Yoruba (; Yor. Èdè Yorùbá; Ajami: عِدعِ يوْرُبا) is a language spoken in West Africa, most prominently Southwestern Nigeria. It is spoken by the ethnic Yoruba people. The number of Yoruba speakers is stated as roughly 50 million, plus about 2 million second-language speakers. As a pluricentric language, it is primarily spoken in a dialectal area spanning Nigeria and Benin with smaller migrated communities in Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and The Gambia.
Yoruba vocabulary is also used in the Afro-Brazilian religion known as Candomblé, in the Caribbean religion of Santería in the form of the liturgical Lucumí language and various Afro-American religions of North America. Practitioners of these religions in the Americas no longer speak or understand the Yorùbá language, rather they use remnants of Yorùbá language for singing songs that for them are shrouded in mystery. Usage of a lexicon of Yorùbá words and short phrases during ritual is also common, but they have gone through changes due to the fact that Yorùbá is no longer a vernacular for them and fluency is not required.
Yoruba is classified among the Edekiri languages, which together with Itsekiri and the isolate Igala form the Yoruboid group of languages within the Volta–Niger branch of the Niger–Congo family. The linguistic unity of the Niger–Congo family dates to deep prehistory, estimates ranging around 11000 years ago (the end of the Upper Paleolithic). In present-day Nigeria, it is estimated that there are over 40 million Yoruba primary and secondary language speakers as well as several other millions of speakers outside Nigeria, making it the most widely spoken African language outside of the continent.
The Yoruba group is assumed to have developed out of undifferentiated Volta–Niger populations by the 1st millennium BC. Settlements of early Yoruba speakers are assumed to correspond to those found in the wider Niger area from about the 4th century BC, especially at Ife. The North-West Yoruba dialects show more linguistic innovation than the Southeast and Central dialects. This, combined with the fact that the latter areas generally have older settlements, suggests a later date for migration into Northwestern Yorubaland. According to the Kay Williamson Scale, the following is the degree of relationship between Itsekiri and other Yoruboid dialects, using a compiled word list of the most common words. A similarity of 100% would mean a total overlap of two dialects, while similarity of 0 would mean two speech areas that have absolutely no relationship.
The result of the wordlist analysis shows that Itsekiri bears the strongest similarity to the South-East Yoruba dialects and most especially Ilaje and Ikale, at 80.4% and 82.3% similarity. According to the language assessment criteria of the International Language Assessment Conference (1992), only when a wordlist analysis shows a lexical similarity of below 70% are two speech forms considered to be different languages. An overlap of 70% and above indicates that both speech forms are the same language, although dialect intelligibility tests would need to be carried out to determine how well speakers of one dialect can understand the other speech form. Thus while the analysis shows that Igala, with an overlap of 60% is a completely different language, all other Yoruboid speech forms are merely dialects of the same Language.
The Yoruba dialect continuum itself consists of several dialects. The various Yoruba dialects in the Yorubaland of Nigeria can be classified into five major dialect areas: Northwest, Northeast, Central, Southwest and Southeast. Clear boundaries cannot be drawn, peripheral areas of dialectal regions often having some similarities to adjoining dialects.
North-West Yoruba is historically a part of the Ọyọ Empire. In NWY dialects, Proto-Yoruba velar fricative /ɣ/ and labialized voiced velar /gʷ/ have merged into /w/; the upper vowels /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ were raised and merged with /i/ and /u/, just as their nasal counterparts, resulting in a vowel system with seven oral and three nasal vowels.
South-East Yoruba was probably associated with the expansion of the Benin Empire after c. 1450. In contrast to NWY, lineage and descent are largely multilineal and cognatic, and the division of titles into war and civil is unknown. Linguistically, SEY has retained the /ɣ/ and /gw/ contrast, while it has lowered the nasal vowels /ĩ/ and /ʊ̃/ to /ɛ̃/ and /ɔ̃/, respectively. SEY has collapsed the second and third person plural pronominal forms; thus, àn án wá can mean either 'you (pl.) came' or 'they came' in SEY dialects, whereas NWY for example has ẹ wá 'you (pl.) came' and wọ́n wá 'they came', respectively. The emergence of a plural of respect may have prevented the coalescence of the two in NWY dialects.
Central Yoruba forms a transitional area in that the lexicon has much in common with NWY, and it shares many ethnographical features with SEY. Its vowel system is the least innovative (most stable) of the three dialect groups, having retained nine oral-vowel contrasts and six or seven nasal vowels, and an extensive vowel harmony system. Peculiar to Central and Eastern (NEY, SEY) Yoruba also, is the ability to begin words with the vowel [ʊ:] which in Western Yoruba has been changed to [ɪ:]
Literary Yoruba, also known as Standard Yoruba, Yoruba koiné, and common Yoruba, is a separate member of the dialect cluster. It is the written form of the language, the standard variety learned at school and that spoken by newsreaders on the radio. Standard Yoruba has its origin in the 1850s, when Samuel A. Crowther, the first native African Anglican bishop, published a Yoruba grammar and started his translation of the Bible. Though for a large part based on the Ọyọ and Ibadan dialects, Standard Yoruba incorporates several features from other dialects. It also has some features peculiar to itself, for example, the simplified vowel harmony system, as well as foreign structures, such as calques from English which originated in early translations of religious works.
