I am a Yorùbá student. I think I have read all educational Yorùbá language books available – in English, Portuguese, Spanish and German (here’s the complete review list), but it took me a long time to demystify spelling variants and find out what’s the actual writing standard. Having studied visual arts and a bit of typography, I often come across irritating publications: words written in a serif font contain dotted letters from a sans-serif font. Ouch! Since I started to publish on this blog, I had to face these challenges by myself and learned how to handle (some of) them.
I am learning Yorùbá to talk to people, recite Òrìṣà prayers or sing songs, even to talk on a drum (in the future) – and not to write a novel or publish as a journalist. This is written from the the òyìnbó and olórìṣà perspective. Educated in Europe, I am used to written language. Usually I cannot memorize a short text word-by-word without writing it down and having a visual reminder. I was impressed by the boys and girls I have met in Nigeria who could recite five-minute-long Òrìṣà prayers from memory. Yorùbá, a tonal language, trains your ears, your voice and your brain! The art of reciting poems or oral literature is hardly taught in my culture, as we share knowledge mainly through texts. That’s one of the reasons why I published the free 90-minutes Yorùbá Melody Audio Course together with Linguist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún and the help of many friends. Learning a language without a book, just by listening, is a different experience. Sorry to all the bookworms who asked me for a script of the course! Who has not downloaded it yet, below is the English version in a Soundcloud player (for Portuguese and Spanish follow this link).
I do not explain Yorùbá grammar here – this is not an article about the language itself. You will find some links to dig deeper into this topic. This is a practical guide, about finding sources and tools to use the Yorùbá script and share it with others, with all the information you would need to interpret it correctly in speech later, with tonemarks, underdots – and macrons! Here’s a list of common Yorùbá writing problems and how I got out of this wàhálà! These questions I asked myself – and the answers I gave to myself, too, quoting the sources for a more exact information provided by professionals. The questions could be grouped into four categories: linguistic, artistic, technical and political ones. Quite a lot to handle! I have learned other languages but never had to work so hard to understand the basics. Let's have a look!
Wàhálà: Which letters do I need to write Yorùbá?
You need all the letters of the Yorùbá alphabet: a, b, d, e, ẹ, f, g, gb, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, ọ, p, r, s, ṣ, t, u, w, y. Three of these Latin letters have a dot below: ṣ, ẹ, ọ. Diacritical marks called “acute” (´) and “grave” (`) are applied on vowels and the syllabic consonants n or m for a high or a low tone. Mid-tone is generally left unmarked, with two exceptions: The macron, a small straight bar above a letter, is used on the letter n (n̄) or m (m̄). Nasal vowels are written as: ẹn, an, ọn, un, in. The p sound alone does not exist, that's why p always stands for a kp sound, called a plosive consonant (like the gb, here it's two letters representing one sound). The rest is more or less clear to the Orisha Image readers, I guess most of us understand English and one additional Roman language. If you can read this website, it is just a small step to Yorùbá. What you see is what you get! The spelling is very close to phonetics, it is simple compared to other languages. I remember an example by author George Bernhard Shaw: the English word "fish" could be spelled "ghoti" – gh as in "tough", o as in "women", ti as in "nation".
Recommendation: The Yorùbá language script is a spell-it-like-it-sounds system, it is easy to learn. Relax!
Wàhálà: Many people ignore accent marks, why should I write them?
Let me answer by quoting Ayọ̀ Bám̄gbóṣé: “The question whether tone should be indicated or not has only one possible answer. It should, because tones are significant in the way that consonants and vowels are. We saw that the contrast in meaning between dé (arrive) and ké (cry) is due to the contrast in the significant sounds represented by the letters d and k. In the same way, the contrast in meaning between kọ́ (teach) and kọ̀ (refuse) is entirely due to the difference in tone.” (Yoruba Orthography, Ibadan University Press, 1965, p.16) Those who ignore accents marks do not know where to find them on a keyboard or are too lazy. Without accents you have to guess the meaning of words like oko, òkò, okò or ara, ará, àrá and àrà.
For a native speaker who knows the context of a common word this is no big deal. As a language student, no chance to understand it. When a text is e.g. about the procedures a blacksmith uses in his workshop to melt iron and his orìkí to Ògún, it also causes problems for native speakers who have no experience with this environment and its vocabulary. I had an orìkí written “Ọdara” for Èṣù interpreted as Ọ̀dárà (the one who performs tricks, low-high-low tone) or even (k)òdára (the wicked one, low-high-mid tone, ignoring the underdot but suiting a Christian worldview). It should be Ọ̀dàrà (a name, meaning unknown, low-low-low tone).
