Yoruba and Other Disappearing Languages, A Revisit – Tola Adenle



“Let me say outright that if any of Nigeria’s languages would ever go the way of Latin or any of the languages that were once spoken but are now long dead, it would be Yoruba.

“I watched an old woman on CNN, described as “the last speaker of Eyak language,” in December [2002] and one did not have to wonder how she was feeling. The vagaries of old age aside, the look on the face of Chief Smith, an Alaskan Native American, was unmistakable. In her words, she “regrets not speaking it with my children as my parents ‘done’ with me!” The story line was that when Chief Smith dies, Eyak dies with her.

“Incredible as it may sound, I was present at a recent discussion at which somebody claimed that ì and bùbá are “Nigerian, alright, and Yoruba, as usual, are merely claiming it” as theirs! She reminded listeners of Mrs. Mandela wearing it after the husband was released from jail and they went on a triumphant tour of the world. It is true that ì and bùbá, anchored by the three great aṣọ òkèsanyán, ẹtù & àlàárì (khaki and white; indigo-black and reds) and their lesser, though colorful modern offsprings – have achieved international stardom with people of African descent everywhere but they ARE, of course, very Yoruba even though they now belong to us all.

“… Languages not aggressively supported by her speakers through use will … disappear… If the language of a people disappears, whatever cultural contributions of such a people may become irrelevant … : 90% of the six thousand languagues now spoken in the world would have disappeared a century from now! … neither Ibo nor Hausa suffers from  threat of being lost … it is also what they do in whatever part of Nigeria they find themselves: Ibos born in Western Nigeria would speak not only the requisite pidgin (proper English when they go to school) but will master Yoruba and, of course, Ibo. Make a phone call to any Hausa household and the greeting will generally not be “hello” but an Hausa equivalent until you inform the speaker that you do not understand Hausa.

“In a people’s language lies more than a tool of communication. Beyond stereotyping can be seen the ethos of a cultural group: its distinguishing attitudes, habits and beliefs and, general characteristics inherent in the group.

“A simple example: Why do many Yoruba believe that late [Poor Uncle Bola] Ige, as he was known, should have read èèwọ̀ – [Yoruba for bad omen] into the removal of his cap by a younger Yoruba man at Ife a mere days before his murder?

“The Ides of March of the much beloved Cicero of Esa Oke [as he was also popularly known for his erudition] was nigh, but he – and we – knew not.

“Yoruba always honor old age, no matter what, and removing an older person’s cap is an abomination

“An academic essay on the fear of an anthropologist and ethnobotanist – Wade Davis, an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic – deals with the rate at which “Around the globe, human cultures are vanishing … as native peoples die out … Half of the world’s languages are disappearing – from 6,000 down to 3,000 just in our lifetimes”. “The process is simple: children stop being taught their native tongue in favor of the dominant language they learn in school … every two weeks, the final native speaker of a language passes on, carrying with him or her the unique worldview that the language described. As these cultural flames wink out … at stake is nothing less than the accumulated window of the ages: from the knowledge of medicinal plants … to the collective values of humanity …” Adventure Magazine, June/July 2006.

Each of us needs to rise to the challenge of working for the preservation of Yoruba Language in our various little corners, and in our own little way because even though government can, it’s unlikely to do anything. Here is another paragraph from that earlier essay of 2003:

The Nigerian language requirement of the National Policy on Education is defective. Unity, as in other things, is supposedly the goal of a Yoruba girl being required to learn another language for the first three years of secondary education. Why should a Yoruba girl, who cannot count to ten in her language, have as priority the speaking of Hausa or Ibo? I am still to meet a child who has benefited from this “unity building” strategy with the capability to speak, or even understand the required language.

One of several younger Nigerians that I am forever bugging about my fear for Yoruba Language’s precarious situation saw the following essay in the Kenya Daily Nation and forwarded it to me recently. I am sharing excerpts from “Kenya: Recreating Africa through language” by Rasna Warah with readers for its relevance to what has become an epidem


“Until I heard him speak, I always thought Kenya’s most celebrated literary icon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was overstating the case for the revival of African 

languages in literature and in daily life. In a column I wrote for the East African shortly after his much-awaited homecoming in 2004 after 22 years in exile, I wondered whether the state of being in exile had contributed to Ngugi’s nostalgia for his mother tongue. Could it be, I asked, that the author,feeling alone, lonely and alienated in a foreign land, hung on to the one thing — the Gikuyu language — that connected him to his peasant roots in Limuru? Would Ngugi be such a die-hard proponent of this language, which is spoken by less than 6 million people, had he remained rooted in his country?

