Some languages acquire a standardized literary language more easily than others. I had not realized that Igbo (sometimes called Ibo, which is how you should say it unless you’re a whiz at coarticulated labial-velar stops) had such a long and contentious history of attempts at standardization; Achebe and the Problematics of Writing in Indigenous Languages, by Ernest N. Emenyonu, lays out the whole sorry history:

The Igbo language has a multiplicity of dialects some of which are mutually unintelligible. The first dilemma of the European Christian Missionaries who introduced writing in Igbo land in mid-19th century was to decide on an orthography acceptable to all the competing dialects. There was the urgent need to have in native tongue essential instruments of proselytization, namely the Bible, hymn books, prayer books, etc. The ramifications of this dilemma have been widening over the centuries in complexity.
Since 1841 three proposed solutions have failed woefully. The first was an experiment to forge a synthesis of some selected representative dialects. This Igbo Esperanto ‘christened’ Isuama Igbo lasted from 1841 to 1872 and was riddled with uncompromising controversies all through its existence. A second experiment, Union Igbo, 1905-1939, succeeded through the determined energies of the missionaries in having the English Bible, hymn books and prayer books translated into it for effective evangelism. But it too, fell to the unrelenting onslaughts of sectional conflicts.
The third experiment was the Central Igbo, a kind of standard arrived at by a combination of a core of dialects. It lasted from 1939 to 1972 and although it appeared to have reduced significantly the most thorny issues in the controversy, its opposition and resistance among some Igbo groups remained persistent and unrelenting.
After the Nigerian independence in 1960, and following the exit of European Christian missionaries, the endemic controversy was inherited by the Society for the Promotion of Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC) founded by F.C. Ogbalu, a concerned pan-Igbo nationalist educator who also established a press devoted to the production and publication of educational materials in Igbo language.
Through his unflinching efforts a fourth experiment and seemingly the ultimate solution, Standard Igbo was evolved in 1973…

But some are not happy with Standard Igbo either, notably Chinua Achebe, who delivered a furious denunciation at a pan-Igbo annual lecture in 1999.

Perhaps what was most revolutionary in Achebe’s Odenigbo Lecture was not what he said but rather what he did. Two decades after his initial condemnation of Union as well as Standard Igbo, Achebe had not shifted from his position that Igbo writers should be free to write in their various community dialects unencumbered by any standardization theories or practices. Then as now, he resented attempts to force writers into any strait jackets maintaining unequivocally that literature has the mission “to give full and unfettered play to the creative genius of Igbo speech in all its splendid variety, not to damn it up into the sluggish pond of sterile pedantry.” In keeping with this principle, therefore, Achebe wrote and delivered his Odenigbo lecture in a brand of dialect peculiar only to Onitsha speakers of the language and almost unintelligible to more than half the audience.

I fully support the right of every writer (or other user of a language) to use whatever dialect they choose, but there should surely be a standard language available for public purposes that is intelligible to all, and I hope the problems involved can be overcome.


  1. I’m not so sure. We don’t expect everyone in Europe to write in some averaged version of major European languages (they did so back in the Middle Ages, but this was before the concept of a literate populace); if the various I(g)bo dialects are mutually unintelligible, then it might be a similar situation.
    And seeing as Nigeria was part of the British Empire, it might choose the same approach that much of the world does, which is to use English as a universal language; I’m sure it’s not by chance that Achebe himself wrote many works in English. (I’m sure he’s not the best example, as IIRC he spent much of his youth in England, but still.)

  2. By the way, I wonder who put the “damn” in that quote? Did Achebe make a pun, or did some recorder or translator make a mistake, or what?

  3. michael farris says:

    His attitude puzzled me until I came across this note from his translator Frances W. Pritchett:
    “my impression was that he was so stung, and I believe rightly so, by the impertinence of Western missionaries … that his vision of what was best for Igbo speakers was obscured”
    at (with break):
    That makes sense and makes me wonder who’s the driving force behind standardizing written Igbo?
    If it’s just missionaries and Igbo speakers don’t choose to read and write in their own language then I’d agree that standarizing written or spoken Igbo is a waste of time. It could be that Igbo speakers are on the path of language shift toward speaking some form of “non-standard” English.
    Tellingly the “Igbo Language Index Page” doesn’t seem to have links to anything actually written in Igbo…
    If Igbo speakers are actually writing in Standard Igbo (imperfect orthography or not, missionary origin or not) then Mr. Achebe is probably being more a hindrance than a help and should probably get with the program or get out of the way.

Speak Your Mind