AY-BOW-LAY kah HAH nah BAH-WAY too-RAH-VOO-LAHS CHAY-kee?)
What is the exchange rate?
Gini bu ekuschenji rétụ? (GEE-NEE boo ay-koo-SHEE-CHANGE-jee RAY-too?)
Where is an automatic teller machine (ATM)?
Ebole ka ha na wefuta ego (ATM)? (AY-BOW-LAY kah HAH nah WAY-foo-TAH AY-GO?)
What do you say...
Thank you, please and sorry can be useful in any society. The Igbo forms of these phrases are as follows.
In Igbo society, ndo is usually used to console someone whenever something bas happens to them, for example someone may say ndo to you if you trip over, but it generally isn't used to apologise, only in some cases.
'please', can also be used as an equivalent of 'excuse me'
Literally 'you've done it', this is used as a term for gratitude, if someone brings you a meal, this would be a term to use.
'thanks', this is the most similar to the English 'thank you' and is the most polite
Literally 'use strength', this term is used to show support for someone's hard work; if you see a cook working hard in the kitchen, you can say jisike, usually with a honorific, or if not use their gender ('nwoke' for male, 'nwaanyi' for female), so it would be 'nwaanyi jisike', and you will get a response like 'oh!' which is an expression of acknowledgement.
Like many African languages Igbo is a very expressive language that makes use of a lot of exclamations in its daily use. Some of these are included:
'though' This is usually added to the end of a question to make something inclusive.
'as well' similar to 'kwanu' but is added at the end of any sentence for the same effect.
'oh no!' An exclamation that can be made out of exhaustion, either from laughing at a joke or when work is done, realising a mistake, like leaving the lights in the house on all night, or any other terrible event.
'God!' Chineke is 'God' and is a common expression use for the same purposes as 'Jesus' often does in English.
'Okay, all right' A exclamation that often means agreeing with something, although it can sometimes be used as sarcasm, a common situation where this is used is when someone is arrogant in their knowledge of something. It is often used on its own, but can be attached to another word, e.g 'Chim o!' meaning 'my spirit'.
'No!' An expression used in a shocking tragic moment.
Ȯ dịkwa égwù (AW dee-kwah EH-gwoo)
'Impossible' Sometimes used to show absolute rejection of something.
'Disgusting!' Extreme rejection or opposition of something, usually followed with clicking fingers over the head as to rid oneself of the thing in question. This is an often reaction to an abomination.
Chineke é kwélé ihe ọjọ (CHEE-NAY-KAY EH KWEH-LEH EE-HEE-YEAH oh-joh)
'God will not allow a bad thing' An exclamation made out of shock when a bad thing happens.
Igbo Guide — Insight into Igbo Culture, Igbo Language and Enugu.
Igbo Focus — A collection of simple Igbo words and phrases.
This is a guide phrasebook. It covers all the major topics for traveling without resorting to English. But please Plunge forward and help us make it a star!