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This research carries out a sociolinguistic study of Igbo proverbs. It aims to explore and analyze Igbo proverbs from a sociolinguistic perspective in the context of English as a second language in Nigeria. This will go a long way to offer a sociolinguistic insight into the contributions of the Igbo language, culture, and way of life in the sociolinguistic context of English as a second language. The data for the study was sourced and collected orally from competent Igbo native speakers from the context of use and Igbo music. Qualitative and analytic research designs were adopted for the analysis. In all, fifty (50) proverbs were analyzed using Dell Hyme’s Ethnography of Communication theory as the major analytical framework with insights from Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This is because of the relevance of Dell Hymes’ SPEAKING which accounts for such sociolinguistic variables as setting, scene, participants, ends, act sequence, instrumentality, and genre as is evidenced in the data; and how the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis allows this study to relate its data to aspects of Igbo world view and culture. On typology, Adedimeji’s (2003) typological classification is applied for the classification of the data into types. It was discovered that SPEAKING allows for a comprehensive understanding of the data for this study as a result of its explicit and analytic potentials while the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis shows aspects of Igbo culture that manifest in Igbo proverbs.




            1.1      BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY

This is a sociolinguistic study of Igbo proverbs and Igbo as used here refers to one of the sub-ethnic groups that constitute the present Delta State of Nigeria with a population of

about     2.5     million     people     spread     across     25     kingdoms     covering     over     5000

kilometers(Akpodiete,2013). The people are believed to have migrated from the Aka-present-day Edo territory. All the twenty-two kingdoms that constitute the Igbo nation have their distinct dialects and traditions that reflect slight variations in origin and migrating patterns. However, there is a universal Igbo language.

Akporobaro asserts that proverbs everywhere, Nigerian proverbs inclusive are determined by socio-geographical experience (72). This is to say that the nature of the imagery and the forms in which the truth in proverbs are expressed, to a very large extent, reflect the socio-cultural milieu in which the people live. He further states that the “repertoire of imagery implicit in the proverbs of the Southern people is different from those dominant in the proverbs of the North”. This is because proverbs reflect the values, beliefs, hopes, and aspirations of the people, hence the proverbs of most of the Hausa people reveal the influence of the Islamic religion.

Igbos are optimistic because of the good climate, fertile lands, rich cultural heritage, beauty, and brilliance. Because of this, there is a positive outlook on life, a belief that life can be better through the appropriate application of common sense or native intelligence, which is handed down by forefathers to subsequent generations. Improper or non-application of this holistic wisdom could result in one’s failure in life.

Sociolinguistics studies how language relates to society and it draws insights from sociology, anthropology, and social psychology as well as insights from other areas of linguistic study. Sociolinguistics studies the relationship between language and society and between the users of language and the social structures in which the users of the language live. Bussman identifies sociolinguistics as a discipline that developed from the cooperation of linguistics and sociology and it aims at investigating the social meaning of language systems and the common set of conditions of language use and the linguistic and social structures (439). Hudson asserts that sociolinguistics is “the study of language about society” (4).In the opinion of Holmes, sociolinguistics aims to move towards a useful framework that provides a motivated account of the way language is used in a community and the way the users employ language.

Particular studies in sociolinguistics have demonstrated the importance of the social function of language and have also shown that it is often possible to find social explanations for aspects of linguistic structure (Malmjaer, 415).

Studies in sociolinguistics deal mainly with the way language varies according to the social context in which it is used and according to the social group to which a user belongs. It aims to describe this variation and to show how it reflects social structure. Malmjaer posits that those linguistic units which vary fairly systematically about social variables such as the user’s region, class, ethnic group, age, and gender are known as sociolinguistic variables.

Lyons posits that context determines the meaning of an utterance (201) and utterance according to Finnegan (549) is an “expression produced in a particular context with a particular intention”. Context is very important in decoding the meaning of a proverb. It is the context that determines the choice of proverbs used. Context determines the situation in which what people communicate can influence the kind of language they use. The context or situation is the environment in which proverbs become meaningful. Three main features of context are distinguished by Bussman: the setting, the participants, and the type of activity in which they engage. Finnegan (4) agrees with Bussman by saying only in a particular context can an expression convey a speaker’s intended meaning and be interpreted correctly by a hearer. He further states that “to grasp the intended meaning of an expression, hearers must consider it in the light of its context”. He sums it up by saying the best way to view a language is to see it as a three-sided figure of expression, meaning, and context. Expression encompasses words, phrases, and sentences including intonation and stress.