Why did he not promote Kiswahili, a regional language spoken and understood by
more than 100 million people, not just in East Africa …? But when I heard his three-part lecture entitled “Re-Membering Africa”… I realised that I had missed the point. Ngugi reminded his audience that language was not simply a mode of communication; it was “a medium of our memories, the link between space and time, the basis of our dreams.

It was, as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “the archives of history”. When we actively discard our own languages, we commit “linguicide” — we kill off or “dis-member” our memories. Because erasure of memory is a prerequisite for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured that the process of assimilation into colonial culture is complete.

Ngugi’s insistence on using his mother tongue as the principal medium of his writing is not simply a reaction against Anglicisation; it is more about resurrecting the African soul from centuries of slavery and colonialism that left it spiritually empty, economically disenfranchised and politically marginalised. Ngugi believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase
their memory. And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it.

On the other end of the spectrum, this same disconnectedness creates monstrous aberrations such as the Mungiki in Kenya or the modern-day Hindu revivalists in India, who distort and re-write not just their own histories but their own culture in order to further colonise and terrorise not just other communities, but also their own people. Ngugi believes that one of the most obvious ways that we can reclaim our histories and our memories is by passing on our languages to our children.

We are multilingual by necessity and by choice. Like most literate Kenyans, we speak at least three languages — our mother tongues, Kiswahili and English, plus any other language we might have picked up along the way…

Cynics might claim Ngugi is not in touch with the reality of a globalising world where English is the preferred language…. But Ngugi is not promoting African languages at the exclusion of other languages. On the contrary, he believes that multilingual societies are better placed to deal with global complexities.

… we are creating monolingual children who are proficient in only one [foreign] language. Africans … must master their own languages before they master foreign languages that neither reflect their histories nor their memories, … continental Europeans … first learn their own language, be it German or Greek, before learning other European languages… when we nurture our own languages, we are, in essence nurturing our own souls.”


Nigeria, shame of the black race and laughing stock of all nations. The European Union partly-financed the last registration exercise. Meanwhile, over in Anambra State, governor-in-waiting, Mr. Nnamdi Uba, a former presidential assistant, is putting on a show of shame in spending money from questionable sources on his electioneering “campaign.” During the last go-around of the staged gasoline crisis, Uba personally subsidized gasoline prices in the entire state! Where has he come by wealth after his penniless arrival from the USA to join the PDP gravy train in 1999?

The Nation on Sunday, February 25, 2007

[The Comet on Sunday became The Nation on Sunday in 2006, and part of the essay was merely excerpted  for the latter title.  TOLA ADENLE.

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8 Comments on “Yoruba and Other Disappearing Languages, A Revisit – Tola Adenle”

  1. Layi Says:

    Tola, this is a very good piece. We as Yoruba people should do more to encourage our children to speak our language, and our government in all the South-west of Nigeria (Yoruba States) should make it compulsory to teach Yoruba Language in schools from elementary to High school. Not only that, all the universities in the South-West of Nigeria should and must introduce and establish Department of Yoruba studies.
    Our People in Brazil, and Cuba are speaking it. Many of our people, the African- Americans want to learn Yoruba language. They are demanding it now and we Yoruba must not only make it possible for them to do so but should be proud of our language, teach and speak it.

    Not only our dresses, and clothes, we Yoruba people have a rich and beautiful culture and language and we should be proud of what we have. Iro niwon npa, Yoruba o le parun (It is a lie, Yoruba will never die).



    • emotan77 Says:

      Thanks for this wonderful addition to the essay, Mr. Layi. Yoruba language will never die, perhaps not for deliberate effort but unfortunately because of the millions of our people who do not complete basic education, say, to High School level OR do not attend school at all. Believe it or not, there are hundreds of thousands of kids who do not attend school at all, and these are not the so-called under-age girls who hawk all over the region. I have seen boys under ten serving as “apprentice” bricklayers but all they do is carry aggregates, 6-inch blocks, water for mixing, etcetera – all day. They’ll probably do this till they are in their teens before they’ll ever touch a bricklaying implement, and pray, how would these completely unschooled kids be able to work a plumb line?

      And apart from the damage to their physical growth potential, the damage to these kids’ minds is irreparable.

      Unfortunately, these kids are the people in the vanguard of keeping Yoruba language alive.




