African Languages, Development and the State

By Richard Fardon; Graham Furniss | Go to book overview

5

Minority language development in Nigeria

A situation report on Rivers and Bendel States

Ben Ohi Elugbe

Perhaps the best known fact about Nigeria is that it is a country of extreme linguistic diversity. Although its land mass is less than 7 per cent of the total area of the African continent, it is agreed by scholars that fully 20 per cent of Africa’s 2,000 odd languages are spoken in Nigeria (Dalby 1980:100). Hansford et al. (1976) listed 394 languages but the revised version of the publication (Crozier and Blench: in press) will show a figure above 400.

Nigeria falls squarely within the Fragmentation Belt, ‘a zone of extreme linguistic complexity stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia’ (Dalby 1977:6). Of the four language phyla recognized by orthodox or mainstream scholarship in African language classification, three are widely represented in Nigeria: Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Afroasiatic. Only the rather small Khoisan (or click) languages, almost all in south-western Africa, are not represented in Nigeria.

Although three of the languages of Nigeria—Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba—are clearly dominant by virtue of the numerical strength of their speakers (both as first and second language) the vast majority are spoken by comparatively small groups. It is the practice in Nigeria to refer to Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba as the major languages. The three are also called Nigeria’s national languages in a multilingual practice in which English remains the official language.

As might be expected, some of the states of Nigeria (there are now thirty of them) are more linguistically complex than others. In Nigeria, certainly in the south, the two linguistically most complex states are Rivers and Bendel. (Although Bendel was, in August 1990, split into Delta and Edo states in an exercise that raised the number of states in Nigeria from twenty-one to thirty, we shall work with ‘Bendel’ in this report because it concerns the old Bendel State. In addition, we shall feel free to use ‘Bendel’ without the tag ‘state’—Bendel, it is now obvious, remains an enduring concept.)

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