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Before the 16th century, the Igbo had an ideogram form of writing called “Nsibidi ideograms” (“Nsibidi” is an ancient system of graphic communication indigenous to the “Ejagham people of South-eastern Nigeria and South-western Cameroon in the Cross River region”).  This form of writing was also used by other neighbouring people like the Ibibios and the Efik.  The form of writing was invented by the Ekoi people for written communication.  This form died out most likely due to the fact that many of its users were members of secret societies such as Ekpe, who then made “Nsibidi” a secret form of communication and did not want to publicly discuss it.

(“Nsibidi”: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution and Oraka (1983), the foundations of Igbo Studies, pp. 17, 13). The first book to publish Igbo words was Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Bruder auf den Carabischen (German: History of the Evangelistic Mission of the Brothers in the Caribbean), published in 1777.  Shortly afterwards, in 1789, the interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, featuring 79 Igbo words.  The narrative also illustrated various aspects of Igbo life in detail, based on Olauah Equiano’s experiences in his hometown in Essaka (Oraka, 1983:21; Equiano & Olaudah, 1789: 9). In 1854, a German philologist named Karl Richard Lepsius made a “Standard Alphabet” meant for all languages of the world.  In 1882, Britain enacted an educational ordinance to direct the teaching of reading and writing only in English.  This temporarily inhibited the development of Igbo, along with other languags of West Africa and this was after the Igbo culture had been comprised by British imperialism in 1807, after slavery was abolished. ‘Central Igbo’, the dialect form gaining widest acceptance, is based on the dialect, of two members of the Ezinihitte group of Igbo in Central Owerri Province between the towns of Owerri and Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria.  From its proposal as a literary form in 1939 by Dr. Ida C. Ward, it was gradually accepted by missionaries, writers, and publishers across the region.  In 1972, the society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC, a nationalist organization which saw central Igbo as an imperialist exercise, set up a standardization committee to extend central Igbo to be a more inclusive language.  Standard Igbo aims to cross-pollinate central Igbo with words from Igbo dialects from outside the “Central” areas, and with the adoption of loan words.

The wide variety of spoken dialects has made agreeing on a standardized orthography and dialect of Igbo difficult.  The controversy over Igbo orthography began in 1927 when the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC) published a pamphlet called “Practical Orthography of African Languages”.  The consonants /kw/, /gw/ and /nw/ were added to represent Igbo sounds.  The pamphlet used some symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which brought a controversy with the missionary society who had used Lepsius’ writing for almost 70 years.  In 1929, the Colonial Government Board of Education tried to replace Lepsuis’ with the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures’ Orthography.  The Government, along with Roman Catholic and Methodist Missionaries, accepted and adopted the new orthography; however other protestant missionaries opposed it.  A standard orthography which is the current Onwu alphabet, a compromise between the older Lepsius alphabet and a newer alphabet advocated by the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC) was agreed to in 1962.

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