The Yoruba language is a major African language spoken by an estimated 20 million people primarily in southwestern Nigeria, Benin and Togo.

The Yoruba language is historically associated with the Yoruba ethnic group (one of Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups) and is one of the most important languages in Nigeria, along with Hausa, Igbo and Fulani. Of all the Niger-Congo languages, Yoruba has the greatest number of native speakers. Although the total number of Swahili speakers is much greater, numbering almost 50 million compared to Yoruba’s 20 million, the majority of Swahili speakers learn Swahili as a second language.

Classification and Dialects of the Yoruba Language

The Yoruba language is classified as a member of the Defoid category of the Benue-Congo subgroup of languages, part of the Niger-Congo language family. The Defoid group of languages includes two main subgroups, the Akokoid cluster and the Yoruboid cluster. The Akokoid cluster includes four languages, while the much-larger Yoruboid cluster includes Yoruba, Igala and Itsekiri, among others.

There are a number of dialects within the Yoruba language, varying by geographic location. A basic breakdown of Yoruba dialects within Nigeria includes North-West Yoruba, Central Yoruba and South-East Yoruba. The Yoruba spoken in areas of southwestern Nigeria may not be identical to dialects heard in Benin or Togo, for example.

Despite the diversity of dialects within Yoruba, a standardized written form of the language was developed in the late 19th century and was widely adopted by the different Yoruba dialects, helping to create a uniform Yoruba identity despite differences in dialect.

Early Written Yoruba

Early efforts toward a standardized written Yoruba language were initiated by English missionaries and priests. An early system of Yoruba dating from approximately the 17th century was written in the Ajami script and developed by members of the Christian Missionary Society working among the Yoruba.

This early work in the development of a written Yoruba language included compiling vocabulary lists and developing notes regarding Yoruba grammar. The work done at this time would later be expanded upon by the Bishop Samuel Crowther, who translated a Yoruba language version of the Bible using a Latin alphabet.

Development of Standard or Literary Yoruba

The movement toward a standardized written Yoruba language was led by Crowther, a fluent Yoruba speaker who published the first Yoruba grammar. He also translated the Bible into Yoruba in 1884, a landmark event in Yoruba’s written development due to the fact that Crowther produced a translation using a Latin alphabet rather than the old Ajami script. His Yoruba-language Bible came to serve as the standard go-to for the written Yoruba that was widely adopted by the majority of Yoruba dialects.

Although there has been some controversy regarding what should be considered “standard” Yoruba, the written form that developed from Crowther’s work is considered the modern standard for Yoruba by most scholars. Although it is based in part on the Ibadan and Oyo dialects of the Yoruba language, the written standard also includes unique elements not found in these other dialects. Today, this standard written Yoruba is used in most Yoruba language literature, taught in schools and used by media outlets including Yoruba language newspapers, television broadcasters and radio stations.

Yoruba Literary Tradition

With the development of a standardized written form of the Yoruba language in the 19th century, the gates were opened for the development of a great body of Yoruba language literature.

The Yoruba language offers a substantial amount of unique Yoruba literature, some of which has gained recognition at the international level. One of the best-known Yoruba-language authors is D.O. Fagunwa, who is arguably Nigeria’s most popular writer in history. His “Obgoju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole” (“Night of a Thousand Dreams”) is generally considered to be the first full-length novel printed in the Yoruba language, while his 1947 fantasy work “Igbo Olodumare” (“The Forest of the Lord”) has been reprinted many times.

Other well-known Yoruba writers include Amos Tutuola, who has had his books translated into multiple languages, and Afolabi Olabimtan. Common themes in early Yoruba language literature included the history of the Yoruba people and traditional Yoruba oral traditions. Many early writers are noted for their use of Yoruba oral poetry and folktales for inspiration. Others, like D.O. Fagunwa, are noted for their use of magical realism, presenting fantastical scenes and stories that captivate readers.

The Modern Yoruba People

While the majority of Yoruba are now found in southwestern Nigeria, scattered communities can also be found in Benin and Togo. The modern Yoruba generally work as craftsmen, traders or farmers, subsisting off crops they grow and often selling cash crops such as cocoa.

While the men in modern Yoruba society are generally responsible for farm work, the women control the Yoruba market system. The Yoruba people traditionally speak the Yoruba language, although they may also acquire a second language, such as English.

Yoruba Language Today

A variety of dialects continue to exist in the modern Yoruba, however the Yoruba are largely united thanks to a common Yoruba writing system.

Written Yoruba has undergone some evolution since it appeared; today’s Latin-based Yoruba alphabet includes the use of diacritic marks placed with certain letters to produce distinct sounds found in the Yoruba language.

Modern Yoruba is based on a 1966 report of the Yoruba Orthography Committee, which worked to bring the spoken and written Yoruba languages more closely together. Today, the Yoruba language is taught in school systems and universities in Nigeria, and it is used in a wide variety of media, including television, radio and newspapers.