Eleme, along with the other languages native to Ogoni-land, belongs to the Cross River branch of Benue-Congo, a sub-family of the Niger Congo. A recent classification of Cross River devised by Faraclas (1989) has drawn on classification work on languages native to various states across the South-east of Nigeria, in particular, the Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Rivers States. It identifies around sixty distinct Cross River languages spoken in this area.
Eleme belongs to the Ogonoid (also known as Ogoni or Kegboid) language group, a daughter of the Delta Cross sub-branch of Cross River.
The Ogonoid family comprises of five related languages, which maybe further divided in East and West Ogonoid sub-groups following Williamson (1985). Eleme, along with Baan (called Ogoi by Williamson), form the West branch of the Ogoni family, while Khana (Kana) and Gokana and Tai form the East branch.
|West Ogonoid||East Ogonoid|
In most of the literature that refers to the languages of the Ogoni ethnic group, the same term refers to the language family. Ikoro (1994: 8) suggested that the Ogoni group should be renamed Kegboid (an acronym of Kana, Eleme, Gokana and Baan) to avoid the political associations of Ogoni. According to Ikoro, 'most Eleme speakers completely deny any link with the label Ogoni', and although a possible word structure in Eleme, it has no meaning in any of the languages, nor can it be traced to any of the languages it encompasses. Since then, Kay Williamson (personal communication) has suggested that a more useful term for the language family would be Ogonoid, since this accurately reflects the linguistic lineage of the the languages while avoiding the socio-political implications of the name Ogoni.
While Faraclas' Cross River classification (1989: 382) distinguishes between dialect and language based as much as possible on mutual intelligibility, the Ogonoid family exemplifies that this is not always a reliable criterion for relatedness. He cites Wolff (1959b), who claims that while Khana speakers claim to understand Gokana, the reverse is not reported to be true. Although Gokana speakers may claim to not understand Khana for a variety of reasons, Wolff posits that this is most probably due to socio-political rather than linguistic factors. Despite this, both varieties are granted language status in Williamson's (and consequently Faraclas') classification. Faraclas (1989: 385) further divides Khana into three major dialects: Southern, Northern and Tai. According to Chief Dada Nwolu Obele, a native Eleme speaker and author of Foundation Studies in Eleme (1998), speakers of neighbouring indigenous languages (Khana, Gokana, Tai, Okrika, Ikwere and Asa/Ndoki) cannot 'freely participate in discussion held in Eleme' (Obele 1998: 6). Contrastively, speakers of Gokana and Tai (listed as a dialect of Khana by Faraclas (1989: 385), but as a language by Obele (1998:6)) may interact freely with each other.