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  • Background to the study

The question of how many senses an Igbo verb possesses has remained a nagging issue in Igbo syntax and semantics. It has remained a topical issue in the study of Igbo verbs. In pursuance of the answer to the above question, Emenanjo (1975a), (1975b), (1978) and (2005); Nwachukwu (1983), (1984); Uwalaka (1983); Ubahakwe (1976),  have argued for or against the transitivity, complementation, ergativity or otherwise of the Igbo verbs. While Nwachukwu (1983; 1984) and Ubahakwe (1983) see Igbo verbs as inherently transitive, Emenanjo (2005:479) regards transitivity as a “surface structure feature which does not help to classify Igbo verbs according to the complement they select.” On his own part, Nwachukwu, sees “the Igbo verb root as empty,” following the syntactic approach, (Nwachukwu 1987:83). But Emenanjo says that “… rather than transitivity, … complementation is itself the category that allows the correct generalisation to be framed,” (2005: 479). The assertion by Emenanjo (1975b; 1986; 2005) is that the Igbo verb is made up of two mutually obligatory and complementary elements; which are the verbs themselves and, the complement of the bound cognate noun (BCN).

Furthermore, in the twenty-first century, Uchechukwu (2011) adopts the cognitive approach using the image schema analysis of the Igbo verb. He argues that the Igbo verb root is not empty, neither does it become practically meaningless as a result of an increase in number of complexes formed with it, (contrary to Nwachukwu 1987); instead, through an image schema, one could establish a cognitive motivation of its semantics in the form of its root schema. Furthermore, Okeke (2012) addresses the above issue using the theory of thematic role of the functional grammar, where transitivity and verb meaning are considered to be a continuum (because they take a more semantic approach) rather than a binary category according to traditional grammar, since it takes into account the degree to which an action affects its object and also the type of expression involved. Using the Igbo psychological verbs, Okeke (2012) shows that transitivity cannot wholly take care of the verbs and the number of arguments they can possess to make a grammatical sentence, hence, the introduction of the theta roles in showing Igbo verb meanings.

The above overview shows that at present, there are three major schools of thought in relation to Igbo verbs and their meaning properties. Ubahakwe (1983) and Nwachukwu (1983; 1984) are the major adherents of the argument that transitivity is an essential category in the verb phrase. Emenanjo (2005:495) is of the opinion that transitivity is a “relic of pre-formal linguistics which has resisted formalisation,” hence, his support for complementation. On his own part, Uchechukwu (2004, 2005 & 2011) supports the application of the cognitive linguistics approach which shows the Igbo verb root to have meanings that arise from specific image schemata and their metaphoric and metonymic extensions.

The above investigations by various scholars are all based in the area of studies in Igbo syntax. No wonder Emenanjo (1991:129) says, “…it is a fact of history of Igbo linguistics that more has been written on the area of syntax than on any other aspect of the language.” Thus, according to Uchechukwu (2005), some other aspects including both the lexical semantics and lexicon have hitherto received little attention. It is worthy of note, to state that the first major treatment of the Igbo lexicon as a linguistic problem was Lord (1975). The author identifies the semantic composition of the (verb + verb) compound and (verb + suffix) verbs in forming what she identifies as ‘action – result’ meaning. The insight is that in any such component, the first verb codes the initial ‘action/event’ while the second component codes the ‘result’. This was a major breakthrough which Lord (1975) achieved. In doing that, Lord carried out her investigation from three perspectives. The first was in terms of a transformational derivation of the verb + verb and the verb + suffix compounds. Lord concluded that “derivation by transformation rule was not a viable option,” (Lord 1975:35). The second perspective was to generate the Igbo verb compounds by phrase structure rules. She also dumped this as well, for the simple reason that these compounds rather involve considerations of word formation rather than constituent structure. Finally, the third perspective was her solution to have all compounds as lists in the lexicon and to account for the speakers productivity capacity by means of a combinatory rule that would have to be stated in the grammar. But Lord still sees the ‘action result’ relationship as part of the meaning of the compound and not just an inference that is based on the speaker’s experience. In her conclusion, Lord says that the meaning component also has to form part of the combinatory rule. However, she did not explore this aspect further.