Recommendation: Always tonemark! Avoid misunderstandings. Yorùbá is a tonal language, tones are an integral part of it. Change the melody and you change the meaning! Read Linguist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s latest blog entry about the tonemarking workshops he offers since a few weeks in Lagos! Interesting insights into language policies.
Wàhálà: What’s a nasal vowel?
A nasal vowel is produced by lowering the soft palate so that the air escapes through the nose and the mouth. Think of the ending of a French word like façon or croissant or the Brazilian Portuguese Oxum or Ogum. In Yorùbá nasal vowels are written as in, ẹn, an, ọn, un, like in ibọn (gun), ọ̀kan (one), ẹran (meat), Ògún (Òrìṣà). The letter n here just indicates that this vowel is a nasal vowel! A long time I was not aware that a vowel following a nasal consonant is nasalized, too. I heard it, but as it is not written like a usual nasal, I "ignored" it (as far as you can ignore it, as it is natural to happen). Example: mu (to drink), iná (fire), ọ̀nà (way), mọ̀ (to know). Antiquated dictionaries write e.g. Yemọnja (the river deity), ọmọn (child), inọ́n (fire) or nọ́ǹ, today this is spelled Yemọja, ọmọ, iná or náà. Lengthened nasals are separated with a hyphen, like gan-an (really) or márùn-ún (five). If a verb ends in a nasal vowel, the following object must also be written as a nasal, like in mo fún un (I gave him/her), mo mọ̀ ọ́n (I know him/her/it). You can hear examples in the videos posted on this page or you go to www.ttsyoruba.com, a website dedicated to text-to-speech pronunciation of Yorùbá words.
Recommendation: Nasals are important to distinguish words from each other, like ooru (temperature) from oorun (sleep).
Wàhálà: What is this macron thing about?
A macron is a small straight bar above a letter. In general, the tone on a syllabic nasal (n, m) should be indicated, like in kọ̀ǹkọ̀ (edible frog). This is important especially in cases where the n could get confused with an n indicating nasality, but it is not restricted to the n, since it is not the only syllabic nasal. The macron (n̄, m̄) is used to indicate that the syllabic nasal is actually pronounced on a mid-tone level, like in ron̄do (round), gban̄gba (open space), ṣọn̄ṣọ (pointed), Bám̄gbóṣé (a name) or Ọlábím̄tán (a name). The Yorùbá Cross Border Language Commission used a tilde instead of a macron in their latest paper (ñ instead of n̄), I guess it's a typo. The macron is hard to find on a keyboard! It is part of the Yorùbá writing standard since 1965, but I can find it hardly anywhere in print.
Recommendation: There are not many words that require a macron. The n̄ is more common than the m̄. Use it! Let’s save the Yorùbá macron!
Wàhálà: Where is the Yorùbá writing standard in all details defined?
Not on Wikipedia. There are some classical papers you should know: “Yoruba Orthography. Linguistic Appraisal with Suggestions for Reform. Based on a talk given to the Ẹgbẹ Ijinlẹ Yoruba at Ibadan on March 5, 1964 by Ayọ Bamgboṣe, Ibadan University Press, 1976 (first edition printed in 1965)”. Compare this to the “Orthographies of Nigerian Languages. Manual 1. Published by the National Language Centre, edited by Ayo Bamgbose, Federal Ministry of Education, Lagos, 1983”. Finally, online as a pdf today, the “Modern Yoruba Writing Manual” published by the Yorùbá Cross-Border Language Commission in 2017. It is very interesting, e.g. the chapters on word-division, the questionwords, splitting words with emphasized objetcs, etc. Thanks to linguist Victor Manfredi for drawing my attention to all these papers!
Recommendation: Try to get these articles in libraries and download the latest one by the Cross-Border Language Commission. (Note: They describe phonetic “indigenization” rules. Fruit becomes fúrúùtù, exodus ẹ́kísódù, dog dọ́ọ̀gì, bomb bọ́ǹbù. While other nationalist language politics try to preserve their local identity by avoiding English terms, they make them their own, an interesting strategy. Obviously opposing the politics of the olden days, when English phrases like "population census" became known as ìkànìyàn, from ìkà'nìyàn, the act of counting people. Today it would be the Language Commission approved term sẹ́nsọ́ọ̀sì, I guess. This is not the type of Yorùbá I want to learn! I am more the èso, not so much the fúrúùtù type of guy.)
