Official Logo of Urhobo Historical Society 
October 29 -- 31, 2004

Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Nigeria
Niger Delta Cultural Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Nigeria
Ibru Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Nigeria

By Macaulay Mowarin, Ph.D.
Department of English and Literary Studies
Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria


A paper prepared for presentation at the Fifth Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society held at PTI Conference Centre, Effurun, Delta State, Nigeria, and Ibru Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Nigeria, October 29-31, 2004.

This paper examines the problem of language endangerment that threatens the three constituent languages of Urhobo culture, namely,  Urhobo, Okpe and Uvwie. These languages are in various degrees of endangerment; they are all presently grabbling with survival. We seek to address the factors responsible for the shrinkage of the three languages. We observe the relationship between the contraction of these languages and the problem of underdevelopment and lack of unity in Urhoboland.  Finally, this paper discusses strategies for the reinvigoration of the languages.


Language endangerment is synonymous with language shift. Vic Webb and Kembo Sure (2001: 40) define language shift as “a process in which speakers of one language begin to use a second language for more and more functions until they eventually use only the second language.” In most cases, an endangered language dies when the last speaker eventually dies.




Urhobo, Okpe and Uvwie are members of the South Western Edoid family of lanuagues. South Western Edoid is a subset of the Edoid family of languages which is a member of the Kwa branch of the Niger Congo family of languages.  A substantial number of the Edoid languages are spoken in Edo State and the Southern part of Delta State.

Elugbe (1986: 3) postulates that the Edoid lanaguages “fall into four primary subgroups of Delta Edoid, South Western Edoid, North Central Edoid, where
Edo belongs, and North Western Edoid.  A substantial number of these languages trace their ancestry to the  Edo (Bini) stock.”


<>Elugbe (1986) adds that the SWE is further sub-divided into five regional groupings.  They are Erohwa (Eruwa), Isoko, Urhobo (Sobo), Okpe and Uvwie (Ephron or Effurun); while the Okpe and Uvwie are regarded as part of Urhobo, the Erohwa are regarded as part of the Isoko ethnic nationality.  On the cultural and linguistic relationship between Urhobo on the one hand and Okpe and Uvwie on the other, Elugbe (1986: 9) asserts thus:<> “although the Okpe and Uvwie will call themselves Urhobo clans and speak the central Agharho dialect of Urhobo which has become a lingua franca in the Urhobo area, they rightly insist that they have their own languages.”  Aweto (2002) estimates that the population of Urhoboland was 1.2 million in 1991 and it is now about 1.5 million.





The rapid disappearance of most languages of the world is now a source of concern to linguists.  Threatened languages are found mostly in Australia, North America (the United States and Canada) and Africa.  The indigenous languages of the first two regions have now been dominated by  English language which is the language of  Anglophone migrants.  The 2,000 indigenous languages in Africa spoken by about 480 million Africans (Crystal 1997: 316) are now threatened by English, French and Portuguese languages as well as their pidgins and Creoles.  These are the languages of Africa’s former colonial rulers.


The main cause of the endangerment of indigenous languages in these regions is the political, social, economic and linguistic domination of the indigenes by migrant majorities who are mostly Anglophone.  While English is the superstrate language in Australia, United States and some regions of Canada and Africa, the indigenous languages are the substrate ones. Efforts are made by the speakers of the superstrate language to assimilate the substrate languages.  In Australia, for example, most of the aboriginal languages are near extinction due to Englishnization  Due to the high mortality rate of aboriginal languages in Australia, Thieberger (2002: 312) observes that “our usual definition of languages in the Australian context allows neat divisions into living and dead languages, divisions which belie the continued use of Aboriginal languages ---today.”


In Africa, endangerment of indigenous languages is one of the retrogressive effects of colonialism. African languages are going into extinction due to the belief of Africans in the inferiority of their indigenous languages and the superiority of former colonial languages.


Linden (1991: 20) gives an estimate of the number of endangered languages in the world when he notes that “there is hard evidence that the number of languages in the world is shrinking. Of the roughly 6,000 languages now spoken, up to half are already endangered or on the brink of extinction.” He adds that a language disappears somewhere in the world every two weeks.


Bradley D and Bradley M(2002: xl) give an insight into the state of endangered languages in the nearest future when they observe: “Various scholars have estimated that up to 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear during the 21st century unless- and maybe many perhaps even if- we do something now.”


