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UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death: Facts and Fables

Journal of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria Volume 16 Nos. 1 & 2 2013 (pp. 91-98)
UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death: Facts and Fables
Emma Asonye
Department of Linguistics and Igbo, Imo State University, Owerri
E-mail: Phone: 08038745904
Towards the end of 2006, the United Nations made a prediction that some minor
languages of the world will go extinct in the next 50 years. On this list was the Igbo
language spoken in the southeastern Nigeria by over 20 million people. The paper
examines how far this UNESCO prediction affects the language and the people and to
what extent the prediction is taken to be a fact or a fable given the status of the language,
and the people’s attitude to their language.
0. Introduction
Igbo language is a member of the Kwa group of languages from the Niger Congo
language family according to Joseph Greenberg’s 1963 and Bendor-Samuel’s 1989
classifications of African languages. Igbo (Ass Igbo), or Igbo proper, is a native
language of the Igbo people, an ethnic group primarily located in southeastern Nigeria.
There are approximately 20 million speakers that are mostly in Nigeria and are primarily
of Igbo descent. Igbo is a national language of Nigeria. We have plenty scholarly works
that have bothered on the development of the language and efforts of different scholars
towards its development. The study of the history and development of Igbo language has
been periodically categorized.
The initial period of Igbo studies was the period of collection and writing down of
words to produce wordlists in Freetown Sierra Leone between 1828 and 1857. This was
followed by the period of evolution of Onitsha/Isuama Igbo, a period when scanty printed
and published works in Igbo began, first abroad and later at home, especially Onitsha.
This was between 1857 and 1900. The emergence of Union Igbo from 1900 to 1929 saw
the wake of translations from English to Igbo, some of which were published into reading
materials. Between 1929 and 1961, Igbo language suffered a terrible setback as a result of
orthography controversy. (Nwadike, 2002) However, it was in this period that the first
Igbo novel which won an international award was written and published.
1. The Igbo Language Today
Having gone through the rigorous days of early survival, Igbo has come to be as a
language of standard status with its many dialects. As language is a dynamic organism
which continues to grow, Igbo has gone past the stage of orthography controversy to the
stage of efforts geared towards orthography development. Igbo at the earlier
developmental stage was faced with a whole lot of problems ranging from multiplicity of
dialects with no standard form, orthography controversy; poor attitude of the people
towards their language; lack of government assistance; to inadequate human and material
resources (Nwadike, 2002: 112). Igbo is widely spoken today in more than five states in
Nigeria by a population of over 30million people (Onyegiri, 2005:114). Igbo is also
spoken in the Diaspora and all parts of the world where Igbo people are found in clusters.
Igbo is not only spoken by Igbo people it is also taught and learned in the various levels
of formal education in the country. “Igbo education was designed in accordance with the
Asonye: UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death 92
people’s world view, their surroundings and immediate circumstances and facilities that
were needed for effective co-existence and maintenance of society.” (Agu, 1997:35) But
today Igbo is designed to fit in the National Language Policy in Education, which
provides that a student of Nigerian origin, in addition to English should learn and pass at
least one indigenous language as a minimum requirement for admission into the Nigerian
Universities, especially in arts related courses. The language is also designed to be part
and parcel of the Nigeria’s official language policy which is “enshrined as follows in
Section 51 and 91 of the 1979 Constitution as follows:
The business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English and in
Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made therefore.
A House of Assembly may in addition to English conduct the business of the
House in one or more languages spoken in the State as the House by resolution
may approve. (Quoted from Bamgbose, 1991:117)
1.1 The Standard Igbo SI
From the multiplicity of dialects, the standard form of the language has been developed.
There are over 20 Igbo dialects within which there is apparently a degree of dialect
leveling occurring. A standard literary language was developed in 1972 which is claimed
to be based on the Owerri (Isuama) and Umuahia (Ohuhu) dialects. According to Crystal
(2006), the standard form of any language or dialect is that “prestige variety of language
used within a speech community, which cuts across regional differences, providing a
unified means of communication, and thus an institutionalized norm which can be used in
the mass media, in teaching the language to foreigners and so on.”