Because the use of Standard Yoruba did not result from some deliberate linguistic policy, much controversy exists as to what constitutes 'genuine Yoruba', with some writers holding the opinion that the Ọyọ dialect is the most "pure" form, and others stating that there is no such thing as genuine Yoruba at all. Standard Yoruba, the variety learned at school and used in the media, has nonetheless been a powerful consolidating factor in the emergence of a common Yoruba identity.
In the 17th century, Yoruba was written in the Ajami script, a form of Arabic script. It is still written in the Ajami writing script in some Islamic circles. Standard Yoruba orthography originated in the early work of Church Mission Society missionaries working among the Aku (Yoruba) of Freetown. One of their informants was Crowther, who later would proceed to work on his native language himself. In early grammar primers and translations of portions of the English Bible, Crowther used the Latin alphabet largely without tone markings. The only diacritic used was a dot below certain vowels to signify their open variants [ɛ] and [ɔ], viz. ⟨ẹ⟩ and ⟨ọ⟩. Over the years the orthography was revised to represent tone among other things. In 1875, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) organized a conference on Yoruba Orthography; the standard devised there was the basis for the orthography of the steady flow of religious and educational literature over the next seventy years.
The current orthography of Yoruba derives from a 1966 report of the Yoruba Orthography Committee, along with Ayọ Bamgboṣe's 1965 Yoruba Orthography, a study of the earlier orthographies and an attempt to bring Yoruba orthography in line with actual speech as much as possible. Still largely similar to the older orthography, it employs the Latin alphabet modified by the use of the digraph ⟨gb⟩ and certain diacritics, including the underdots under the letters ⟨ẹ⟩, ⟨ọ⟩, and ⟨ṣ⟩. Previously, the vertical line had been used to avoid the mark being fully covered by an underline, as in ⟨e̩⟩, ⟨o̩⟩, ⟨s̩⟩; however, that usage is no longer part of the standard orthography.
The pronunciation of the letters without diacritics corresponds more or less to their International Phonetic Alphabet equivalents, except for the labial–velar consonant [k͡p] (written ⟨p⟩) and [ɡ͡b] (written ⟨gb⟩), in which both consonants are pronounced simultaneously rather than sequentially. The diacritic underneath vowels indicates an open vowel, pronounced with the root of the tongue retracted (so ⟨ẹ⟩ is pronounced [ɛ̙] and ⟨ọ⟩ is [ɔ̙]). ⟨ṣ⟩ represents a postalveolar consonant [ʃ] like the English ⟨sh⟩, ⟨y⟩ represents a palatal approximant like English ⟨y⟩, and ⟨j⟩ a voiced palatal stop [ɟ], as is common in many African orthographies.
In addition to the underdots, three further diacritics are used on vowels and syllabic nasal consonants to indicate the language's tones: an acute accent ⟨´⟩ for the high tone, a grave accent ⟨`⟩ for the low tone, and an optional macron ⟨¯⟩ for the middle tone. These are used in addition to the underdots in ⟨ẹ⟩ and ⟨ọ⟩. When more than one tone is used in one syllable, the vowel can either be written once for each tone (for example, *⟨òó⟩ for a vowel [o] with tone rising from low to high) or, more rarely in current usage, combined into a single accent. In this case, a caron ⟨ˇ⟩ is used for the rising tone (so the previous example would be written ⟨ǒ⟩) and a circumflex ⟨ˆ⟩ for the falling tone.
In Benin, Yoruba uses a different orthography. The Yoruba alphabet was standardized along with other Benin languages in the National Languages Alphabet by the National Language Commission in 1975, and revised in 1990 and 2008 by the National Center for Applied Linguistics.
In 2011, a Beninese priest-chief by the name of Tolúlàṣẹ Ògúntósìn devised his own system based on a vision received in his sleep believed to have been granted from Oduduwa. This "Oduduwa alphabet" system has also received approval and support from other prominent chiefs in the Yorubaland region.
The three possible syllable structures of Yoruba are consonant+vowel (CV), vowel alone (V), and syllabic nasal (N). Every syllable bears one of the three tones: high ⟨◌́⟩, mid ⟨◌̄⟩ (generally left unmarked), and low ⟨◌̀⟩. The sentence n̄ ò lọ (I didn't go) provides examples of the three syllable types:
Standard Yoruba has seven oral and five nasal vowels. There are no diphthongs in Yoruba; sequences of vowels are pronounced as separate syllables. Dialects differ in the number of vowels they have; see above.
