Monday, September 13, 2010

On Nigerian Languages

Uwe Seibert is German, has a Ph.D. in African Linguistics and has done research on Chadic languages in Central and Northeastern Nigeria. He likes blogging and is the owner of Hausa Online, Karin Magana, Ron-Kulere meeting place and one of the editors of Chadic Newsletter. He recently agreed to an email interview with me on Nigerian languages:

JW. Approximately how many languages are currently spoken in Nigeria?

US: According to the Ethnologue, an encyclopedic reference work cataloging all of the world’s known living languages, the number of individual languages listed for Nigeria is 527. For Africa as a whole, there are 2110 languages listed. This means that in Nigeria alone, about one quarter of the languages of Africa can be found. Looking at the rest of the world, only Papua New Guinea (841) and Indonesia (726 languages) have higher numbers.

JW. What are the main language groups in Nigeria?

US: Nigeria is not only rich in languages, there are also many different language groups. First of all, three of the four language macro-families of Africa are represented in Nigeria: Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan. Within the macro-families, there are subgroups, e.g. Atlantic, Benue-Congo, Chadic, Mande, and Saharan. These language groups are quite different in terms of their vocabulary and grammatical structures. An Atlantic language like Fulfulde is quite different from a Benue-Congo language like e.g. Igbo and Yoruba, a Chadic language like Hausa or a Saharan language like Kanuri. Within a language group, of course one can find similarities. And you can always find similar words, but this is mostly due to borrowing, often from English or Arabic.

JW. How many languages currently spoken in Nigeria do you expect to die out in the next 10-20 years?

US: This is really hard to predict. Many of the more than 500 languages of Nigeria are quite small and often only elderly people speak them really well. If their children - who still understand and speak a reduced form of these languages - fail to teach them to their children, these languages are definitely in danger of extinction. This could happen to a large percentage of Nigerian languages within the next 20 years. But again, speakers of such languages may decide to take steps to prevent their language's death and it may become vital again. In German we have a saying "Tot Geglaubte lebenlänger" which could be translated as "The one you thought already dead will outlive you". In any case, any language's death is a loss in global language diversity, which is as bad as loss in biological diversity.

JW. Do you expect any of the larger population languages in Nigeria to die out in the next 50 years, if so, which?

US: This is hard to imagine. I don't think that larger population languages like Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Kanuri, Fulfulde or Tiv will die out so easily. But again, this depends on the speakers. If they fail to teach the language to their children and decide to use another language instead, it could happen.

JW. What can languages tell us about the history and culture of those that speak them?

US: Language, culture and history are closely related. People who speak a language also belong to a certain culture. Their language is an expression of their culture's values, attitudes, and thoughts. There is even an ongoing discussion that your language actually shapes your thinking.

A people's language and culture is the product of their present and past experience. For that reason, the study of a people's language may provide clues about their history. But we must be careful with our conclusions, especially about racial relationships. There was a time in the early stages of the scientific study of African languages when some scientists thought that all the people in Africa who were cattle herders and whose languages had a certain grammatical feature were also racially related.

JW. Many ethnic groups in Nigeria trace their origin from elsewhere. Is there any way in which the analysis of language can help authenticate these claims?

US: Again, language study may provide clues. One would expect that people who speak closely related languages also have a common origin. For example, Chadic languages are spoken in Niger republic, Chad, Cameroon and Northern and Central Nigeria. Chadic languages are distantly related to the Berber languages in North Africa, Cushitic and Oromic languages in East Africa, Semitic languages like Arabic, Ethiopian and Hebrew and the extinct Ancient Egyptian. It may well be that in the past they all lived together in one area and then migrated to different directions from there. But again, you must be careful with your conclusions. In hsitory, one can find cases of people taking over totally unrelated languages. Any serious historian will take all sources of information into consideration. In any case, the study of language history can be quite exciting.

JW. Is there any evidence of there having been writing in any Nigeria language from before colonialism?

US: I haven't heard of any. Of course, writing didn't start with colonialism. Hausa was written with Arabic letters long before the Europeans came to Nigeria.

JW. What is the most unusual Nigerian language and what makes it unusual?

