Thursday, March 05, 2009

A brief examination of the Ibo language

It feels like I'm more busy on vacation than I was when I was working. There just isn't enough time in the day.

Anyway, I was thinking this morning about Ibo (also spelled "Igbo"). If you've ever read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart then you've heard of Ibo, but otherwise you probably haven't.

The Ibo people are the largest tribe in Nigeria and they speak the most fascinating language. Other Nigerians have a similarly poetic language I believe, but the only one I know anything about is Ibo, although I don't know much. I've read Things Fall Apart like a million times because it used to be a staple of tenth grade English at my old school in North Carolina, and when I was in high school I worked at Boston Market with an Ibo man who told me all about his culture.

And what do you know, when I was an alternate juror on a rape trial last year, the victim's mother was Ibo. The defense attorney kept thinking he tripped her up. "When you first talked to the police, you told them you said 'Get away!' but now you're telling us you said 'Stop that!' Which is it?"

And she kept replying "It's the same thing," which baffled the attorney. Then again, this is the same attorney who seemed to think it was impossible for a nurse to see bruising inside a black girl's vagina because the skin is too dark. Yes, he really thought that.

Anyhow, the mom was right that those two phrases mean the same thing. Because she's Ibo.

Ibo is hands down the coolest language ever, and possibly the most difficult to learn to speak because nothing in the language is literal. They speak almost entirely in metaphor. For instance, the man I used to work with once told me "A woman cannot be raped if she takes her shoes off."

Naturally, I launched into a rant about what a disgusting and chauvinistic viewpoint that is. I was at the height of my angry feminism in those days.

My friend stopped me and laughed. He explained that what he meant by "takes her shoes off" was that she climbed into bed willingly. As in, she took her shoes off to get into bed. Because that's how his language translates into English.

I also had this hobby back then of learning how to say "I love you" in as many languages as possible. I guess I was trying to collect these phrases in case I decided to be a romantic some day, but so far they've really come into use in the classroom when I explain how different languages have different phonetic structure. My friend told me that when Ibo people say "I love you" they say "Ahurum ge nanya," which actually means "I see you with my eyes."

Think about that. They don't say "I love you," they say "I see you." They get at what love truly means. To know someone. To see them for who they really are.

I just think that's awfully cool. I thought you guys should know there is an entire language built around subtext.


  1. That is pretty cool. I've never heard of Ibo, so thanks for sharing that. I like that about "i see you with my eyes" statement...

    I have to say your "at the height of angry feminism" line totally made me LOL.

  2. Emily, your best posts read like a great classic movie: they're insightful, hysterically funny and yet deeply moving.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.


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