Yoruba language

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Yoruba language

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Èdè Yorùbá
Native toNigeria, Benin
EthnicityYoruba people
Native speakers
28 million  (2007)[1]
Latin (Yoruba alphabet)
Yoruba Braille
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1yo
ISO 639-2yor
ISO 639-3yor

This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.


Yoruba /ˈjɒrʊbə/[3] (èdè Yorùbá) is a Nigerian language spoken in West Africa mainly in Nigeria. The number of speakers of Yoruba is approaching 30 million.[1][4] It is spoken principally in Nigeria and Benin, with communities in other parts of Africa, Europe and the Americas. A variety of the language, Lucumi, is the liturgical language of the Santería religion of the Caribbean. Yoruba is most closely related to the Itsekiri language (spoken in the Niger Delta) and to Igala (spoken in central Nigeria).[5]


Further information: Volta–Niger and Benue–Congo

Yoruba is classified within 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 15 kya (the end of the Upper Paleolithic).[6] In present day Nigeria, it is estimated that there are over 40 million Yoruba primary and secondary language speakers and several other millions of speaker outside Nigeria making it the most widely spoken African language outside Africa.

The Yoruboid Languages

GroupName(s)Location(s)Largest dialects# of Speakerscountry(ies)Comment
Igala languagesIgalaEastern Kogi State, in and around the areas of Dekina, Ankpa, Idah, ibaji, Omala, Igalamela-Odolu Etc.Ife, Ankpa, Dekina, Ibaji, Ebu, Idah2.1 MillionNigeriaMost divergent Yoruboid language (earliest split) & Easternmost Yoruboid language
OguguEastern Kogi State, Northern Enugu State, Uzo Uwani, Igbo Eze North, Nsukka Local Government Areas__________160,000NigeriaA divergent Igala dialect
Edekiri languagesEde languagesSouthern, Central and Northern Benin, Central Togo, in and around: Porto-Novo, Pobè, Adjarra, Bantè, Savé, Tchaourou, Sakété, Ketou, Cové, Adja-Ouèrè, Bassila (Benin). Atakpame (Togo)Ede Ife, Ede Ica, Idaca, Ede Cabe, Ede Ije, Kambole, Ede Nago, Manigri Etc.1.4 MillionBenin, Togo, NigeriaA cluster of closely related dialects in Western Yorubaland, with more than 95% Lexical similarity to standard Yoruba
ItsekiriWestern Delta state in Warri South, Warri North, Warri South West and Ethiope West LGA's. Edo State in Ikpoba Okha, Oredo and Ovia South-West LGA's__________1 MillionNigeriaA Yoruba dialect of the western Niger Delta & Easternmost Edekiri dialect
YorùbáSouth West, North Central & Mid-West Nigeria: Ondo, Edo, Kwara, Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Kogi, Oyo, Osun. East & Central Benin: Plateau, Collines, Ouémé, Zou, Borgu Etc.Ekiti, Ijebu, Ijesha, Akoko, Okun, Oyo, Egba, Awori, Igbomina, Owo, Egbado, Ilaje, Ketu, Mokole, Lucumi Etc.40 MillionNigeria, Benin, AmericasBy far the largest of the Yoruboid languages, & the Niger-Congo language with the largest number of L1 speakers.
OlukumiIsolated within Edoid languages in Edo and Delta states, Oshimili North and Esan South-East Local government Areas.__________17,000 (?)NigeriaAn Isolated Yoruba dialect on the Western flanks of the Niger

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. As the North-West Yoruba dialects show more linguistic innovation, combined with the fact that Southeast and Central Yoruba areas generally have older settlements, suggests a later date of immigration for Northwest Yoruba.[7]


The Yoruba dialect continuum itself consists of several dialects. The various Yoruba dialects in the Yorubaland of Nigeria can be classified into three major dialect areas: Northwest, Central, and Southeast.[8] Clear boundaries can never be drawn and peripheral areas of dialectal regions often have some similarities to adjoining dialects.

North-West Yoruba is historically a part of the Ọyọ empire. In NWY dialects, Proto-Yoruba /gh/ (the velar fricative [ɣ]) and /gw/ have merged into /w/; the upper vowels /i ̣/ and /ụ/ 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. Ethnographically, traditional government is based on a division of power between civil and war chiefs; lineage and descent are unilineal and agnatic.

South-East Yoruba was probably associated with the expansion of the Benin Empire after c. 1450 AD.[9] 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 /gh/ and /gw/ contrast, while it has lowered the nasal vowels /ịn/ and /ụn/ to /ẹn/ and /ọn/, 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 coalescence of the two in NWY dialects.

Central Yoruba forms a transitional area in that the lexicon has much in common with NWY, whereas it shares many ethnographical features with SEY. Its vowel system is the least innovating (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.

