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Are we Igbo or Ibo? Any Difference?

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

Igbo is the language of Igbo people, an ethnic group, or tribe, of the indigenous people of South Eastern Nigeria. The written form of the Igbo language as we now have it was developed by European missionaries, specifically, the "Linguistic Missionary Corps" whose primary aim was to develop the grammar as well as the written form of native languages of their colonies. Their primary motivation was to have the bible translated and made available in the native tongues of European colonies across Africa and South America.

Igbo was one of the languages that benefited from the (worldwide) work of those specialized missionaries. And they did a commendable job giving us our language in a written form. However, our language contained many phonetic sounds that did not exist in European languages. These Igbo sounds were represented in special letters that we can call, "Compound Letters:" CH, GB, GH, GW, KP, KW, Ṅ, NW, NY, and SH.

Each of the compound letters represents a sound that is specific (but not necessarily exclusive) to the Igbo language. As it turned out, many non native Igbo speakers do not want to be burdened with learning to properly make some of these phonetic sounds. When such people encountered words that contained these compound letters, they did their best, they sounded the closest they could. Most European colonial officials, missionaries, and explorers fell into that category. That was how we ended up with some people calling us or our language, "Ibo" instead of "Igbo." Historical records show that our tribe and language were also spelled as "Ebo," "Eboe" etc. Funny enough, I grew up hearing many Igbo people say that the language was Igbo but that the tribe was Ibo. There is no such thing as Ibo people or "Ndi Ibo." We are Igbo people! Anyị bụ ndị Igbo!!! Our language is also "Igbo." And it does not make a lot of sense to say that the tribe and the language can be different, one from the other. Rather, you could say that the language derives its name from the tribe, or vice versa.

These Igbo sounds were represented in special letters that we can call, "Compound Letters:" CH, GB, GH, GW, KP, KW, Ṅ, NW, NY, and SH. There are also three special vowel sounds that are unique to Igbo. These are represented by the letter I O U with a dot mark under each letter as follows: Ị Ọ Ụ.

So, if you are among those that have difficulty with the proper pronunciation of these compound letters, be comforted that it is nothing new and you have plenty of company. However, the fact that folks have difficulty with the proper pronunciation does not alter the phonetic sound by the represented letter(s). Every letter in the Igbo alphabet has its distinct and consistent phonetic sound! And because Igbo is a tonal language, the phonetic sound of any Igbo letter never changes, regardless of its location in a word/spelling.

So again, for the umpteenth time, we are not Ibo people. We are Igbo people and our language is also Igbo, no more, no less. I'd like to also point out that the word Ibo is not even a noun in the Igbo vocabulary. A word that does not exist in the vocabulary as noun cannot possibly form the name of the people whose language we are talking about. The only "ibo" in Igbo vocabulary is a verb. It is also pronounced with a different tone, and its meaning has nothing to do with the name of our tribe or our language. Below is a breakdown of the verb "ibo."

(Main verb - ibo; Active - bo; Present - na-ebo; Past - boro). This is one of my favourite words in Igbo vocabulary because it is a word, though common, yet so unique to the Igbo experience that the English language does not have an equivalent verb that translates "ibo." So I can only translate it descriptively: "ibo" means, "to help lift a load/object and balance it on one's head." For example, "I nwere ike ibo m ite mmiri a?" translates: Can you help me lift this pot of water to balance it on my head? Outside of this, the word "ibo" does not exist or occur in any other way or fomr in Igbo vocabulary.

I have also encountered many Igbo learners who have been told that the "g" in Igbo or the "g" in their name like "Chigbo," is silent. Such people end up calling themselves "Chibo." That too is not correct. No letter in any Igbo word is ever silent. It is that simple! If you have difficulty pronouncing the "gb" in Igbo or any other word, it is understandable. It is also understandable that some may never master certain pronunciations enough to sound like native speakers. Just keep working at it. More strength to you!


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