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The Yoruba Language

Origins

Yoruba is the language spoken by a set of people in Western Africa. Its native name is ‘Ede Yoruba’, that is the Yoruba language. The language has its origins in the Yoruba people, who are believed to be descendants of Oduduwa, the son of a powerful god called Oludumare. They refer to themselves as ‘Omo Oduduwa’, which means Oduduwa’s children. The Yoruba people originated from the Western Nigeria. Places where the language is spoken are termed ‘Ile Yoruba’, the Yoruba land. The Yoruba lands span across the western region of Nigeria, from far south-western state of Lagos state to the mid-western Kwara state cutting across other states including Ekiti, Ogun, Oyo, Osun and Ondo. Yoruba land extend beyond the boundaries of Nigeria into nearby countries like the republic of Benin, Togo, and mid-eastern Ghana.

The language is the pride of the Yoruba people with over 22 million speakers. The language has also been noted to be spoken within other languages in neighboring countries such as Benin and Togo. Traces have also been found in Sierra Leone where it’s called ‘Oku’ and in Cuba where it’s called ‘Nago’. It is argued that traces of the language can also be found in communities as far away as Brazil.

Dialects

Due to the tribal variation among the Yoruba people, the language also has various dialects. Roughly speaking Yoruba has over ten dialects spoken among the various tribes in Nigeria. However these dialects can be broadly categorized into three types based on their geographical location. North-West Yoruba (NWY) is spoken by the Yoruba people from Lagos up north to Osun state, and through areas like Abekuta, Ibadan and Oyo. Central Yoruba (CY) is spoken in the western central areas of Nigeria in places like Ife, Igbomina, Ekiti and Akure. South-East Yoruba (SEY) is spoken in the mid southeastern parts of the country, in areas like Ondo, Owo and parts of Ijebu.

Due to the different pronunciations in each dialect, the vowel system in each dialect is dissimilar. However, currently only one of these variations is used for purposes of writing and literature. It was developed in 1884, by a Yoruba man called Samuel Crowther. He translated the Holy Bible from the Standard English version to a comprehensive Yoruba version. Afterwards, his work was accepted as the standard for Yoruba language among all the different dialects. A substantial body of literature exists in the Yoruba language including newspapers, books and pamphlets. One of the most renowned Yoruba literary figures is Amos Tutuola.

Phonology

Yoruba has three syllable structures which are namely the consonant and vowel (CV), syllabic nasal and vowel alone (V). There are also three types of tones associated with each of the syllabic structures; these tones are high, mid and low tone. Yoruba is a highly tonal language; each syllable must have a tone. Syllables with long vowels sounds can have two tones that is, contour tones which involves a rising or falling tone melody. In such tones, the union of the two tones is regarded as one separate tone.

The Yoruba grammatical structure follows the order subject, verb and object (SVO). For example ‘o jẹ ẹwa’, this is translated as ‘he ate beans’. ‘O’ in the sentence is the subject, ‘jẹ’ in the sentence is the verb and ‘ẹwa’ the object.

The grammar also distinguishes between the types of nouns used for humans and non-humans. The distinction is based on the interrogative components used in addressing each. For example ‘tani yẹn?’ which means ‘who is that?’ and ‘kini yẹn?’ which means ‘what is that?’. Tani in the example above is used for humans (who) while kini is used for non-humans (what).

Interesting Facts

The neighboring tribes of the Yoruba land in Nigeria are the Hausas and Igbos. The Hausas are based in the northern region while the Igbos are in the eastern region. There is no tangible exchange in language between the Yorubas and the Igbos. However there are notable exchanges between the Hausa and Yoruba languages. This influence is manly the loaning of words from the Hausa language. These loaned words are of two type, words loaned directly from the Hausa language and words with Arabic origin but were introduced to Yoruba lexis through the Hausa language.

Before the abolition of slave trade, the Yoruba people where known as ‘Akus’ by the Europeans. The name was derived from a common word often used when greeting in Yoruba language. For example ‘ệku arọ” this means good morning or ‘ệku ọsan’ which means good afternoon. The common ‘eku’sound in the greetings, was the bases for this name (Akus).

Links of Interest

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