The status of a fifth nasal vowel, [ã], is controversial. Although the sound occurs in speech, several authors have argued it to be not phonemically contrastive; often, it is in free variation with [ɔ̃]. Orthographically, nasal vowels are normally represented by an oral vowel symbol followed by ⟨n⟩ (⟨in⟩, ⟨un⟩, ⟨ẹn⟩, ⟨ọn⟩), except in case of the [n] allophone of /l/ (see below) preceding a nasal vowel: inú 'inside, belly' is actually pronounced [īnṹ].
The voiceless plosives /t/ and /k/ are slightly aspirated; in some Yoruba varieties, /t/ and /d/ are more dental. The rhotic consonant is realized as a flap [ɾ] or, in some varieties (notably Lagos Yoruba), as the alveolar approximant [ɹ].
Like many other languages of the region, Yoruba has the voiceless and voiced labial–velar stops /k͡p/ and /ɡ͡b/: pápá [k͡pák͡pá] 'field', gbogbo [ɡ͡bōɡ͡bō] 'all'. Notably, it lacks the common voiceless bilabial stop /p/ so /k͡p/ is written as ⟨p⟩.
There is also a syllabic nasal, which forms a syllable nucleus by itself. When it precedes a vowel, it is a velar nasal [ŋ]: n ò lọ [ŋ ò lɔ̄] 'I didn't go'. In other cases, its place of articulation is homorganic with the following consonant: ó ń lọ [ó ń lɔ̄] 'he is going', ó ń fò [ó ḿ fò] 'he is jumping'.
Yoruba is a tonal language with three-level tones and two or three contour tones. Every syllable must have at least one tone; a syllable containing a long vowel can have two tones. Tones are marked by use of the acute accent for high tone (⟨á⟩, ⟨ń⟩) and the grave accent for low tone (⟨à⟩, ⟨ǹ⟩); mid is unmarked, except on syllabic nasals where it is indicated using a macron (⟨a⟩, ⟨n̄⟩). Examples:
Written Yoruba includes diacritical marks not available on conventional computer keyboards, requiring some adaptations. In particular, the use of the sub dots and tone marks are not represented, so many Yoruba documents simply omit them. Asubiaro Toluwase, in his 2014 paper, points out that the use of these diacritics can affect the retrieval of Yoruba documents by popular search engines. Therefore, their omission can have a significant impact on online research.
When a word precedes another word beginning with a vowel, assimilation, or deletion ('elision') of one of the vowels often takes place. In fact, since syllables in Yoruba normally end in a vowel, and most nouns start with one, it is a very common phenomenon, and it is absent only in very slow, unnatural speech. The orthography here follows speech in that word divisions are normally not indicated in words that are contracted as a result of assimilation or elision: ra ẹja → rẹja 'buy fish'. Sometimes, however, authors may choose to use an inverted comma to indicate an elided vowel as in ní ilé → n'ílé 'in the house'.
Long vowels within words usually signal that a consonant has been elided word-internally. In such cases, the tone of the elided vowel is retained: àdìrò → ààrò 'hearth'; koríko → koóko 'grass'; òtító → òótó 'truth'.
Yoruba is a highly isolating language. Its basic constituent order is subject–verb–object, as in ó nà Adé 'he beat Adé'. The bare verb stem denotes a completed action, often called perfect; tense and aspect are marked by preverbal particles such as ń 'imperfect/present continuous', ti 'past'. Negation is expressed by a preverbal particle kò. Serial verb constructions are common, as in many other languages of West Africa.
There are two 'prepositions': ní 'on, at, in' and sí 'onto, towards'. The former indicates location and absence of movement, and the latter encodes location/direction with movement. Position and direction are expressed by the prepositions in combination with spatial relational nouns like orí 'top', apá 'side', inú 'inside', etí 'edge', abẹ́ 'under', ilẹ̀ 'down', etc. Many of the spatial relational terms are historically related to body-part terms.
The wide adoption of imported religions and civilizations such as Islam and Christianity has had an impact both on written and spoken Yoruba. In his Arabic-English Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Quran and Sunnah, Yoruba Muslim scholar Abu-Abdullah Adelabu argued Islam has enriched African languages by providing them with technical and cultural augmentations with Swahili and Somali in East Africa and Turanci Hausa and Wolof in West Africa being the primary beneficiaries. Adelabu, a Ph D graduate from Damascus cited—among many other common usages—the following words to be Yoruba's derivatives of Arabic vocabularies:[better source needed]
Among commonly Arabic words used in Yoruba are names of the days such as Atalata (الثلاثاء) for Tuesday, Alaruba (الأربعاء) for Wednesday, Alamisi (الخميس) for Thursday, and Jimoh (الجمعة, Jumu'ah) for Friday. By far Ọjọ́ Jimoh is the most favorably used. It is usually referred to as the unpleasant word for Friday, Ẹtì, which means failure, laziness, or abandonment.[better source needed] Ultimately, the standard words for the days of the week are Àìkú, Ajé, Ìṣẹ́gun, Ọjọ́rú, Ọjọ́bọ, Ẹtì, Àbámẹ́ta, for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday respectively. Friday remains Eti in the Yoruba language.