What is Yoruba?

The Yoruba people of West Africa speak the Yoruba language, a language with about 28 million speakers. So what are the main features of this language and what exactly is it, I hear you ask?

Yoruba is one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, along with Igbo and Hausa. Variations of Yoruba are based on the location of various tribes, such as: Niger-Congo and Benue-Congo. Variations of Yoruba differ slightly, for example in terms of intonation.

The language’s pronunciation is melodic and characterised by high (´), middle (¯), and low (`) tones. In fact, the word Yoruba is technically written as Yoruba. Yoruba language is an oral language which means that it was traditionally not written down. The first attempt to encode the language into writing started with the Aljami script, an adaptation of Arabic text. Later on, the Reverend Samuel Ajayi Crowther and the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) borrowed and modified the Latin alphabet to write Yoruba. Yoruba is written in the Latin script today with the addition of digraphs and tonal markings (as you can see from the word Yoruba).

The highs and lows of the language

Yoruba language has 25 letters: 18 consonants and 7 vowels. Yoruba vowels are divided into oral (non-nasal) and nasal vowels. There are seven vowel sounds; a, e, ẹ, i, o, ọ, u, two modified vowels; ẹ, a and diphthongs; ai, oi. Diphthongs are the combination of two vowel sounds to form one sound. Most oral vowels are either high, high-mid, low-mid or low which are depicted by the shape of the mouth and location of the tongue during pronunciation. However, ‘a’ is neutral, for example the ‘a’ sound in “ma”. 

There are 4 to 5 nasal vowels (vowels vary by dialect). These are created by adding an “n” sound to an oral vowel. The nasal vowels include: an, ẹn, in, ọn and un.

Knowledge of tones in Yoruba is vital to learning how to pronounce words. Just like in music, the sounds do ( ` ), re ( ¯ ) and mi ( ´ ) are used to indicate the rise and fall of sounds, so too do tonal marking in the melodic and musical language of Yoruba, distinguish how words are pronounced. These accent marks identify where the stress should fall. For example, words may have the same spelling, but meaning and pronunciation vary with tonal markings. Let me give you an example to better understand this: 

The high tone mark ( ´ ) indicates a rise in tone, as in: sún, which means “to shift.” The middle tone is written without an accent mark, as in: sun which means “to burn.” The grave/low tone mark indicates a drop in tone, as in: sùn,  meaning“to sleep.”

As you can see, tones are an essential part of the Yoruba language and each word may have several meanings, distinguished by intonation only. When people think of tonal languages, many would think of the most widely spoken tonal language, Mandarin Chinese. But yes, Yoruba does indeed have register tone systems. 

And what of the people who speak the Yoruba language? 

Yoruba people greet each other a lot, for this reason, they are regarded as ọmọ-káàárọ̀-o-ò-jí-ire. They place a lot of importance on greeting attitudes, more than many other cultural values.

In the Yoruba culture, greetings are an important element of ọmọlúàbí; ọmọ-tí-olú-ìwà-bí – which means ‘a person of good character. Any child that fails to portray this attribute is chastised and called ọmọ-aláìgbẹ̀kọ́, that is ‘a child that lacks home training’. Shame is then brought to the child’s parents for not raising their child properly – this is why a lot of importance is placed in regard to ọmọlúàbí.

Whenever you meet someone, a visitor or a stranger, greetings come first in the conversation. This is the first impression of an ọmọlúàbí. It is mandatory for one to greet whoever one encounters at any time of the day. Of course, greetings vary depending on the situation and age.

If you meet someone in the morning, you or the person will greet each other with “kú àárọ̀/káàárọ̀”- good morning, to which the other responds, “káàárọ̀.” If it is afternoon, you would say ‘kú ọ̀sán/ káàsán’ – good afternoon. In the evening you greet another person with “kú alẹ́/káalẹ́”.

As you can see, greetings vary with each situation. Also, during the dry season when it is hot, you greet the other person with kú ooru. If it is the rainy season, you say kú òjò. If you meet someone eating, you say kú oúnjẹ. If working, the greeting will be kú iṣẹ́. In addition, when a young person greets an elder, girls kneel down while boys prostrate on the ground.

Learn more about the Yoruba language in our online Yoruba course with our native speaker and language activist Omo, who lives in Lagos, Yorubaland. 

Inky Gibbens