US: Every language is unique and you can find many interesting features in Nigerian languages. Many are "tone languages, i.e. they use pitch to signal a difference in meaning between words or different grammatical forms. Some languages have grammatical gender, others have noun class systems. You can find some rare sounds in Nigerian languages, like e.g. a labiodental flap. This sound begins with the lower lip placed behind the upper teeth. The lower lip is then flipped outward, striking the upper teeth in passing. Try to do that yourself.

JW. Which do you think is the most difficult Nigerian language to learn and why?

US: I guess Fulfulde is hard to learn. It has a very elaborate noun class system with more than 20 noun classes. The plural forms of nouns are highly irregular and often do not resemble their singular form. There is also initial consonant mutation between singular and plural forms of nouns and of verbs.

JW. The only well developed local language fiction writing in Nigeria is in Hausa. What is your opinion of Hausa literature?

US: I am afraid that my knowledge of the Hausa language and literature is too small to have an opinion. I enjoy reading Hausa stories as long as the style is not too difficult. I am happy to see that Hausa is used in all kinds of media, including newspapers, TV, radio and the internet. I wish many more Nigerian languages would be developed like that.


Sugabelly 5:10 pm  

What is this man talking about? Igbo was written with Nsibidi thousands of years ago. Admittedly, it was heavily restricted (for obvious reasons) but it was still a legitimate writing system for a Nigerian language.

How can he call himself an expert on Nigerian languages if he doesn't know this?

ade 5:13 pm  

Really interesting post Jeremy - thanks! But Yoruba has a well developed literary heritage of poetry and fiction #amjustsaying

Jeremy 5:13 pm  

@Sugabelly - I was thinking of Nsibidi when I asked the question. However, what evidence is there that Nsibidi is 'thousands of years old' as you say? Is there a stone or an artefact with Nsibidi written on it that has been carbon dated? I'd love to know more..

There is also the question of whether there is a script on the Ikom monoliths, and if so, what script it might be...

Uwe Seibert 7:09 pm  

@Sugabelly: Even though I have studied some Nigerian languages, I admit that I don't know all the facts. That's why I said "I haven't heard of any". Now that you mentioned the Nsibidi I checked on Google and found the following:

"Nsibidi is an ancient system of graphic communication indigenous to the Ejagham peoples of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon in the Cross River region. It is also used by neighboring Ibibio, Efik and Igbo peoples. Aesthetically compelling and encoded, nsibidi does not correspond to any one spoken language. It is an ideographic script whose symbols refer to abstract concepts, actions or things and whose use facilitates communication among peoples speaking different languages."

So if Nsibidi is an "ancient system of graphic communication" it may well qualify as a pre-colonial writing system. But that is not my area of study.

Anonymous,  10:01 pm  

What the hell is niger-congo? why link youruba language to congo? How is that possible? yoruba is an ancient Sudanic language tracing its roots to the pre-arab invasion of Egypt.There is the story of an ancient prince from Mecca settling in the current abode of the lands of the Yoruba.
Yorubas came from the mediterranean regions not from the southern Congos foul!!!.
There are even several morphed words in it that links it to north Africa.
Why would`nt this donce go be an expert in languges he is more familiar with in the west.

Anonymous,  10:41 pm  

Yoruba certainly has a well developed literary heritage. Hausa is not the only language in Nigeria that is well developed in written form. Please desist from quoting certain opinions as fact when asking questions. A lot of people read your blog and may think that what you said in this instance is fact rather than opinion.

Prism of an immigrant 11:12 pm  

@ Sugarbelly, take it easy now. Ah Just because he has a PhD in African languages or whatever doesn't mean that he would know every single detail about Nigerian languages. :D

This was an interesting subject. I believe that maybe if we do some archeological diggings we might find old Nigerian writings.

KT 11:59 pm  


Yoruba has been classified as a Niger-Congo language for a very long time. And there are probably more words that link Yoruba to Eastern Africa than to Northern Africa so read wide before you shoot.

I've personally found it interesting that while some of the culture and history derive from middle-eastern cultures, much of the language has similarities to those of the Eastern (and perhaps even Congo) areas of the continent. If we would just take a look at archeology and anthropology, it won't be so hard to believe that humans moved from East to West, and not the other way around.

