Language Contact: The Influence of the Esan Language on Ika-Igbo.

Language Contact: The Influence of the Esan Language on Ika-Igbo. By S. N. Ehinze 


Language contact phenomenon has a lot of implications among which are bilingualism, multilingualism, borrowing, code switching, pidgin etc. Such occurrence between Ika Igbo and Esan language has not only linguistic implications but cultural and socio-political implications. Esan and Igbo language have linguistic boundary like other languages. Language contact phenomenon presupposes exchange of linguistic and cultural features between the two groups. This work therefore is a study of the linguistic features that are amenable to socio-linguistic analysis. It seeks to discover the extent to which Esan language exerts linguistic effects on the Igbo language. The results of the analysis show that the effect of the contact between the Igbo and Esan languages is bi directional.  

1. Introduction

In a speech community, when two languages come together, certain linguistic changes or developments occur. Language contact between two people speaking different languages can have a wide variety of outcomes. In some cases only a few words are borrowed; in others whole new languages may be formed. The result of such language contact differs according to several factors, including the length and intensity of contact between the groups, the types of social, economic and political relationship between them, the functions which communication between them must serve and the degree of similarity between the languages they speak.


Ika-Igbo language has been influenced at one time or the other by Esan language contact, resulting in varying degrees of transfer of features from one to the other. Against this background, the need arises to investigate the possible linguistic and cultural influences existing in IkaIgbo language due to contact with Esan language and to determine whether it is bi-directional or uni-directional.


Esan and Igbo languages share boundary like other languages. Urhobo-Igbo, Edo, Yoruba Languages etc. The phenomenon of language contact presupposes exchange of linguistic and cultural features between the two groups. This paper seeks to determine the extent to which Esan language has influenced the different linguistic levels of the Igbo language. It is equally important to know whether linguistic changes from the contact between Igbo and Esan affect Igbo alone or Esan alone or both and the level of significance

2.  Literature Review 

The bilingual nature of some speech communities has made it possible for two or more dialects/languages to be in existence, in such speech communities. This has been a universal phenomenon in world languages. The use of one dialect/language vis-à-vis other dialects/languages derives from the attitudes of the language/dialect users.


Mbah (2005:276) in her study of sociophonology in Oba Igbo opines that one of the factors that influence the selection of a particular variant is contact. The degree of contact which speakers of Oba dialect have with speakers of the more mutually intelligible dialects of Igbo is of great significance in influencing their choice of the binary variant of the lexical and morphological variables. It appears that contact factor works hand-inhand with the regional factor in Oba. Ugwuona (2004:23) in her study of language choice and attitudinal differences in Nsukka Urban, discovers that Owerre and Onitsha dialects of Igbo language are the prestigious dialects among other dialects of Igbo including the host dialect, which is Nsukka dialects. The reason for the dominance is that Owerre and Onitsha dialects have historical, economic, educational and political advantage over other dialects. In her conclusion, Ugwuona affirmed that there are multiplicity of different Igbo dialects which influence one another. The interaction of the different dialects has given rise to the phenomenon of code – switching and code – mixing, among the dialects. As a result, hardly can any educated person in Nsukka Urban engage in a sustained discourse especially in a relaxed, informal context in Igbo language without mixing some elements of his indigenous dialect. 


Uwalaka (2001) in Igboanusi (2001:50) investigated the anguish of Igbo as a mother tongue. Internal and external conflicts and revealed crucial issues on factors affecting and underlying language choice especially in Igbo as a mother tongue. One of the interesting things in her study is the Igbo internal conflicts. Uwalaka defines language internal conflicts as “the phenomenon in which for political, economic or socio – economic reasons, dialects of a given language vie for ascendancy”. Language external conflicts are cases in which for whatever reasons language of a given country competes with one another or compete with a foreign language or languages, she concluded. Okeke (2006) studied language attitude and language shift in Nkpor dialect and reports that there is complexity of dialect. stuation in Nkpor – Agu region of Nkpor. Some of these dialects are Nsukka, Owerre, Umuahia, Udi, Abakaliki, Onitisha, Ohafia, Mbaise, Oyigbo, Ikwere, Ngwa, Oka, Nteje, Ogbinuike, Aguata, Obosi, Ogidi, Ezeagu, Enugu, Ngwa, Izzi, Ibagwa, Efiom, Nkpor etc. The attitudinal indifference of the language users in Nkpor dialect is similar to that of Tamil dialect speakerss because that dialect situation in Nkpor is complex, and these different dialects have different traditional backgrounds as it is in Tamil.