With the development of the standard Igbo (Igbo Izugbe), plenty literature have
emerged in and on the language and there is mutual intelligibility among people from
different dialect areas. However, some Igbo indigenes, such as Prof Chinua Achebe and
his followers preach against the use of standard Igbo, but this has not stopped the
advancement of Igbo Izugbe.
2. UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death.
Towards the end of 2006, a report of the United Nations in one of the Nigerian dailies
had it that Igbo language, among other minor African languages will be extinct by the
year 2050. With all these efforts by Igbo people to develop their language, and the
struggles that accompanied the establishment of the Igbo language, it is surprising to hear
that Igbo is listed among the dying languages of the world. Before we go further into this
discussion, let us review the concept of language death or extinction.
2.1 Language Death
Language death is a situation where “a language ceases to be used by a community.”
(Crystal, 2006) It can be thought of also as a process that affects speech communities
where the level of linguistic competence that speakers possess of a given language idiom
is decreased. A language’s death could occur through any of the following processes:
Gradual language death
Bottom-to-top language death
93 Asonye: UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death
Radical language death or,
Linguicide (also known as sudden language death or death by genocide.)
The most common process leading to language death is one in which a community of
speakers of one language becomes bilingual in another language, and gradually shift
allegiance to the second language until they cease to use their original or heritage
language. This is the situation with the Igbo language. Meanwhile, a language is often
declared to be dead even before the last native speaker of the language has died. This is
the process of gradual death of a language, that which is affecting most African
languages that have the English language as a second language.
As language is known to be an index of culture and a mark of people’s identity; it is a
core aspect of every culture. Without language, there is no heart-to-heart connection
between species of any kind. The death of a language amounts to the death of a people’s
identity and culture, as such people do not fold their hands and watch their identity get
3. Language Attitude of Igbo People
Attitude, according to Bainbridge (1994:400) is “the positive or negative evaluation of an
object with anything, tangible, capable of being the object of an attitude.” In that regard,
community language attitude denotes the positive-negative evaluations of individual
languages or group of languages, with regard to such dimensions as loyalty, prestige,
utility, cognancy or aesthetics” (Othmen and Bashir, 2000:449)
Greater percentage of Igbo population, cutting across the elites, the educated, and
the bourgeoisies believe that Igbo people show a negative attitude towards their language.
It has been established that many Igbo parents living in Nigeria and in the Diaspora
prefer their children speaking English to speaking Igbo. It is also an acclaimed truth that
the language of discussion in many Igbo town meetings and forums is English and not
Igbo. Students of higher learning studying any Igbo related courses like Igbo Linguistics,
Igbo Education and so on are usually seen with such a chagrin written all over them in
the midst of their mates studying other courses.
Much as it is true that Igbo people show a negative attitude towards Igbo
language, some have attributed this to certain factors which include the introduction of
Western education, government policy on language and globalization. Let us see briefly
how these factors can affect people’s attitude towards their language.
3.1 Education
It is believed that education is capable of triggering either a positive or negative attitude
toward language. According to Chumbow (1990:63), language is the indispensable
medium for the education and training of skilled manpower. Hence, the English language
has been the language of education, government administration and trade in Nigeria,
therefore, Igbo people have developed a positive attitude towards English to the
detriment of their own language. An average literate Igbo person wants to flaunt his or
her mastery of English language at the expense of Igbo.
Asonye: UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death 94
3.2 Government Policy on Education
It is a common belief among scholars that when the government of a country makes a
language policy which elates one language as the official language of that nation, the
given language will definitely attract favourable attitude from the people since it serves
as a means of carrying out official functions. This is the case of English language use in
Nigeria. It tends to dominate the indigenous languages including Igbo. Nigeria’s
multilingual status has given English language the privilege of having an edge over and
above the indigenous languages in terms of use and function, and Igbo seems to suffer
most in this dilemma.
3.3 Globalisation
The concept of globalization has so powerfully penetrated the global economic and
political territory that any country that does not measure up its demands is termed
underdeveloped and backwards. Globalisation plays a role in determining whether a
language thrives or not. It discourages diversity and promotes homogeneity, thereby
suggesting the speaking of the same kind of language. On this, Fishman (2001:6) states,
in our day and age, it is definitely the globalisation of pan-western culture (and pop-
consumer culture in particular) that is the motto of language shift. And since American
dominated globalisation has become the major economic technological and cultural thrust
of worldwide modernisation and westernisation, efforts to safeguard threatened languages
(and therefore; contextually weaker languages) must oppose the very strongest processes
and powers.” Igbo people seem to have been forced and deceived by the powers of
globalisation to develop a negative attitude towards their language.