In any case, more research needs to be done in the areas of historical linguistics as there are very many things that we are yet to figure. And don't blame the linguist. He's just doing his part.

Anonymous,  1:04 am  

Nice one there. Great job my mr. Uwe Seibert. They should make him minister of culture and tourism for real. If only the govt would do something to preserve our local languages.

Anonymous,  1:26 am  

"But again, this depends on the speakers. If they fail to teach the language to their children and decide to use another language instead, it could happen."

Tell 'em Mr. Uwe. Nigerians are no longer teaching there kids there local languages as it is seen as "local" ( uncivillized and backward). The govt. through the use of the educational system should step in and demand that one must be able to pass his language test before going to university as a way of preserving the local culture.

Anonymous,  2:30 am  

i always knew nsibidi to be of ejagham origin and used by the ekpe society, and ibibio peoples. it's news to me the igbo used it as well.

hope the source of this script, the ejagham people, isn't forgotten here

Uwe Seibert 7:59 am  

@anonymous: Sorry, but I didn't invent the terminology for the current classification of African languages. For some reason, it often uses names of rivers and lakes or other geographical features, e.g. Niger-Congo, Voltaic, Saharan etc.

BTW: I would be glad if the readers of this blog would follow some simple rules of politeness.

Jeremy 8:30 am  

I don't think there's any evidence that Nsibidi was ever used by the Igbo. It was a hermetic script used by the Egbe secret society in the main. I wonder how many ideographs there actually are in Nsibidi- I have yet to find any scholarship out there. Possibly Sugabelly is confusing Uli with Nsibidi?

As for a well developed literary heritage in Yoruba - this is something I'd love to know more about. I know there are playrights and poets aplenty, but how many novellists have written in yoruba? How many people read them and are they still popular today? Is there an equivalent of Kano market literature, with books selling in the 10's and sometimes 100's of thousands?

As Dr Seibert suggests in the interview, it would be wonderful if more writers/poets went into the riches of local languages a lot more in Nigeria, to preserve and develop otherwise hidden aspects of Nigerian culture.

Anonymous,  12:08 pm  

yeah, folks need to stop being so harsh and dismissive towards Uwe. May have to do with him being oyinbo

Jeremy 12:22 pm  

To the anonymous who wrote (apropos of Yoruba being part of the Niger-Congo group): "How is that possible? yoruba is an ancient Sudanic language tracing its roots to the pre-arab invasion of Egypt".

This is an interesting response, which I'm not sure is backed up by any (linguistic or otherwise) evidence.

Many different ethnic groups in Nigeria have an oral origin story related to the Middle-East in one way or another (some Igbos, the Borgu, Bornu, some Yoruba, some Fulani).

As we know, just as with individual memory/recollection, so too with oral legend - there are many factors involved in how the story evolves across time. There's some fascinating scholarship for instance on the claim among the Borgu to descend from Kisra of Mecca. It is clear in that case that the origins of the Borgu are in fact much more complex.

However, I wonder whether there is an unconscious (or otherwise) negative connotation/response to linguistic analysis/categorisation that places, for instance, the Yoruba language in line with what must have been a slow migration from the South (along with the Tiv and many other languages) rather than the north. Is there an unconscious preference to be associated with Egypt, the mediterranean and perhaps as close to Jerusalem as possible?

The oldest populations of the human species are found in southern and north-eastern Africa. It is no surprise that migrations from both areas must be in the mix in Nigeria, and that migrations back from the Middle-East are to a significant degree oral fiction motivated by other factors..

Anonymous,  12:26 pm  

Thank you anonymous 12:08, racism is rife amongst black africans especially 'we' mannerless, intolerant Nigerians who can't bear the fact that a white foreigner probably knows a lot more about our history culture origins better than most of us.

@ sugabelly, it'll be advisable you stick to your man /self loathing issues rather than come here to insult another especially because you don't appear to know that much of what you speak about. And yes,he can call himself an expert - no one ever proclaimed that experts knew it all or where above mistakes. Read his response and read ur comment - who has egg on their face now?