The prognosis of African linguists on the future of African languages is very bleak.  Egbokhare (2004: 13) observes this premonition thus:


There is a grim prediction that in the next 50 – 100 years, 90 percent of the languages of Africa will be extinct. This if allowed to happen will be a tragedy given the huge information base and folk wisdom that will perish.  It touches on our identity and our continued existence as a people.

African languages are marginalized because Africans believe that their languages are not socially and economically useful to them. What is more, in this modern age of technological development and information technology, African languages are increasingly becoming a handicap, if not a liability (Egbokhare 2004:13). Linguists are now reinvigorating some of these dying languages .




Several factors are responsible for the shrinkage of the languages in Urhobo culture. The salient ones are discussed below.


One of the reasons for the contraction of languages in Urhobo culture is the polyglossic situation in Urhobo land. Urhobo languages have open social networks; they have contact with other indigenous languages that envelope them. The ethnic groups that encircle Urhobo land are the Binis in the North, the Itsekiris and the Ijaws in the South, the Isokos and the Ukwanis in the East and the Itsekiris in the West. Language and cultural contacts and inter-ethnic marriages between members of the neighbouring ethnic groups have led to a shrinkage in the use of the languages in Urhobo land. This is due to the assimilatory effects of the neighbouring languages.


The Western variety or Warri/ Sapele variety of Nigerian Pidgin has also endangered the languages in Urhobo land. Delta Central and Delta South senatorial districts as well as the entire Niger Delta region are complexly multilingual and multicultural. Nigerian Pidgin is the language of wider communication in the two senatorial districts of Delta State. It is now the lingua franca for inter-ethnic communication by members of the various ethnic groups. Faraclas (1996: 1) states that “Nigerian Pidgin may soon become the most widely spoken language in Nigeria.” Egbokhare (2001: 115) notes that Nigerian Pidgin is “Nigerian language of wider communication.”


Ideally, Nigerian Pidgin is supposed to be a language of inter-ethnic communication in Urhoboland. However, it has now penetrated the orbit of  homes in Urhoboland. It is now being used as a language of intra-ethnic communication in urban centers like Warri, Sapele, Effurun and Ughelli and other semi urban centers like Abraka, Oghara, Agbarho and Eku. Nigerian Pidgin has already acquired a number of native speakers. The elaboration in the use and creolization of the language is a cause of the contraction of the indigenous languages in Urhoboland. Nigerian Pidgin is now the mother- tongue of many children in urban centres. It is now the only language used by semi- literate and illitrate Urhobos in homes in urban centers. It is the language of intergenerational transmission from parents to their children in these homes. To the Urhobos, Nigerian Pidgin is socially viable to its users while the Urhobo languages are socially unviable.


Apart from Nigerian Pidgin, English is also a cause of language endangerment in Urhobo land. English is Nigeria’s official language. Nigerians have a positive altitude towards the language while they have a negative attitude towards their indigenous languages. So, Nigeria is a culturally and linguistically a colonized nation.


It is pertinent to state here that standard Nigerian English has now undergone nativisation and indigenisation because it is now a blend of British and Nigerian cultures. Bamgbose (1995: 21) was quite accurate in his observation that “English language has undergone modification in the Nigerian environment. It has been pidgnised, nativized, acculturated and twisted to express unaccustomed concepts and mode of interaction.”


In Urhoboland as well as in Nigeria in general, many parents encourage their children to learn and speak the English language fluently. Most elites from Uthoboland now transmit only English language to their children as the first language in their homes. Such children have now experienced language loss of the languages in Urhobo culture.


Another reason for the endangerment of the languages in Urhobo culture is the flawed language policy in Nigeria. Indigenous languages in Nigeria are bifurcated into majority and minority ones. While Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are the majority languages, the other 397 languages are minority ones. The 100 languages spoken in the Niger Delta (Egbokhare 2001) are grouped into minority languages. Ethnic politics is deeply entrenched in Nigeria. While the speakers of the three major languages dominate the country socio-politically and economically, the speakers of the minority languages are marginalized. Nigerians are thus divided into two classes of citizens whom Egbokhare (2001), quoting Bamgbose (1990:115), calls “the class of the advantaged and therefore included and the class of the disadvantaged and therefore excluded.”  Speakers of minority languages look at their languages with disdain since they are not socio-politically and economically viable. So, the people of the Niger Delta whose wealth in crude oil accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s resources are marginalized. Otite (2000: 6) aptly states that Nigeria manages “to hang on together in a bungled democracy better described as ethnic majoritarian rule.”