For thousands of years, philosophers have pondered on the meaning of meaning, yet the speakers of a language can make meaning out of what they hear and can also produce utterances that are meaningful to other speakers.  Meaning has to do with the senses and referents of these elements of expression while context refers to the social situation in which the expression is uttered including whatever has been expressed earlier in that situation. It depends on generally shared knowledge between the speaker and the hearer. Fromkin, Rodman, and Hyams citing Jakobson opine that language without meaning are meaningless (173). Akwanya, further points out that words are meaningless in themselves, but only become meaningful when they are used as part of the language where they belong (13). This is to say, for instance, that Yoruba words will be meaningless to an Igbo person who does not understand Yoruba. Such words will only make meaning to someone who understands and speaks Yoruba. This by extension applies to proverbs.

In every culture, there are nuggets of popular wisdom, expressed in the form of concise sayings. These are usually known as proverbs. Other terms such as adage, maxim, and precepts are also used (Crystal 53). Crystal adds that in many cultures, especially in Africa, proverbs are important and frequent elements in ordinary conversations. Mike citing Finnegan states that “proverbs are generally terse figurative expressions which are frequently anecdotes in a nutshell”(228).

Different scholars have given definitions of proverbs. Mieder defines a proverb as a short, generally known sentence that contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in metaphorical, fixed, and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation (3). Lamidi gives a definition that is not too different from Mieder’s, and according to him, “proverb is a witty saying that captures the logic, culture, and observations of a people”(61). Whiting 1994 quoted in Mieder summarizes a proverb thus:

a proverb is an expression that owes its birth to the people and testifies to its origin in form and phrase. It expresses what is a fundamental truth- that is, a truism,-in homely language, often adorned, however, with alliteration and rhyme. It is usually short but need not be: it is usually true, but need not be. Some proverbs have both a literal and figurative meaning, either of which makes perfect sense; but more often they have one of the two. A proverb must be venerable; it must bear the sign of antiquity, and, since such signs may be counterfeited by a clever literary man, it should be attested in different places at different times. This last requirement we must often waive in dealing with very early literature, where the material at our disposal is incomplete (2).


Structurally, proverbs display inter-language similarities with their reliance on vivid images, domestic allusions, and wordplay. In the words of Olatunji, proverbs evolve from traditional lore, history, and religion and are usually attributed to elders as they embody the wisdom of elders or ancestors in society (61). Although there are speculations that proverbs are on the verge of going into extinction, Mieder contradicts this by saying that “nothing could be further from the truth”. He categorically states that proverbs are very much alive and well (xi). Nwachukwu-Agbada opines that the proverb is considered one of the longest-surviving non-material artifacts of a heritage (3). From pre-literate times, the wisdom of proverbs has been a lamp unto the feet of people in their social interactions. It is succinct and pungent, and it is used to add grandeur to an otherwise flat and ordinary speech. Young people sometimes find it difficult to understand it since the meaning is not easily decoded from the surface. This is because language is elevated from the ordinary language of everyday communication.

Meanings in proverbs can be analogous to happenings in the real world. Proverbs are based on the wisdom, beliefs, culture, experiences, and history, of their society and, it is, therefore, interpretable easily within society. Moreno opined that “proverbs are understood about a background of assumptions and values, so they are primarily a social phenomenon” (46). Although the proverb is mainly used among the elderly, it is sometimes used in interpersonal discourse by both the young and old in appropriate contexts. This context, Lamidi says must include the topic, participants, setting, and subject matter (61). Moreno shares their opinion of Lamidi by saying that context is mandatory for their correct interpretation because they indirectly provide a message. They are learned through social interaction and for social purposes, and they are at the vanguard of social values. This is to say they promote the values that are held high in a sociocultural milieu.

Igbo proverbs play the above roles. Proverbs are interpretable within the cultural environment. They constitute an interesting and informative source of folk knowledge that portrays certain cultural beliefs. They are an integral part of the language; a spectacle through which the Igbo people see their culture. Tadi sums up the usefulness of proverbs as follows:

As a communicative instrument, proverbs help in depicting the values, norms, aspirations, likes, and dislikes of the members of society. Proverbs mirror the life of people and guide them in their daily actions. Consequently, proverbs play an active role in the social life of a people as they advise, criticize, admonish or console one another. They help in conflict resolution, enrich the language philosophy, or reflect a people’s material and spiritual life (165).