Literary Yoruba

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 African 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.[10] 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 learnt at school and used in the media, has nonetheless been a powerful consolidating factor in the emergence of a common Yoruba identity.

Writing system

See also: Yoruba Braille

In the 17th century[citation needed] Yoruba was written in the Ajami script, a form of Arabic.[11] Modern Yoruba orthography originated in the early work of CMS 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. and . Over the years the orthography was revised to represent tone among other things. In 1875 the Church Missionary Society (CMS) organised 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 traditional vertical line set under the letters , , and . In many publications the line is replaced by a dot , , . The vertical line had been used to avoid the mark being fully covered by an underline.


The Latin letters c, q, v, x, z are not used.

The pronunciation of the letters without diacritics corresponds more or less to their International Phonetic Alphabet equivalents, except for the labial-velar stops [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 is pronounced [ɛ̙] and is [ɔ̙]). represents a postalveolar consonant [ʃ] like the English sh, y represents a palatal approximant like English y, and j a voiced palatal plosive [ɟ], as is common in many African orthographies.

In addition to the vertical bars, 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 line in and . 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 a the falling tone.

ÁÀĀÉÈĒẸ / Ẹ́ / É̩Ẹ̀ / È̩Ẹ̄ / Ē̩ÍÌĪÓÒŌỌ / Ọ́/ Ó̩Ọ̀ / Ò̩Ọ̄ / Ō̩ÚÙŪ /
áàāéèēẹ / ẹ́ / é̩ẹ̀ / è̩ẹ̄ / ē̩íìīóòōọ / ọ́ / ó̩ọ̀ / ò̩ọ̄ / ō̩úùū /

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 by the National Center for Applied Linguistics.

Benin alphabet

Linguistic features


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:

  • [ŋ̄]I
  • ò — [ó]not (negation)
  • lọ — [lɔ]to go


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.

Yoruba vowel diagram.[12] Oral vowels are marked by black dots, while the coloured regions indicate the ranges in possible quality of the nasal vowels.
 Oral vowelsNasal vowels

The status of a fifth nasal vowel, [ã], is controversial. Although the sound does occur in speech, several authors have argued it to be not phonemically contrastive; often, it is in free variation with [ɔ̃].[13] Orthographically, nasal vowels are normally represented by an oral vowel symbol followed by n (i.e., in, un, ẹn, ọn), except in case of the [n] allophone of /l/ (see below) preceding a nasal vowel, i.e. inú 'inside, belly' is actually pronounced [īnṹ].[14]


Nasalm ŋ ~ ŋ̍  
Plosivebt  dɟk  ɡk͡p  ɡ͡b 
Fricativefsʃ  h
Approximant l ~ nj w 
Rhotic ɾ    

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 labial-velar stops /k͡p/ and /ɡ͡b/, e.g. pápá [k͡pák͡pá] 'field', gbogbo [ɡ͡boɡ͡bo] 'all'. Notably, it lacks the common voiceless bilabial plosive /p/, which is why /k͡p/ is written as p. It also lacks a phoneme /n/; though the letter n is used for the sound in the orthography, it strictly speaking refers to an allophone of /l/ which immediately precedes a nasal vowel.

There is also a syllabic nasal which forms a syllable nucleus by itself. When it precedes a vowel it is a velar nasal [ŋ], e.g. n ò lọ [ŋ ò lɔ] 'I didn't go'. In other cases its place of articulation is homorganic with the following consonant, for example ó ń lọ [ó ń lɔ] 'he is going', ó ń fò [ó ḿ fò] 'he is jumping'.


Yoruba is a tonal language with three level tones: high, low, and mid (the default tone.[15]) Every syllable must have at least one tone; a syllable containing a long vowel can have two tones. Contour tones (i.e. rising or falling tone melodies) are usually analysed as separate tones occurring on adjacent tone bearing units (morae) and thus have no phonemic status.[16] Tones are marked by use of the acute accent for high tone (á, ń), the grave accent for low tone (à, ǹ); Mid is unmarked, except on syllabic nasals where it is indicated using a macron (a, ); see below). Examples:

  • H: ó bẹ́ 'he jumped'; síbí 'spoon'
  • M: ó bẹ 'he is forward'; ara 'body'
  • L: ó bẹ̀ 'he asks for pardon'; ọ̀kọ̀ 'spear'.

Effects of Tonality on Computer Coded Yoruba Written Documents

First, the use of the subdots and tone marks otherwise known as diacritic markings are not represented on the conventional keyboards. Therefore, most Yoruba documents are computer coded without the marks. Secondly,[17] revealed that the use of the diacritics affect the retrieval of Yoruba documents by popular search engines.

