Yoruba language


Yoruba language

Èdè Yorùbá
Native to NigeriaBeninTogo
Ethnicity Yoruba
Native speakers
40 million (2015)[1]
Latin (Yoruba alphabet)
Yoruba Braille
Arabic script (formerly)
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 yo
ISO 639-2 yor
ISO 639-3 yor
Glottolog yoru1245[2]
Linguasphere 98-AAA-a
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Yoruba (English: /ˈjɒrʊbə/;[3] Yor. Èdè Yorùbá) is a language spoken in West Africa. The number of speakers of Yoruba is estimated between 30 and 40 million, primarily by the ethnic Yoruba people.[4][5][6] It is a pluricentric language spoken principally in Nigeria and Benin, with communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia, other parts of Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The non-vernacular remains of the language in the CaribbeanLucumi, is the liturgical language of the Santería religion of the region. Many Yoruba words are used in the Afro-Brazilian religion known as Candomblé. Yoruba language remants are also used in many other Afro-American religions in the Americas and the Caribbean. Yoruba is most closely related to the Itsekiri language (spoken in the Niger Delta) and to Igala (spoken in central Nigeria).[1]


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 15,000 years ago (the end of the Upper Paleolithic).[7] 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.

Yoruboid languages[edit]

Group Name(s) Location(s) Largest dialects Native speakers countr(y)(ies) Comment
Igala languages Igala Eastern Kogi State, in and around the areas of DekinaAnkpaIdahibajiOmalaIgalamela-Odolu Etc. Ife, Ankpa, Dekina, Ibaji, Ebu, Idah 2.1 million Nigeria Most divergent Yoruboid language (earliest split) & Easternmost Yoruboid language
Ogugu Eastern Kogi State, Northern Enugu StateUzo UwaniIgbo Eze NorthNsukka Local Government Areas __________ 160,000 Nigeria A divergent Igala dialect
Edekiri languages Ede languages Southern, Central and Northern Benin, Central Togo, in and around: Porto-NovoPobèAdjarraBantèSavéTchaourouSakétéKetouCovéGlazoueAdja-OuèrèBassilaDassa-Zoumé (Benin). Atakpame, Goubi, Anié, Moretan, Kambole, (Togo) Ede IfeEde Isha, Idaasha, Ede Shabe, Ede IjeKambole, Ede Nago, Ede Kura, Manigri Etc. 1.4 million BeninTogoNigeria A cluster of closely related dialects in Western Yorubaland, with more than 95% Lexical similarity to standard Yoruba
Itsekiri Western Delta state in Warri SouthWarri NorthWarri South WestSapele and Ethiope West LGA’s. Edo State in Ikpoba OkhaOredo and Ovia South-West LGA’s __________ 1 million Nigeria A Yoruba dialect of the western Niger Delta & easternmost Edekiri dialect
Yoruba South West, North Central & Mid-West NigeriaOndoEdoKwaraEkitiLagosOgunKogiOyoOsun. East & Central BeninPlateauCollinesOuéméZouBorgu Etc. EkitiIfeIjebuOworoIjeshaAkokoIkaleOkunOyoEgbaAworiIgbominaOwoIdanreEgbadoIlajeKetuIkaleMokoleOndo Etc. 40 million NigeriaBeninAmericas By far the largest of the Yoruboid languages, and the Niger–Congo language with the largest number of L1 speakers.
Olukumi Isolated within Edoid languages in Edo and Delta statesOshimili North and Esan South-East Local government Areas. __________ 17,000 (?) Nigeria An 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. 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.[8] 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 a similarity of 0 would mean two speech areas that have absolutely no relationship.

% Similarity Igala Ijumu (Okun) Standard Yoruba Ijesha Ekiti Ijebu Oba (Akoko) Ondo Ilaje Ikale
Itsekiri 60.0% 70.3% 71.5% 72.0% 74.2% 75.3% 78.4% 78.4% 80.4% 82.3%

The result of the wordlist analysis shows that Itsekiri bears the strongest similarity to the SEY 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.[9] 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.[10] 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 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 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. 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[edit]

Literary Yoruba, also known as Standard YorubaYoruba 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.[11] 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[edit]

In the 17th century, Yoruba was written in the Ajami script, a form of Arabic script.[12][13] Modern 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) 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 ⟨e̩⟩, ⟨o̩⟩, and ⟨s̩⟩. In many publications the line is replaced by a dot ⟨ẹ⟩, ⟨ọ⟩, ⟨ṣ⟩. The vertical line had been used to avoid the mark being fully covered by an underline.

A B D E F G Gb I J K L M N O P R S T U W Y
a b d e f g gb 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 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 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 ⟨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.

