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Yoruba (native name èdè Yorùbá, 'the Yoruba language') is a dialect continuum of West Africa with over 25 million speakers. The native tongue of the approximately 28 million Yoruba people, it is spoken, among other languages, in Nigeriamarker, Beninmarker, and Togomarker and traces of it are found among communities in Brazilmarker, Sierra Leonemarker (where it is called Oku), northern Ghanamarker (where it is spoken by urban migrant Yoruba communities alongside Hausa and local languages) and Cubamarker (where it is called Nago). Yoruba is an isolating, tonal language with SVO syntax. Apart from referring to the aggregate of dialects and their speakers, the term Yoruba is used for the standard, written form of the language. Yoruba is classified as a Niger-Congo language of the Yoruboid branch of Defoid, Benue-Congo. Yoruba is the third most spoken native African language.

The traditional Yoruba area — currently comprising the southwestern portion of Nigeriamarker, the republics of Beninmarker and Togomarker — is commonly called Ìlẹ-Yorùbá or Yorubaland. The Nigeria component comprises today's Ọyọmarker, Ọsunmarker, Ogunmarker, Ondomarker, Ekitimarker, Kwaramarker, and Lagosmarker states as well as the western part of Kogimarker state. Geophysically, Yorubaland forms part of a plateau (elevation 366 m) bordered to the north and east by the Niger River. A large part of it is densely forested; the northern part however, including Ọyọ, lies in the savanna to the north of the forest.


The ancestor of the Yoruba speakers is, according to their oral traditions, Oduduwa, son of Olúdùmarè, the supreme god of the Yoruba. Although they share a common history, it is only since the second half of the nineteenth century that the children of Oduduwa share one name. Before the abolition of the slave trade, Yorubas among the liberated slaves in Freetownmarker were known among Europeans as Akú, a name derived from the first words of Yoruba greetings such as Ẹ kú àárọ̀ ‘good morning’ and Ẹ kú alẹ́ ‘good evening’. At some stage the term Yariba or Yoruba came into use, first confined to the Ọyọ Kingdom; the term was used among the Hausa (as it is today) but its origins are unclear. Under the influence of the Yoruba Samuel Ajayi Crowther, (first Bishop of West Africa and first African bishop of the Church of England, who was a war captive freed on the high seas en-route to slavery) and subsequent missionaries, and for a large part due to the development of a written version of the language, the term Yoruba was extended to include all speakers of related dialects. The Yoruba have and sometimes continue to be referred to as the Anago, Nago and Lucumi.

Linguistic means — including, for example, historical-comparative linguistics, glottochronology, and dialectology — used along with both traditional (oral) historical sources and archaeological finds, have shed some light on the history of the Yorubas and their language before this point. The North-West Yoruba dialects, for example, show more linguistic innovations. According to some, this, combined with the fact that Southeast and Central Yoruba areas generally have older settlements, suggests a later date of immigration for Northwest Yoruba.



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

  • North-West Yoruba (NWY).
  • Central Yoruba (CY)
  • South-East Yoruba (SEY)
    • Okitipupa, Ondo, Ọwọ, Ikaremarker, Sagamu, and parts of Ijẹbu.

North-West Yoruba is historically a part of the Ọyọ empire. In NWY dialects, Proto-Yoruba /gh/ (the velar fricative ) 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. 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.

Standard Yoruba

Standard Yoruba (also known as literary Yoruba, the Yoruba koiné, common Yoruba and often simply as Yoruba) is a separate member of the dialect cluster. It is the written form of the language, the standard variety learnt at school and that spoken by newsreaders on the radio. Standard Yoruba has its origin in the 1850s, when Samuel A. Crowther, native Yoruba and 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. Additionally, it has some features peculiar to itself only, 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

In the 17th century Yoruba was written in the Ajami script. Modern Yoruba orthography originated in the early work of CMS missionaries working among the Aku in Freetown, notably Kilham and Raban. They assembled vocabularies and published short notes on Yoruba grammar. One of their informants in Sierra Leone was Crowther, who later would proceed to study his native language Yoruba. 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 , viz. ẹ and ọ. 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 (Ẹ/ẹ, Ọ/ọ, Ṣ/ṣ). The vertical line has been used to avoid the mark being fully covered by an underline.

A B D E F G Gb H I J K L M N O P R S T U W Y
a b d e f g gb h i j k l m n o p r s t u w y

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 (written ‹p›) and (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 and is ). represents a postalveolar consonant like the English sh, <y> represents a palatal approximant like English y, and <j> a voiced palatal plosive, 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 with tone rising from low to high) or, more rarely in current usage, combined into a single accent. In this case, a caron is used for the rising tone (so the previous example would be written ‹ǒ›) and a circumflex for a the falling tone.

Á À Ā É È Ē Ẹ / Ẹ́ / Ẹ̀ / / Í Ì Ī Ó Ò Ō Ọ / Ọ́/ Ọ̀ / Ọ / Ú Ù Ū /
á à ā é è ē ẹ / ẹ́ / ẹ̀ / / í ì ī ó ò ō ọ / ọ́ / / / ú ù ū /

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 ' ' I didn't go provides examples of the three syllable types:
  • — — I
  • ò — — not (negation)
  • lọ — — 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.