Wàhálà: “Dot below” or “vertical line below”?
Two variants are officially in use for the vowels ọ, ẹ and the ṣ, the “dot below” and the “vertical line below” variant. Both are correct. I prefer the elegant subdot, but other authors prefer the small line, that is often connected to the letterbody. If you imagine writing by hand with a pen on paper, a line is quicker and more efficient than a single, small, almost invisible dot. Some people argue that the small vertical line allows you to underline a word without losing the dot, but that’s not true. If I underline a word with dotted letters, in some programs the dots stay visible and the line automatically gets interrupted where the dots appear. In other programs the dots are above the line, so I think this is not that important. If you get a Yorùbá text from another author to include it into your publication, be sure to discuss which version you want to use! Some websites or publications use both versions, this is confusing, especially when the chosen font supports only the subdot or the vertical line below.
Recommendation: Important is to stick to one version for one publication. I prefer the dot, but the small vertical line is also common.
Wàhálà: Are all these signs on my keyboard?
No, they aren’t. Not yet. You can download a free Yorùbá keyboard layout published by Yorùbáname.com. Ideally you have already an English language standard keyboard (QWERTY-based Latin-script keyboard). Some of your keys will get new functions. I use a German language keyboard, I have some additional letters and diacritical marks you won’t find on your English version. I would have to get used to the English keyboard first, to change it then to the Yorùbá one. That’s why I don’t use a Yorùbá keyboard. But you could! It is also an interesting question in which order you apply the dots and tonemarks while typing. The keyboard comes with a user manual on how to install it on your computer.
It would be great to have a Yorùbá keyboard cover. My Jewish friends have them for their MacBooks in Hebrew. You just place a thin plastic cover on your keyboard and immediately you have the visual language signs in front of you. It is great and simple! Naija businessman, please! It would also be cool to have the dotted and accented letters appear in this small submenu on your smartphone or tablet keyboard, if you hold a letter for a second. I wonder if there is an app for that already.
If you just type occasionally some words or a sentence in Yorùbá, you can use the copy and paste method. A lot of work, but if it is just for a small poem or notes during the online Yorùbá Òrìṣà song class … Open your text editor and prepare a line with the letters below. You find them in a special character’s section in the menu or you just copy them from this website. The rest should be on your keyboard: ẹ̀ ẹ ẹ́ / Ẹ̀ Ẹ Ẹ́ / ọ̀ ọ ọ́ / Ọ̀ Ọ Ọ́ / ṣ Ṣ / ǹ ń Ǹ Ń / m̀ ḿ M̀ Ḿ / n̄ N̄ m̄ M̄
Recommendation: Install a Yorùbá keyboard, et voilà!
Wàhálà: Why does it look so weird in my computer program?
Not all programs support the letters you need. I have an Apple computer. In some programs the dotted letters are replaced by strange characters. If I use them in the iMovie program for subtitles with a common font like Arial, the dotted letters appear, but the diacritical marks are totally off, like a mile away from the letter (see the video above). In other programs subdots disappear, switch to the right or left side, or merge into the letterbody. Typographers call this a kernel spacing problem, caused by combinations of subdots with acute or grave accents. This also happens in fonts which are called “Unicode compliant” (see the Unicode question below).
Recommendation: You need a program that can interpret a font that can interpret dotted letters with diacritics in combination. If you plan to buy e.g. an expensive program to subtitle your new Òrìṣà movie, ask the company first if it works. If they know.
Wàhálà: I changed the typeface, now my dotted letters look strange (or are completely lost)!
Be careful when you want to use a fancy typeface to promote your Yorùbá class or design a flyer in Photoshop for your bàtá-drumming event. Not all fonts have letters with an underdot in their repertoire! What some computer programs likely do, without asking you, is to use another typeface to substitute the “missing” character. Have you ever thought something like: “These Yorùbá characters look so strange, they are a bit larger/smaller/thinner/fatter than the rest of my text!” This is the typeface problem. The outcome is a horrible mixture of different letter styles (serif, sans-serif) within one word. Even an institution like the new BBC Yorùbá channel had this font problem in some images with included texts. Microsoft has this problem right on the website to download the Yorùbá Language Office Accessory Pack (at least in my Safari browser, I have seen it works with other browsers on other computers...). 650-page dictionaries and language courses have been published with these typeface errors. While you can manually work around it in Adobe programs for a short headline, in a running text it is impossible. In old publications you can often find accents and subdots written by hand, this had to be done directly during the printing process.