Communication is of vital importance for meaningful human existence. For the peaceful coexistence of man and his fellows, communication must take place, and language makes this happen. It is a people’s identity. Language does not exist in a vacuum, it does exist in a society, as a result, language and society are functionally and socially inseparable. Awuzie defines language as “the oldest human institution and the most sophisticated medium of expression”(2). Being a tool for social communication, language is both an instrument and an expression of society. Wilkins comments on the usefulness of language by saying that “language will occur almost wherever we come in contact with other people” (134). Human expressions generally are centered on language. The meaning derived from language is peculiar to the people involved. Ogunsiji quoting James (1979) posits that one can rarely discuss language activity without considering the relationship that exists between those who must communicate and the circumstances that give rise to the communication. This is because what makes sense to a particular group of people, for example, the Hausas might make no meaning to another group like the Igbos. Ujomu in Igboanusi (ed). notes that “given the culture-dependent character of language, the meanings ascribed to specific concepts or statements in one language are defined by the totality of the culture in question”  (169).

Bussmann defines language as “a vehicle for the expression or exchange of thought, concept, information, knowledge as well as the fixing and transmission of experience and knowledge”. He posits that it is based on cognitive processes, subject to societal factors and historical change and development. This definition suggests that language is restricted to humans and differs from all other forms of communication which might include animal communication and artificial languages. Language can also be seen as a specific system of signs and combinatory rules which are arbitrary but passed on as conventions. Linguistic skills are held in high esteem in modern societies and all languages have developed to meet the linguistic needs of their users (140).

The Sapir- Whorf’s hypothesis of linguistic relativity states that the distinctions encoded in one language are not found in any other. The theory claims that there are no restrictions on the amount and type of variation to be expected between languages, including their semantic structures, and there is a total determining effect of language on thought (103).

The deficit theory refers to Chomsky’s theory of linguistic competence which is meant by a person’s linguistic knowledge. The notion of linguistic incompetence deals with the lack of the kind of knowledge which is covered by Chomsky’s competence. Such is present in babies and others who, for some reason, do not speak some particular language. A Yoruba speaker will be incompetent in the Igbo language since he has no linguistic competence in Igbo.

A significant contribution is made by Basil Bernstein to the study of communication. This is his sociolinguistic theory of language. He argues that within the broader category of language codes are elaborated and restricted codes. Littlejohn defines code as “a set of organizing principles behind the language employed by members of a social group” (278). As suggested by

Littlejohn and Basil Bernstein’s theory shows that the language used in everyday conversation by people reflects and shapes the assumptions of a certain social group. It further states that the relationship that exists between members of a particular group determines the kind of language and speech that is employed by that group.

Finally, Dell Hyme’s Ethnography of Communication states that to learn a language, one must not only learn the vocabulary and grammar of the language but the context in which the language is used as well. An ethnography of a communication event says Wardhaugh, is “a description of all the factors that are relevant in understanding how that particular communicative event achieves its objectives.” Hymes uses the acronym SPEAKING for the

different factors he considers to be relevant (242).



The proverb is an important aspect of indigenous Nigerian languages. Most existing ethnolinguistic studies of proverbs in Nigeria have focused mainly on Igbo and Yoruba proverbs (e.g. Lamidi, 2008; Adedimeji,2003; Oha, 1998; Olubode-Sawa,2009; Fasiku,2006). To the best of the knowledge of the Researcher, not much has been done on aspects of the language of the Igbo proverb. One of the few existing studies is Ojaide(2007) which defines, describes, and classifies Igbo proverbs into pre-colonial and post-colonial proverbs. This paucity of study on the aspects of the language of Igbo necessitated this study. Furthermore, it is a sociolinguistic fact that most minority languages of the world are facing the threat of possible extinction. This fact has been collaborated by Agu when he states that “half of the 6000 languages that abound in the world are spoken by adults who do not pass it onto subsequent generations,”(cited in Emike, 2012). With a population of 546,000 native speakers (1993 census) of the Igbo language, there is no gain-saying the fact that the Igbo language is a victim of this ugly trend. Its position in this ordeal is more dangerous with the near creolization of the Nigerian pidgin in Warri, Ughelli, and Sapele, the three major economic nerve centers in Igbo land. In light of the above, vital aspects of the Igbo language like the proverb, are gradually fading away in the repertoire of the new generation of Igbo speakers. This scenario calls for research into the various aspects of the Igbo language and culture. This will go a long way to preserve the language and increase the communicative and performative competence of the users/speakers of the Igbo language.

