Long before the incursion of Europeans into Igboland, we had our own system of Igbo alphabets called NSIBIDI which we used for a wide range of graphic communications. However, NSIBIDI was not taught to all or mastered by all. Learning NSIBIDI was an exclusive right given to only privileged members of secret societies or groups in Igboland such as members of Okonko or Mmanwu groups.
In pre-colonial Igbo societies, NSIBIDI was written on walls of buildings or caves designated for spiritual activities. NSIBIDI was phased out of Igbo graphics communication system with our embrace of colonialism.
One man that has contributed immensely to the development of the Igbo alphabet system is Olauda Equiano.
Olauda Equiano was an igbo man who was captured and sold as slave to Americans in the late 17th century. According to a book titled: “The Foundation of Igbo Studies,” Olauda hailed from Isaka. Some scholars said Isaka should have been either Isi-eke in present day Ebonyi state or Nsukka in present day Enugu state.
Indeed, it was true that Olauda was an Igbo man captured and sold as slave but he later made his mark in life and became a first-class American scholar. When Abraham Lincoln ended slave trading in America, it was announced that former slaves who desired to stay back in America should first re-learn their native African language for at least 3 years before opting to learn the formal English language in American schools. It was at this point that Olauda Equiano arose in Pennsylvania state and gathered other Igbo sons and daughters who were former slaves, and began to teach them how to write and read in Igbo language.
Olauda Equiano’s School of Igbo Language Studies was the first ever formal setting in the world where Igbo language alphabets were studied and taught. From that point till 1961, Igbo language alphabets have undergone major development and changes that we could classify as generations.
- FIRST GENERATION: Isuama Igbo Alphabets (1766 – 1900):
Isu is a village in Nkwerre town in present day Imo state. The local dialect with which Olauda used in teaching Igbo language studies to his students back then in the 18th century was that of Isu, and for that reason, the first generation Igbo alphabets were referred to as Isuama Igbo Alphabets. The problem with Isuama Igbo and Olauda Equiano’s school of Igbo Language studies was the modification of Igbo language with too much American accent and intonation that Igbo language no longer sounded Igbo to the ears.Isuama Igbo Alphabets are;
a b c d e f
h I k l m n
o p r s t u
v w y z
The above alphabets were later modified to include;
gb gh gw kp kw n
nw ny o sh ds ts
- SECOND GENERATION: Union Igbo Alphabets (1900 – 1929)
This era coincided with the colonial era and the spread of Christianity in Igbo land. Anglican Rev. Thomas J. Dennis of Dennis Memorial grammar School (DMGS), Onitsha established a school were Igbo language was taught freely to all who cared to learn. Rev. Dennis looked into the various native dialects Onitsha, Owerri, Uwani, Arochukwu, and Bonny in Rivers state, and developed an Igbo alphabet system that could make meaning to all Igbos. So, the new set of igbo alphabets he created was used by him to do the first ever translation of the Christian Bible in Igbo language. Hence, Igbo bibles are called “Union Igbo Bibles.”Igbo union alphabets as put together by Rev. Dennis are as follows:
a b ch d e
f g gb gh h
I j k l m
n o o p kp
r s sh t u
v w y s sh
t u v w z
gw kw nw ny
- THIRD GENERATION: Central Igbo Alphabets (1929 – 1961)
Roman Catholic did not accept the Igbo union alphabets may be because it was the work of Anglican priest so they formed their own Igbo alphabets and promoted by a man called Ida Ward. The introduction of central Igbo language brought confusion among scholars and students of Igbo language as well as great competition between Igbo Catholics and Anglicans which lasted until 1961.
- FOURTH GENERATION: Onwu Alphabets (1961 – Present)
in 1961, a committee of Igbo language scholars was inaugurated with Maazi Onwu as chairman. The committee took a deep look at the conflict between the proponents of union Igbo alphabets and central Igbo alphabets and from both alphabet systems, a new set of alphabets was selected and named Onwu alphabets after the committee chairman because of the excellent work he put forth to end the scholarly conflict and blind competition.Hence, the current Igbo alphabets are 36 in all and as follows:
a b ch d e f
g gb gh gw h i
I j k kp kw l
m n n nw ny o
o p r s sh t
u u v w y z
The current igbo alphabets are classified into two groups – vowels and consonants.
Igbo vowels are 8: a e I I o o u u
Igbo consonants are 28: b ch d f g gb gh
gw h j k kp kw l
m n n nw ny p r
s sh t v w y z
The English alphabet not found in Igbo language alphabet system is only “X”
Written by Dunu Okigbo