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This research carries out a sociolinguistic study of Urhobo proverbs. Its aim is to explore and analyze Urhobo 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 to the contributions of Urhobo 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 Urhobo native speakers from the context of use and Urhobo music. The 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 Urhobo 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 aspect of Urhobo culture that manifest in Urhobo proverbs.



            1.1      BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY

             This is a sociolinguistic study of Urhobo proverbs and Urhobo 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 Aka-present day Edo territory. All the twenty-two kingdoms that constitute the Urhobo nation have their distinct dialects and traditions that reflect slight variation in origin and migrating patterns. However, there is a universal Urhobo 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 are 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.

       Urhobos are optimistic because of the good climate, fertile lands, rich cultural heritage, beauty and brilliance. Because of this, there is a positive outlook to life, a belief that life can be better through appropriate application of common sense or native intelligence, which is handed down by fore fathers to subsequent generations. Improper or non-application of this holistic wisdom could result to 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 that discipline which developed from the co-operation of linguistics and sociology and it aims at investigating the social meaning of language system and of the common set of conditions of language use and the  linguistic and social structures (439).Hudson asserts that sociolinguistics is “the study of language in relation to society” (4).In the opinion of Holmes, the aim of sociolinguistics is to move towards a useful framework which 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 in relation to 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 proverb. It is 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 speaker and hearer. Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams, citing Jakobson opines that language without meaning is 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, precepts are also used (Crystal 53). Crystal adds that in many cultures, especially in Africa, proverbs are important and frequent elements in ordinary conversations. Mbisike 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 which 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 which 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 which owing its birth to the people, testifies to its origin in form and phrase. It expresses what is apparently 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 word play. 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 at 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 proverb is considered one of the longest surviving non-material artefacts 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 the language is elevated from the ordinary language of everyday communication.

        Meanings in proverbs can be analogous to happenings in the real world. Proverb is based on the wisdom, beliefs, culture, experiences, history, of its society and, it is therefore interpretable easily within the society. Moreno opined that “proverbs are understood in relation to a background of assumptions and values, so they are primarily a social phenomenon” (46).Although, 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 topic, participants, setting and subject matter (61). Moreno shares the 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 socio-cultural milieu.

          Urhobo 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 language; a spectacle through which the Urhobo people see their culture. Tadi sums the usefulness of proverbs as follows:

As a communicative instrument, proverbs help in depicting the values, the norms, the aspirations, the likes and dislikes of the members of a society. Proverbs mirror the life of a 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 co-existence 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 Urhobos. 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 makes reference 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 reasons, do not speak some particular language. A Yoruba speaker will be incompetent in the Urhobo language since he has no linguistic competence in Urhobo.

        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, Basil Benstein’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 in order 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 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).     


Proverb is an important aspect of indigenous Nigerian languages. Most existing ethno-linguistic 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 Urhobo proverb. One of the few existing studies is Ojaide(2007) which defines, describes and classifies Urhobo proverbs into pre-colonial and post-colonial proverbs. This paucity of study on the aspects of the language of Urhobo necessitated this study. Furthermore, it is a sociolinguistic fat 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 generation,”(cited in Emike, 2012). With a population of 546,000 native speakers (1993 census) of the Urhobo language, there is no gain-saying the fact that the Urhobo 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 centres in Urhobo land. In the light of the above, vital aspects of the Urhobo language like the proverb, are gradually fading away in the repertoire of the new generation of Urhobo speakers. This scenario calls for research into the various aspects of Urhobo 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 Urhobo 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 Urhobo proverbs with special reference to the sociolinguistic implications.


      This study aims at exploring and analyzing Urhobo proverbs from the sociolinguistic perspective. This will offer a sociolinguistic insight to the contributions of Urhobo 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 conversational value of Urhobo 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 relation to the linguistic community and by extension the society in general. The relevance of proverbs to society will be explored and brought to limelight.

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


  This study is a contribution to the existing studies on proverbs and particularly to the socio- linguistic aspect of Urhobo proverbs. It is a contribution to the body of research that seeks to study aspects of the language and culture of indigenous Urhobo 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 in L2 ideas (Adedimeji,58). This study shows how the socio-cultural values and belief systems of the Urhobos are communicated in English as a second Language situation. 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 Urhobo proverbs which is an aspect of Urhobo language and culture. This study will go a long way to enhance the sociolinguistic background of the Urhobo speech community and the ethno-linguistic potentials of the Urhobo language. Through language, one can gain access into a people’s culture. A sociolinguistic study of Urhobo proverb, an aspect of Urhobo language, is therefore significant as it will underpin how the Urhobos 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 group” and that “communication is locally patterned and practiced” (20).

       Apart from increasing the communicative competence of the new generation of Urhobo 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 Urhobo 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 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 Urhobo proverbs. It is an impossible task to analyze all the proverbs available in the linguistic repertoire of Urhobo language. Time and space will not even allow for this. Randomly selected Urhobo proverbs are gleaned from Urhobo music and Urhobo native speakers from the context of use. Where necessary, cross references will be made to proverbs from other language communities in order to explicate their usefulness in depicting the values, the norms, the aspirations, the likes and dislikes and sometimes, the do’s and don’ts of members of society at large.

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