In earnest, researchers like Mieder, Bayley and Lucas, Lamidi,x   have done some works on proverbs but to the best of the knowledge of the Researcher, no attention has been paid to the study of Igbo proverbs with special reference to the sociolinguistic implications.



This study aims at exploring and analyze Igbo proverbs from the sociolinguistic perspective. This will offer a sociolinguistic insight into the contributions of the Igbo language, culture, and way of life in the sociolinguistic context of English as a second Language in Nigeria. This study also shows the socio-cultural relevance, the communicative effect, and the conversational value of Igbo proverbs.

Language cannot exist in a vacuum; it needs a society to thrive. Also, the meaning accruable to proverbs hinges on the linguistic environment. A good knowledge or mastery of the sociolinguistic context is necessary for the meaning of proverbs to be decoded.

Proverbs can be seen as instruments of correction since they contain deep and hidden nuggets of wisdom. This study examines the functions of proverbs in the linguistic community and by extension society in general. The relevance of proverbs to society will be explored and brought to the limelight.

Proverbs are also peculiar and unique to people. The culture of the linguistic community plays a very important role in the use of proverbs, though some proverbs apply to all languages. In other words, some are of universal knowledge, but the majority of the Igbo proverbs are culture-specific.



This study is a contribution to the existing studies on proverbs and particularly to the socio-linguistic aspect of Igbo proverbs. It is a contribution to the body of research that seeks to study aspects of the language and culture of indigenous Igbo people. Studying L1 speech codes (in this case proverbs) is very significant. This is because the meaning mappings provided by proverbs are significant for attention in the second language context where the L1 ideas are transposed into L2 ideas (Adedimeji,58). This study shows how the socio-cultural values and belief systems of the Igbos are communicated in English as a Second Language situations. Also, in the event of minority languages facing extinction all over the world, this research is significant especially as it will serve as a documentary that will help to preserve Igbo proverbs which are an aspect of the Igbo language and culture. This study will go a long way to enhance the sociolinguistic background of the Igbo speech community and the ethnolinguistic potential of the Igbo language. Through language, one can gain access to a people’s culture. A sociolinguistic study of the Igbo proverb, an aspect of the Igbo language, is therefore significant as it will underpin how the Igbos use proverbs to organize speech and how this manifests in English as a second language in Nigeria. This is in line with the observations of Paolketi that “different patterns of talk are specific to definite cultural groups” and that “communication is locally patterned and practiced” (20).

Apart from increasing the communicative competence of the new generation of Igbo speakers, this study will also contribute to the discourse of English as a second language in Nigeria as the translation of indigenous Nigerian proverbs into English is a necessary feature of domestication of the English language in ESL contexts.

Again, this study is relevant to students and scholars of African Literature in English as it provides a basis for a sociolinguistic interpretation of Igbo proverbs as used in African novels, plays, and poems.  The work can also provoke more research material for other scholars who are interested in African studies and oral tradition among indigenous Nigerian cultures.

Proverbs are useful resources to pass across ideas. Even more, they provide a source of information for anyone who wishes to have access to the traditions and the cultural heritage of a linguistic community. They are also extremely valuable for sociolinguistic purposes. A good understanding of the linguistic and cultural diversity of a given society is useful in promoting equity and respect in schools and places of work for all and sundry. Again, examining the way people use language in different social contexts provides a wealth of information on how language works hence this study will provide a better understanding of how language works, including the English language. Furthermore, proverbs are interesting to study because through them, we can extract many ideas on how we think, how we conceptualize and categorize the world, and how we transmit traditional folk knowledge from generation to generation.



This study is based on a sociolinguistic analysis of Igbo proverbs. It is an impossible task to analyze all the proverbs available in the linguistic repertoire of the Igbo language. Time and space will not even allow for this. Randomly selected Igbo proverbs are gleaned from Igbo music and Igbo native speakers from the context of use. Where necessary, cross references will be made to proverbs from other language communities to explicate their usefulness in depicting the values, norms, aspirations, likes, dislikes, and sometimes, the dos and don’ts of members of society at large.


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