However, he concluded that because of urbanization that came to Nkpor – Agu through the influence of the commercial city of Onitsha, the town is affected linguistically by urban life. Again, a lot of people migrated to the town for the purpose of commerce and as such made the town multidialectal (because they all came with their languages and other Igbo dialects). This influenced the dialect greatly. From the discussions about language contact, it comes out clear that the field of language contact in African languages in general and Igbo language in particular in particular has not received much attention in spite of huge amount of data on the subject in other languages. By this token, it becomes necessary to advance the field knowledge in the area of Igbo Language contact. 

3.  Lnguistic Influences   

The various Linguistic changes of the language contact exercise between Esan and Ika-Igbo are discussed in this chapter. They are, however, being discussed under two headings vis a viz Linguistic and cultural influences respectively. The linguistic influences are further categorized under such sub-headings as lexical variations, phonology and morphology and syntax. 

Lexical Variation



























































Although these differences in words are all free variations but they came about due to a proposed deviation (unintentional) from normal, which was not achieved by these Ekpon speakers. The intention to drop the Ika-Igbo words and perhaps substitute them with that of Esan or probably new inventions, but this was to be a hard task as they are caught between where they were coming from and where they are going to. However, they have only succeeded in creating sub – Ika dialect from the main Ika dialect of Igbo language. 


In this domain, we discovered some deletion of sounds and segments as the case may be.

m – deletion

              Mme              me         =    me

o – deletion

           Okpoho                   Okpoh      =   woman
Syllabe deletion:
Osisi                         Osi-h         =      tree
Ekwukwuo                Ekhwo     =    leave
Ekwaran                   Ekun       =      Egg       

The last sounds in these cases are aspirated. This is because most of Esan words are aspirated and have short and very fast levels of pronunciation, mostly followed by high tones. Most of Esan words begin and end with high tones e.g. Ekoh (ear), eke (belly), Inyie (breast), Oria (person) aran (blood) awa (dog), ehen (fish), ibe (liver) akon (Tooth) anyo (drink) eloloh (eye) okppia (man) etc. All these have affected the Ekpon dialect in terms of tone and aspiration of sounds. 


In summary, we can affirm that the speakers of Ekpon have a peculiar pronunciation which tends to influence their contiguous speech communities.  

Morphology and Syntax

There are few instances of variations in sentence constructions and production of words as evident in the following examples:

Enyi a nu we ebuo (Ika)       enyi a nu welebuo (ekpon) We do understand the two (languages). The difference here is the “L” insertion in the word “welebuo”.

2. Me ri Agbor eben (Ekpon)      ‘I live Agbor here’

     ‘Agbo ebeni ke mbi’ (Ika)

      ‘Agbor here I live’

       I live in Agbor

The first person pronoun “M” (I) does not appear in initial position with “Me” form but “M” form and in some cases “Mme” form. The “Me” form in Ekpon is borrowed from the Esan language. For instance the above sentence in Esan will read; Agborme yie 

Agbo Iive (I live in Agbor)

3. Onye Ekpon ya me wu (Ekpon)

   I Ekpon that I am

   Onye Ekpon ke m wu (Ika)

   I Ekpon that I am

   I am from Ekpon or native of Ekpon.