Chill and go learn some manners child :)

CodLiverOil 12:40 pm  

This is something I've long remarked to a friend of mine about.

Why is it Nigerians are so quick to associate themselves with coming
from the Middle East? Yet the people in Middle-East pay little attention (if any at all), and want next to nothing to do with Nigerians. There may be some faint historical connections (which some people for whatever reason are blowing up out of proportion. Yes there may have been some adoption of words and habits from North Africa, and some genetic ancestry), but the fact of the matter, is that Nigeria is in Africa, and it's peoples are predominantly black African peoples.

It kind of reminds me of the black people of Zanzibar, who say they are descendants of Persians, there may be a sprinkling of Persian ancestry amongst a few middle to upper class families (in Zanzibar), but the bulk of them are black African. To be Muslim doesn't mean you are Arab or Persian.

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Uwe Seibert 2:31 pm  

@anonymous 12:26 (good idea to use the comment time, since almost every one is "anonymous" here): Thank you for defending my status as an "expert". The truth is: I know very little about most of the languages spoken in Nigeria and probably I won't have enough lifetime left to change that.

@sugabelly: I don't want to see any egg on your face - as much as I don't like to be thrown eggs at. Let's all be a bit more friendly. A smile makes you look more beautiful and makes other people happier.

Anonymous,  4:27 pm  

@ Anonymous 12:26
"racism is rife amongst black africans especially 'we' mannerless, intolerant Nigerians who can't bear the fact that a white foreigner probably knows a lot more about our history culture origins better than most of us."

Can you hear yourself?
Give us a break! The fact that one disagrees with someone from a different race now qualifies one as mannerless?

Anonymous,  7:18 pm  

i don't know that racism is rife among black africans, just that the treatment of Uwe may stem from it. or maybe it's something rational like the fear of cultural misappropriation.

Anonymous,  8:48 pm  

easy on Sugabelly, it does get frustrating when one has to constantly challenge pre-conceived notions about 9ja etc.

On the other hand, Sugabelly, remember that project you were working on with your masters class on 9ja, I sent you a link on languages. They were carefully compiled by Uwe Seibert! If you used that at all he was key to that well deserved A lol!

@Uwe, I was a student of Linguistics at UniJos (graduated 91) when you first attended. I remember you being so lanky we wondered if you ate at all :) You looked so lost, so far from home. Glad you've done well for yourself. I gave up Linguistics for another profession although I'm beginning to find it fascinating, something I couldn't quite muster when I was in UJ.

Anon UJ

Jeremy 9:06 pm  

A good discussion. I think we can all agree that with 527 to choose from, no linguist or linguistics professor can hope to be an expert in more than a handful (or maybe two handsful) of Nigerian languages.

As with so many other aspects of Nigerian culture and history, there is so much that is yet to be researched and analysed.

In a parallel universe, there would be tens of linguistics departments in Nigeria busy taking the weight of people like Dr Seibert!

Sugabelly 10:03 pm  

@Uwe: Most of the information about Nsibidi available on the Internet is sketchy at best.

Nsibidi is a logographic writing system (similar to Kanji/Chinese Kana) in which whole concepts, words, or ideas are represented by one symbol.

It was developed by the secret societies that are common to the Igbo and the Efik/Ibibio thousands of years ago and was heavily restricted as a means of protecting cult secrets and maintaining power etc.

Today most of it has fallen into disuse obviously and it has been impossible to get a complete listing of all symbols partly because of the effects of colonialism and westernization and partly because the secret societies that DO know about it want to keep it well... secret.

Nsibidi can be found on most authentic Igbo masks older than say 70-80 years, but probably the best place to find Nsibidi is on the clothes worn by secret society members during cult activities. It's also on some of the graves of cult members.

And it WAS a legitimate writing system. Unfortunately the folly was that it wasn't allowed to spread into the general population as a standard means of literacy. Of course there were members of the Igbo masses that knew Nsibidi but from what research I've been able to do, it's obvious that the literate secret societies only taught it to non-society members on a strictly need to know basis.

Then of course, English came along and wiped it all away anyway.