Á À Ā É È Ē Ẹ / E̩ Ẹ́ / É̩ Ẹ̀ / È̩ Ẹ̄ / Ē̩ Í Ì Ī Ó Ò Ō Ọ / O̩ Ọ́/ Ó̩ Ọ̀ / Ò̩ Ọ̄ / Ō̩ Ú Ù Ū Ṣ / S̩
á à ā é è ē ẹ / e̩ ẹ́ / é̩ ẹ̀ / è̩ ẹ̄ / ē̩ í ì ī ó ò ō ọ / o̩ ọ́ / ó̩ ọ̀ / ò̩ ọ̄ / ō̩ ú ù ū ṣ / s̩

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.

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


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:

  • n̄ — [ŋ̄] — I
  • ò — [ò] — not (negation)
  • lọ — [lɔ̄] — 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, adopted from Bamgboṣe (1969:166). Oral vowels are marked by black dots, while the coloured regions indicate the ranges in possible quality of the nasal vowels.

Oral vowels Nasal vowels
Front Back Front Back
Close i u ĩ ũ
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɔ ɛ̃ ɔ̃
Open a (ã)
  • In some cases, the phonetic realization of these vowels is noticeably different from what the symbol suggests:
    • The oral /i/ is close front [i], and the nasal /ĩ/ varies between close front [ĩ] and near-close front [ĩ̞].[14]
    • The oral /u/ is close back [u], and the nasal /ũ/ varies between close near-back [ũ̟], close back [ũ], near-close near-back [ũ̟˕] and near-close back [ũ̞].[14]
    • The oral /e, o/ are close-mid [eo], and do not have nasal counterparts.[14]
    • The oral /ɛ/ is open-mid [ɛ], and the nasal /ɛ̃/ varies between mid [ɛ̝̃] and open-mid [ɛ̃].[14]
    • The oral /ɔ/ is near-open [ɔ̞], and the nasal /ɔ̃/ varies between open-mid [ɔ̃] and near-open [ɔ̞̃].[14]
    • The oral /a/ is central [ä].[14]

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].[15] 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].[16]


Labial Alveolar Postalveolar/
Velar Glottal
plain labial
Nasal m ŋ ~ ŋ̍
Stop b t  d ɟ k  ɡ k͡p  ɡ͡b
Fricative f s ʃ h
Approximant l ~ n j 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 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⟩.

Yoruba also lacks a phoneme /n/; the letter ⟨n⟩ is used for the sound in the orthography, but strictly speaking, it refers to an allophone of /l/ immediately preceding 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]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: high, low, and mid (the default tone).[17] 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.[18] 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⟩); see below). Examples:

  • H: ó bẹ́ [ó bɛ́] ‘he jumped’; síbí [síbí] ‘spoon’
  • M: ó bẹ [ó bɛ̄] ‘he is forward’; ara [āɾā] ‘body’
  • L: ó bẹ̀ [ó bɛ̀] ‘he asks for pardon’; ọ̀kọ̀ [ɔ̀kɔ̀] ‘spear’.

Tonality effects and computer-coded documents[edit]

Written Yoruba includes diacritical marks not available on conventional computer keyboards, requiring some adaptations. In particular, the use of the subdots and tone marks are not represented, so many Yoruba documents simply omit them. Asubiaro Toluwase, in his 2014 paper,[19] 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.

Assimilation and elision[edit]

When a word precedes another word beginning with a vowel, assimilation or deletion (‘elision‘) of one of the vowels often takes place.[20] 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.[21] Its basic constituent order is subject–verb–object,[22] 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,[23] it 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’.[24] 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 that it results in two possible readings, disambiguation is left to the context. Plural nouns are indicated by a plural word.[22]

There are two ‘prepositions’:  ‘on, at, in’ and  ‘onto, towards’. The former indicates location and absence of movement, and the latter encodes location/direction with movement.[25] 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.

Arabic influence[edit]

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, Yoruba Muslim scholar Sheikh Dr. Abdul-Fattah 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 the most 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:[26]

Some loanwords[edit]

  • Sanma: Heaven or sky, from السماء
  • alubarika: blessing, from البركة
  • alumaani: wealth, money, resources, from المال

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 (الجمعةJumu’ah) for Friday. By far Ọjọ́ Jimoh is the most favourably used. It is usually preferred to the unpleasant word for Friday, Ẹtì, which means failure, laziness or abandonment.[27] 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 Yoruba language.


Yoruba has an extensive body of literature.

Spoken literature[edit]

Written literature[edit]


  • KUKU, Nigerian American singer-songwriter, native Yoruba speakers.
  • Ibeyi, Cuban francophone sister duo, native Yoruba speakers.
  • Sakara, a Yoruba song originating from Abeokuta, Ogun Nigeria. One of the first performers of this type of music was in Lagos in 1930s.
  • Apala, Apala (or Akpala) is a music genre originally developed by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, during the country’s history as a colony of the British Empire. It is a percussion-based style that originated in the late 1970s.


See also