The “ya” and “ke” are variants as they have the same meaning. The    pronoun changes form in Ika due to position in the sentence viz a viz initial, middle or final but it remains Constant in form at whatever position in Ekpon which is a characteristic of Esan for e.g. will read – “Ovwie Ekpon me khin” from (Native) Ekpon I am.

4. Cultural Influences

The socio political status of Ekpon people is one that is rooted in Esan culture. This is a society of people whose origin is traceable to Ekpon in Esan west local government area of Edo State while they live in Esan South – East Local Government Area of the same Edo State but linguistically they belong to Ika dialect of Igbo language and live at the linguistic boundary between Ika (Igbo) and Esan languages. Their traditional institution is rooted in Esan culture. They have no Obiship or Eze system of leadership like Igbos but an Onogie who is appointed or approved by the Oba of Benin. To rule with the Onogiie are Chiefs – Ogele, Ihiami etc who help the Onogie to carry out his royal functions and tributes to the Oba who made all of them who they are in the land.


The mode of obtaining chieftaincy titles in Ekpon is synonymous with Esan ways. Every festival taking place in Ekpon is according to Esan tradition. For instance, ceremonies like marriage, child naming are in no way similar to Ika culture. The burial ceremony for example which runs for seven days in Ekpon is what obtains in Esan land contrary to four days burial activities in Ika/Igbo culture. This shows that apart from language, the Ekpon life style is similar to that of Esan. 

5. Summary and Conclusion

Language contact phenomenon has a lot of implications among which are bilingualism, multilingualism, borrowing code – switching, pidgin and so on. Such incident between Igbo and Esan languages has not only linguistic but cultural, and socio-political implications. From the study of the influence of Esan language on Igbo due to their contact, it was discovered in the first place that the speech community at the language boundary between Igbo and Esan – which is Ekpon could neither identify themselves as Ika nor Esan speakers but Ekpon speakers. However, from the linguistic point of view they belong to Ika dialect speakers of Igbo language.


It was discovered also that there are a lot of variations between the Ika dialect speakers and that of the other speakers of Ika that are residing in Agbor and its environs. For instance, there are changes in words like “Okele” for Ekele (greeting), “Onwole” for “Onweni” (nothing). There is change in syntax e.g. “Me ri Agbor ebeni” for “Agbor ebeni kemri (I live in Agbor).


Culturally, there is little or no relationship with the Igbos (Ikas) as their culture is in consonance with Esan culture. The various festivals and rituals running from the beginning to the end of the year are synonymous with Esan culture. Politically, they are affiliated to Esan style of traditional leadership. Another important aspect of the Ekpon people is that the bilingual phenomenon is gradually dying away. The older generation of folks speak Ika and Esan languages while the younger generation does not understand nor speak Esan language. The older ones claim that they find it difficult to speak Esan and that those who speak it struggle to do that. On the other hand, the immediate neighbours like Ewosa who speak Esan language do not understand the Ika spoken by their Ekpon neighbours. This is why some Ekpon people try to speak Esan to their Esan neighbours but switch to English when the interlocution becomes unintelligible. 


The variety of language contact studied here demonstrates that there is in principle no limit to what speakers of different languages will borrow or transfer from each other, given the right opportunity. One of the greatest challenges facing linguists is to account for both the social forces and the linguistic mechanisms and constraints which operate jointly to determine what particular outcome emerges from the language contact that can lead to great benefits both practically and theoretically. Research on its social aspect can lead to insights on group relationships and group identities, and how they are shaped by processes of accommodation in some circumstances and by divergence and conflict in others. 


Understanding of the social forces that guide and constrain language contact use is of vital importance both to language contact, planning in areas like education, politics and social welfare and to understanding the ways language changes. Research on the linguistic aspects of language and language contact leads to insight on the nature of linguistic systems, the mechanisms by which they interact to produce new strategies of communication, the creativity of human beings in adopting and adapting new materials to be reshaped into new manifestations of human faculty of language contact. 


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