The death has been confirmed of Professor Okon Essien. This is a great loss to the Nigerian Linguistic community and indeed the Academia. Let me share this tribute I presented nine years ago at a Valedictory Colloquium which took place in his honour at the University of Calabar, on the 18th October 2007. I am very glad that he was alive to listen to me as I delivered this paper. Our thoughts are with his family and the Linguistic community as we pray for his peaceful rest.
It is with very great pleasure indeed that I join in this celebration of life and excellence.
When the Acting Head of Department of Linguistics Dr. Mrs. Inimbom Akpan, asked me (on the phone) about three weeks ago to present a lead paper at this valedictory colloquium in honor of Professor Okon Essien, I did not hesitate to say “yes”, in spite of extremely tight schedules of several activities.
The theme “Three decades of Linguistics in the University of Calabar: A Valedictory Colloquium in honor of Professor Okon Essien”, reminded me that I have professionally related with Professor Essien for almost that period. Hence, the title of my paper: “Nearly three decades of Linguistics with Professor Okon Essien”.
I heard the word “Linguistics” for the first time on the 22nd day of December 1979, when I got my Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) admission letter to the University of Calabar (UNICAL) to study Linguistics (I had applied for English). I remember that day very vividly because I was studying European History when the letter arrived. By the time I went home from the Federal School, Ogoja, where I was doing my Lower Six year, almost all who passed the JAMB examination for the 1979/1980 session had received admission letters to the different universities in Nigeria. I had resolved to catch up with them with my A-level results the next year since it appeared I did not make it that year. My letter took longer to arrive because God had a plan for me to study Linguistics, for which I did not apply in the first place.
I got to UNICAL in January 1980, having missed the “October Rush” of 1979, given the late arrival of my admission letter. We were the second set in the program. We learnt there was no second year, and the first set (Senator Rose Oko’s) was in the third year.
We started as a class of ten: Rita, Matilda, Paulinus, Offiong, Ekere, Inim, Oshega, Austen, Peter and myself. Austen and Peter transferred to English the next year because they could not cope with abstract concepts like the “allomorph” and “archiphoneme”, and many other such names that emanated from Dr. Battestini’s class.
In our first year, we heard a lot of rumors, some of which made sense. One of them was that Dr. Essien, as he was called then, went to the JAMB office personally and requested for students to make up our class. He probably did not want to take any chances of not having another set that year. So I often wonder, whether I would have got admission that year. I believe many candidates passed JAMB at that time, but could not be placed. And yet I did not know him.
It was then a large department called the Department of Languages and Linguistics, and Dr. Elerius John was the then Acting Head of Department. However, many of the lecturers taught both Linguistics and Languages courses. I remember that in addition to the lecturers who taught the general courses like GSS, we started with Dr. Okon Essien and Dr. Battestini only.
It was in 1980 that we started the hardcore Linguistic courses. I remember specifically, Syntax and Phonology. When we were introduced to Chomsky with his “deep and surface structures” and “transformations”, I thought he was really crazy. I actually thought seriously of switching to Foreign Languages. But for some reason, I did not. And then we were introduced to Hyman 1975 - Phonology Theory and Analysis - that classic! I was both impressed and intimidated at the same time with the book. In fact, I was so awed that I thought the author must be from another planet.
For a while, Dr. Okon Essien was virtually the only lecturer we had in Linguistics. He taught us Syntax, Phonology, Morphology, etc. At some point, I wondered whether he knew everything, but he appeared to.
Then in 1982 many things happened. Firstly, Dr. Battestini left us. He got a job in the United States. Dr. Premaratne joined us from India. Secondly, and very importantly too, on the home front I got married at the beginning of the year and had my first baby at the end of the year. I actually finally settled down to work as I began to like Linguistics. My grades also improved because I finally had some peace with my course along with many other things.
We got to the final year. This was the year Dr. Essien headed the Ibibio Orthography Panel.
More lecturers had joined us. Professor Philip Noss joined the team. He came with his lovely wife—very nice couple they were. He was also my supervisor in my B.A. Project (Ekpa 1983). He has retired now and lives in Florida. I got an email from him recently when he saw my article on Leggbo in the Journal of West African Languages.
The Constant Variable
In our four-year program, we had several lecturers, but Professor Essien was constant. Many came and left. I often wondered, whether he could not have gone to another university? Anyway, he stayed back, and when there were no specialists in some areas, he filled in the gaps. If he complained about the load, we did not hear about it, and remember, there was no allowance for excess work load then.
I came back to UNICAL for a Master’s program after my National Youth Service Corps. Professor Okon Essien was still there. In addition, Mr. Bruce Connell had joined the Department from the University of Edinburgh. He was researching on the Cross River Languages.
