Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 5 : 3 March 2005

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai

Esohe Mercy Omoregbe


The linguistic situation in Edo state of Nigeria is a complex one and the complexity derives from the fact that it is a multilingual state with no common language. Edo is the main indigenous language spoken in Benin City, the capital of Edo state. But the mixture of languages in the land makes it difficult for Edo language to maintain its high position and its vitality.

In the bid to have a common language for easy communication in the state, Edo is facing the excruciating problem of being in constant struggle with English language and pidgin. These two languages are being used as the languages of wider communication to the detriment of Edo language.

The result of this is the gradual abandonment of Edo, which is posing a big threat to its vitality. The chances of survival of any language in such circumstances depend largely on the attitudes portrayed towards it.

This paper raises an alarm at the noticeable gradual decline in the use of Edo language even in its home base. It examines the attitudes of the speakers towards their language and provides some recommendations as a way of checking this negative tendency and ensuring the survival of Edo in spite of the heterogeneous linguistic situation in the land.


Edo language belongs to the class of minority languages in Nigeria as opposed to the major languags, which comprise Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo. The minority class includes all the other languages in Nigeria including Edo, Urhobo, Ijaw, Esan, Itsekiri, Isoko, Fulani, etc.


There is a heterogeneous linguistic situation in Edo state as in some other parts of Nigeria like Rivers, Delta, Plateau, Kaduna, Taraba and Adamawa states. In each of these states, there are no common languages. As a result, different ethnic groups within the states speak indigenous languages slightly intelligible to one another. Other residents in Edo state include those with Esan, Owan, Auchi, Urhobo, Isoko and even Igbo and Yoruba backgrounds. The speakers of these languages attempt to speak Edo as a second language. The main Edo speech community is generally homogenous with noticeable peculiarities in the speech of the inhabitants of most of the other speech communities. The different varieties however, appear to be mutually intelligible.

The complexity of the linguistic situation in Edo state arises from the fact that none of the indigenous twenty-four languages is a major language nor is any used as a common medium of communication in the state. The people readily resort to the use of English and the Nigerian pidgin as the common languages for easy communication. This is done to the detriment of the indigenous languages especially Edo.


This study draws the attention of Edo speakers to the noticeable gradual decline in the use of Edo. In order to know the attitudes of speakers of Edo, we interviewed a cross section of the people within the ages of ten to eighty (10-80) years. They were categorized as follows:

Category 1: 10 - 25 years
Category 2: 26 - 40 years
Category 3: 41 - 80 years

From the interview, it is speculated that about 35% of Edo speakers have positive attitude towards the language. 60% has negative attitude while 5% has indifferent attitude. The study is being undertaken with a view to getting the speakers to develop the right and desired attitudes towards the language in order to maintain its vitality. It is envisaged that the observations and recommendations in the study will go a long way to doing that and to steering up further development of Edo.


Edo is a core member of the group of genetically related languages called the Edoid group (Elugbe 1989). It is rated as one of the first few of the twenty-four languages, which make up the Edoid group in Nigeria. The language is currently spoken throughout most of the territories, which are coterminous with the old Benin province. This constitutes the permanent core of the pre-colonial Benin Kingdom and includes the following local government areas: Oredo, Ikpoba-Ikha, Orhionmwon, Uhunmwunode, Egor, Ovia, North East and Ovia South West. Edo is the main language spoken in these local government areas.


Edo language was first documented by the early colonial administrators and missionaries, Omozuwa (2003), records that one of the first documented works in Edo includes the translation of the gospel according to St. Mark, primers and catechism books written for schools and churches in 1914.

Though a minority language, Edo has a global recognition. It's use is highly favoured in different parts of the globe. For example, Edo is known to be spoken in some parts of Calabar. The use of Edo in this area may have been encouraged during the period of the Benin Massacre when the Benin monarch then, Oba Ovoranmwen was deported to Calabar in 1897. Since then, the use of Edo in that area, has survived till date.

