Thursday, March 23, 2006

On Nigerian languages, ethnicities and cultures..

Which of dem we go speak? …

One metre --
We travel to Umunede, we go speak Isoko,
We travel to Borno, say na Fulfulde,
We travel to Ughelli, dem go speak Urhobo,
We travel to Buguma, say na Kalabari,
We travel to Kaduna, dem go speak Hausa,
We travel to Okene, dem go speak Ebira,
We travel to Abbi, dem go speak Kwale,
Ogomola, dem go speak Okrika,

One kilometre means another language,
half a kilometre means another language, …
One metre …

We travel to Sokoto, dem go speak Fulani,
We go to Benin City, dem go speak Edo,
We travel to Onitsha, dem go speak Igbo,
We travel to Asaba-Asa, den Bendel we go,
We travel to Gboko, dem say na Tiv,
We travel to Otukpa, dem go speak Idoma,
We travel to Akure, dem go speak Yoruba,
We travel to Ase, dem go speak Aboh,
We travel to Uyo, na Ibibio,

We travel, we travel, we travel travel travel …
All I'm saying, Lingua franca …
One metre …

We travel to Patani, dem go speak Izon,
We travel to Vom, dem go speak Berom,
We travel to Ekpoma, dem go speak Esan,
We travel to Auchi, dem go speak Etsako,
We travel to idah, dem go speak Igala,
We travel to Bida, dem go speak Nupe,
We travel to Ogbakiri, dem go speak Ikwere

One question that's bugged me since I moved to Nigeria is how many different ethnic groups and distinct languages there are in the country. We hear different figures in different reports, without anyone ever quoting an official originary reference point. The World Bank and the UN like to suggest 250 in the documents I've seen, but I heard once that there are something like 200 languages in Niger State alone (that seems scarcely creditable however). According to the Index of Nigerian Languages (Crozier & Blench 1992) there are 500 extant languages. I've scoured the internet and found very little of substance. There are 478 languages listed here (helpfully categorised into language group) from Abanyom to Zumbun. This page was created by Dr. Uwe Seibert, Department of Languages and Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, University of Jos (email address [email protected]). However, it does not enumerate how many speakers there are for each language, how many separate dialects there are within each language (how many dialects of Yoruba are there, for instance?) nor does it state whether there is isomorphism between distinct languages and distinct ethnicities.

We therefore still do not know (and the census again will sadly not help us) how many living sustaining ethnic groups there are across this vast and polymorphous terrain. We therefore do not know which cultures are endangered and where (or what factors are leading to their potential extinction). In an increasingly homogenised world, cultural diversity is an inherent value within humankind that needs to be supported. I wonder if Dr Seibert is still carrying out his research, and whether there might be a tie-in with a well-funded African American/Black Studies programme overseas for this valuable research. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a website with all the languages of Nigeria available to listen to?


Akin 12:39 am  

Hello Jeremy,

It seems you are given to hyperbole in your declaration a language a kilometre.

Nigeria as an expanse of land is quite a large place and for the estimated 150 millions having just under 500 documented langauges is not necessarily out of the ordinary.

Modernisation obviously has brought about the fusion or adoption of common means of expression, but language is just one aspect of the whole complex of identity.

This does not even begin to address dialects which could in themselves be unique languages.

I did learn and probably master Yoruba, but my mother-tongue in the sense that it was the first I spoke and understood is English.

I never however went on to master Ijebu, in fact, I can still not string one sentence together in Ijebu despite the fact that I went to secondary school in Ijebuland.

Besides that, it should should not be unusual to discover even new languages in Africa, however, it requires analysis and research to determine the language group they belong to.

One could almost argue that the confusion of languages that occured at the building of the tower of Babel took place in Nigeria.


Information about Nigeria
A overview of Languages
A Study of Language families
Niger-Congo Languages - Tonal analysis

Baba sala,  4:53 pm  

Jeremy, you are an asset to us. Please keep the good work going

Chxta 12:08 pm  

In Umunede they speak Igbo...

sokari 2:22 pm  

I would say no one really knows the true number. And if we get into so called "dialects" it gets even more confusing as often these are so different that one can hardly call them dialects. For example some people include Kalabari in the Ijaw group of lanaguages whilst others do not as it stands on it's own. Kalabari speakers say they cannot understand the other Ijaw languages - apart from the occasional odd word here and there) There is also disagreement amongst Kalabari people as to whether Kalabari is part of the Ijaw or not and if so is it a "political" inclusion or an "ethnic or langauge". Interesting post - I think the study of languages of Nigeria would be an excellent research project for an organisation to take up. The tower of Babel analogy is a very good one.

Adaure 4:19 am  

Lyrics penned by Evi Edna-Ogholi...rawked that jam at my 10th way back when

Anonymous,  10:32 am  

I taught Borno it is Kanuri?

jof_views 5:08 pm  

Every town has it's own distinct dialect in Nigeria.

That's the diversity we are talking about.

Dr. Uwe Seibert 1:43 pm  

Dear Jeremy,

I has happy to see that my little website on Nigerian languages, which I created in 1999 and which hasn't been changed since then, caught your interest. I would like to add onemore information which may be helpful to you: You can find more info on Nigerian languages etc. at

All the best,

Uwe Seibert

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