Standardization of Africa’s Native Dialects

Through the lens of Yoruba and Igbo

To the novice, major African Cultures like Yoruba and Igbo are singular entities with common languages that have existed since the proverbial Tower of Babel. However, beneath the surface, some of these cultures are anything but simple with diverse sub-cultural characteristics.

Prior to working on the Yoruba101 and Igbo101 language-learning apps, I hadn’t given much thought to the standardization of our diverse local dialects. However, since releasing both apps, I’ve had a series of interesting engagements and reflections that have now brought the subject to the fore.

Let’s take my family for example.

My paternal and maternal grandparents are from Ondo, Ogun, Lagos and Osun states in Nigeria respectively. All four fall under the Yoruba-speaking people yet have distinct languages. Growing up, I observed moments when either had their close-knit relations around. My paternal grandmother spoke Ijebu with hers while grandpa spoke Ondo with his. Even though as a child, I understood Yoruba, their spoken dialects sounded foreign to me. Also, both Ijebu and Ondo seemed different from the other. Outside those exceptional moments, we spoke the standard Yoruba at home and at larger events involving both families.

What is the standard Yoruba language?

The Yoruba language that is taught in schools and spoken by many across Nigeria is the standard Yoruba. It’s also the one adopted for the Yoruba101 app. In his book, “A living tradition, studies in Yoruba civilization”, Professor Louis J Munoz explains it as follows

The appellation Yoruba, also used to describe their [the different groups that constitute the Yoruba people] common language, within which several dialects might be distinguished, spread gradually to the different groups, even though they kept their own personality…. Anglican missionaries developed a written language based on the Oyo speech which was thus promoted to standard language and popularized by the Yoruba translation of the Bible by Bishop Ajayi Crowther

Is Igbo any different?

Interestingly, Igbo language has a similar story as I got to experience firsthand while working on the Igbo101 app. Following its release, I shared a photo from the app on Instagram which prompted a feedback from a user.

Chimdinduaneke pointed out that he’d never heard of the term Nnukwunna for grandpa. A week after, I was on set for a shoot where I got into a conversation with the cameraman, Eloka. I put it to him and he said he’d heard of it. Interesting contrast!

Shared photo from the Igbo101 app on Instagram

This sort of engagement remains one I’m receptive to as it promotes a further understanding of the subject. It hints at one of the memorable moments I had while working on the Igbo101 app where my partners Florence and Emeka disagreed over translations of certain words even though both understood the standard Igbo; Igbo izugbe. It wasn’t difficult to understand why. Florence hails from Anambra State and speaks the Agụata dialect while Emeka from Mbaise, Imo State speaks a different dialect.

As the neutral guy, my observation was that Florence and Emeka leaned towards their dialectical translations, thus raising the issue of the complexity of standardization. Given that standardization of Igbo is itself a process that possibly draws from different dialects makes it all the more understandable.

To get more firsthand experience of these complexity, one has to go beyond the broader confines of the geographic boundaries defined by states across Nigeria’s sub-regions. It requires drilling down to villages and towns within each state. Cosmopolitan Lagos presented me with a testing ground so I didn’t have to stray far.

My Alaba Adventure

Alaba international market is perhaps the biggest concentration of Igbo traders in Lagos, Nigeria. The market is a beehive of activities for electronic goods and Igbos by their enterprising nature make up over 90% of the merchants. In the company of my partner Hafeez, we visited different shops where we had our friends try out certain sections of the Igbo101 app. As much as we could, we had people from different Igbo ethnic groups. Below is a snapshot of the results for some words between our respondents and that used in the Igbo101 app.

The most engaging part of the exercise occurred with Chief Edmond Bishop Oruruo, a merchant in electrical power parts. A well-versed Igbo man, Chief Edmond talked at length about the diversity of the Igbo language. He even shared more cultural insights beyond the scope of this article.

Concerning the subject of standardizing the language, he recalled watching a program on TV a long time ago where the great writer Cyprian Ekwensi and some other Igbo scholars openly debated what the term for university should be called. It was an insight into the complexity of standardizing our local dialects even by scholars.

One particularly striking mention was the Ebonyi people. While other Igbo dialects are distinguishable, I heard Ebonyi’s is on a different plane all together. Unfortunately, we could not get a hold of any Ebonyi-born merchant during our round.

With Chief Edmond Bishop Oruruo

Conclusion

Like every subject, the standardization of our diverse dialects has its pros and cons. While it makes for an easy way to teach, learn and communicate among diverse sub-cultural groups, there are questions around how to balance the use of words from the different dialects. And since every language presents a distinct understanding of its culture, it helps to get a sense of what the original speakers of the dialects feel about the erosion of their dialects by adopted standards?

Following my experience, I have a better appreciation of the standard Yoruba and Igbo languages however complicated they seem. I’m also curious to know what obtains across Africa in relation to other native languages.