  Oral vowels Nasal vowels
Front Back Front Back

The status of a fifth nasal vowel, , 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 . 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 allophone of (see below) preceding a nasal vowel, i.e. inú 'inside, belly' is actually pronounced .


  Labial Alveolar Postalveolar/
Velar Glottal
plain labial
Nasal ( )        

The voiceless plosives and are slightly aspirated; in some Yoruba varieties, and are more dental. The rhotic consonant is realized as a flap , or in some varieties (notably Lagos Yoruba) as the postalveolar approximant . Like many other languages of the region, Yoruba has the labial-velar stop and , e.g. pápá 'field', 'all'. Notably, it lacks the common voiceless bilabial plosive , which is why is written as <p>. It also lacks a phoneme ; though the letter <n> is used for the sound in the orthography, it strictly speaking refers to an allophone of 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 , e.g. n ò lọ 'I didn't go'. In other cases its place of articulation is homorganic with the following consonant, for example ó ń lọ 'he is going', ó ń fò 'he is jumping'.


Yoruba is a tonal language with three level tones: High, Low and Mid; the last is the default tone.Several authors have argued that the Mid-tone is not specified underlyingly, but rather is assigned by a default rule (Pulleyblank 1986, Fọlarin 1987, Akinlabi 1985). Evidence includes examples like the following:

rí 'see' aṣọ 'clothing' → ráṣọ 'see clothing', contrasted with rí 'see' ọ̀bẹ 'knife' → rọ́!bẹ 'see a knife'

In the first example, the final vowel of the verb is deleted but its High tone easily attaches to the first syllable of aṣọ, the Mid tone of which disappears without a trace. In the second example, the Low tone of the first syllable of ọ̀bẹ is not as easily deleted; it causes a downstep (marked by ‹!›, i.e., a lowering of subsequent tones. The ease with which the Mid tone gives way is attributed to it not being specified underlyingly. Cf. Bamgboṣe 1966:9 (who calls the downstep effect 'the assimilated low tone'). 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 and thus have no phonemic status. 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, n̄); 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'

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. 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 an isolating language. Basic constituent order is subject, verb, object (SVO), as in ó na Adé 'he hit 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.

Yoruba has 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.

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.


To the north of Yorubaland, Hausa is spoken. The long-standing contact between the Yoruba and the Hausa culture has influenced both languages. The imprint left by Hausa on Yoruba can be seen most clearly in the many loan-words. Two kinds of Hausa loan words can be distinguished: first, words of pure Hausa origin; and secondly, words that can be traced back to Arabic which have entered the Yoruba lexis through Hausa. Examples of the first type include gèjíyà 'tiredness' ( H. gàjíyàà), Ọbángíjì 'Almighty God' ( H. Ùbángíjì, lit. 'father of the house'). Examples of the second type include words like àlùbáríkà 'blessing', àlàáfíà 'well-being', and àlùbọ́sà 'onion' (Oyètádé & Buba 2000).


Yoruba has an extensive literature, both oral and written.

Oral literature

Written literature

The word Oyinbo is used by the Yoruba diaspora to describe White Europeans.The prefix "Ade" is used to denote descent from royal antecedents.

Notes and references


  1. Ethnologue 2005, Sachnine 1997
  2. Alapini Mestre Didi Asipa
  3. Anagó,vocabulario Lucumi, el Yoruba que se habla en Cuba, por Lydia Cabrera, prologo de Roger Bastide; Miami, coleccion del Chichereku, Ediciones Universal, 1986.
  4. For discussion, see Hair 1967:6, 6n12; Fagborun 1994:13.
  5. Fagborun comments that '[i]t is definitely not morphologically indigenous' (1994:13).
  6. Adetugbọ 1973:192-3. (See also the section Dialects.)
  7. This widely followed classification is based on Adetugbọ’s (1982) dialectological study — the classification originated in his 1967 PhD thesis The Yoruba Language in Western Nigeria: Its Major Dialect Areas. See also Adetugbọ 1973:183-193.
  8. Adetugbọ 1973:185.
  9. Cf. for example the following remark by Adetugbọ (1967, as cited in Fagborun 1994:25): "While the orthography agreed upon by the missionaries represented to a very large degree the phonemes of the Abẹokuta dialect, the morpho-syntax reflected the Ọyọ-Ibadan dialects".
  10. "Yoruba...written in a version of the Arabic script known as Ajami (or Ajamiyya)."[1]
  11. After Bamgboṣe (1969:166).
  12. Notably, Ayọ Bamgboṣe (1966:8).
  13. Abraham in his Dictionary of Modern Yoruba deviates from this custom, explicitly indicating the nasality of the vowel; thus, inú is found under inún, etc.
  14. Cf. Bamgboṣe 1966:6: The so-called glides […] are treated in this system as separate tones occurring on a sequence of two syllables.
  15. See Bamgboṣe 1965a for more details. See also Ward 1952:123–133 ('Chapter XI: Abbreviations and Elisions').


  • Oyètádé, B. Akíntúndé & Buba, Malami (2000) 'Hausa Loan Words in Yorùbá', in Wolff & Gensler (eds.) Proceedings of the 2nd WoCAL, Leipzig 1997, Köln: Rüdiger Köppe, 241-260.



Grammars and sketches

  • the first grammar of Yoruba.

External links

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