As for the age of Nsibidi, well consider the fact that with the exception of artefacts that were stolen from Nigeria during the occupation and the Punitive Expedition, very little archaeological work has been done in Nigeria. Oh there've been digs here and there but certainly no major concerted effort.

Nsibidi is at least 500-1000 years old, and probably older, but then again, it was written mostly on fabric rather than on paper, and considering that most of the fabric used by Igbos until the 16th century and beyond was pure organic cotton, I would wager that most of whatever was written has long since decomposed in the ground seeing as cotton is biodegradable.

Sugabelly 10:09 pm  

RE: Nsibidi Use by Igbos

There is a common misconception that Nsibidi was invented by the "ejagham" people.

This is untrue.

There are a number of secret societies that are shared by the Igbo, the Ibibio (and sometimes the Efik).

Nsibidi was created by one of these societies (and if I'm not mistaken it was the Ekpe cult)

Uli is an Igbo artform that makes use of Nsibidi but I'm not confusing Nsibidi with Uli.

Just making that clear.

Jeremy 10:34 pm  

Sugabelly: are you referring to the punitive expedition that destroyed the Aro Confederacy? Of all the aggressive colonial adventures, this was surely the most defensible (among a long list of indefensibles), given the Aros role in controlling the slave supply routes to the Bight of Biafra.

If you ARE referring to the destruction of the Aro gangster network, then you are also implying that Nsibidi was part of the Long Juju right? That would make sense. It reminds me - I recall reading recently (I think in Crowder's Story of Nigeria) that the people of Arochukwu never believed in the Long Juju themselves, they always knew it was a con...

Sugabelly 10:47 pm  


Yep, I'm referring to THAT punitive expedition.

It is not implausible to assume that the Aros (or at least those of them who were in power and of influence) knew about /used Nsibidi.

Considering the needs of their activities (their extensive network of spies, mercenaries, agents, etc), they would DEFINITELY need to send messages long distance to all sorts of people and given the nature of some of the activities they engaged in, the fewer people that could read those messages the better for them.

So I certainly would not rule it out. In fact, it might even be a key factor in how their reach extended so far (it's impossible to build that kind of extensive network without some means of reliable communication).

Also, I think that when most people think of Nigerian history they tend to think from colonisation forward. Noone remembers that before Nigeria it was a bunch of empires and kingdoms all neighbouring each other.

Of course there were power struggles and turf wars. Maybe between the smaller territories illiteracy might have been okay, but if you're talking about all the big empires in the south that were so close to each other, for the elite to be illiterate is unthinkable. How else would large scale wars be carried out? How else would people plot and betray each other and backstab their allies in order to gain even more power, influence, and wealth? There were obviously writing systems and other communication forms existent in Nigeria but when you take into account the fact that by the time the British arrived on our shores, most if not all the Nigerian empires were ALREADY in their decline and combine this with the fact that from the 19th century downward in most of the empires/kingdoms/etc of the world, MOST of the people (i.e. the peasants/non-elite/non-noble/non - aristocratic/lay people) either were completely illiterate or were only partially literate (again- need to know basis... such as market women knowing how to do basic accounting but not knowing sophisticated poetry) then it is not surprising at all that by the time the British arrived, there was very little left of any of the Nigerian writing systems (save of course for Arabic - which of course was imported anyway and so doesn't count).

Anonymous,  12:59 am  

@ Sugabelly, an apology to Uwe would have been good. He is too gracious. I don't think he asked for your explanation on nsibidi.

Secondly, learn to quote/cite ur references. It'll be good for the rest of us to analyse ur sources and not just take what you write as fact... you get my drift? If you believe the info on the internet is too sketchy, direct us to the wholsome info. tnx

Anonymous,  3:31 am  

Sugabelly, what you stated isn't correct about the origins of nsidibi. For one the igbos share no secret societies with the ibibios and efik.

Ekpe society is purely an efik invention and doesn't even exist among the ibibios, though a few ibibio men have been allowed the join. The richest of the nsibidi found in the ejagham society and its wide use on structures suggests it's origin stems from them. Nsbidi doesnt translate into igbo The Igbo claim is nothing more that cultural misappropriation. Yes I know the ejagham are small but let's not marginalize them further. Soon we'll be told the monoliths were placed there by igbos

Anonymous,  4:09 am  

@ Jeremy,

If Nsibidi was indeed "a hermetic script used by the Egbe secret society" then it follows that it must have been used by the Ibos since the Egbe secret society thrives among the Aro (particularly Arochukwu), Bende and Abriba peoples of Ibo land.

