Igbo Grammar

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Grammar: Language and Pronunciation


Igbo language is one of the many languages spoken in Nigeria. Since its independence, the main languages in Nigeria have been Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, also known by the word ‘wazobia’, i.e. ‘wa’ in Yoruba, ‘zo’ in Hausa, and ‘bia’ in Igbo, all meaning ‘to come’. Igbo is predominantly spoken in Abia, Imo, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi and parts of Rivers and Delta states. Speaking English, you can get by in most parts of Igboland, though in some very remote areas, only Igbo is understood.

Igbo language is classified as a Niger-Congo language and belongs to the Kwa sub-group of languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that some of these Kwa languages have been spoken in roughly the same locations as today for over 4,000 years. Main characteristics for the Kwa languages are the tones and vowel harmony.

Tones (also called contrastive pitch) are used to differentiate words that are written identically. For example, the same word in Igbo may have four different meanings depending on its pitch. In tone languages, pitch is a property of words, but what is important is not absolute pitch but relative pitch. Igbo language makes use of two main tones: the high tone (such as u as in “rule”) is pronounced with the tongue bent towards the roof of the mouth. The low tone (such as a in “father”) is produced with the tongue flat and low in the mouth and with the mouth a bit wider than for high tones. Considering the high and low tones, akwa can mean either weeping (high-high tone), cloth (high-low), egg (low-high) or bridge (low-low).

Vowel harmony involves words which are either built up of a combination of syllables with an i, e, o or u vowel, or on the other hand a combination involving syllables with an a, ï, ö or ü vowel, for example:


Igbo Igbo
anü meat, animal
ezi pig
ülö house


Syllables with both combinations of vowels rarely occur in one word, unless it is a compound word or compound verb. Also, some of the suffixes do not harmonise with the verb stem.

Igbo vowel harmony

Vowel Harmony

Many words in the language are built up from smaller words, not to say for a few English words that have been copied directly. There are a wide variety of dialects, some of which resemble each other, though others might have totally different vocabularies and pronunciations, though word order and tone are consistent throughout the grammatical Igbo structure. The two main dialect zones, Onitsha and Owerri, have most words in common, but there are some differences in the vocabulary, for example:


Onitsha Owerri
kedu olee what, which
one ole how many
fa ha they
afa aha name


Igbo written language is phonetic and it uses most of the English alphabet. The consonants are similar to the use as in the English language, though there are separate combinations of consonants, i.e. gb, gh, gw, kp, kw, nw, ny and sh, which are official recognised letters. The sh combination is hardly used. In addition, there is one other character, ñ, which is a voiced nasal ‘n’. These characters and some of the various combinations are listed with their pronunciation below:


  as in pronounced as meaning
gb egbe e-gbe hawk
gh agha a-ga war
gw gwa g-wa to tell
kp akpa a-pa bag
kw kwaa kwaa also, too
mm mmiri m-miri water
nn nna n-na father
ñ añülï anju-li happy, merry
nw nwa n-wa child
ny nyaa n-ya to drive


For the vowels, the difference is more distinguishing. Some of the vowels have an umlaut (this is according to the New Standard Orthography; in previous versions of Igbo orthography there was a dot below the vowel) above the letter indicating a different pronunciation:


vowel pronounced as in
a arm
e set
i see
ï pit
o go
ö author
u put (verb)
ü shot


The Igbo alphabet as found in dictionaries, is in the following order:


a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, gb, gh, gw, h, i, ï, j, k, kp, kw, l, m, n, ñ, nw, ny, o, ö, p, r, s, sh, t, u, ü, v, w, y, z


Grammar: Personal Pronouns


Separable Inseparable
mü, m I, me, my (verb) + m I
you , your i, ï you
ya he, his, him, she, her, it, its o, ö he/she/it
anyï we, us, our  
unu you, your (pl.)  
ha they, them, their  


The pronouns in Igbo language have two forms: separable and inseparable. The inseparable forms only apply to the singular pronouns and are found as the single subject in direct combination with the main verbs of a sentence, as in


bi live (verb stem)
ebi m I live
i bi you live
o bi he/she lives


Note that for the first person singular, the m follows the verb stem.