The degree of the Igbo language endangerment has been assessed to be between
“‘Definitely Endangered’ and ‘Unsafe’”. (Odionye & Odionye, 2008:90) The authors
define language endangerment as “a condition whereby the socio-economic, political,
technological, cultural and religious ecologies have altered to a point where some
language species cannot survive in them. And Aikawa in UNESCO (2001) ranks
endangerment on a continuum from stability to extinction, as follows:
(i) Extinct: a situation where there is no one who can speak or remember the
(ii) Critically Endangered: a situation where the youngest speakers are in the
great-grandparents’ generation and the language is not used for everyday
(iii) Severely Endangered: in this case, the language is spoken only by
grandparents and other generations, while the parent generation may still
understand the language they typically do not speak it to their children among
(iv) Definitely Endangered: at this stage, the language is no longer learned as the
mother tongue by children in the home. The youngest speakers are thus of the
parental generation. At this stage, parents may still speak their language to
their children, but their children do not typically respond in the language.
95 Asonye: UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death
(v) Unsafe: most children speak their parental language as their first language but
this may be restricted to specific social domains such as the home where
children interact with their parents and grandparents. Igbo can be said to still
be operating on this stage.
4. Igbo Language Death: Facts and Fables
Several reactions from Igbo indigenes and speakers have continued to trail UNESCO
prediction of Igbo language death in the year 2053, both positive and negative. (1) below
is a collection of opinions and statements from people in reaction to the prediction. We
have gathered these opinions for the purpose of analyses.
(i) “…in spite of all that have happened to the Igbo and their culture, their
language has shown a great deal of resilience and vitality, more so in the
spoken medium.” – Prof. E.N Emenanjo, in Ahiajoku lecture, 2001.
(ii) “Some Igbo parents, especially the literate ones, do not speak Igbo to their
children even at home. In some cases, the parents ban their children from using
Igbo to communicate among themselves. C.A. Eme, in UNIZIK Journal of
Arts and Humanities, 2004.
(iii) “Many Igbo parents do not want their children to speak Igbo. Once, a mother at
the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, asked her children to desist from speaking
that useless language (Igbo). This class of parents gets offended with teachers
who teach Igbo as a subject to the children.” – Prof. I.U Nwadike, in F.C.
Ogbalu Memorial Lectures, 2008.
(iv) “There may be a dearth of the Igbo language, but I am one of those that believe
that the Igbo language will never reach the point of death. However, the dearth
of the language poses a great danger to the Igbo mind, the person and the
nation.” – Mr. Chigbu, in The Death of Igbo Language, 2008.
(v) “Igbo language ga adgide. Ok I thank them 4 telling us that Igbo language
may go into extinction but I never, and will never believe that… for Igbo
speakers, writers and learners keep it up. Igbo ga adgide, ass Igbo ga
adgide. Our language our identity. Ass any eji’m malụ any. Nedu210 in
Re: Igbo Language Might Become Extinct in The Next 50 Years UNESCO,
Jan 2012.
(vi) “There is nothing political about this thread. To the waste bin please. Igbo
people all over the world has and is still doing a lot in promoting Igbo
language and culture yet no one cares about those developments. Only for
Asonye: UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death 96
fools to come up all the time to downgrade our efforts.” Andre Uweh in Re:
Igbo Might Become Extinct in the Next 50 years UNESCO. Jan 2012.
(vii) “Extinct in 50 years ke. UNESCO has no other thing to do then. British English
will go extinct in 7 years. Nchara in Re: Igbo Language Might Become
Extinct in the Next 50 Years UNESCO. Jan 2012.
(viii) “Aren’t you clowns tired of posting this same nonsense all over the place?
There’s no truth in this, save for mischief. Mbataku2 in Re; Igbo Language
Might Become Extinct in the Next 50 Years UNESCO. Jan 2012.
