Creating 'Union Ibo': Missionaries and the Igbo Language

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The literature of ethnicity in Africa indicates a major role for Christian missionaries in the creation of languages in Africa. It has been argued that certain African ethnic groups owe their existence to the ‘invention’ of their language by missionaries who created a written dialect—based on one or more vernacular(s)—into which they translated the Bible. This language came to be used for education in mission schools and later also in government schools. The Bible dialect consequently became the accepted standard language of the ethnic group and acquired the function of one of the group's prime identity markers. In the case of the Igbo language, the history of the CMS missionaries' efforts at creating a written standard Igbo shows that the process was not always straightforward. The article describes the problematic process of creating a written language. The missionaries undertook continual attempts on the basis of several dialects, but it was half a century before they produced the first translation of the Bible. They complicated matters by working in different dialects, but eventually created a standard dialect which they named Union Ibo, a mixture based on several Igbo dialects. The missionaries were also confronted with resistance from at least part of the Igbo population, who contested their choice of dialect. However, it appears that the majority of the Igbo were simply not interested. The Igbo population were far more interested in education in English, and although the CMS missionaries forced some vernacular education upon the people, actual interest remained limited. It is thus not surprising that the Bible language did not become the accepted standard language of the Igbo ethnic group. The spoken Igbo language does nevertheless function as one of the prime identity markers of the group. The article argues that the importance of the Igbo language to Igbo identity is partly the result of the missionary activity.

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... However, in the course of translating the Bible into Igbo, these indigenous terms were not used to represent the concept; rather, new terms were coined and used instead and, overtime, spread and integrated into the language. Adopting the concept of language elaboration (Author 2018), this study investigates the motivation for this act and its impact on the Igbo language. The study is guided by the following questions: ...
... A model for Bible translation and language elaboration (afterAuthor 2018) ...
... The survey was conducted as part of a bigger project (seeAuthor 2018) and was aimed at exploring the spread of some lexical and conceptual innovations occasioned by Bible translation into Igbo. The present study focuses only on data supplied for the concept of virgin. ...
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This study investigates how the translation of the concept of virgin in the Bible has enriched the Igbo lexicon and how this lexical enrichment has spread among Igbo speakers. Prior to their encounter with the Christian missionaries in the 19 th century and the subsequent translations of the Bible into Igbo, the Igbo language had terms that embraced the concept of virgin. However, during Bible translation, new terms were created to represent this concept in the Igbo Bible. Adopting Author's (2018) concept of lexical elaboration, this study analyses the lexical processes involved in creating this new term. Then it presents findings from a questionnaire survey on the spread of the innovated term among Igbo speakers. The survey findings demonstrate how the Biblical innovation became a springboard for further lexical innovations. For instance, while the Biblical innovation refers only to the female virgin, Igbo speakers have innovated new terms from it to express male virginity. The survey also showcases the perception of sex and virginity among Igbo people, especially their attribution of holiness to virginity. This study accentuates the impact of Bible translation in reshaping the Igbo language and conceptual repertoire. It also reveals the involvement of the language users in the process of language change.
... c.f.Ogharaerumi 1986, Bersselaar 1997, Fulford 2002, and Oyali 2018 for a detailed history of the Union Igbo Bible project. ...
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While Uganda includes speakers of widely diverse Sudanic, Nilotic and Bantu languages, none of the languages is spoken by more than 20% of the population. Until recently, speakers of Luganda have constituted the largest 'minority'; these speakers possessed special political privileges during the British colonial period. The status of Luganda has been challenged in the 1990s by the emergence of Runyakitara, a language based on a combination of the western Uganda lacustrine languages of Runyankore, Runyoro, Rutoro and Rukiga. This paper discusses the construction of Runyakitara in the context of the current political situation in Uganda. Along with the role and status of indigenous languages,the functions and status of Swahiliand English are discussed. The reinvigoration of indigenous languages and the relative decline of Swahili in Uganda are shown to be related to the power and solidarity of functions that these languages fulfil in society.
Although a missionary once served as president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, anthropological enculturation commonly includes categorizing missionaries as enemies. The conditioning seems to be more covert than overt, since anthropology texbooks seldom deal specifically with missionary activity and few ethnographies contain condemnations of missionaries. Two presuppositions which may influence the antimissionary attitude are (1) that the culture of a primitive society is an "organic unity" and (2) that religious beliefs are essentially meaningless. The organic-unity position conceives of a society as being almost a work of art in the way in which facets of culture are counterbalanced and interrelated. Since the missionary is usually involved in directed culture change, he is seen as doing violence to that "delicate machine," "functioning organism," or "intricate symbolic system." Social anthropologists tend to consider religious beliefs as essentially meaningless and argue that the major importance of religion is in the social relations involved in the rituals. It is therefore not surprising that anthropologists have a negative attitude toward those whose lives are committed to teaching people that the acceptance of specific religious beliefs is important. We should be concerned with the bases of the negative attitudes which many of us manifest, for an unwillingness to deal with them candidly will make it difficult to control for bias in field research.
There is evidence from across the disciplines that at least some of the contemporary regional names of African tribes, dialects and languages are fairly recent inventions in historical terms. This article offers some evidence from Zimbabwe to show that missionary linguistic politics were an important factor in this process. The South African linguist Clement Doke was brought in to resolve conflicts about the orthography of Shona. His Report on the Unification of the Shona Dialects (1931) shows how the language politics of the Christian denominations, which were also the factions within the umbrella organization the Southern Rhodesia Missionary Conference, contributed quite significantly to the creation and promotion of Zezuru, Karanga and Manyika as the main groupings of dialects in the central area which Doke later accommodated in a unified orthography of a unified language that was given the name Shona. While vocabulary from Ndau was to be incorporated, words from the Korekore group in the north were to be discouraged, and Kalanga in the West was allowed to be subsumed under Ndebele. Writing about sixty years later, Ranger focusses more closely on the Manyika and takes his discussion to the 1940s, but he also mentions that the Rhodesian Front government of the 1960s and 1970s deliberately incited tribalism between the Shona and the Ndebele, while at the same time magnifying the differences between the regional divisions of the Shona, which were, in turn, played against one another as constituent clans. It would appear then that, for the indigenous Africans, the price of Christianity, Western education and a new perception of language unity was the creation of regional ethnic identities that were at least potentially antagonistic and open to political manipulation. Through many decades of rather unnecessary intellectual justification, and as a result of the collective colonial experience through the churches, the schools and the workplaces, these imposed identities, and the myths and sentiments that are associated with them, have become fixed in the collective mind of Africa, and the modern nation states of the continent now seem to be stuck with them. Missionaries played a very significant role in creating this scenario because they were mainly responsible for fixing the ethnolinguistic maps of the African colonies during the early phase of European occupation. To a significant degree, these maps have remained intact and have continued to influence African research scholarship.
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