Separable pronouns are not confined to its sole purpose as a subject with a verb and can be used as a subject, direct and indirect object, for example:


buru carry (verb stem)
anyï buru gï we carry you
unu buru mü you carry me
mü na gï buru ya me and you carry him


They can also follow a noun in possessive relationship:


di husband di m my husband
di gï your husband
di ya her husband
nwa child nwa m my child
nwa anyï our child

Grammar: Present Tense and Imperative


For the present tense of verbs, the verb stem is used. If the personal pronoun follows the verb (which is the case for the first person inseparable pronoun), an a- or e- prefix is attached to the verb stem in line with the vowel harmony, i.e. an a- prefix for verb stems with an a, ï, ö or ü vowel; an e- prefix for verb stems with an i, e, o or u vowel:


bi live (verb stem) chï carry (something in the hand) (verb stem)
ebi m I live achï m I carry


This prefix falls away with the other pronouns. The second and third person inseparable pronouns harmonise with the verb stems:


i bi you live ï chï you carry
o bi he lives ö chï he carries


Separable pronouns do not require harmonisation:


anyï bi we live anyï chï we carry
unu bi you (pl.) live unu chï you carry
ha bi they live ha chï they carry
mü na gï bi me and you live mü na gï chï me and you carry


Other example:


be (verb stem)
abü m Mike I am Mike
ï bü emeka you are Emeka
ö bü emeka he is Emeka
anyï bü Mike na Emeka we are Mike and Emeka
unu bu Mike na Emeka you are Mike and Emeka
ha bü Mike na Emeka they are Mike and Emeka


The negative present tense is formed by harmonising the verb stem with the harmonising prefix a or e and suffix ghi or ghï in the following manner:


abüghï m Nick I am not Nick
aha m bü Michael; aha m abüghï Nick my name is Michael; my name is not Nick.
anyï chï anü we carry meat
unu akwöghï anyï you do not carry us
ebi m na Achara Layout I live in Achara Layout
ebighi m na GRA I do not live in GRA


The imperative uses the verb stem without any prefix:


nye give
gwa tell


The imperative can be followed by a noun or pronoun:


nye m ego give me money
gwa m tell me
kwuo ya say it
züö akwa buy a cloth
unu zaa ala you (pl.) sweep the floor
ka ha gaa let them leave
ka anyi laa let us go (home)
ka anyi gaa let us leave


The negative imperative is formed with the prefix e- or a- and suffix –ne or –la, both harmonising with the verb stem:


erine do not eat
azala do not sweep
unu azala you do not sweep the floor


Grammar: Numerals


otu 1
abüö 2
atö 3
anö 4
ise 5
isii 6
asaa 7
asatö 8
itolu 9
iri 10
iri na otu 11
iri na atö 13
iri abüö 20
iri abüö na otu 21
iri atö 30
iri atö na otu 31
iri asatö 80
iri itolu 90
narï 100
narï abüö 200
puku 1,000
puku atö na iri abüö na iri 3,210
nde 1,000,000
ijeri 1,000,000,000
ökara half


Only otu and ökara precede the noun; the other numbers follow the noun:


otu ülö one house
ülö ise five houses
otu naira one naira
naira abüö two naira
ökara naira half a naira


Note that the noun does not change if it is in plural.


The ordinal numbers are as follows:


mbü first
nke abüö second
nke atö third
nke anö fourth




ülö mbu the first house
ülö nke abüö the second house
abü m mbu I am first


Grammar: Infinitives, Participles and Auxiliaries


Infinitives have a vowel prefix, i or ï, harmonising with the vowel of the verb stem.




ime to do
isi to cook
ire to sell
igbu to kill
izute to meet
ili to bury
ikwö to carry on one’s back
ïta to chew
ïnü to hear
ïchö to want
ïza to sweep
ïmü to learn


The negative infinitive has the e- or a- prefix and ghi or ghï suffix, both harmonising with the vowel of the verb stem:


emeghi not to do azaghï not to sweep
etoghi not to grow amüghï not to learn


Participles are formed by a preceding vowel, e- or a-, and the verb stem:


esi cooking aga going
eme doing amü learning


The participle is used with an auxiliary to specify its action. The auxiliary precedes the participle and is connected with it through a hyphen if immediately followed by the participle.




na used as auxiliary to specify continuing action in the present:

ana m azü anü I am buying meat
ö na-esi anü he is cooking meat

ga used as auxiliary to indicate future action:

aga m azü anü I will buy meat
ö ga-esi anü he will cook meat


The negative form has an a- (or e-) prefix and ghï (or ghi) suffix attached to the auxiliary:


anaghï m azü anü I am not buying meat
ö anaghï esi anu He is not cooking meat


Grammar: Adjectives


In Igbo, adjectives can immediately precede or follow the noun or pronoun to which it belongs. Most commonly used adjectives are:


öma good, beautiful
öcha white, clean
oji black
öjöö ugly, bad
ukwu big
obele small
niile/dum all, each, every




ö bü akwükwö öcha it is white paper
ewu dum nö ebea all goats are here


If the adjective is not directly preceding the noun or pronoun, the noun form of the adjective is used:


adjective noun form
öma mma
öcha ücha
öjöö njö




akwükwö dï ücha the paper is white
ewu dum dï mma all goats are good


The same principle as described above, applies to demonstrative adjectives, they can only follow or precede the noun immediately:


-a this, these ahü that, those
ülöa this house, these houses ülö ahü that house, those houses


These adjectives also form the demonstrative pronouns:


nkea this nke ahü that
ndïa these (group) ndi ahü those (group)
ihea this (thing) ihe ahü that (thing)
ebea here (place) ebe ahü there




nkea dï mma this is good
nke ahü dï njö that is bad
ndia di mma these are good
ihe ahü dï njö that (thing) is bad
ebe ahü dï njö there is bad


The verb ‘to be’ can be translated by three different verbs: , and . The verb is most commonly used for ‘to be’; is used with a noun and not adjectives and indicates the quality or location of something ; is used for the presence of someone in a location:


ö dï mma it is fine
ö dï n’elu akpati it is on top of the box
ö nö ya? is he in?
ö nö ebe ahu? is he there?