In other parts of the country like Lagos and Delta states, Edo-related titles like Iyase can be observed in their kinship and other vocabularies. Even outside the country, Edo is favoured. Americans value Edo monarchy very highly to the extent that Edo statues can be found all over America. There is no doubt that the use of the language is also being encouraged to some extent in this area. It is also possible that Edo usage is spreading to other parts of the globe with the exodus of Edo indigenes to Europe, Britain, etc.

From the foregoing, it is obvious that Edo is not an unknown nor unpopular language. It is a household name at home and abroad but the heterogeneous nature of languages in its home base tends to threaten its very existence.


Language is one of the important properties of man that forms the basis of communication and makes it possible. The language of a people serves as a binding force and is seen as the vehicle used to pass down the history of such a people from one generation to another. So when a language dies, a people's culture is said to have died too.

Edo occupies a very important place in the history of the Edo people just like its culture. In fact, the two appear to be inseparable in every activity of the people. This fact is most noticeable from the scenario of the palace of the Benin Monarch, the dressing as well as the greeting habits of the people. Edo people have a distinct family greeting system by which every speaker is identified with a particular family. An Edo child is expected to learn and use these greeting forms as he grows up. This is a core aspect of the vitality of the language.

The importance of Edo is also seen in the way it is used nowadays in songs, home video series, poetic performances etc. In spite of all these, Edo is fast loosing its vitality and the Edo people, out of ignorance or sheer negligence are neither aware of this nor do they know the implications of such a tendency.

The result of the interview conducted, as well as that of our personal observation, shows that the general attitudes of the people towards the language and their level of awareness of the present state of the language, is not commensurate with the importance of the language. In the sections that follow, we make some general observations of the prevailing attitudes of Edo language users towards the language.


An attitude can be seen as a way of behaviour towards something in a particular situation. Language attitude therefore, is concerned with opinions, feelings or beliefs that people have towards a language. Following Adegbija (1994), we will say that language attitudes are evaluative judgements made about a language or its variety, its speakers towards efforts at promoting, maintaining or planning a language or even towards learning and teaching it. Attitudes are very crucial to the growth or decay of a language. They are also crucial to its restoration or destruction. In addition, they are crucial for sustaining the vitality of a language (like Edo).

The status of a language is seen from the foregoing as being determined by the types of attitudes towards it. The vitality of Edo is observed to be currently under serious threat and this can be examined from the point of view of the present attitudes of people towards the language. Attitudes can either be positive or negative. We also observed in the course of this study that people could also have what we have termed indifferent attitude towards the language. Each of these attitudinal types tends to affect the vitality of the language in different ways.


There is a positive attitude to a language when that language is seen to be growing and flourishing. This is only possible when positive feelings are attached to the language. The speakers of such a language will do everything possible to promote the language and ensure its preservation and maintenance. A language can also attract positive attitudes from its speakers if it has a large number of speakers, performs many functions and has a codified form.

In this way, its vitality can be sustained and cannot be endangered. This is the position of English, French and even Nigerian pidgin today. It is speculated, based on the interview conducted, that only about 35% of Edo speakers have some positive attitude towards the language. This percentage of speakers can be categorized as follows:

  1. The first group of speakers comprises writers and producers of Edo literature, especially those produced as texts for schools. Though much of their effort can be said to be money-oriented, the fact remains that it is helping in a significant way to keep Edo language alive.
  2. The second group with positive attitude includes the songsters in Edo who are springing up in large numbers. In spite of the linguistic flaws observed in most of the pronunciations of members of this group, the language lives on.
  3. A third group comprises producers of home video series as well as the performers themselves, who in their bid to entertain and make money, are helping to sustain the language.
  4. Yet, a forth group of speakers includes those who are studying Edo in higher institutions of learning like the College of Education, Ekiadolor, and the Universities of Benin and Lagos. This group includes teachers of Edo at the different levels of education; the different guilds such as artists, ironsmiths, bronze smiths etc. Who are in constant touch with the language.
  5. Other speakers worthy of recognition in this regard include translators, media workers using Edo, interpreters, traditionalists and parents who still remember to speak Edo and ensure its usage in their homes. Moreover, Edo has a reliable, codified and standard orthography. In spite of all these, the language is not highly favoured since the different groups of speakers identified so far, constitute a very small percentage of the population of Edo speakers.


