History of Igbo Orthography

Orthography is the representation of the sounds in a language by written symbols. Orthography refers to the alphabet of a language. It is not the same as dialect. There is currently one orthography in use in Igbo language. This article is on the history of Igbo orthography and how we arrived at the current orthography. There are five main stages.

1. Nsibidi
The earliest known form of writing in Igbo land is the Nsidibi script. It was used by Igbo people and their neighbours in the present-day Cross River and Akwa Ibom states. Nsibidi is an ideogram, and it is independent of any particular language, therefore it was understood by Igbo, Efik, Ibibio and speakers of other languages who were trained to understand it. The use of nsibidi was restricted to the local police and courts. The local police and courts and the attendant nsibidi script were replaced by colonial government and christianity and the Latin script.

2. English Alphabet
The Europeans (mainly British) arrived with the 26-letter latin alphabet:

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The alphabet did not capture all the Igbo sounds. For instance, Igbo was spelt as Ibo, because there is no equivalent 'gb' sound in English.

3. Standard Alphabet
Karl Lepsius was called upon to adapt the latin alphabet to meet the needs of African languages, including Igbo. In 1854, Lepsius published the Standard Alphabet for African Languages. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) adapted Lepsius’ Standard Alphabet to produce the first Igbo Orthography comprising the following 34 letters:

a b d e f g h i k l m n o p r s t u v w y z gb gh gw kp kw n nw ny ọ š dš tš

The Standard Alphabet had only six vowels, which was not adequate for the vowel sounds in Igbo language.

4. Orthography of African Languages
In 1927, the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC) published the Practical Orthography of African Languages. The two main proponents of this orthography were Mr. Adams (Inspector of Education) and Dr. Ward (a language researcher from Britain). The orthography was later known as the Adams-Ward Orthography. The Orthography of African Languages introduced two new letters to represent two vowel sounds: e and ɵ. The new orthography did away with diacritical marks. The orthography was made up of the following 36 letters (8 vowels and 28 consonants):

a b c d e ε f g gb gh h i j k kp l m n ŋ ny o ɔ ɵ p r s sh t u v w y z gw kw nw

The Catholic mission which had not done lots of publications adopted the Orthography of African Languages, but the Church Missionary Society (Protestant mission) which had done most of their publications using Lepsius’ Standard Alphabet decided not to adopt the Orthography of African Languages. As a result, the Lepsius’ Standard Alphabet and the Orthography of African Languages existed side by side.

5. Official Igbo Orthography
As a result of the lack of agreement between the two main stakeholders in education (the Catholic mission and the Protestant mission). The government set up a Committee headed by Dr. S. E. Ọnwụ to recommend a script which would be acceptable to the Catholic mission and the Protestant mission. On 28 November 1953, the committee came up with the following orthography:

a b gb ch d e f g h gh i ih j k l m n gn o or p kp r s sh t u uh v w y z gw kw nw ny

The orthography introduced the letters ih, gn, or, uh to replace the diacritics. The orthography was neither accepted by the Catholic mission nor the Protestant mission. Consequently, a lot of Igbo scholars came up with their orthographies, and the number of orthographies increased instead of decreasing. The government was keen on establishing and maintaining order. So, the Ọnwụ Committee was reconvened. Whereas one of the goals of the first Ọnwụ committee was to remove the diacritics, one of the goals of the second Ọnwụ committee was to reintroduce the diacritics. In 1961, the Ọnwụ committee published the Official Igbo Orthography. It became known as the Ọnwụ Orthography and comprises the following 36 letters:

a b gb ch d e f g gw gh h i ị j k kp kw l m n nw ny ṅ o ọ p r s sh t u ụ v w y z

In 1973, the Standardization Committee of the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC) made additional recommendation for the alphabet to be re-arranged in this order:

a b ch d e f g gb gh gw h i ị j k kp kw l m n ṅ nw ny o ọ p r s sh t u ụ v w y z


Vowel Comparison - Orthographies
# Ọnwụ IIALC Lepsius English
1 a a a a
2 e ε e e
3 i i i i
4 e
5 o o o o
6 ɔ
7 u u u u
8 ɵ

Ọnwụ Orthography and Dialects of Igbo Language
The Ọnwụ orthography is the orthography that is currently used for writing Igbo language, and it is used for all Igbo dialects. There are arguments that more letters are needed to cater for the dialectical variations in pronunciations.

Although that argument seems reasonable, as the current Igbo alphabet is not perfect, but even the English alphabet we prefer to teach our children is not perfect. Think of how many ways the 't' in 'water' is pronounced from Abuja to Glasgow to London to Texas to Ottawa and so on. There is no value in having more letters. We can have one spelling and a variety of pronunciations.