Later works on the Igbo verb within the framework of generative theory (see Uchechukwu 2005) did not go into lexical semantics as this was not the issue they set out to address. Instead, their focus was on the phrase structure as a projection of the lexical properties of the verb, and on the syntactic theory of argument (Emenanjo 1984; Nwachukwu 1987; Manfredi 1991; Hale, Ihionu & Manfredi 1995 and Mbah 1999).

Another major treatment of the Igbo verbs that investigates their lexical semantics to an extent is Uwalaka’s (1997) use of Fillmore’s case grammar model. Through this approach, the author was able to form semantic groups of Igbo verbs and to also highlight some of their syntactic characteristics, like the subject-object switching of some experiential verbs. But, as her work was focused on a “semantico-syntactic analysis” of the Igbo-verb, the establishment of the syntactic correlations of the verbs’ semantics was of paramount importance; their lexical semantics as such was not fully explored.

Later in the 1970’s and early part of 1990’s, a different treatment of the Igbo verb root was seen in Igbo lexicography, where the Igbo verb roots were presented as lists of lexical items. This approach was spear-headed by Williamson (1972), and later Igwe (1999) in their various English-Igbo dictionaries. The Igbo dictionaries, especially Williamson (1972), have developed a system of writing Igbo verbs with many English equivalents which naturally will lead to the conclusion that all Igbo verbs are polysemous. However, polysemy always involves contextualization, which is, delimiting the various possible meanings of a lexical item by the mere fact of choosing a context. In other words, usage limits polysemy. Nevertherless, it has not been explored how such semantic issue of polysemy of the Igbo verbs is handled in Igbo literary works. This particular issue is one of the things that motivated the desire to go into the nature of the polysemy of the Igbo verb, especially in translated Igbo literary works.

Therefore, it can be stated that previous works of scholars like Emenanjo (1975a), (1975b), (1978) & (2005); Nwachukwu (1983), (1984); Uwalaka (1983); Ubahakwe (1976), Igwe (1999); Williamson (1972); Ogwueleka (1987); Echerue (1998); Oweleke (2007); Uchechukwu (2005); (2011), etc, which are domiciled in the study of Igbo verb or those that have something to do with Igbo verbs are context-independent because these works did not pin down their investigations to any natural language situation; rather, they  hinged on the analysis of isolated sentence structures. Even Williamson’s (1972) study that gives the impression of the Igbo verbs being polysemous is context independent. Their studies and analyses (which are presented in chapter two of this work) are purely de-contextualised.

From all the available literature in relation to the topic of study, it seems that no cognitive analysis of Igbo verbs, using the tool of polysemy has been carried out (on Igbo verbs) in translated works or Igbo literary text, which is purely context-bound. Furthermore, cognitive semantic works on Igbo verbs, for instance Uchechukwu (2005), (2011); Mbah & Edeoga (2012), using the image schema analysis of some Igbo verbs, do not adopt the polysemous approach, neither are they contextualized.  Based on the above state of the art, therefore, we can say that the nature of the Igbo verb root, as well as its sense relations and cognitive domains in relation to the structures formed in context, were outside the focus of previous works. Therefore, this present study investigates the cognitive domains of the Igbo verbs from the lexical semantic approach using polysemy in some literary works.

The tone-marking patterns are retained as in the sources cited, and the non-tone-marked ones left the way the sources presented them. In our own examples, all the syllables are tone-marked.

  • Statement of the problem

The study of verbs in the Igbo syntax and semantics has adopted a lot of approaches in its investigations. The structuralist and generative analysis of verbs that dominated previous studies neglected the study of individual lexical meaning in favour of the compositional-semantic structure of larger phrasal and sentential units. Again, polysemy and sense of polysemous words were insufficiently treated in formal semantics. Other semantic theories like the referencial and mentalistic theories were rejected by cognitive semantists because of their vagueness and lack of empiricism in accounting for word meaning. Later, componential analysis (CA) received prominent attention. The shortcomings of componential analysis in handling certain word classes (especially the verbs) according to Ndimele (1999:28) is that it “erroneously assumes that the semantic features of all lexical items can be elegantly expressed using the binary approach. Whereas the binary analysis can work for certain lexical items whose semantic features are neatly organised, it fails in other cases.” For instance, the binary analysis cannot handle the semantic features of verbs and other word classes like adverbs, prepositions, etc. Furthermore, “CA does not have a way of accounting for the fuzzy edges inherent in the meaning of lexical items”, (Ndimele 1999: 27).