Recommendation: You need a font that supports Yorùbá characters! Ask your favorite type foundry (the company that designs and distributes type faces).
Wàhálà: What about Unicode?
All these problems would be much easier to solve with precomposed Unicode characters reserved especially for Yorùbá language. Unicode is the computing industry’s standard for the handling of text. It contains a repertoire for around 136.000 characters covering 140 scripts, many of these scripts are historic and not in use (like Unicode Egyptian Hieroglyphs). Problem is: Yorùbá was rejected from Unicode. A question of politics and the power of monopolistic corporations. I am still trying to understand it completely, maybe 30 million people in Africa is not enough. If you see a text with underdots on vowels and an accent mark above this letter on your screen, these two bits of information have to be combined (combining diacritics), instead of having a dotted and accented Yorùbá glyph as one piece of information. The vowels ẹ and ọ and the ṣ with an underdot are part of the Vietnamese and Romanized Indic language set in Unicode, but in Yorùbá you have to combine the vowels with additional accents.
This causes aesthetical problems with fonts not only on screens or in print, but also in search functions. I have a pdf from a book with thousands of Yorùbá proverbs. I was searching for a Yorùbá word on a topic, like Ọ̀ṣun. It does not work. I can look for the English translation as Osun or Oshun, but I cannot search for a Yorùbá word with a dot and an accent in the pdf program’s search bar. Many search engines ignore dots or tonemarks, depending also on the format: pdf, html, plain text, or others, and there are several ways to encode a given combination (e.g. tone before the dot, tone after the dot). There is no uniform string that could be searched. Unambiguous string searches are impossible for the Yorùbá language.
Recommendation: If you want to fully understand this process – what’s going on behind your screen, the computing industry and how this is related to Nigerian language politics and the power of private companies – visit the website of linguist Victor Manfredi and study his detailed explanations. There is an interesting menu point called "Proposed Changes" on the Unicode Consortium website. Maybe we should all use this button and tell them how a tonal language works?!
Wàhálà: Where do I get Yorùbá fonts?
A good question. I hope typographers in the future will work hard to supply us with modern fonts that cover the Yorùbá language. Probably typographers haven’t heard yet of the growing demand from Yorùbáland or its diaspora. Linguist Victor Manfredi developed a font with the famous German type designer Hermann Zapf, it was called PanNigerian. By adding a few more characters to Yorùbá it covered also Igbo and Hausa language. There is a detailed documentation online. I hope it will be digitalized one day! An original Hermann Zapf font, developed only for Nigeria! This would be something!
There is one company I know, that is selling Yorùbá fonts for professional publications, see the website linguistsoftware.com. I found this information in the colophon of a book by Amanda Villepastour about bàtá drumming, she used their fonts in her publication. The company sells a font called AfroRoman in five typestyles (inspired by Times, Helvetica, Garamond, Palatino and Zapf-Chancery) in Unicode, TrueType and PostScript formats. No Open Type format yet. You can also check entries like "Latin Small Letter E With Dot Below" and other Unicode characters on fileformat.info. There is a list of fonts included, that support this specific character.
Recommendation: Visit linguistsoftware.com or try boring ones installed on your computer (Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, etc.) called Unicode compliant. Type foundries have character sets for every design they sell, there you can see if it features dotted and accented letters and macrons. Usually today a good typeface has around 900 different glyphs. Here is an example of a character set of a beautiful font called Soleil.
Wàhálà: What defines a good Yorùbá typeface?
Again, read the papers from Victor Manfredi who developed the PanNigerian. Several problems might occur depending on the chosen typeface: Often upper case letters with tonemarks are too high, they would have to be reduced to a lower height. The vertical line below an open O makes it appear a Q. The dot below is too thin and visually insignificant. Do you go for a "dot" or a "vertical line", or a mixture of both as a "lengthened dot" below? For the type designers: add a few letters more, and you have a design not only for Yorùbá, but a Pan-Nigerian one. The market, if I add up the demographic figures from Wikipedia for Yorùbá, Igbo and Hausa people in Nigeria: 100 million people!
Recommendation: I don’t know fonts that are designed especially for Yorùbá, except the AfroRoman mentioned above. Contributions welcome!