In the middle of our M.A. program, Dr. Okon Essien became a professor in 1985. Although there were many professors in other disciplines, it was nice to have a professor so close by.
As I tried to round up my M.A. I began to think about a career teaching Linguistics. I also began to develop a passion for the minor languages and their plight. I thought it was alright to develop the three major languages, but I wondered whether enough attempt was made at developing the minority ones, in spite of the plan in the National Policy on Education to use them in teaching in the first three years of primary education.
I completed my M.A. program in 1986. At that time it was M.A. by examination, and so we did not write any thesis. This made me uncomfortable for a while. I was not sure that I had acquired enough practice to do research and report same.
It was about September 1986 that Offiong and I went to Professor Essien for employment at UNICAL. He rather directed us to the University of Cross River State (UNICROSS) with a strong recommendation to the Registrar who employed us on the spot in November 1986. We assumed work immediately.
And so began my journey as an Assistant Lecturer of Linguistics in the then University of Cross River State, Uyo.
Early in 1987, I was employed in the Center for General Studies, UNICAL. Having settled down, I had to attend conferences so that I could begin to publish papers. I wondered whether I could even write anything, especially as I did not write a thesis. Besides, even if I wrote, would I be able to handle reactions from colleagues at such presentations? Anyway, I presented my first conference paper titled “Teaching Reading Skills in the Junior Secondary Schools”, at the Reading Association of Nigeria (RAN) Conference, at the University of Jos, in 1987.
That paper was published later (Udoh 1989), and it is recorded as my very first publication. I was really excited that something I wrote was deemed fit for publication without revision, even as inadequate as I felt. But on the whole, I was extremely encouraged.
In September of the same year, the Akwa Ibom State was created from the old Cross River State. We began preparations to move to Uyo. I continued my work in UNICAL until October, 1989, when I transferred my service to the University of Uyo (UNIUYO).
Although the Grammar of Ibibio Language was published in 1990, we were already familiar with its content. We had had the privilege of testing out the data in Phonology, Morphology and Syntax classes long before then.
It was in 1990 that Professor Essien chaired the LOC to host the 11th Annual Conference of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria (CLAN). As I chair the LOC to host the 21st CLAN meeting this 2007, I particularly remember that 11th meeting. Permit me to invite all of you to the 21st CLAN coming up in November 2007, from the 19th – 23rd.
It was in 1995 that I came back to UNICAL for a Ph.D. It took me so long because I was waiting for my toddler children to mature a bit before I could embark on the program. Because my family lived in Uyo, I decided to go back to UNICAL, which was near. I began the course work immediately.
By 1996, Professor Essien had gone to Ghana on a sabbatical leave.
He returned from Ghana in 1997. I had finished my coursework and he took over the supervision of my Ph.D dissertation from Dr. Michael Edo-Abasi Ekere, who was my co-supervisor. I remember that I had problems with him because I was late for appointments and things like that. I learnt my lesson though, and after that things went on smoothly for the rest of the period
I concluded my Ph.D program in 1998. Armed with the doctorate degree, I went back to UNIUYO to continue with my work. Unfortunately,
From 1979 when I started my B.A. program to 1999, when I went back to my sponsors, the University of Uyo, I had spent exactly 20 years doing Linguistic ‘things’.
Others accomplished this feat in less time, but I guess my pace was slowed down by my domestic responsibilities.
But I can claim that I had been properly mentored having been taught, advised, guided and counseled by Professor Essien from a first degree, through a second degree to a third degree.
A Classification of Professor Okon Essien’s Works
Professor Essien’s contributions to Nigerian Linguistics are overwhelming.He published articles in both international and local journals. I can not attempt a review of his works, but I can attempt some kind of classification that should help us appreciate his pioneering work as we celebrate him, especially today.
I have grouped them into three broad categories:
- Description and Grammar;
- Classification and Sociolinguistics;
- Standardization and Applications.
Description and Grammar
Having written a Ph.D dissertation on Pronominalization in Efik, he naturally started his initial writings with a focus on Syntax.