Negative attitudes to a language as opposed to positive attitudes, arise when there are no favourable feelings towards the use of the language. In the context of negative attitude, speakers of a language shy away from all that has to do with the language. About 60% of Edo speakers are speculated to have negative attitude towards the language. This percentage of speakers refuses to be associated closely with Edo. They do not also care most times what happens to the language. Such an attitude is found not to be in the interest of the vitality of the language. The youths in Edo appear to be the main culprits in this direction.

We agree with Aziza (2003) based on our observation that the continued existence of any language depends largely on the attitude of its native speakers, particularly the youth. This is true because they are the ones who are supposed to carry on the intergenerational usage as well as transmission of the language both within and outside their immediate environments. If a language is taken to be functionally irrelevant to its youth, such a language will continue to shift ground for other languages.

We observe in this study that, Edo is shifting grounds for English and pidgin as they are now used as common languages in the state to break communication barriers. It is the case that people prefer to learn and use the languages that are socially and economically useful to them. We observed that most Edo speakers choose the better option of a more common language so that they can flow with the time. This confirms Aziza's belief that more nations are forced to join the common language usage in order to get into the mainstream of life in the area. This probably accounts for the reason why the younger generation of Edo speakers has developed negative attitude towards their language.

There is a great deal of absence of language loyalty among Edo speakers especially the youths towards the language. We observed also that a large proportion of Edo people truly pay lip service to the development of the language. Many of them tend to propagate the language in theory only. But the vitality of a language like Edo can only be sustained both in theory and practice. The youths and other speakers of the language are of the opinion that the use of Edo (a local language) does not endow the Edo speaker with any special privilege and hence their negative attitude towards its usage. Many other factors combine to militate against the survival of Edo and its development. Such factors are being examined in the sections that follow.


The negative attitude of the government of the day is also contributing to the decline in the use of Edo. When the government has a nonchalant disposition towards the indigenous languages and does not do things to ensure that policies on language are implemented and accomplished in schools, then the people governed will have the same nonchalant attitude towards the indigenous languages by not using it well.

With regard to Edo, a nonchalant attitude is observed in the Edo state government as he is not doing anything to ensure the proper and continued study of Edo in schools. The National Policy on Education (NPE) stipulates that the medium of instruction in the early years of school should be in the child's mother tongue or language of the immediate environment or community. This is not being implemented well in Edo state.

It has been observed that it is through education that negative attitudes to indigenous languages highly stand out (Adegbija 1994). The type of attitude both the teachers and pupils have towards a language can go long way to determine its survival and continuity. It is not uncommon to find in some schools in Benin unfavourable inscriptions like "vernacular speaking is not allowed in this class". Defaulters are usually sanctioned.

What they call vernacular here is indeed the mother tongue, which they are supposed to be encouraging. It is obvious from the above that this is not in the spirit of the NPE. Many of the schools in Benin are observed to be either teaching Edo minimally or not teaching it at all. Even in schools where it is taught, the translation method is usually adopted i.e. the teachers merely pronounce Edo forms and translate them into English. In some cases, pidgin is used to explain such forms.


The Edo home is seen as a social setting where a family (usually extended), lives together. The home is the first place where the Edo child has his first interaction with people: his parents, siblings and relations. With his innate ability, he acquires the language of the home as his first language and he is expected to adapt to the language spoken in the home as he grows up. So the home is where most of the language learning, identity formation and the establishment of social bond take place for children early in life through interactions with members of the family.

