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.

  4. We don’t expect everyone in Europe to write in some averaged version of major European languages

    No, but everyone reads and writes Standard German in the German-speaking lands, despite the mutual unintelligibility of their spoken varieties.

  5. David Marjanović says

    there should surely be a standard language available for public purposes that is intelligible to all

    Who is “all”? If the speakers think they’re all speaking the same language and want to have a way of writing that’s intelligible to all of them (but not necessarily to others, so not in English or in West African English-Based Creole), standardization makes sense; otherwise I question the endeavour. Standard German spread from sea to shining mountains because the speakers all thought their dialects belonged to the same language, and didn’t spread to the Netherlands because people there thought otherwise.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I think Michael Farris has got it. This is part of Achebe’s take on colonialism and his not unnatural association of missionary work with colonialism.

    It’s true enough that missionaries are frequently the driving force behind the attempt to create standard languages, generally for the purposes of Bible translation. It’s a big enough task translating the Bible into a new language without having to worry about making lots of different versions for people who could at a pinch read the one you’ve already come up with; linguistically sophisticated organisations like SIL nowadays spend a lot of time looking into questions of dialect versus language, taking into account (as you have to) not only straightforward mutual intelligibility but speaker attitudes.

    There are two major dialects of Kusaal, and the one with more speakers has become the de facto standard, not least because of the Bible translation. However, the speakers of the numerically smaller dialect think their own language is “purer”, and that spills over into how far they are prepared to say they can understand the majority dialect, along with more obvious factors like how far they’ve actually been exposed to it.

    They *do* all believe that they speak the same language, perhaps partly because there’s a strong association of language with ethnicity in that area, and they all uncontroversially reckon they’re part of the the same ethnos. From an outsider’s point of view, it’s noticable that one of the neighbouring “languages” is actually very similar to the smaller Kusaal dialect.

  7. From the Wikipedia article:

    The standardized Igbo language is composed of fragmented features from numerous Igbo dialects and is not technically a spoken language, but it is used in communicational, educational, and academic contexts. This unification is perceived by Chukwuma Azuonye as undermining the survival of Igbo by erasing diversity between dialects.

    The second sentence makes no sense. Surely it is the lack of a standard language that is dooming Igbo, if it is fact doomed (“There is some discussion as to whether the Igbo language is in danger of extinction, advanced in part by a 2006 UNESCO report that predicted the Igbo language will become extinct within 50 years”). It is not clear to me whether all/most speakers believe that they speak the same language, but it looks to me (in my utter ignorance) like they’d rather have the language die out altogether than allow a standard Igbo to omit their own dialectal peculiarities.

  8. It’s kind of strange to talk about Igbo and see a date 1972 without even mentioning what was happening to the Igbo people shortly before that.

    Namely – the Igbo attempted to secede from Nigeria and form their own nation – Biafra. They fought a bitter war and lost. Millions died in what many believe was a genocide by Nigerian authorities.

    And in just two years after this bloody war ended in 1970, the government apparently decided to seal its victory by imposing “Standard Igbo” on the vanquished.

    No wonder this version of Igbo doesn’t enjoy widespread popularity.

  9. Good point, and thanks for the reminder.

  10. And in just two years after this bloody war ended in 1970, the government apparently decided to seal its victory by imposing “Standard Igbo” on the vanquished.

    No wonder this version of Igbo doesn’t enjoy widespread popularity.

    Sorry, that is a mistaken observation. The government of Nigeria (if we ever had any) has never tried to impose Standard Igbo on anyone. If you have followed the arguments from the top of this page, the battle for standardization of the Igbo language has been going on from the colonial times and Standard Igbo only found the day light after the civil war, thanks to the efforts of the Standardization Committee of the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC).

    The problem with the Igbo language is not the multiplicity of dialects, and it is unfair to suggest that Igbo dialects are largely mutually unintelligible. The problem rather is with the misguided generations of Igbo elites intent on perpetuating the war on dialect supremacy at the expense of the growth of the language as a whole.

    Every language of the world is naturally blessed with a multiplicity of dialects, including the English language. No one will ever suggest that any one dialect or another should eclipse any other. The Yorkshire man in England will always speak his Yorkshire dialect, just like all his kin across the rest of the English counties. But they will all always comply with the standard English writing system if they want anything they commit to paper (or web pages) to be understood by anyone else. That, I believe, is the point of standardization, a point which our dialect supremacists have failed to get.

  11. Thanks! It’s so hard to get a handle on these debates from outside. Your approach and conclusions certainly make sense to me.

  12. The Yorkshire man in England will always speak his Yorkshire dialect

    Less and less so, actually. The Yorkshire accent remains, but the Yorkshire dialect is fading fast. So what we end up with is a variety of regional accents of the Standard (in the case of English, thousands of them thanks to the large number of people speaking English as a second language), and a few dialects like African-American hanging on here and there. This is also the case in much of France and Germany (but not Austria or Switzerland).

Speak Your Mind