Language and Culture

The rich heritage of Igbo Language and Culture

Culture according to Ian Robertson “all the shared products of society: material and non material”. He further views language as the keystone to culture for without it, we cannot pass on the collective experience of society and the lessons it teaches for survival. In other words, language is the primary way that we pass on our culture from one generation to another.

The essence of this write-up is to stimulate discussion on the ways we could revive the Igbo language and culture in the face of it going into extinction. In doing this, we need to look at the past to build the future. We need to articulate those things that led to the abysmal state of the Igbo language and culture. In the words of Professor Chinua Achebe in his lecture “Tomorrow is pregnant today is early enough” on the 4th of September, 1999 at Odenigbo House, Villa Assumpta ,Owerri , he remarked “the future is another way we say that tomorrow is pregnant”. Language being the keystone to culture, what then should be done to promote the Igbo language and culture which is fast going into extinction?. A quick assessment of Igbo language situation in Nigeria is a reflection of shame which is a burden to every Igbo man or woman. Why is it that some children of Igbo parentage only manage to utter few words or none at all in Igbo? Our first language obviously should be our native language. We should be proud to speak our language because it is a reflection of our identity. The Igbo man or woman is the least to be proud of his language and often times we feel ashamed to speak or acknowledge our heritage. We speak English to one another even when we come from the same area. Very many of us are guilty of this.

Does speaking English give us status and power within our community? The answer is not farfetched and the present state of things can be placed at our conscious effort of imitating the Western culture. Why can’t we be a master of our language and culture and re-discover our common rich heritage and values? Our enterprise, community spirit, creativity, hard work, good moral values and great sense of social justice are products of our rich cultural heritage.

Today, there is apathy to the study and teaching of Igbo language in schools within the Igbo community. People are less interested in serious study on Igbo language. You cannot get periodicals or newspapers published in Igbo in contrast to the vast array of books, newspapers and periodicals in other languages. Few of the Igbos can make monolingual presentation through and through in Igbo. In most cases we speak in a mixture of English and Igbo. How has the mighty fallen? The Igbo that used to be emulated by others are falling behind in their fundamental identity – language.

The missionaries like T.J. Dennis and J. C. Taylor had a great impact on the development of the Union or Central Igbo. Igbo is spoken in different dialects like many other languages. We did not seize the opportunity we had to have a union Igbo developed by us because of the problem of reaching a compromise on the dialect to be used. Each group posited that their dialect was the best. Despite this uncompromising attitude the missionaries persisted and developed the Union Igbo with the first translation of the Bible in Igbo Language. Our intransigence is the bane of the present state of things in relation to Igbo Language and Culture. We seem to always quarrel among ourselves over unimportant things. We need to give credit to some of our Igbo scholars for the selfless job they have done and continue to do without which we would have moved from crisis position today to catastrophe.

One of the deepest truths in Robertson’s definition is that Language as a means of communication holds a key to our Culture and our ability to pass it on. If we lose our language, we would lose one of the major things that enrich our collective experience, the wealth and survival of societal norms. Language enables us to develop new ideas to apply to the future. The Sapir Whorf hypothesis states that “language not only reproduces our ideas, but it also shapes the way we think. It orders our reality”. We can now understand why we should deepen the use of Igbo Language. Babies are born without language. But by the age of five most of them know several words and would have reasonably mustered some of the rules of grammar. This incredible feat of learning is accomplished with little or no formal schooling but has to do with how you as a parent relate to your child. The family is the basic platform for easy appreciation and study of language. In almost all Igbo homes, English seems to have displaced the Igbo Language as the first language resulting to the present unacceptable state of the Igbo Language. This clearly shows that we are responsible for the aberration. Apathy on the use of Igbo language as a common means of communication has had great impact on our dwindling cultural values, norms and social control. We have sufficiently thrown overboard some of our strong cultural norms considered important to our well-being and moral standing. Hence the flagrant display of such vices as cheating of various kinds, incest, stealing, corruption and child abuse. In fact, honesty has taken a back seat. We embellish the adoption of Western values to the detriment of our culture. Most of the things we considered as taboo previously are now treasured with pride. Culture does not make us what we are but we also make culture. It guides us through life, but we also change and modify it to our needs. Granted, there are so many of our cultural practices that are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. An example of such bad cultural practices is the one that denies a widow the property of her husband.