Yorùbá is a tonal language spoken natively by about
thirty million people Nigeria and in the neighboring countries
of the Republic of Benin and Togo. In Nigeria, Yorùbá speakers
reside in the Southwest region in states such as Oyo, Ogun, Osun,
Ondo, Ekiti, Lagos, Kogi and Kwara states. Yorùbá is
a Kwa language, which belongs to the Yoruboid group under the
Niger-Congo phylum. It has three basic but significant tones.
One of the effects of the large number of Yorùbá speakers
and their geographic spread is the emergence of geography-bound
linguistic variations. Yorùbá is a dialect continuum
including several distinct dialects (Bamgbose (1966)). Estimates
of the total number of Yorùbá dialects vary from
twelve to twenty-six (Ojo (1977), Adetugbo (1982), Oyelaran (1970,
1992), Mustapha (1987), Ojo (2001).
The differences inherent in these dialects are marked in the
areas of pronunciation, grammatical structure and vocabulary.
There are other dialects found all over West Africa. In the Republic
of Benin, Yorùbá dialects include Ketu, Nago, Ije,
Ajase, Idaitsa, Tsabe; while Ana and Itsa are two of the dialects
found in Togo. Some Yorùbá dialects are also found
in the African Diaspora, especially the Caribbean. The dialect
of Yorùbá used in Brazil is called Nago, while
the one used in Cuba is referred to as Lucumi. It is however
possible to classify Yorùbá dialectal forms, found
in Nigeria, into five regional groupings: North-West Yorùbá (NWY);
North Eastern Yorùbá (NEY); Central Yorùbá (CY);
South-West Yorùbá (SWY); South-East Yorùbá (SEY).
Phonological, lexical and grammatical variations are the hallmarks
of these groupings since there are variant degrees of mutual
intelligibility among the ‘geographic’ dialects found
in each group. A consensus standard form has however evolved
and is recognized as the form for writing and teaching the language.
This form, relatively close to the SWY, is understood by speakers
of all the different dialects and it continues to serve the communicative
purpose of all speakers.
In the 1960s through the 1970s, various orthography committees
were set up, by both government and academic groups, to consider
and subsequently review the standard orthography for the language.
Significant reviews were done based on the report of the orthography
committee in 1966. It is primarily the basis for the creation
and introduction into schools of the standard Yorùbá orthography
and hence for the standard Yorùbá language. The
standard form of Yorùbá is the type of Yorùbá learned
at school, and spoken (or written) mostly by educated native
speakers to addressees who speak different dialects (Bamgbose
(1966)). The language is one of the three national languages
in Nigeria. It is an honor due, in part, to the socio-political
importance and sheer number of its speakers. This has translated
into socio-linguistic developments for the language in terms
of its study and usage in the country.
As with many other African languages, the earliest study of the
Yorùbá language was done by missionaries interested
in translating the scriptures for evangelical purposes. The peculiar
outcome of these efforts (coupled with the abolition of slavery)
was the emergence of the writing and studying of the Yorùbá language
and culture among settled free slaves in Sierra Leone. Known
as Aku, these Yorùbá people did pioneering work
on the writing and studying of the language, such that Yorùbá became
one of the first West African languages to have a written grammar
and dictionary in 1849. Since then, work has continued in and
on the language until today. There are many grammars, dictionaries
and literary texts in the language today.