Here is a description of the Yoruba orthography, based
on its standard dialect:
Yoruba alphabet consists of 25 letters and uses the familiar
Latin characters. The Yoruba language learner is fortunate
for two reasons. First, with the exception of a few segments, the
writing system closely matches the sound system of the language.
Secondly, with the exception of almost the same set of unique sounds,
the Yoruba segments, sound and orthography, have similar values
to English segments and segments in many other languages.
Aa Bb Dd Ee Cc
Ff Gg GBgb Hh Ii
Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn
Oo Vv Pp Rr Ss
Xx Tt Uu Ww Yy
The Unique letters are the following:
AND PRONOUNCIATION TIPS
pa “to kill”
These do not occur in English or any other European
language. Each is a single sound unit. The best way to learn
to produce these sounds is to listen to a native speaker.
You can, however, try on your own:-
For [kp], close your velum
as if you want to say [k] and then release at your lips for
[p]- aim to try and pronounce [k] and [p] at the same time.
For [gb], close your velum
as if you want to say [g] and then release at your lips for
[b]- aim to try and pronounce [g] and [b] at the same time.
This sound is similar to English j “Jack;
Judge” but with less friction
/ ∫ /
The x [ ∫ ] sound is like the English ‘sh’ pronounced with (more) spread lips and a
/r/ ; /j/
/r/ is similar to the intervocal /r/
/j/ is similar to the /j/ in English ‘young’
Phonemically, the Yoruba consonant segments, their
orthographic form, and exemplification can be represented as follows:
Phoneme Orthography Example(s)
b / b bí 'give
t / t tà 'to sell'
d / d dá 'to break'
k / k kà 'to
g / g gé 'to
/ kp / p pò 'to
/ gb / gb gbá 'to
m / m mì 'to
f / f fà 'to
s / s sin 'to bury'
/ ∫ / s se 'to do'
h / h ihò 'a
/ dz / j je 'to
r / r rú 'to
l / l lá 'to
n ] n ná 'to
j / y yá 'to
yan 'to parade'
w / w wò 'to
There are two vowel types in Yoruba; oral and nasalized.
Oral vowels are produced entirely through the mouth and nasalized
ones are produced through both the mouth and nose. The representation
of the seven Yoruba oral vowels (and words with similar sounds
in English (from Schleicher, 1993)) are as follows:
Phoneme Orthography Examples
/i/ i ìrì ‘dew’
in English ‘beat’
/e/ e ewé ‘leaf’
in English ‘bait’
/ε/ c |j| ‘blood’
in English ‘bet’
/u/ u ojú ‘eye/face’
in English ‘boot’
/o/ o owó ‘money’
in English ‘boat’
/É/ v zpz ‘plenty’
in English ‘bought
/a/ a ajá ‘dog’
in English ‘father’
nasalized vowels are written with an ‘n’ following an oral vowel. These are similar to
what is found in French You must therefore avoid pronouncing the ‘n’ as
a separate sound. Nasalized vowels can occur in environments comparable
to those in which oral vowels occurs, the only exception is that
nasalized vowels can not occur in word initial position in Yoruba.
This is also true of the oral vowel /u/ in standard Yoruba.
after nasal consonants such as /m/ and /n/, these vowels are
written without the n. In addition, [an]
and [vn] are different allophones or representation
of the same phoneme or sound. Another noteworthy thing is the fact
that the sounds [r, w, y] become nasalized
when followed by a nasalized vowel.
Phoneme Orthography Examples
/ã/ an as in idán ‘magic’
ìran ‘ heritage’
tàn 'to deceive'
/î/ in as in orin ‘song’
dín 'to fry'
/˜ε/ cn as in ìyen ‘that‘
/˜É/ vn as in agbón ‘wasp’
gbòn ‘to shake’
/˜u/ un as in ogún ‘twenty’
dún ‘to sound'
also exists in the language a syllabic nasal phoneme. This has
six homorganic allophones that are phonologically consonants but
share the characteristics of being syllabic and tone bearing with
vowels in the language. They occur before other consonants in syllable
junctions. The syllabic nasal phoneme is here represented as N. Orthographically, the
phoneme is represented by n except
before b where it is
represented with an m. The
six homorganic allophones (dependent on the type of consonant they
occur before) of the syllabic nasal phoneme are: [m], [M], [n],
[ñ], [Ñ], and [Ñm].
The syllable in Yoruba is the smallest tone bearing
unit. The three basic syllable types in Yoruba are V, CV and N.
The first type of syllable involves only a single vowel and this
is often the shape of lexical items such as pronouns. The second
syllable type in Yoruba is a consonant and a vowel; this is the
basic shape of simple verbs in the language. The third and final
syllable type in Yoruba is the syllabic nasal (see above). Due
to the shape of the syllable types in Yoruba, there are no consonant-final
words and therefore, there are no closed syllables in the language.
All the three syllable types have either the nucleus only (the
first and third type) or they have an onset and a nucleus only
(the second type). Moreover, consonant clusters are not allowed
to occur in Yoruba syllables. The three syllable types are illustrated
in Figure 1a, 1b and 1c below. In the figures, O stands for the
syllable Onset, Nu represents the Nucleus
of the syllable, and V and C represent vowels and consonants, respectively.
Examples: a ‘we’
Figure 1a Yoruba Syllable Type One [V]
Examples: r án ‘ to sew’
t à ‘to
Figure 1b Yoruba Syllable Type Two [CV]
Examples: ò ro n bó ‘lemon’
dù n dú 'fried
Figure 1c Yoruba Syllable Type Three [ N ]
Yoruba is very strict in regards to its prohibition
of closed syllables. In terms of word structure, nouns often begin
with vowels and verbs with consonants. There are however no fixed
rules in the language as to the number of possible syllables within
is a tonal language. It has three surface tones of different
pitch levels. The syllable is the tone bearing unit
in the language but orthographically, tones are marked on vowels
and syllabic nasals. The tones and their orthographic representations
are as in
the figure below.
High ´ as
in Wálé 'a
Mid unmarked as in aago 'watch'
Low ` as
in dòdò 'fried
The mid tone can sometimes be marked with an over-bar
in order to remove ambiguity or confusion. Lexically, Yoruba tones
are significant because a change in tone will completely change
the meaning of a word. Additionally, tone markings allow for improved
Yoruba writing and reading. One way to consider the three level
Yoruba tones is to think of the music note to which they correlate.
These correlations are as follows:
Tone Orthography Musical note
HIGH ´ as in j} ‘to
in jc ‘to
LOW ` as in j| ‘to wonder around’ do