With a population of about 1.2 million people, the Urhobo ethnic nationality is supposed to be categorized as a majority language. Vic Webb and Kembo Sure (2000: 41) buttress this fact when they state that “The concept majority and minority are often understood in quantitative terms, that is , a language with a million speakers is regarded as a major language.” This flawed language policy is a reason for the shrinkage of the languages in Urhoboland.


The non-implementation of the National Policy on Education (1977), revised in (1981), is a cause of language endangerment in Urhobo culture.The policy states that children should be taught either in the  mother tongue or the language of immediate community (LIC) from pre-primary to primary 3 (Bamghose 1992). If this language policy was implemented, Urhobos would be literate in their mother tongue. Egbokhare (2004: 16) observes the adverse effect of the non-implementation of this language policy on Nigerian children thus: “Researches have shown that a child learns faster when taught in his/her mother tongue rather than a foreign language (Bamghose 1992). Experiments in Philpines, Mexico and Nigeria have proved this to be true.”


Egbokhare adds that the high drop-out rate, and half baked products emerging from our schools can be traced to the non-implementation of the language policy.  Egbokhare (2004: 17) concludes with a quotation of Dr. Meville Alexander thus:

An English-only or even an English-mainly policy necessarily condemns most people, and thus the country as a whole, to a permanent state of mediocrity since people are unable to be spontaneous, creative and self confident if they cannot use their first languages.  

Due to the “English-mainly” policy, Urhobo parents  do not encourage their children to learn and speak the languages in Urhobo land.  This has led to a shrinkage in the languages.

Linguists have identified five levels of endangerment that an endangered language undergoes.  They are: potentially endangered; endangered; seriously endangered; moribund; and extinct.  These degrees of endangerment are used below to discuss the degree of endangerment of each of the three languages in Urhoboland.  A random sampling undertaken by the researcher shows that Uvwie is the most endangered out of the three languages due to its urban setting and language exogancy.  The language is endangered by Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and English. It is now moribund.


Okpe language is seriously endangered in Sapele but it is potentially endangered in other parts of the speech community due to the predominant rural dwelling of the Okpes.  It is endangered by Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and English. Urhobo is seriously endangered in  urban centres; however, it is potentially endangered in the rural areas.  The language is endangered by Nigerian Pidgin and English.





The languages of Urhobo culture are the main symbol of the people as an ethnic nationality. The languages give their speakers positive self image.  The gradual death of these languages is therefore a sign of the disintegration of the unity of the Urhobo nation.  Once the languages which bind the Urhobos together die, the basis of their unity and group identity will be undermined.


The gradual death of Urhobo languages is also eroding some of the traditional practices like knowledge of traditional medicinal plants. The folklore and folk tales of the people are being gradually eroded and they may well go into oblivion once the languages go into extinction.  Since the Urhobo languages are experiencing language contraction, the precious cultural practices of the people are also shrinking.


A grim picture of the adverse effect of these languages on its speakers if it goes into extinction is captured by the Centre for Endangered Languages in its universal declaration of linguistic rights in Barcelonia (1996: 10) thus:

Language is the key to the heart of a people.  If we lose the key, we lose the people.  A lost language is a lost tribe, a lost tribe is a lost culture, a lost culture is a lost civilization.  A lost civilization is invaluable knowledge lost… the whole vast archives of knowledge and experience in them will be consigned to oblivion.


So, the Urhobos should maintain their languages in order to avoid the pathetic effects of language death on its speakers.  Although the languages in Urhoboland do not play the type of economic role that English plays in Urhoboland, the languages do give their speakers numerous advantages over monolinguals.




Linguists are now enthusiastically pursuing language revival in many regions of the world.  Bradley (2002) observes that the revival of Hebrew language during the past fifty years is the most remarkable case of language resurgence in the world.   He also adds that the resurgence of Welsh in Wales and the revification of Basque in Spain are also spectacular cases.


