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Language Learning: Igbo

This Guide is intended to assist in learning the Igbo language and culture of Igbo speaking people.

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Study Period Extended Hours

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About This Guide

This library guide is primarily intended for Igbo language learners at Boston University and contain information on library materials, Internet & community resources useful for learning and practicing Igbo language.

Culture & History overview

Igbo is the language spoken in Ala Igbo or Ani Igbo (Igboland) region of Nigeria by the people who are collectively referred to as "Ndi Igbo"; their community is known as "Olu no Igbo" ("those in the lowlands and uplands"). Before European colonialism, the Igbo-speaking peoples, who shared similarities in culture, lived in localized communities and were not unified under a single cultural identity or political framework, although unifying processes were present via expansion, ritual subordination, intermarriage, trade, cultural exchange, migration, war, and conquest. Villages and village groups were generally identified by distinct names of their ancestral founders or by specific names such as Umuleri, Nri, Ogidi, Nnobi, Orlu, Ngwa, Ezza, and Ohaffia.

There are several theories concerning the etymology of the word "Igbo" (wrongly spelled "Ibo" by British colonialists). Eighteenth-century texts had the word as "Heebo" or "Eboe," which was thought to be a corruption of "Hebrew." "Igbo" is commonly presumed to mean "the people." The root -bo is judged to be of Sudanic origin; some scholars think that the word is derived from the verb gboo and therefore has connotations of "to protect," "to shelter," or "to prevent"hence the notion of a protected people or a community of peace. According to other theorists, it may also be traced to the Igala, among whom onigbo is the word for "slave," oni meaning "people."

Location. Today Igbo-speaking individuals live all over Nigeria and in diverse countries of the world. As a people, however, the Igbo are located on both sides of the River Niger and occupy most of southeastern Nigeria. The area, measuring over 41,000 square kilometers, includes the old provinces of Onitsha, Owerri, East Rivers, Southeast Benin, West Ogoja, and Northeast Warri. In contemporary Nigerian history, the Igbo have claimed all these areas as the protectorate of the "Niger Districts." Thus began the process of wider unification and incorporation into wider political and administrative units. Presently, they constitute the entire Enugu State, Anambra State, Abia State, Imo State, and the Ahoada area of Rivers State; Igbo-speaking people west of the Niger are inhabitants of the Asaba, Ika, and Agbo areas of Delta State.

Demography. In 1963 the Igbo numbered about 8.5 million and by 1993 had grown to more than 15 million (some even claim 30 million, although there has been no widely accepted census since 1963). They have one of the highest population densities in West Africa, ranging from 120 to more than 400 persons per square kilometer. Igbo subcultures are distributed in six ecological zones: the northern Igbo in the Scarplands, the northeastern Igbo in the Lower Niger, the eastern Igbo in the Midwest Lowlands, the western Igbo in the Niger Delta, the southeastern Igbo in the Palm Belt, and the southern Igbo in the Cross River Basin.

Igbo-speaking peoples can be divided into five geographically based subcultures: northern Igbo, southern Igbo, western Igbo, eastern Igbo, and northeastern Igbo. Each of these five can be further divided into subgroups based on specific locations and names. The northern or Onitsha Igbo are divided into the Nri-Awka of Onitsha and Awka; the Enugu of Nsukka, Udì, Awgu, and Okigwe; and those of the Onitsha town. The southern or Owerri Igbo are divided into the Isu-Ama of Okigwe, Orlu, and Owerri; the Oratta-Ikwerri of Owerri and Ahoada; the Ohuhu-Ngwa of Aba and Bende; and the Isu-Item of Bende and Okigwe. The western Igbo (Ndi Anioma, as they like to call themselves) are divided into the northern Ika of Ogwashi Uku and Agbor; the southern Ika or Kwale of Kwale; and the Riverrain of Ogwashi Uku, Onitsha, Owerri, and Ahoada. The eastern or Cross River Igbo are divided into the Ada (or Edda) of Afikpo, the Abam-Ohaffia of Bende and Okigwe, and the Aro of Aro. The northeastern Igbo include the Ogu Uku of Abakaliki and Afikpo.

Linguistic Affiliation. Igbo is classified in the Kwa Subgroup of the Niger-Congo Language Family, which is spoken in West Africa. It is thought that between five and six thousand years ago, Igbo began to diverge from its linguistic related neighbors such as the Igala, Idoma, Edo, and Yoruba languages. There are many dialects, two of which have been widely recognized and are used in standard texts: Owerri Igbo and Onitsha Igbo. Of the two, Owerri Igbo appears to be the more extensively spoken.


Excerpt from:

Amadiume, Ifi. "Igbo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996. 5 Aug. 2016 <>.

Photo Sources & date taken:

1.A map of the Igbo-speaking community within Nigeria and within Africa, BlankMap-Africa2.svg, 2013.

2. Igbos in diaspora celebrating Iwa-Ji in Dublin, Ireland.  CC BY-SA 2.0 , 2008.




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