It is very common nowadays to find Edo people speaking languages other than Edo in their homes. They prefer to speak such languages (usually English and pidgin) to the detriment of Edo. It is also the case as Oyetade (2001) rightly points out, that some parents ban their children from using their mother tongue, like Edo. Edo is no longer well spoken in more than 60% of Edo homes. Even the so-called typical Edo settings are not left out of this problem.

In many of the homes, it is observed that pidgin is used and is basically becoming the most favourable language of choice in Edo homes. Pidgin is essentially a communication system that developed among people who do not share a common language. But members of most Edo homes do share a common language (i.e. Edo) except in a few ones where there are mixed marriages. It is obvious from this that the majority of Edo people do not like their language. From the forgoing, it is obvious that the use of pidgin in Benin is not restricted to any group of speakers. The older generations use it as a second language while the younger ones use it as a first language- a situation, which poses a threat to the vitality of Edo.


Edo state media can be said to have a negative attitude towards Edo since they are not doing much to propagate the language. Only a few programmes are done in Edo. These include news translation, requests, obituary, and some other notices and a discussion programme (i.e. Ibota). The majority of the programmes in the media are done in English and pidgin. This situation is opposed to what obtains in some other parts of the country like the cosmopolitan Lagos, where speakers jealously guard their language against any external dominating language and ensure its use in all situations.


The church in Benin is not left out of this negative tendency. In most churches in Benin, services are conducted in English and pidgin. Occasionally, interpretations are done in Edo. Only a few orthodox churches like the Anglican, Catholic and Baptist and a very few Pentecostal churches have purely Edo services. Even in such churches; two or three services may be conducted in English and pidgin, while only one (often interrupted by English) service is conducted in Edo.


In recent times, the use of Edo has witnessed a drastic decline in Edo community. The rate at which the language is spoken has reduced considerably. Even most of those who speak the language, do so with wrong pronunciations. This negative attitude towards the language can be traced back to the colonial era where the use of indigenous languages was proscribed. This proscription made the speakers of the language (including Edo) to feel that their language was, and is still less appropriate for use in schools (and now in homes). Since then, English language, the language of the colonial masters has continued to be used for several functions institutionalized by the colonialists such as government, administration, law, education and even religion. The foreign language was and is still seen as a symbol of unity and integration in multilingual settings like Edo land.

Based on the present condition of Edo, one can conclude that the colonial era has done more harm than good. It instilled in the natives the attitudes of superiority and respect towards the English language. The result of this is that the natives have inferiority complex towards their own local languages. The degree of this complex is increasing by the day and is affecting the vitality of Edo language.


Indifferent attitude to a language arises where there are mixed feelings towards the language. Those with indifferent attitudes (mainly youths) do not care whether the language improves in usage or remain static. For them, any language can be used at any time or situation so long as it is prestigious and can help them to improve their lot. This is because people do not want to remain static (Adegbija 1994). They want to move up the social leader and be seen as achievers. They want to be associated with the language that is admired as one of the best because such a language is seen as an avenue to attain certain goods and services. They prefer to speak and use such a language to the detriment of their mother tongue (i.e. Edo). This group if speakers cannot be bothered about the preservation and sustenance of the vitality of the language.


There is a great indication from the discussion so far, that Edo language is potentially endangered. We have examined the different attitudes of Edo speakers towards their language. Generally, positive attitude towards a language helps it to grow and flourish like the case of English. But negative attitude tends to create problems of retaining the speakers of a language amongst other problems. There is the tendency for speakers of the disfavoured language (like Edo) to shift to the favoured language and more prestigious ones (i.e. English & pidgin). This is a situation where a language is gradually being submerged into another and this can lead to language loss if it is not promptly checked. Edo is just at the initial stage of endangerment but if the poor and discouraging attitude towards the language is not checked very soon, it may start going through the other stages of endangerment and may eventually end up in extinction or total loss.