Uwe Seibert 11:15 am  

@Anon UJ: Thanks for the greeting. I have gained some weight since then. ;-)

Sugabelly 4:14 pm  

@Anon 3:31: Nope! The Ekpe is not purely Efik. It's actually much larger on its Igbo side.

@the other anon: Did I ever tell you that I was God and you must accept everything I say or die a blazing death of fire?

Exactly.. I didn't so draw your own conclusions

@Uwe: I apologise if I seemed rude in my initial outrage but you did say that there were no Nigerian writing systems in your interview. Seeing as you are considered an expert, statements like the one you made will probably become the backing emboldening people to say things like Africans are primitive and backward because they never achieved writing....when the reality is that 90% of Africa's (and most especially Nigera's) past has either been forgotten or still lies undiscovered.

I attend university in the US and you have no idea how many otherwise intelligent people in my classes have come up with such amazing gems during class discussions as

There are no banks in Africa
Africans never had any writing systems

There was no formal education in Africa before the Europeans came

Africans have contributed nothing in the arts

All Africans are farmers

and so on

Imagine having to sit through class after class listening to such rubbish and then to hear confirmation of it in an expert's interview when you know otherwise.

Uwe Seibert 5:28 pm  

@sugabelly: Apology accepted. I didn't claim that writing hasn't existed in Nigerian languages before colonial times. I wrote "I haven't heard of any" which is true, as I hadn't heard of Nsibidi before. My fault. It's good you mentioned it, so people can make their own opinions.

Concerning my being an "expert" on Nigerian languages - I am afraid I need to lower people's expectations. The fact that someone has earned a Ph.D. in any field usually makes him or her an expert only in his or her topic of research - not in all the other topics.

I learned some Hausa and I earned my Ph.D. writing a dissertation thesis on "The Daffo variety of Ron", a small Chadic language spoken in Central Nigeria. Later I did more research on other Chadic languages. I never studied Igbo, Yoruba, Tiv, Fulfulde and all the
other languages spoken in Nigeria.

When I worked at Unijos from 1998 to 2000 I participated in the competition "Nigeria on the Net 1999", and earned a price for my "Nigerian languages page" which was later put online at the University of Iowa. Some of the information you find there is actually outdated by now. I am glad it helped you with a project anyway.

Today I publish articles on Hausa and other Chadic languages on my different blogs - while earning my living doing something else. I rarely get a chance to travel to Nigeria any more.

Hope my life story didn't bore you. I wish you a nice time of study in the US (I spent two years at CU Boulder). Try to be patient with ignorant people.

pam 9:28 pm  

Hi. Nsibidi can still be found on the wrappers efiks, camerounians and quas tie... mostly men.

Theres an interesting excavation that was done by prof ekpo eyo in calabar years ago. ancient pottery. decorated with nsibidi. maybe women wrote this language in the past? cos they made the pots im sure... article,+Nigeria%3A+towards+a+history+of+nsibidi-a0160331983

pam 9:37 pm  

the age of the ceramics shocked every one. certainly nothing like that is being done in that area anymore. 5th to 14th? century or so. I ran a joint at the museum so the team of his phd students hung out there the 2 summers it took to do most of the work...

Uwe Seibert 1:27 pm  

For those of you who want to dig further into the structure of some Nigerian languages: A new e-book entitled, Verbal Categories in Niger-Congo Languages, by Derek Nurse, Sarah Rose and John Hewson, is now available. Each chapter of the book is available to download for free in PDF format from:

Gin 12:55 am  

Nsibidi is the writing of the Ekoi people, but it's not the only indigenous writing system in southern Nigeria. Other writing formats are the Aniocha symbols and the Mbari symbols. There are probably even more, but they aren't given much attention. Aniocha and Mbari were invented and used by the Southern Igbo. Nsibidi is probably older than them, but this is just a guess.

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