  2. Falade A.G. Says:

    I believe our children should master the mother tongue, and then, learn very well English or another international language, as the case may be, to survive. In the medical schools, we complain that our students write poor English while answering essay questions. I hope everybody can see the problem.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Thanks, Prof. I agree with you because experts have long discovered that a good grounding in the mother tongue is always very handy to master another language. As I often tell those who are afraid that speaking Yoruba to their kids at home would hold them back at school, my generation from old Ondo Province – as those before us – hasn’t been doomed to a life of poor acquired lingua franca in spite of starting off with various Ondo state dialects before learning “proper” Yoruba and then English. We learnt all subjects like other pupils in the old West: Religious Knowledge, Arithmetic, Health, etcetera for the first two years of primary school in Yoruba, and it was in Standard I – the third year – that we learnt our ABC, the beginning of English Language. I think we were not only greatly enriched by that sound base but it helped our grasp of the English Language.

      Till today, when I write in Yoruba, the thoughts come to me first and wholly in Yoruba and when I write in English, not a single Yoruba thought comes to my mind except when casting a title and some Yoruba words would flash through my mind. No matter how hard I work at getting an English title, it would not come, e.g. Awon ara orun l’o po ju l’Osodi for retd. General Obasanjo-era census abracadabra that had the “population expert” at the census bureau proclaim that those people we see in Lagos do not actually live there but visit to do business and then travel back to their home towns! The story of abiku omo and her long-dead friends who come and go at will is too long to recall here but fits our Yoruba stooge whom I wrote would be chased out of the World Population Council in New York for medieval ideas.

      Kids who write English thinking in the language is far from what we have now. Most young people believe they can think in Yoruba and “write” English; it does not work. Mercifully – though sadly – they do not venture into the idioms because they are incapable of doing so.

      At the Egbe Ede Yoruba initiated by Late Papa [Medical] Dr. Smith, our association tried to work through the Southwest governors on curriculum strengthening with Yoruba as focal point but as we all know, everything in the region was PDP governors versus the AC governors, especially after 2003. A [school principal] friend and I were in charge of working on a draft Yoruba curriculum. The Egbe had far-reaching agenda on the language course in secondary schools, including making it compulsory for private schools to teach Yoruba at primary and secondary school levels.

      Please don’t ask me what happened to all those fancy ideas.

      Thanks, Prof., as always.



  3. Fatai Bakare Says:

    Permit me to write my reply to you in our language and I crave the indulgence of the non-Yoruba readers of yours as I will not translate to English.

    Ede idi ni ede Yoruba ninu awon ede l’agbaye. O je ohun edun okan fun mi wipe ede naa npare lo pelu awon asa ati apanle to wa ninu eya Yoruba. Awokose to buru lo ba ede wa je. Ninu opolopo awon idile ni ile Yoruba, bi omo won ko ba tii so ede oyinbo, ko ti mowe bi o ti ye. Bee si ni, bi a ba gbo ti awon omowe bii, Bola Ige, S.L. Akintola, Papa Awolowo, Babs Fafunwa ati beebee lo ba nso ede Yoruba, bii ki won ma dake ni. Mo ranti onka ni ede Yoruba nigbati mo wa ni ile iwe alakoko bere, boya ni a le ri omo ti a bi ni bii ogbon odun sehin ti o le ka onka naa de ogorun. Awon iwe baba Fagunwa nko, aka gbadun ni won ni girama sukuu ti mo lo (St. Charles, Osogbo). Ah, o ma se o! A ti so nkan nu; boya la si fi le rii mo. E je ki nsimi die nibi nitori awon eniyan wa ti ko le ka ede Yoruba. Boya a rii ohun ti yoo so nkan di akotun.

    Emi ni ti nyin nitoto,
    Fatai Bakare.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Fatai, thanks a million for this.

      Unfortunately, I cannot comment on this exquisite piece in Yoruba because it would then become doubly unfair to non-Yoruba readers.

      This guy bemoans the loss of the language to millions because many of these Yoruba, including those who live in Nigeria, consider the speaking of English in their homes to the kids not only fashionable but necessary. He remembers with nostalgia the enjoyment he and his classmates used to share at St. Charles’ Grammar School, Osogbo when reading the Yoruba books by the likes of Late D.O. Fagunwa [Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale, Ireke Onibudo …]. “A, o ma se, o!” is an expression of great regret. He could go on and on but stopped merely as caution of respect to non-Yoruba readers.





  1. Nigeria: A boost to Yoruba Language as Lagos State moves to enforce teaching in schools – Tola Adenle | emotanafricana.com - June 3, 2016

    […] Yoruba and Other Disappearing Languages, A Revisit – Tola Adenle […]


  2. “If I could do it again, I’d speak Yoruba to them right from birth” – Folakemi Odoaje | emotanafricana.com - December 14, 2015

    […] RELATED ESSAY: “Yoruba and other disappearing Languages” by Tola Adenle  –   http://emotanafricana.com/2012/02/09/yoruba-and-other-disappearing-languages-a-revisit/ […]


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