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Background to the study

Igbo proverbs originated from the Igbo people and as such could be called the voice of the Igbo people- vox0 Igbo populi. It occupies a central place in Igbo discourses. It is like oil used in preparing an Igbo speech. Just like oil adds flavour and makes the soup appealing, Igbo proverbs add integrity to the speech of an Igbo person. If the Igbo speak in plain and simple language without spicing it up with proverbs, his talk will look inexperienced and childlike. Arinze (2000) avers that proverbs crystallize the accumulated wisdom of a people handed down by the ancients from one generation to another.

They reveal the profound thoughts, and in fact the soul of the people, and constitute the true index of what a people hold true. They constitute the form of interpretation of the principles of life and mode of conduct upheld by a people (Anozie, 2009). They are the trustworthy witnesses of the social, economic, political, ethical and religious ideals of a people. This notwithstanding, this piece studies the nature and meaning of Igbo proverbs, with the intention of discovering its relationship with Igbo-African philosophy; and for a better analysis of this relationship, a survey of the historical cultural root of the Igbo race is fundamental.

The Ibos of Nigeria possess a rich folklore tradition. Among the various forms of folklore practiced by the people are folktales, riddles, legends, proverbs, idioms, myths, and rituals. Proverbs and idioms are particularly crucial to Igbo discourses for a number of reasons. They seem to be most frequently used “because of their literal attribute of being figurative, colorful and terse, and their earthy qualities of containing truths and hard facts borne out of experience” (Peters, 1971:98).

There is hardly any situation or aspect of life of the people in which proverbs and idioms could not be employed. They are copiously used in such ‘high-level’ discourses as formal litigation, formal oratory or bride-price settlements, as well as in everyday situations like advising, praising, encouraging, and so on. Application of proverbs and idioms in practically all varieties of human communicative situations arises from the fact that the people regard proverbs and idioms as ‘oil with which the words are eaten,’ and as devices and means by which one can communicate effectively. “Can a man make an effective speech,” the elders say, “without a tinge of proverb and idiom, it would boil down to a watery, childish talk, similar to the babble of children playing in the sand.” Proverbs and idioms are, therefore, indispensable in authentic Igbo discourse. In their use is seen an embodiment of philosophy and wisdom, hence people who are gifted in using them are highly respected in the society.

The wordings of the proverbs and idioms are as fixed as their contents, and the messages transmitted in them have a cultural standardization in both form and content. This fixed nature makes for easy memorization and retention so that anybody wishing to acquire them will not have to grapple with the problem of variation. It has to be mentioned that in using the proverbs or idioms it is not enough simply to memorize and recite them. A good speaker has to use them in appropriate contexts because context plays a major role in their correct interpretation. Mere rendering of proverbs or idioms out of context not only makes the exercise boring and uninteresting, but also conceals the color and beauty they give to language. In fact, it is rather difficult to elicit proverbs or idioms from gifted users out of context, because as an Igbo proverb has it, ‘onye okwu kwu o, a hU ihe a ga-asa’ (When a person speaks, then you know what to answer). In other words, contexts and situations give rise to proverbs.

Proverbs and idioms sum up the people’s collective experience, and as Nwoga (1975:186) puts it, in their use “the experience and wisdom of several ages” are “gathered and summed up in one expression.” In other words, to understand a proverb or idiom, one needs to understand not only the language of the proverb or idiom, but also the users of the language and their cultural tradition. This additional knowledge is very important because a specific application of a proverb or idiom is a collocation of an element already existing in the folk literary tradition (i.e., the proverb or idiom), and of a conceptual structure by which the situation is experienced, thus combining the situation with cultural meaning by linking it to a chain of situations, all of which could be interpreted through the proverb or idiom.

Proverbs and idioms reveal cultural attitudes and values of the society in which they exist. Thus, when a competent user in a discourse says:

Nnunu okenye chiiri uta na aku jee igba, ma o bughi ugo, o buru okpoko.


