Ukara cloth

Ukara cloth
Ukara cloth detail, Etara community, Cross River State, Nigeria


The Cross River region of southeast Nigeria and southwest Cameroon is linguistically complex, with dozens of named languages albeit at different stages of literacy and with different profiles in local schools. Meanwhile a welter of inconsistent spellings of personal and place names, inherited from centuries of contradictory colonial and missionary interventions, subsists in daily use. In the early 1980's, the Nigerian government launched a series of orthography manuals by leading linguists, including the works by Emenanjọ/Ọgbalụ and Essien cited below, and it is to be hoped that these reforms will be generally adopted some day.

All the languages under discussion belong to the same historic Niger-Congo family, straddling the boundaries of the subgroups  traditionally called "Kwa," "Bantu" and "Semi-Bantu" where up to ten contrasting vowel sounds are found in roots, with weaker distinctions in affixes thanks to vowel harmony rules (Williamson 1984). Because the Roman alphabet has only five vowel symbols, some local workaround is required for vowels six through ten. In some African colonies, extra nonroman symbols were introduced, like Greek epsilon (ε) and a letter c turned backwards (ɔ), but this approach was definitively rejected for Yorùbá by Ajayi Crowther in the mid 19th century (cf. Àjàyí 1960), in favor of the so-called Lepsius subdot diacritic. The subdot was eventually adopted in eastern Nigeria as well, and all ten of the following symbols are now standard in one or the other Cross River language:


     a, ạ, e, ẹ, i, ị, o, ọ, u, ụ  

As for consonants, at least 19 are written in the Cross River area. Five of these are digraphs (which are not consonant clusters) and two have a superscript tilde:

     b, d, f, gh, h, k, kp, kw, m, n, ny, ñ, ñw, p, r, s, t, w, y  

The most underdeveloped aspect of written Èfịk, Éjághám, Ìbìbìò and Ìgbò is the indication of lexical and inflectional tone. All languages of the Cross River region distinguish high and low tone, and also allow for contrastive pitch lowering (downstep) between high tones as in Èfịk ọ́!bọ́ñ 'paramount chief', which would otherwise sound the same as ọ́bọ́ñ 'mosquito'! Ungainly to type and print, tonal diaritics may seem confusing and exotic to foreign scholars, but to the speakers of the languages, tones are highly salient, providing a regional bridge across local vowel and consonant fluctuations. Thus Armstrong recognized,

"the extraordinary stability of tone through the whole range of the dialects studied. Ìgbòs who speak or understand dialects other than their own are relying to a very great extent on tone. The refusal to write the tones deprives the reader of one of the principal means to mutual intelligibility of dialects!" (1967, 4f.).

Certain tone distinctions are ignored at the peril of the culture-historical record, for example the difference in Ìgbò between the Ékpè leopard club of regional extent, versus the Èkpè dance genre which is particular to eastern Ìgbò but which also happens to have a leopard motif. Similarly in Èfịk, the toneless spelling "mbakara" denotes "controller, master, European" if the last two syllables are pronounced with high pitch, but if all four syllables are low it's an unrelated chieftaincy title.

Much work remains in identifying the tones of these languages, but it would be irresponsible not to mark words whose tones are already identified, despite the needlessly awkward and technically substandard implementation of African diacritics by the Unicode Consortium (see Liberman 2008 and the comments on that blogpost). When all else fails, a hack is better than nothing, and tones can always be spelled out on the side, e.g. Ọgbalụ HLH.

Victor Manfredi, 09-2016


Àjàyí, J. “How Yorùbá was reduced to writing.” Odù [Ìbàdàn] 8, (1960), 49‑58.

Armstrong, R. A Comparative Wordlist of Five Ìgbò Dialects. Institute of African Studies, University of Ìbàdàn, 1967.

Emenanjọ, ’N. & F. Ọgbalụ. Ìgbò orthography. Orthographies of Nigerian Languages Manual 1, edited by A. Bám̅gbóṣé, 36-42. National Language Centre, Federal Ministry of Education, Lagos, 1983.

Essien, O. Èfị̀k orthography. Orthographies of Nigerian Languages Manual 1, edited by A. Bám̅gbóṣé, 5‑30. National Language Centre, Federal Ministry of Education, Lagos, 1983a.

Essien, O. The Orthography of the Ìbìbìò Language. Paico Press & Books, for Ìbìbìò Language Panel, Calabar, 1983b.

Essien, O. Ìbìbìò orthography. Orthographies of Nigerian Languages Manual 3, edited by A. Bán̅jọ, 62-82. National Language Centre, Federal Ministry of Education, Lagos, 1985.

Iwara, A. "Some elements of Lòkạ́ạ́ phonology revisited." Issues in African Languages & Linguistics; essays in honour of Kay Williamson, edited by E. Emenanjọ & O. Ndịmele, 82-92. National Institute for Nigerian Languages, Àbá, 1995. 

Liberman, M. "Agbègbè ìpàkíyèsí." Language Log, December 15, 2008.

Williamson, K. "Vowel merger in harmony languages." Journal of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria, 2, 61-82, 1984.