Language of the month: Yoruba

Language of the month: Yoruba

Yoruba (pronounced YOR- u –ber) is a language of West Africa, spoken mostly in Nigeria and neighbouring Benin. Nigeria, population around, 170m, has over 500 languages, and we’re not talking dialects here – these are separate languages, many of them little known to the world outside. Have you heard of Abanyon, or Abon, or Abua…or… Zhire, or Zizilivakan? Probably not, but these are not even particularly vulnerable languages in Nigeria; they’re all classed as ’vigorous’ by linguists and have thousands of speakers, but outside West Africa they are relatively unknown.

Yoruba, on the other hand is one of the four main languages of Nigeria, along with Hausa, Igbo and English (the official language) and, with nearly 19m speakers isn’t exactly endangered, but for us at TribaLingual it still has fascination.

Family connections

It fits within the huge language group known as the Niger-Congo languages, which, for me at least, conjures up pictures of Victorian explorers, Hepburn and Bogart in the African Queen, wonderful carved masks and drum music at dusk. Its linguistic cousins include Igbo and the lingua franca of East Africa, Swahili. The Niger-Congo group spreads from Mali right down through what are known as the Bantu languages right into the fringes of South Africa. It’s a big grouping, studied by a series of eminent German linguists in the 18th century. The main thing that distinguishes languages from this group are attachments to nouns known as noun-classifiers. If you want to say “4 bananas” you have to say “4 banana-fruit”. You get the same feature in Mandarin, of course, but rarely in English, where the only occurrences are somewhat archaic like ’65 head of cattle”.

Don’t mistake your husband for a truck…

Yoruba is tonal, like many Asian languages. By tonal we don’t just mean that it has a sing-song quality, but where the pitch of a word doesn’t directly carry meaning like in Swedish, for example. If you say flicka in Swedish with the wrong musicality people may look at you funny, but they’ll still get that you mean girl. But in Yoruba you’d better get the pitch of the syllables right. ‘oko’ (high tone) is husband but ‘oko’ (low tone) means truck.

Some of its grammatical forms appear quite odd too. For example, most languages stick an adjective either behind or in front of a noun. Like ‘a bad child’ or ‘un enfant mechant’. ’Not Yoruba; it can go in the middle!

omo = child

ki = bad

…but a bad child = omokomo = omo+ki+omo.

Where did that come from…?

Lastly, there’s a surprising creation myth in Yoruba.

It seems that a god called Obatala decided the earth below was rather boring and needed some land for creatures to inhabit. He got permission from Olorun and Olokun, the two gods who ruled above and below.

Obatala gathered together a snail’s shell filled with sand, a white hen, a black cat, and a palm nut, in a bag. (apparently this is what you need to create continents and animals and fish and stuff – I don’t make the rules, OK?). He climbs down a conveniently placed golden chain at the corner of the sky.

Less conveniently the chain doesn’t reach the world below, so he empties the earth from the snail shell and throws the hen down after it. The hen upon landing on the sand begins scratching and scattering it about and wherever the sand lands it forms dry land, the bigger piles becoming hills and the smaller piles valleys.

Olabata is lonely (apart from the white hen and the cat he came down with), so he resorts to two techniques. Firstly, he fashions beings like himself from clay. Secondly, he gets drunk. This has the effect of making his claywork rather erratic, so that he fashions imperfect beings.

This makes the two top gods rather angry, so that one of them makes the waves rise and flood the earth. Many of the clay beings climbed to the highest point, and prayed to the two top gods who made the waters recede. Job done.

It’s an interesting story, like most creation myths, but what struck me was a) the resonance with the Noah story and b) the very sensible decision by Olabata to grow palm trees and have a relaxing glass of home-made palm wine.

Enjoy Yoruba; I’m off to open a bottle of Pinot Grigio..

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  1. I love yoruba!!!!

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