Igbo Tones

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Igbo Tones

Igbo is a beautifully complex tonal language. Each syllable in a word comes with a musical tone that can change depending on how the word is used or merge with tones from other words creating new ones.

Like all tonal languages, Igbo uses tone to express meaning and not just emotion or emphasis as is the case with English. For example, you can say egwu with two first tones to mean music but with a second followed by a first tone to mean fear or amazing.

At school every Igbo child will have learnt the first two tones. But other tones are very common in Igbo – so common in fact that you could barely say a sentence in Igbo without employing them and it is a wonder they are not taught in schools.

A native speaker learns the sound of these tones without noticing but we should also be able to study them and represent them correctly in dictionaries. A comprehensive tonal dictionary will help us study the language better and teach it to non-Igbos more effectively.

For Igbo words spoken in isolation this dictionary recognizes 8 tones!

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8

The first 4 tones are short and sharp and are the tones in the word OKPOROKO (stock fish).

5 is the second tone in AGUU (hunger)
6 is the second tone in IBUO (two)
7 is the second tone in GBAJIE (break)
8 is the second tone in ISII (six)

By clicking on the icons, you will see that:

  1. Akwa (egg) is 2,1
  2. Akwa (clothes) is 1,2
  3. Agu (leopard) is 1,3 or 3,4
  4. Biko (please) is1,3 or  3,4
  5. Dalu (thank you) is 6,1
  6. Nwanyi (woman) is 8,2
  7. Aguu (hunger) is 1,5
  8. Okwute (stone) is 2,1,3 or 2,1,4
  9. Abani (night) is 1,2,2
  10. Onugbu (bitter leaf) is 2,1,2
  11. Obodo (country) is 2,2 2.
  12. Obere (a little) is 1,1,3 or 3,3,4
  13. Ogonogo (tall) is 1,1,1,1 or 3,3,3,3
  14. Ibuo (two) is 2,6
  15. Gbajie (break) is 2,7
  16. Gbajuo (fill up) is 2,7
  17. Nine (all) is 5,3 or 5,4
  18. Bekee (English) is 2,8
  19. Wawa (of or from Enugu State) is 8,3 or 8,4
  20. Okporoko 1,2,3,4

The above are tones that you will find when the words above are spoken in isolation. Within sentences, some (particularly the first tone) can change according to fixed patterns