It is important to point out here that some of the above reactions are follow up comments
on the sarcastic and ironical advert version of UNESCO prediction of the Igbo language
death by Onyekwelu Vincent (2008). He writes thus:
The year is 2053 and the news headline reads: Obituary: the glorious passing
away of Igbo Language. With deep heart Ndi-Igbo announce the death of Igbo
language after a protracted illness caused by daughters and sons of Igbo land.
Igbo language left behind, a multitude of professionals, celebrities, able bodied
men and ladies of timber and caliber. The passing away of the highly respected
legend and statesman was a sudden death but by negligence of sons and
daughters of Ndi-Igbo. Enough of personification! In a recent news update “A
few days ago, the OBE TV in London broadcast world news in what they termed
THREE MAJOR NIGERIAN LANGUAGES Hausa, Yoruba & English.’ Previously
the three major languages of Nigeria were Igbo, Hausa & Yoruba.”
4.1 The Facts
It is a fact that Igbo people acknowledge that Igbo people exhibit a negative attitude
towards their language. This includes both the educated and non-educated population. It
is at the same time, a fact that many Igbo scholars have put up selfless efforts towards the
development and sustenance of the language. For instance, the popular annual Ahiajoku
lecture series, usually organized by the government of Imo State in conjunction with
other bodies; the popular annual faith-based Odenigbo lecture series, organized by the
Catholic Archbishop of Owerri. These and many other efforts are in place.
It is a fact that the UNESCO’s prediction itself has awoken Igbo scholars and
indigenes towards a greater conscious effort to keep their language alive, as several
clarion calls are being made by many Igbo scholars for a positive attitude towards the
language. “Love Igbo language and culture; have interest in saving Igbo language: speak
Igbo language all the time.” (Odionye & Odionye, 2008:90) “The day the Igbo language
dies is the day the word ‘Igbo’ will be no more. Many Igbos are working hard to keep
this prophetic ‘dying day’ from coming to pass and we hope it never comes.” (Chigbu,
It is a fact, in fact an irony that those who claim that UNESCO’s prediction is untrue are
among those who can neither read nor write Igbo those who have no scholarly work on
Igbo language to their credit those who boldly but ignorantly murder both Igbo and
English language in their speech and writing. The data we have in (5) above reveal
97 Asonye: UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death
certain obvious grammatical errors on the people’s comments. Let us consider the
following excerpts:
“Igbo language ga adgide.”* Igbo ga-adgide
Igbo ga adgide, ass Igbo ga adgide.” *Igbo ga-adgide, assx Igbo ga-adgide
Ass any eji’m mal anyị.”* Ass any ejim mal(ejiri mara) any
“Igbo people all over the world has and is still doing a lot in…”
*“Igbo people… have and are still…”
4.2 The Fables
UNESCO prediction of the Igbo language death is a fable to those who do not see it as a
possibility. It is a fable to those who do not and have not made any effort to contribute to
the further development of the language, yet are not proud to use their language either in
speech or in writing.
The prediction of Igbo language death is a fable to those who do not even see the
death of the language especially among the younger generation. As such they do not see
the need for any call to save or revive the endangered language. Such people despise the
Igbo language and yet they have problem with English language. The endangered status
of Igbo language is a fable to the average enlightened Igbo parent who wants his or her
child to excel in English language and to have little or nothing to do with the Igbo
5. Conclusion
We chose to discuss this topic this time and in this paper, believing it is the right time to
contribute to several other academic works that have aimed at saving the Igbo language
from possible extinction. It is our stand in this paper that although the so called UNESCO
prediction includes the Igbo language as among the dying languages, Igbo people have
not abandoned their language, and may not abandon it. Against the above views of
different authors is the fact that people in the rural areas in the core Igbo zones and some
urban areas still make use of the language in every day interaction and communication,
especially in the market places, the churches and other public places.
The importance of language to human kind cannot be overemphasized. The
peoples’ language is their primary tool to assess their world, communicate and interact
among themselves and at the same time establish their culture and identity. True as this
may be, many languages of the world have been recorded dead or extinct at different
times, and the usual question: “where were the language users when their language was
gradually dying?” well-meaning Igbo indigenes do not want to entertain this question,
and so they call on the people to save Igbo language before it goes into extinction.
Asonye: UNESCO Prediction of the Igbo Language Death 98
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of America.