Wurm, S.A. (2002:14) distinguishes five levels of language endangerment as follows:

  1. Potentially endangered language - if the young ones start preferring the dominant language.
  2. Endangered language - if the youngest speakers are young adults and only very few child speakers.
  3. Seriously endangered language - if the youngest speakers are middle aged or past middle age.
  4. Terminally endangered language- (i.e. moribund language) - if there are only a few elderly speakers left.
  5. Extinct language - where no one is left to speak it.

Following Wurm, we would say that Edo is already potentially endangered. In the bid to become more competent in English, many Edo speakers, particularly the young ones, are gradually abandoning their language. The use of Edo is no longer highly favoured in many settings (home, school, church, media, social gatherings etc). English and pidgin, the dominant languages are being preferred to Edo.

There are even more convincing reasons to conclude that the language is already being endangered when we consider the fact that a large number of Edo parents fail to teach the language to their children. Only a few parents, who consider the language to be an emblem of identity and a preserver of culture, still encourage the use of the language. The problem here is that these people, who appear to be loyal to Edo, probably out of sentiments or true intent, are in the minority. Their effort to sustain the vitality of Edo may not yield long lasting results. Their effort may be suppressed by those speakers who have negative attitudes towards the language and who are in the majority. These speakers can do all they can, probably out of ignorance, disloyalty or lack of good intent, to discourage the sustenance and continuity of the language.

Moreover, there are no standard and appropriate teaching aids as well as qualified and experienced teachers for Edo language in schools. The language is not being used as stipulated by the NPE as a medium of instruction in the lower schools. Edo is in constant struggle with English and pidgin in nearly every setting in the state. The result is that Edo is fast losing its vitality and hence it is potentially endangered.


It is obvious from the discussion so far, that there is indeed a gradual decline in the use of Edo and hence the need to revitalize it before any further decline. All hands must be on deck to restore its past glory and ensure its continued usage in every situation. This can be done in a variety of ways as outlined below.

The government of Edo state can make policy statement in favour of (a) the teaching of Edo in schools in Benin, (b) the use of Edo in the state media, and other official transactions, (c) publishing in the language etc. We need materials to lay down for the coming generation so that there will be continuity in the use of the language.

  • Parents should endeavour to teach their children Edo and encourage its usage both in the homes and outside the homes.
  • Edo traditional leaders should be more actively involved in this revitalization crusade.
  • For the proper implementation of the NPE stipulation, an Edo language board should be set up to monitor the activities of schools as regards the teaching of Edo.
  • Edo language learners and their teachers at the different levels, should be given regular reinforcements to encourage them. These include amongst other things.(a) Edo language teachers allowance (b) regular training programmes and workshops with remunerations for the teachers, (c) enhanced salary etc.
  • More importantly, Edo youths need to be constantly reassured of the positive support of their elderly ones in all their endeavours. They should be always be reminded of the very important place they occupy in the generational usage and transmission of the language.
  • Lovers of Edo people and their language, should also do all they can to encourage the use of the language and help to promote and sustain it.


Attempt has been made in this paper to examine attitudes of Edo speakers towards Edo language. The paper raises an alarm to alert Edo users on the declining condition of the language. It drew attention to the distinction between the important status of and the present discouraging attitudes of speakers towards it. Whereas Edo occupies an important position in the history of the people, speakers are not doing much linguistically and otherwise to maintain its vitality. The paper observed among other things, that the present discouraging attitudes have already pushed Edo language into potential endangerment. The fear that this may affect Edo culture negatively and cause disintegration is expressed since language is seen as a vehicle of a people's culture as well as a symbol of their unity an identity. Consequently, the paper recommends, while concluding, that both the government and people of Edo state should as a matter of urgency and importance join hands together to revitalize the language.

It is the submission of this paper that in spite of the multi-ethnic nature of the linguistic situation in Edo land, the threat to the vitality of Edo can be stopped. A lot can be done to bring back the lost glory of the language and even move it from its so-called minority position to a non-endangered and higher level of usage.


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Mrs. Esohe Mercy Omoregbe
Faculty of Arts
University of Benin
Benin City, Nigeria

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