The first strategy for the revification of the languages is for the speakers of the languages to change their attitude from the present negative posture to a positive one.  Bamgbose (1992: 29) buttresses this fact when he states: “When all is said and done the fate of an endangered language may well be in the hands of the owners of the language themselves and in their will to make it survive.”


Once the speakers can identify the unique qualities of these languages to them, interest in them will be revived. With the revival, intergenerational transmission of the languages from parents to their children will also be revived.


Right now, the speakers of the three languages that constitute the Urhobo culture are not aware that their languages are contracting.  This is a major problem for the speakers of an endangered language.  The fact that  there are young Urhobos who have already experienced language loss and there is also a large army of semi-speakers shows that the languages are tottering inanely to their linguistic graves. Linguists within these speech communities should enlighten the Urhobos on the impending death of their languages and its concomitant cataclysmic effect.  This enlightenment will help revitalize the languages.


Anther strategy that can be adopted to stimulate interest of speakers in these languages is to encourage multilingualism among the speakers. An educated Urhobo speaker should be fluent in Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and  English language while an educated Okpe should be competent in Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and English.  The same situation should also obtain for the Uvwie speaker. Being fluent in English, for example, does not entail the abandonment of an indigenous language and Nigerian Pidgin. Each of the languages mentioned above has its unique function.  Although the languages in Urhobo culture have little or no economic values they have their unique cultural values.  These cultural values should be made to stimulate the interest of the younger generation towards reviving these languages.


Finally, the Agbarho dialect of Urhobo language, which is a linqua franca in Urhobo, can be adopted as the language of education from primary 1-3.  This is meant to revive Nigeria’s language policy on Education (Bamghase 1992). It will enhance the usefulness of the language to the children.  As Vic webb and Kembo sure (2001: 41) aptly put it,

“People tend to learn the languages that are socially and economically useful to them.  This is the linguistic version of the law of maximum return.”


The educational usefulness of the languages will reinvigorate interest in them.  The adoption will also halt the falling standard of education in Urhoboland.  It will also halt the high illiteracy rate in Urhobo land.




The recognition of language loss in Urhobo land is delayed because the speakers are not conscious of it yet. Linguists are already conscious of it. They now categorize the present generation of Urhobos as the “miguo generation” because they have a modicum knowledge of the languages.  The endangerment of these languages is a premonition that the Urhobos are in serious danger of erasure as a people.  It is our hope that if the strategies for the reinvigoration of the languages discussed above are favourably considered by the Urhobo people, their languages can  be salvaged and empowered again.



Aweto B.(2002)“An Outline Geography of the Urhoboland”


Egbokhare, F (2001)   “The Nigerian linguistic Ecology and the Changing Politics of Nigerian Pidgin.” In Igboanus H (ed) Language Attitude and Language Conflict in West Africa. Enicrownfit publishers. Ibadan.


Egbokhare, F (2004)  Breaking Barriers: ICT Language Policy and Language Development. Postgraduate School University of Ibadan. Ibadan.


Bradley D (2002)  “Language Attitude: The key factor in language mainline “(ed) Bradley D and Bradley M Language Endangerment and Language Maintenance Routledge: London.


Bamgbose, A (1993)   “Deprived, Endan gered and Dieing Language.” Diogenes 16/4.1 1993.


Bamgbose, A  (1995) “English in the Nigerian Enviroment” Bamgbose et al, (eds), New Englishes: A West African Perspective Ibadan Monsuro Publishers.


Elugbe B. (1986) Comparative Edoid Phonology and Lexicon Port-Harcourt University Press. Port Harcourt.


Faraclas, B (1996) Nigerian Pidgin Routledge Books, London


Lindeu, E (1991) “Lost Tribes, Lost Knowledge” Time Magazine.


Otite, O (2000)  Ethnic Pluralism Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts in Nigeria

Ibadan, Shaneson Books.


Thieberger, N (2002) “Extinction in whose Terms?  Which Parts of a Language Constitute a Target for Language Maintenance Programmes?” (eds) Bradley B and Bradley M. Language Endangerment and Language Maintenance  Routledge Curzon, London.


Vic Webb and Kembo Sure (2001)  “Language as a problem in Africa” (eds) Vice Webb and Kembo Sure. African Voices Longman Books, London.