Assimilation and elision

When a word precedes another word beginning with a vowel, assimilation or deletion ('elision') of one of the vowels often takes place.[18] In fact, since syllables in Yoruba normally end in a vowel, and most nouns start with one, this is a very common phenomenon, and indeed only is absent 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 ẹjarẹja 'buy fish'. Sometimes however, authors may choose to use an inverted comma to indicate an elided vowel as in ní ilén’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, e.g. àdìròààrò 'hearth'; koríkokoóko 'grass'; òtítóòótó 'truth'.


Yoruba is a highly isolating language.[19] Its basic constituent order is subject–verb–object (SVO),[20] 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 . Serial verb constructions are common, as in many other languages of West Africa.

Although Yoruba has no grammatical gender,[21] it does have a distinction between human and non-human nouns; probably a remainder of the noun class system of proto-Niger–Congo, the distinction is only apparent in the fact that the two groups require different interrogative particles: tani for human nouns (‘who?’) and kini for non-human nouns (‘what?’). The associative construction (covering possessive/genitive and related notions) consists of juxtaposing nouns in the order modified-modifier as in inú àpótí {inside box} 'the inside of the box', fìlà Àkàndé 'Akande’s cap' or àpótí aṣọ 'box for clothes' (Bamgboṣe 1966:110, Rowlands 1969:45-6). More than two nouns can be juxtaposed: rélùweè abẹ́ ilẹ̀ (railway under ground) ‘underground railway’, inú àpótí aṣọ 'the inside of the clothes box'. In the rare case where this results in two possible readings, disambiguation is left to the context. Plural nouns are indicated by a plural word.[20]

There are two ‘prepositions’: ‘on, at, in’ and ‘onto, towards’. The former indicates location and absence of movement, the latter encodes location/direction with movement (Sachnine 1997:19). Position and direction are expressed by these prepositions in combination with spatial relational nouns like orí ‘top’, apá ‘side’, inú ‘inside’, etí ‘edge’, abẹ́ ‘under’, ilẹ̀ ‘down’, etc. Many of these spatial relational terms are historically related to body-part terms.

Arabic influence

In his works such as Islam in Africa - West African in Particular, and Missionary and Colonization in Africa,[22] Sheikh Dr. Abu-Abdullah Adelabu used assertions like these to argue that Islam had reached Sub-Sahara Africa, including the Yoruba Lands in West Africa, as early as the first century of Hijrah through Muslim traders and expeditions during the reign of the Arab conqueror, Uqba ibn al Nafia (622–683) whose Islamic conquests under the Umayyad dynasty, in Amir Muavia and Yazid periods, spread all Northern Africa or the Maghrib Al-Arabi, including present-day Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco.

The wide adoption of imported religions and civilizations such as Islam and Christianity has managed to lay impacts both on written and spoken Yoruba. In his Arabic-English Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Quran and Sunnah, the Nigerian Muslim academic Sheikh Dr. Adelabu argued Islam has enriched African languages by providing them with technical and cultural augmentations with Ki-Swahili and Af-Somaali in East Africa and Turanci Hausa and Fula-Nyami in West Africa the most beneficiaries. Sheikh Adelabu, a Ph D graduate from Damascus cited—among many other common usages—the following words to be Yoruba's derivatives of Arabic vocabularies:[23]

Some loan words

  • alaafia: Good, fine, or health(y), from al-aafiah (Arabic العافية)
  • Sanma: Heaven or sky, from Samaa` (Arabic السماء)
  • alubarika: blessing, from al-barakah (Arabic البركة)
  • wakati: hour or time (from waqt (Arabic وقت)
  • alubosa: onion, from al-basal (Arabic االبصل)
  • adua or adura: prayer or supplication, from ad-du'a (Arabic الدعاء)
  • asiri: secret or hidden, from as-sirr (Arabic السرّ)
  • esin: horse, from hesan (Arabic حصان)
  • dede: equally (from Hausa Language)

Meanwhile, among commonly Arabic words used in Yoruba Language are names of the days such as Atalata (Arabic ath-thulatha الثلاثاء) for Tuesday, Alaruba (Arabic al-arbi'a الأربعاء) for Wednesday, Alamisi (Arabic al-khamis الخميس) for Thursday, and Jimoh (Arabic al-jum'ah الجمعة) for Friday. By far Ojo Jimoh is the most favourably used. It is usually preferred to the unpleasant word for Friday, Eti, which means failure, laziness or abandonment.[24]


Main article: Yoruba literature

Yoruba has an extensive body of literature.

Spoken literature

Written literature


  • KUKU, Nigerian American singer-songwriter, native Yoruba speakers.
  • Ibeyi, Cuban francophone sister duo, native Yoruba speakers.

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