Grammar: Tense and Suffixes


In Igbo language, verbs do not distinguish between present and past tense. The meaning of the verb is generally changed by the suffix that specifies the action in the present or past. Some of these suffixes harmonise with the verb stem, others do not, and sometimes multiple suffixes can follow each other in a combination.


The most commonly suffixes used are:


action in the past (he did)
-la/-le completed action (he has done)
-bü/-bu a past continuous action (he used to do)
-ri past completed action (he did)
-ba continue doing, starting an action (start doing)
-go already completed the action (have done)
-bago already completing the action (already doing, already done)
-lu to indicate an intensification of the action of the verb
-ta brings an action to completion
-kwazi also, as well
-re present continuous action (is doing)




ö zütara anü he bought meat
o butere ya he brought it
ï bïara? did you come?
o gwüla it is finished
o rule it is time
ana m azübü anü I used to buy meat
o biri ebea he lived here
o riri anü he ate meat
o bigo ebe ahü he has lived there
o rigo anü he has eaten meat
o ribago nrï he has already started eating
anabago m I am already going
ö nabago he has already gone
chelu wait!
weta ego bring money
abukwazi m Mike I am also Mike
Olee ka i mere? How are you doing?


There are more verb tenses in Igbo language. One tense is used to start a conversation or speech or is used in a sentence introduced by another verb. This tense is formed by a harmonising a- or e- prefix with the verb stem:


unu enwere mmiri na ökülatrïk? do you have water and electricity? (opening question)


To go in more details would go beyond the scope of this book, and I would suggest to read the grammar books mentioned in the references.


Parts of the Body


parts of body
Author depicted by young neighbour

enwere m isi I have a head
o nwere mkpïsï aka iri he has ten fingers


Grammar: Prepositions


Prepositions are words used before a noun or pronoun to specify a place, position or time. In Igbo, there is only one preposition na. When preceding a vowel, it has the tone of that vowel and is written n’ instead.


ö nö n’ülö he is in the house
ö dï n’ala it is on the ground
ö dï na ji it is on the yam


In combination with a noun, it can specify the location of the preposition in more detail:


Noun Preposition
enu top
okpuru underside
ime interior
akükü edge
na in, at, on
n’enu on top of, up
n’okpuru under, below
n’ime inside
n’akükü beside




ö dï n’enu akpati it is on top of the box
ö dï n’okpuru akpati it is under the box
ö dï n’ime akpati it is inside the box
ö dï n’ akükü akpati it is beside the box


Grammar: Interrogative Pronouns


Interrogatives are used to ask a question. In Igbo, a question can only be initiated by either an interrogative or a personal pronoun.


Following interrogatives are commonly used:


how, when, where, which
gïnï what
maka gïnï why
ebee where, which place
ole how much, how many
onye who


The pronoun could be followed by ka or ihe in case the interrogative is not the sole subject of the sentence.




olee maka ndi be gï? how about your family?
olee ihe ha kwuru? What did they say?
olee ka i mere? how do you do?
gïnï ka unu na-eme? what are you (pl.) doing?
ebee ka ï nö? where are you?
ego ole ka ö bü? how much money is it?
onye ka ï bü? who are you?
onye mere ihea? who does this?
onye ka ihea mere? who does this happen to?


If the interrogative is missing in a question, the verb must be preceded by a pronoun:


ö nö ya? is he in?
adï m mma? am I good?
ö nö ebe ahü he is there


Grammar: Conjunctions


Words that can connect two words or sentences are called conjunctions. Most of the conjunctions start with an initial consonant:


kama instead of
mgbe ahü then
tupu until
maka as, so
otu as, that
mana but, if, that, whether
na and, that
ka mgbe since
ka so that, that




achörö m anü kama ökükü I want meat instead of chicken
i risie nrï mgbe ahü gaba you eat, then you go
eri kwala nrï, tupu na mü agaba do not eat until I go
maka na ihea dï mma, ka m jïrï goro ya as this is good, I buy it
ö dï mma otu osighi wee dï önü it is good, as it is cheap
ïhea mara mma mana ödï önü this is good, but expensive
mü na gï nö ebea me and you are here


Source: igboguide.org/

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