Wàhálà: I wanna self-publish about Òrìṣà and use Yorùbá language
Be sure to have a platform where you can upload a pdf with your own layout or check with the publisher if they can either print your Yorùbá copies later (print-on-demand) or if the electronical devices (Kindle) or programs of the readers can interpret the Yorùbá characters. I ordered self-published books about Òrìṣà and received copies from print-on-demand platforms where e.g. an empty space covered every dotted letter that also had a diacritic mark – expect weird problems like that. One platform I checked says “Special characters should be avoided. Look at your keyboard. Any character you don’t see may not convert properly.” Web publishing, if your readers have updated browsers and you stick to some basic (and boring) fonts like Arial Unicode, should not be a problem. That’s why I use the Arial font here, though there would be so many beautiful fonts, that just don’t work with Yorùbá. I also checked before I started my blog if the provider can handle the Yorùbá script at least in the Arial font, and I hope you, the users, have updated browsers to interpret the website. I can never be 100% sure if you see all the accents and macrons on your individual screen. If you post links with preview-texts in other apps, maybe not everything can be displayed, I went through some of these problems already!
Recommendation: Check if your self-publishing platform can handle your scripts. It is about the font type, its embedding in the document, unicode letters, conversion from program to program, and the final way of display or printing. Many things to consider!
Wàhálà: I have great old books I use as a source!
As a Yorùbá language student you are going to use Nigerian publications for primary school level. I bought many of them on the second-hand book market or copied material from public libraries. They were published between the 1950s and 1970s. Most of them were illustrated with fabulous ink drawings and cover cultural topics, sometimes with chapters about Òrìṣà (though it is not the kind of authentic source you might be looking for). They are a good source to enlarge your vocabulary, often they have written dialogues which resemble a spoken Yorùbá (from the 1960s, when a window still was called fèrèsé). Although some of these series are published today in updated versions, the old copies are written in the antiquated language standard. Other books, like the novels by D.O. Fagunwa, were written for a Yorùbá audience and apply tone-markings only when absolutely necessary to avoid ambiguity – not very useful for a language student. If you come across a new word, you do not even know how to pronounce it, neither can you guess where it comes from.
Recommendation: Use these books to enlarge your vocabulary, don’t get used to the spelling. Enjoy the artwork.
Wàhálà: I use a widespread dictionary that helps me a lot!
The most widespread and cheapest bilingual Yorùbá dictionary, still sold, is the one published in 1913 by the Church Mission Society. It has never been updated. Don’t trust the Amazon advertising text. Needless to say, forget about the diacritical marks in this book. Tone-markings are not accurate and the “tilde” (a small wave-like line) on vowels is not in use anymore. The best dictionary is still Abraham’s from 1958, once sponsored by the Nigerian government. It costs a fortune on the second-hand book market (expect to pay 300 dollars). It has its own orthography for describing tonal qualities, but it is very precise. Cheaper digital versions (scans, pdfs) fluctuate via Venezuelan online-botánicas or your Brazilian olorixá friends. If you want to know about 20 different Yorùbá dictionaries, I dedicated a long blog entry to a review. Unfortunately, Yorùbá has 30 million speakers, there’s a huge diaspora interest on the culture with millions of olórìṣà, but there is no good contemporary bilingual dictionary in English language on the market that could be recommended. If the Nigerian government ever would invest in a new one? Or the Ọọ̀ni of Ilé-Ifẹ̀? One in a century would be really cool!
Recommendation: Buy as many of these dictionaries as you can afford and compare their entries. Wait for the new free Online Yorùbá Dictionary yorubaword.com that will be working soon! Or get access to the Global Yoruba Lexical Database (only through an expensive subscription).
Wàhálà: Ok, any other issues with antiquated Yorùbá?
Yes, especially in the diaspora old Yorùbá spellings are very popular, like the Brazilian aiyé (world), what should be spelled ayé today (without any difference in pronunciation). Sometimes I still see the ẹiyẹ (bird) that should also be written without the i as ẹyẹ. Also the tilde, a small wave-like line indicating a double vowel is not in use anymore today. Alãfin (king) is aláàfin, õrun (sleep) is oorun, õrùn (sun) is oòrùn, dãdã is dáadáa, etc. All lengthened vowels once were written with a tilde, an õ could have meant oo, òó, óò, oò etc. I think we have covered all the major problems with the old Yorùbá orthography now, including the few cases mentioned above.
Recommendation: Say goodbye to antiquated spellings.
Wàhálà: I checked all Yorùbá expressions by myself!