Chigbu, U. 2008. The dearth of Igbo language. (Online):
articles/ 2008/apr/062.html. Assessed on 2nd Feb, 2012.
Chumbow, B.S. 1990. The place of the mother tongue in the national policy on
education. In E.N. Emenanjo ed. Multilingualism, minority language and
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Crystal, D. 2006. A dictionary of linguistics & languages 5th Ed. Oxford: Blackwell
Fishman, J.A. 2001. Why is it so hard to save a threatened language? Revising language
shift revisited: A 21st century perspective. Clevedan: Multilingual Matters.
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The Hague: Mouton.
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Onyekwelu, V. 2008. Asusu Igbo a na-anwu anwu is Igbo language dying? (Online):
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Association with Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka.
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The debate on African Indigenous knowledge systems and their link with African cultural practices and belief systems has elicited serious debates. The colonial administrators and their Christian missionary associates viewed African traditional or Indigenous knowledge and educational systems as unscientific, illogical, anti-development, and ungodly. This jaundiced view of African knowledge systems must have informed the apparent neglect of research on African education and cultural belief systems. This is in spite of the fact that the 1997 Global Knowledge Conference in Toronto, Canada, urged people to urgently learn, preserve, and exchange Indigenous knowledge. In Africa, Indigenous education is culture based on the methods and means of instruction used by different societies to impart their values and mores with the aim of attaining their societal/culturally specific visions, goals, and aspirations. For the Igbo, the latter statement is very true as evident in some of the proverbs, witticisms, aphorisms, and adages about education and culture. These bodies of knowledge emphasize conscious and refined methods of acquisition, and dissemination of knowledge of societal values, philosophy, and hermeneutics. Given these merits, it would be germane for serious scholarly research to be conducted among the Igbo, who of all in current context appear to be more “Catholic than the Pope” among other ethnic groups of equal standing in Africa. Anchored on the qualitative method of research, and field investigations, the present study intends to interrogate the nexus between cultural practices, belief systems, and education in traditional African society using Igboland as a case study. Questions to be addressed include but are not limited to, how was knowledge transmitted in preliterate Igbo societies, are those strategies still relevant, if not what are the options available? If relevant, how do we incorporate them to suit present realities?
It is estimated that majority of Nigeria's indigenous languages (for instance Ijaw, Urhobo, Calabari, Tiv, Kanuri, Efik, Gwandara, Angas, Idoma, etc.) are endangered and can be prevented from dying through language documentation. Language documentation aids in the maintenance and sustenance of the oral traditions of speech communities and the grammar and lexicon of a language. This paper discussed the relevance of Library and Information Communication Technologies in indigenous language documentation, revitalization and maintenance focusing on Nigeria's endangered languages. It reviewed and examined the place of the library as a reservoir of information and the unique role of ICT facilities in the development and management of indigenous language materials. The research showed that Nigeria's indigenous languages can be documented using libraries and ICT backing. The library plays the role of a language store house and via the application of Information Communication Technologies; opportunities for easy and stress-free access to indigenous language resources in the libraries, whether in electronic and print formats, would become possible to both language researchers and learners. This paper called the attention of the Nigerian government, indigenous language professionals, linguists and other cooperate organisations to the importance of using the library (print and virtual/digital formats) and ICTs for the effective documentation of Nigeria's endangered languages. When these indigenous language materials are made readily available for public consumption, such postulations about their extinction by UNESCO (2003; 2006) will naturally fade away.
John Bendor-Samuel earned a M.A. in history at Oxford University in 1955 and a Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of London in 1958. He has worked with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) since 1955. After serving as a linguist-translator in Peru and Brazil, he initiated SIL's work in Ghana in 1962 and then gave leadership to SIL in many African countries until 1983. He also directed SIL's British School for 25 years. From 1984 to1992, he served as Chief Executive Officer of SIL and of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Subsequently he has served on the International Boards of both organizations. Throughout this period, he has continued to engage in linguistic research in African languages, and from 1965 to 2000 he was a member of the Council of the West Africa Linguistic Society. In addition to authoring some 20 linguistic articles, he served as Editor of the Journal of West African Languages from1982 to 1994. He also edited The Niger-Congo languages (1989).
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