(A bird for which an elder goes to hunt with bow and arrow, if it is not an eagle, it will be a horn-bill) he does not only pass across his point more effectively, but also reiterates a cultural value. Bird hunting is the preserve of children who indulge in such pastimes as diversions from playing in the sand. Adults are supposed to have outgrown such pastimes just as they have outgrown hunting lizards and squirrels or playing in the sand. But hunting an eagle or a horn-bill is a different matter. These birds are associated with greatness and royalty, and being able to hunt down any of them is seen as a rare achievement. What the proverb above conveys is simply that adults should always aspire towards something that is great and noble.

Apart from using proverbs to advise, teach, encourage, praise, admonish, lament, and make allusions, they are frequently used in reiterating the beliefs of the people, or even to provide a secular precedent for present action (similar to citation of cases as legal precedents in English culture). The Ibos, for example, believe in fairness. Whether in social or judicial aspects of the people’s traditional life, equal treatment for all is emphasized. The laws and regulations of the land are for the old as well as the young, thus ruling out any preferential treatment. In fact, this is the reason behind the idea of collective responsibility (which is at the basis of the people’s traditional life) in judicial rulings, where consensus is always sought. In reiterating this traditional belief relating to fair-ness, the use of a proverb seems to be the best way to emphasize it. Thus, the proverb:

E mee nwa ka e mere ibe ya, obi adi ya mma.

(Treat a child the way his fellows are treated, and he will be happy) clearly emphasizes that as long as all are treated with equal fairness everything would be alright; problems arise when preferential treatments come in.

I mentioned earlier that Igbo proverbs (as probably is the case with proverbs in other languages) have a fixed word order, and any rearrangement of the syntactic elements compos-ing them can render them incomprehensible. Not only are the lexical items fixed, but the use of some fixed stereotype phrases (such as: “our people say…,” “our fathers say…,” “it is said….”) sets them apart as something impersonal, thus producing an understanding or reaction in the person to whom it is directed without directly involving the speaker. This indirection, while it achieves the effect intended, also saves both the speaker and the addressee from any embarrassment. Thus, a person being admonished or satirized in a proverb takes the admonishment or satire in good spirits, since the speaker is not held responsible as the originator of the proverb. This indirection is one of the things that distinguishes a proverb from other sentences in the language.

In my analysis of Igbo proverbs and idioms, I shall divide the discussion into sections. First, I shall briefly review some of the linguistic treatments of figurative utterances. Then I shall take up the analysis of proverbs and idiomatic expressions, showing that any semantic interpretation of these aesthetic modes of speech should include contextual, pragmatic and cultural considerations.

Statement of the problem

There are lots of problems associated with the knowledge of idiom in general among which include Misinterpretation of idioms. Idioms tend to confuse those unfamiliar with them. That is why student or non-native speakers of a language must learn its idiomatic expressions as vocabulary. Also, literal translation (word-by-word) of opaque idiom will not convey the same meaning in another language. For example, in Izzi, the expressions, ‘Ime eka azụ literally means ‘giving of bribe. Also, when a speaker uses an idiom, the listener might mistake its actual meaning, if he or she has not heard this figure of speech before. Moreover, people find it difficult to differentiate proverbs from idiom. Many native speakers don’t know that proverbs are formed in a phrasal form. Again, proverbs are easier to understand but idioms are not. The interpretation and the difficulty of differentiating proverbs from idioms have aroused the interest of the researcher to find out solution to these problems.

Purpose of the study

          This study tried to ascertain the semantic analysis of igbo idioms: A study of Izzi Igbo. Specifically, the study tried to:

  1. To ascertain similarities Izzi idioms have with other Igbo idioms.
  2. To highlight the degree to which Izzi idioms add value to Izzi cultural heritage
  3. To ascertain the extent this research work would help to promote the understanding of the Izzi dialect.
  4. To ascertain the extent Izzi people use idioms embedded in their communication.


Significance of the study


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