Consequently, generative linguistic analysis that later dominated the study of verb meaning insulates itself from empirical findings. But meaning and communicative functions are primary in linguistic study according to Lakoff (1987), and grammars should attempt to explain as much as possible the parameters of form on the basis of parameters of meaning and communicative function. But generative grammar and other semantic approaches (as we pointed above) failed to do this. This is because generative grammar and these other semantic approaches are defined so as to be independent of general cognitive capabilities in cognitive semantics, and this is at odds with the assumption of formal linguistics; thereby causing a fracture within the generative paradigm. But one can readily accept at a pre-theoretical level that words have meaning, and that these meanings are implicated, in some way or the other, in the meaning of the complex expressions in which the words occur. Matters even become more complex, however, when we inquire into the nature of verb meaning. The question here is, “Is it necessary to assume that each verb corresponds with a sense?” Can one verb correspond to a combination of two verbs which clearly do not constitute a compound notion; if so, should a polysemous explanation be postulated? Is it necessary to assume different polysemous senses if a verb functions in different contexts? To compound issues, linguistic theories even differ in their views on what exactly constitutes verb meaning, and also on what verbs contribute to the semantics of utterances. According Janssen (1995), several modern linguistic approaches to the semantics of lexical items distinguish three factors determining the meaning of verb.

  1. The innate cognitive or linguistic faculty
  2. Conventionally established linguistic information, and
  • Knowledge of the world.

In cognitive semantics, however, the above three factors are seen as contributing to the understanding of verbs in an integrative way, so that this approach can be holistic. Not only are language and cognition seen as unitary, but meanings and concepts as well. The meaning of a verb is assumed to consist of a variety of interrelated senses. Both the meaning and senses of a verb are assumed to be conventionally established. The interrelated senses form a network which can be related to other networks by mental schemas (e.g Langacker 1988, 1991a). These schemata embody the generalisations extracted from an array of specific senses. The network of senses and mental schemata are conceived as representing categorised knowledge of the world.

Based on the shortcomings of the generative approach to the meanings and senses of verbs, and limitations of previous semantic approaches in accounting for verb meaning, and the de-contextualised nature of Igbo verbs in lexicographic studies, the problem now lies on how to discover the senses of a verb, and also to establish that they are conventionally established. Again, the problem still remains how the hearer can know which of the verb’s senses applies that allows the hearer to find or imagine the actual entity or state of affairs referred to. In other words, what is it that informs the selection of senses? Also, the question of whether the basis for the hearer’s decision is found in the hearer’s knowledge of the real-world relationship in context is still unanswered; that is, the assumption according to Allwood (1980) that “verb meanings are based on experiential practices (in which language users acquire unconscious knowledge of which word might fit best in a given situation and which words would not).” The above nagging issues (which are summed up in the number of senses in a word (in this context, an Igbo verb in context)), therefore, forms the problem of the this study.

  • Purpose of study

The main aim of this research work is to carry out a lexical semantic analysis of some Igbo perceptive verb roots and their cognitive domains. It is also concerned with the senses of the selected verbs from the lexical-semantic approach on the one hand and context based-linguistics on the other hand. This is because, while many recent cognitive-linguistic approaches to verb polysemy have concerned themselves with polysemous words as network-like categories with many interrelated senses (with varying degrees of commitment to mental representations), the (content) corpus-linguistic approach has remained rather agnostic as to how different verb senses are related; and have rather focused on distributional characteristics of different verb senses in different contexts.

Furthermore, the goal of polysemy approach is to explain how a single word (or verb) can be used in a wide variety of situations while generally each particular usage of that word can be easily understood. The study wants to ascertain how and the extent to which the structuralist, generative, semantic and lexicographic analysis of Igbo verbs by previous scholars can be better addressed using a polysemy paradigm of cognitive semantics. The study seeks to find out whether a polysemy approach of cognitive semantics offers a type of explanation that is more insightful than the structuralist, generative, other semantic and lexicographic approaches. Specifically, the objectives of the study are to:

  1. identify the number of senses the Igbo perception verb roots hụ́ (see) and -nụ́ (hear) have in context using the polysemy approach of cognitive semantics


  1. ascertain whether there are any effects of translation on the lexical semantics of hụ́ (see) and -nụ́ (hear) in one of the novels used


  1. show the image schemata motivationss of the Igbo verbs hx́ (see) and -nụ́ (hear) and their sense relations in different cognitive domains.


