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Key Dialects: Oyo, Ijesha, Ila, Ijebu, Ondo, Wo, Owe, Jumu, Iworro, Igbonna, Yagba, Gbedde, Egba, Akono, Aworo, Bunu (Bini), Ekiti, Ilaje, Ikale, Awori.

Geographical Center: Nigeria

Yoruba is spoken by 18,850,000 people in Nigeria. The total population of native speakers in all countries is about 20,000,000. The number rises to 22,000,000 if we also include second-language speakers. The language has numerous dialects spoken in different areas of Nigeria. Within Nigeria the language is spoken in the areas of Oyo, Ogun, Ondo Osun, Kwara, Lagos and the western part of Kogi State. It is also spoken in Benin, Togo, and by immigrants in the United Kingdom and the USA.

Yoruba is one of the 12 Edekiri languages of the Yoruboid group that also includes Igala. The Yoruboid group belongs to the Defoid languages of the Benue-Congo group and ultimately to the Volta-Congo, and Atlantic-Congo groups of the Niger-Congo Family of 1419 languages mostly spoken in Central and South Africa.

Yoruba is a dialect continuum including distinctive dialects. The estimates of the total number of Yoruba dialects vary from twelve to twenty-six. While the speakers of these dialects are referred to by their sub-group labels, the entire group of Yoruba speech community members are known as the “Yorubas”, and there are forms of cultural and religious homogeneity among the peoples within this group. There are three major dialect areas – Northwest Yoruba, Southeast Yoruba and Central Yoruba (Adetugbo, 1982). These three areas exhibit major differences in phonological, lexical and, to a lesser degree, syntactic properties of the dialects involved (Oyetade, 1995).

In its written form, Yoruba uses the Roman alphabet. It has 25 letters mostly the same as in the including ç , ô , ÿ and gb (g & b combined). The letter 'p' is always pronounced as 'k' and 'p' combined. Yoruba orthography does not use the letters c, q, v, x , z. Yoruba has three basic tones, high, mid, and low, which are indicated in the orthography. The high is marked with an acute accent (e.g. á), the low with a grave accent (à), and the mid tone usually left unmarked. These marks are usually placed on the vowels. In some circumstances the mid tone is indicated with a 'macron'. The language has been written since the early 19th century, although there have been many changes in aspects of its orthographic representation. In the 1960s, the then Ministry of Education within the Western Region of Nigeria, which was where most of the Yoruba speech community is located, formed two committees to consider a standard orthography for the language. The more influential of these two, the Yoruba Orthography Committee was set up in 1966. The report which this second orthography committee submitted in 1966 became the basis for the creation and introduction into schools of the standard Yoruba orthography.

As already noted, Yoruba is a "tonal" language. It has three basic tones, high, mid, and low, but these may combine and interact producing rising or falling tones. Yoruba has no grammatical gender, and no class system of nouns. There are no definite or indefinite articles in the language. The plural number also is not marked morphologically. The linguistic context decides whether a word denotes plural or singular. Deverbal adjectives follow the noun and sometimes precede it when focused. The basic word order of Yoruba is Subject-Verb-Object. Word order is crucial in expressing grammatical relations like subject, object and so on, since the latter are not marked morphologically. All Yoruba verbs are consonant-initial. Many compound verbs are formed from simple verb+noun combinations. Present tense is unmarked and is negated with the negative particle ‘ko’. The future tense is formed by adding the prefix ‘yio/o’. Negation in these cases requires the phrasal complex ‘(ng) ko ni’. The imperfective aspect is marked by prefixed ‘n’ or ‘m’ while the perfective is made by prefixing ‘ti’. It is not clear whether Yoruba has a mood system in the verbal domain. Finally, Yoruba exhibits serial verb structures, i.e. structures in which a sequence of verbs occurs within a clause. Focus is indicated by fronting the focused phrase followed by the focus particle ‘ni’.

The official language of Nigeria is English. It is the language of administration, commerce, justice, trade unions, and so on. In education also, “a credit or pass in English is a pre-requisite to gain admission into higher institutions in Nigeria”. (Awoniyi, 1995:443). However, from the other approximately 400 languages spoken in the country Yoruba together with Igbo and Hausa maintains special status especially in the south-western states of Nigeria. In these areas it enjoys official status and is used in governmental notices and education through university, while it is widely used in the media, newspapers, books, films and music. Yoruba is the most documented West African language.

Linguistic evidence indicates that the Yoruba people have always lived in the region that they currently inhabit. Studies of the Yoruba language began in Sierra Leone in the early 19th century. Yoruba had been an unwritten language until then, little known outside of West Africa. In 1819, Bowdich published the first Yoruba word list, which introduced the language to linguists. But a substantial Yoruba vocabulary did not appear until 1828 when Hannah Kilham published a collection of vocabularies from 30 African languages, most of which was gathered in Sierra Leone. By around 1843-1849, Yoruba had become one of the first West African languages to have a written grammar and a dictionary. The ‘Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language’ by Samuel Ajayi Crowther was published in 1843. By 1859, a Yoruba newspaper appeared, and by 1875, anorthography for Yoruba had been created by the Church Missionary Society in Lagos, Nigeria. The first written Yoruba poetry was undertaken in 1905 by the prolific and popular writer Sobowale Sowande. By 1920, literacy in Yoruba was rapidly spreading and since then has facilitated a steady flow of original Yoruba writing in both prose and verse. The movement to study Yoruba in the United States began in the 1960s as part of U.S. foreign policy initiatives to spread awareness of previously untaught or rarely taught languages. Through the 1970s, Yoruba was generally taught on a tutorial basis to graduate students in the social sciences who were interested in research or Peace Corps work in the areas where Yoruba people live.

Adetugbo, Abiodun (1982) Towards a Yoruba Dialectology, in A. Afolayan (ed.) Yoruba Language and Literature, Ibadan: University of Ife Press, 207-224.

Awoniyi, Adedeji (1995) Determining Language in Education Policy: The Dilemma in Africa, in K. Owolabi (ed.), 441-454.

Bamgbose, A. (1966). A grammar of Yoruba, West African Language Monographs 5, Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, George (2000) Compendum of the World’s Languages, Second edition, Vol., II, London & New York: Routledge.

Comrie, B. (ed.) (1987) The World's Major Languages, New York: Oxford University Press.

Garry, Jane & Carl Rubino (eds.) (2001) Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present, New York & Dublin: The H. W. Wilson Company.

Grimes, B. F., (ed.) (1992) Ethnologue, Languages of the World, Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Oyetabe, Oluwole (1995) Linguistic Variation in Yoruba: A Preliminary Statement, in K. Owolabi (ed.), 201-212.

Owolabi, Kola (1995) Language in Nigeria: Essays in Honour of Ayo Bamgbose, Ibadan: Group Publishers.

Ruhlen, M. (1987) A Guide to the World's Languages, London: Edward Arnold.

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