With approximately 530 languages spoken across Nigeria – 520 of which are indigenous to the country – it is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. Due to the varied ethnic makeup of Nigeria, too, these languages come from a range of different language families, including Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and even Afroasiatic. Still, with English being Nigeria’s only official language and Nigerian Pidgin – an English-based creole – being the single most spoken language in the country, will Nigeria’s linguistic diversity remain as strong in the future?
What are Nigeria’s official languages?
Nigeria has just one official language – English. English is spoken by around 60 million people across the country, and so is often used as a lingua franca between different ethnic and cultural groups. When the British Empire colonised the area that then became Nigeria, which was created from diverse ethnic groups, English was chosen as the official language. This has remained despite decolonisation because the Nigerian government wanted to promote national cultural unity and not favour any particular native language.
Nigerian Pidgin is in fact spoken by more people than English; it has around 121 million speakers. A creole language based on English, Nigerian Pidgin is a popular social and cultural language and is used in mass media and even in political slogans.
Three national languages are recognised: Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, each of which is spoken by tens of millions of people in Nigeria. Several regional languages also boast high numbers of speakers, including Efik, Fulfulde, Kanuri, Nupe, and Tiv.
Languages of Nigeria
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‘Please’ in Nigerian Pidgin is ‘abeg’ from the English, ‘I beg’.
Also known as Naijá or Naija, Nigerian Pidgin is an English-based creole that is spoken as a lingua franca across Nigeria. It is also sometimes referred to as Pijin or Broken.
Many of the more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria can converse in the language, and they often mix in words from their native languages. Nigerian Pidgin is mainly used in informal conversations. Although it has no status as an official language, it is still used in politics, education, science, and the media.
When asking for a person’s name, Hausa speakers ask ‘yaya sunanka?‘ Literally, this means ‘how is your name?’
Hausa is spoken by the Hausa people in the northern half of Nigeria, as well as in Ghana, Cameroon, Benin, and Togo, and the southern half of Niger, Chad, and Sudan. It is a member of the Afroasiatic language family and is the most widely spoken language in the Chadic branch of that family. There are estimated to be a total of 72 million Hausa speakers, and almost 56 million of them are in Nigeria.
Like Nigerian Pidgin, Hausa is used as a lingua franca in most of northern Nigeria. It also serves this purpose in southern Niger, northern Cameroon, northern Ghana, northern Benin, northern Togo, southern Chad, and parts of Sudan. In Nigeria, there is a thriving Hausa-speaking film industry which is locally known as Kannywood.
Hausa marks tense differences by using different sets of subject pronouns (I, you, he, etc.). Sometimes the pronoun is combined with some additional particle, which means that a subject pronoun must accompany every verb in Hausa, even if the subject is known from a previous context.
Nowadays, Hausa is written using a Latin-based alphabet called boko, which was introduced in the 1930s by the British colonial administration. However, from the 17th century, Hausa was written in Ajami, which is an Arabic alphabet. Hausa is also one of three indigenous languages of Nigeria which has been rendered in braille.
Tonal pronunciation in Yoruba helps distinguish the word ‘bàtà‘ (meaning ‘a shoe’) from the word ‘bàtá‘ (a type of drum).
Yoruba is a language from West Africa and is primarily spoken in southwestern and central Nigeria. It is spoken by the ethnic Yoruba people – around 50 million speak the language, in total, but there are also another five million second-language speakers.
It is a pluricentric language, which means there are several standardised forms across different countries (for example, English in the United Kingdom versus the United States, or Mandarin Chinese in Mainland China versus Singapore). In Yoruba’s case, it is spoken in a dialectal area that spans Nigeria and Benin, with smaller migrated communities in Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia.
If you visit Brazil, you might hear some Yoruba words, too! Yoruba vocabulary is used in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, as well as the Caribbean religion of Santería and various other Afro-American religions of North America.
Words can be joined to create new words in Igbo. For example, the word ‘ụgbọ elu‘ (‘plane’) is made up of the words ‘ụgbọ‘ – ‘motor’ – and ‘elu‘ – ‘high’.
In total, there are around 15 different Igboid languages, but the core cluster – or Igbo proper – is generally thought to be one language. The different groupings are divided into north, west, south, and east, and there is little mutual intelligibility between them. There are estimated to be around 31 million speakers of Igbo, and the vast majority of these live in Nigeria.
Igbo is a tonal language and depending on the variety, linguists have identified different numbers of tones. Still, there are generally three register tones and three contour tones across most varieties of Igbo. Sometimes tones are indicated in writing and sometimes not. Importantly, some words only differ by tone – so you have to be careful when you speak!
When it comes to writing, Igbo has historically been written using Nsibidi ideograms. These were not entirely fit for purpose because they were invented by the neighbouring Ekoi people, so this writing system was never designed to be a full system for Igbo. Nowadays, Igbo is written using the Ọnwụ alphabet. It consists of 36 letters, including gb, gh, ny, and those letters with diacritics, like ọ.
The Atlantic slave trade means that nowadays you might hear elements from Igbo in other speakers across the Caribbean and North America. Igbo was spread by enslaved people throughout slave colonies in the Americas, so for example, in Jamaican Patois, the pronoun /unu/, which is used for the plural ‘you’, has been taken from Igbo.
The Ibibio proverb afere anemme ñkpọ akpa atak literally translates to ‘the soup that is delicious is expensive to cook’. It means ‘everything has a price’.
Ibibio is the native language of the Ibibio people of Nigeria, of which there are almost 11 million total speakers. Just over half of these speak Ibibio as their first language; the other half have learnt it as a second language.
Like Igbo, pre-colonialism Ibibio was written using Nsibidi ideograms. Now, a Latin-based script is used. The language has been used on Nigerian radio and TV since the 1970s and is taught in schools and universities. Ibibio has five tones – high, mid, rising, falling, and low.
Did you enjoy learning about the languages of Nigeria?
Of course, there are literally hundreds more to learn about! There is a huge amount of linguistic diversity across the entire continent of Africa, but Nigeria’s languages make up a large proportion of that.
Like the rest of the world, some of these languages are in danger of no longer being spoken as other languages begin to take their place. To some extent, this has already happened with English, but as we can see, there are other languages spoken by millions of people in Nigeria which may push these lesser-spoken languages out.
Hopefully, Nigeria will still have a high amount of linguistic diversity in the future. In the meantime, you can support Nigeria’s indigenous languages by learning some of them with uTalk, including Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba.
Happy language learning!