Again nụ́, which is the perceptive verb of hearing in Igbo, cuts across other perceptions like smell, taste and sound. In as much as sì, tọ́, and dà are the perceptive verbs for smell, taste and sound respectively, they cannot be used without nụ́. This analysis is also interested in knowing why this is so.

1.4 Research questions

For the objectives of the study to be actualised, the following research questions are formulated to guide the study:

  1. How many senses do the Igbo verb roots hụ́ (see) and -nụ́ (hear) have in the context of Ihe Aghasaa and Jụ Obinna, using the polysemy approach of cognitive semantics?


  1. To what extent does translation affect the lexical semantics of hụ́ (see) and -nụ́ (hear) in one of the texts under investigation?


  1. What are the image schemata of the senses of the Igbo verbs -hụ́ and -nụ́ and their sense relations in different cognitive domains?



1.5 Scope of study

A research work of this kind cannot exhausively cover all aspects of sense relations. It cannot also exhaust all the verb roots in the language under study. Consequently, the researcher has restricted this research work to the polysemy analysis of the Igbo perception verb roots hụ́ (see) and -nụ́ (hear) as they manifest in the Igbo novels Ihe Aghasaa, by Izuu Nwankwo, which is the Igbo translation of the English novel Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe and Jụọ Obinna, written by Tony Ubesie. The choice of polysemy over other sense relations like homonymy, hyponymy, etc, is because of the diverging rather than the converging nature of polysemy. Also, ‘hụ́’ and ‘nụ́’ are chosen because they are perception verbs. This class of Igbo verbs is more common and they feature more in everyday usage as far as perception is concerned. For instance nụ́, which is the perception verb of hearing in Igbo, cuts across other perceptions like smell, taste and sound as shall be seen later in this study.

1.6 Limitations of study

The researcher was constrained by some factors in the course of the study. One of the constraints encountered in the course of this study had to do with the controversial nature of the topic under investigation. As we stated in the background to the study, many scholars have approached the study of Igbo verbs from various perspectives leading to some nagging issues which the researcher has to contend with in order to chart a proper course for the present study. The additional fact of lexical semantics being an almost non-existent area of research in Igbo linguistics did not help matters either. But with the help of various literature in relation to polysemy in other African and European languages, the researcher had a strong base and was able chart a course for the present study.

1.7 Significance of study

The analysis of the Igbo verbs has been given a lot of attention by various scholars using different approaches and theories. However, most works carried out on Igbo verbs by foreign linguists and Nigerians alike often adopted the traditional, lexicographic and generative approaches. None of them has approached the study of the Igbo verb from the perspective of cognitive lexical semantics, using polysemy in literary texts. Therefore, the study fills this yawning academic gap and also contributes in providing a clearer picture of the nature of  some Igbo perceptive verbs. It also answers the question of how many senses the Igbo verb roots hụ́ (see) and -nụ́ (hear) have, based on the polysemous senses of the verb roots in context. This is a nice contribution to the field of Igbo lexical semantics. In addition, the answers to the questions concerning the transitivity, complementation or otherwise of Igbo verb roots is provided, which helps in the proper classification of the Igbo verb and answers the question of whether it is the verb that selects the complement or the other way round.

Furthermore, since Igbo is verb centred, the study also helps scholars in the Igbo language study in classifying the Igbo perception verbs better and in acknowledging the pedagogical needs of lexicographers and foregin needs of the learners of Igbo as a second-language (especially in Nigerian polytechnics and colleges of education). This is because they will see and understand the Igbo perception verbs better through their contextual cognitive manifestations; which according to functional grammar and communicative method of language teaching are the best approaches and methods of language teaching and learning.

The study also helps to rediscover the significance of meaning as the basis of structure, which according to Geeraets (1994) currently stands out as the most productive approach in lexical semantic research. Again, this research addresses the problem of objectivity in language study, aimed at integrating contextual, experimental and cross-disciplinary insights into the study of verb meaning. Also, it develops the overall history of Igbo lexical semantics which depicts a cyclic theoretical movement of decontextualisation and recontextualisation as well as a linear movement of descriptive expansion. The study also contributes to quantitative insight into semasiology because it focuses on prototype effects and on differences of salience and structural weight within an item or a meaning. In addition, the study, as shall be observed in the conclusion, ascertains that translation affects the senses of verbs, especially in the target language. This information will be a nice working tool for translators in Igbo