Of note are:
- “Possessive Pronominalization and the so-called picture nouns in Efik”, published in the famous Studies in African Linguistics (SAL), vol 9. (1978);
- “Relativazation in Efik”, in Journal of Nigerian Language, vol. 1 (1983);
- “Negation in Ibibio: a Syntactic-Phonological Process”, in Journal of West African languages, vol. 15, (1986);
- “Modal Strategies in Ibibio”, in our own CASIL, vol 8, (1988);
- “Length and Nasalisation in Ibibio, Edinburgh Work in progress, No. 12 (1979);
- Ibibio Names: Their Structure and their Meanings, (1986);
- “Intonation in Ibibio”, Afrikanistsche Arbeitspapiere (AAP) Germany, (1989);
- A Grammar of the Ibibio language, (1990);
- “The Phonemes of Ibibio Revisited”, Issues in African Languages and Linguistics, (1995);
Classification and Sociolinguistics
On classification and Sociolinguistics, some of his works include:
- “Ibibio language classification and dialects”, in The Nigerian Magazine, vol. 2, (1985);
- “Cross River Languages: Problems and Prospects”, in Akwa Ibom and Cross River States: The Land, the People and their Culture (1987);
- “Languages of the Upper Cross”, in History and Culture of the Upper Cross (1990);
- “The Future of Minority Languages in Nigeria”, in Multilingualism, Minority Languages and Language Policy in Nigeria, (1990);
- “Languages in Akwa Ibom State”, Akwa Ibom State: The Land of Promise, (1991);
- “Code-switching and code-mixing in Nigeria” in Kiabara, (2000);
- “Ibibio”, in Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Languages , Past and Present (2001);
Standardization and Applications
His linguistic expertise was applied to feed practical needs in the area of orthographies and primers like:
- Efik Orthography”, in Orthographies of Nigerian Languages Manual 1, (nd);
- “Towards Ibibio Orthography”, in The Nigerian Language Teacher, vol 5.2 (1984);
- “Ibibio Orthography”, in Orthographies of Nigerian Languages Manual 3, (1985a);
- Edikod Nwed ke iko Ibibio, (1988);
- Kufre mme Ndifreke, bks 3 and 4 (1990, 1991);
- Efik-Ibibio Technical Vocabulary, (1997).
May I point out that these are just some of his articles. There are several more. Remember that he became a Professor in 1985, yet, he has published steadily since then. He still attends conferences and he even still sits through Annual General Meetings of professional associations he belongs to.
I attended the 2001 ACAL conference in Berkeley in March 2001, and I presented a paper on “The Varieties of Leggbo”, my mother tongue. To my surprise, when I got to England on my way home, I received an electronic mail from Prof. Hyman, asking if I could come to work on Leggbo - he was interested in Leggbo!
I thereafter started a one-year sabbatical leave at UC Berkeley, California in September of the same year. This was a very wonderful period in my career. I spent one year working with Professor Larry Hyman whom I had thought was some kind of a god back then in the eighties. And when Chomsky came to give a lecture at Berkeley, I realized that he is not crazy after all.
One of my professional great moments was the first day I saw a copy of an article I co-authored with Professor Larry Hyman in 2003. That article was titled “Tone Mapping in Leggbo” and it was published in the Frankfurter Africanistsische Blatter 15.
Since then, I have had several others in Nigeria, Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States.
I was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor. The assessment process actually dragged through to 2007, when it was finally announced in April, 2007.
Another professional great moment was in July 2006, when Professor Ben Elugbe invited me to co-author a paper with him, and asked me to represent him at a UNESCO workshop in Enugu. After discussing the paper, naturally, I assumed he would like to see the draft I was going to present, but no, he rather said “go ahead, I do not need to see it, I trust what you can write”.
I mention these two cases, because I believe that the training I had received has yielded many fruits. I will not bore you with more, but indeed there are several others.
Since 1979 when I first walked into Professor Essien’s class I have spent exactly twenty-eight years doing Linguistic stuff. It was in 1987 that I attended my first conference at Jos, as I mentioned earlier, and since then, I have traveled all over the world attending conferences and workshops. These travels have yielded over forty articles so far, in refereed journals and books published in Nigeria, Europe, Asia and North America; both sole- and co-authored. Some of these include: Udoh, 2003, 2003a, 2004, 2004a, 2004b, 2007, Hyman/Udoh 2003, 2006, 2007, Narrog/Udoh 2005, Udoh/Larson 2005, Hyman/Narrog/Paster/Udoh 2002, among several others. I have very modestly tried to follow the footsteps of my boss.
As we celebrate Professor Essien today, your loss at UNICAL has become our gain at UNIUYO. We can not claim to have the same facilities that you offered him for the thirty years that he was in UNICAL. Ours is a younger university. But Sir, we can assure you that we will try our best to make things as easy for you as we possibly can.
We welcome you home, sweet home. And so, it is with very great pleasure and a sense of awesome responsibility that I welcome you, Sir, to the University of Uyo as your new Head of Department. Indeed the young has grown, and we believe this one has grown well, with thanks to God for provision, especially of a mentor like you.