If you are going to publish a Yorùbá book, or one about Òrìṣà, have it proofread by a Yorùbá linguist who also knows about the traditional cultural world of Òrìṣà. When words are contracted vowels are omitted but the tone remains, when objects follow verbs their tone level “changes”, or think of the “Assimilated Low Tone”. Often you won’t find the word you are looking for in a dictionary, and if you find it, the dictionary was published in 1913. Don't forget, the tone a word has in a dictionary is not necessarily the tone it has in every grammatical structure! Do you know the rules for prefix elision, like in bọ́'já (bọ́ ajá) vs. j'ajá (jẹ ajá), or the use of apostrophes? If you have no Master’s degree in Yorùbá, you need professional help for publications. But it's not just about grammar.
In diaspora postings I have read expressions like ìgbàgbọ́ Òrìṣà. The dictionary says ìgbàgbọ́ means belief, but it is a popular term reserved for Christianity in Yorùbáland. As Susanne Wenger said in an interview, an Olórìṣà has no need to gbàgbọ́, he is oní Òrìṣà, literally the one who has/owns Òrìṣà. What remains to believe, when you already have got it? Once a Yorùbá scholar translated the word "initiated (into Òrìṣà)" as "got bewitched (by Òrìṣà)" for me. I was lucky to ask other persons if this was correct, and finally got the verb dóṣù that is used by olórìṣà. Be sure your proofreader has some connections to the traditional world and its vocabulary.
Recommendation: Always work with a linguist or a proofreader.
Wàhálà: Shall I call her Yemọja, Yemayá or Iemanjá?
I have a wonderful book about Ifá, thread-bound, hardcover, heavy paper, a modern font, ink drawings, high quality, expensive. It was published by a Brazilian babaláwo who was initiated into Ifá in Cuba and later went to Yorùbáland. The book is written in English, but the author decided to use the Yorùbá spelling for Òrìṣà names, what caused many problems. There is a chapter on Yemọja, that calls her the deity of the sea and salt water. Problem is, Yemọja in Yorùbáland is not connected at all to the sea. Yemọja is a riverine deity, like Ọ̀ṣun. If we talk about Yemayá, the same goddess in Spanish/Lukumí spelling, it points to the Cuban diaspora where she really is worshipped as the deity of the sea (like in Brazil Iemanjá). It gets more confusing when the author references the Nigerian place of worship, a river he calls Ògún. The river Ògùn, low-low tone, and the Orisha Ògún, low-high tone, are not related. It is like saying in English “I am tired, I wanna go to bat!”. Likely you might respond “You need a bath?” or “The bat cave is to the left!“ No relation between bed and bat, none between Ògùn and Ògún.
A good example is Amanda Villepastour’s book “The Yoruba God of Drumming”. She uses Àyàn or Añá, bàtá or batá, depending on the context. Àyàn and bàtá is the Yorùbáland context, Añá and batá is the Cuban context. It is all about the orthography of the language spoken in the different countries. Separated since centuries, some of the Yorùbá words have another, sometimes different meaning in the diaspora. Use this discourse.
Recommendation: Consider the cultural context of the Orisha/Oricha/Orixá/Òrìṣà and make it visible in the orthography what you are writing about.
Wàhálà: I want to re-Yorùbánize the Lukumí or Nagô expressions!
I have written a full blog entry on this, it is the most popular entry on this website, check it out here. It is a fascinating topic. Unfortunately, with the changed tonality and sounds Lukumí and Nagô (vocabulary used in Cuba and Brazil in Òrìṣà worship) have lost large parts of the original language’s information. If you look for the meaning of a song or prayer you have learnt in the diaspora, all depends on whom you ask for finding a possible re-interpretation. Many Yorùbá people, who are fluent in the language but not olórìṣà, might understand some words and interpret it according to their own knowledge. The Cuban “iyalocha” for example, is understood by a Yorùbá native speaker as “ìyálọ́jà” (the female head of a market) and not like “ìyálóòṣà” (Orisha priestess), what it originally meant. Simply because the Spanish language has neither a soft “ṣ” sound nor three different tone levels. Especially oríkì, praise names, are difficult to decipher. You would need someone who knows the pronunciation rules of both languages and both cultural contexts. Otherwise you have no chance to find the original meanings. Some songs are sung equally on both sides of the Atlantic, like the funeral song every Yorùbá knows and in Cuba is related to “Egún”. It is easy to get the lyrics for such songs. Others might be known only locally or by cultural bearers, initiated and trained olórìṣà and babaláwo. One person I know who has this kind of knowledge is Nathan Lugo, who speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese and Yorùbá and works as an olórìṣà initiated in Yorùbáland between Brazil, Cuba, US and Nigeria. He regularly teaches Òrìṣà songs in online classes, I have learnt a lot there. Also see the interview with Felix Ayoh’OMIDIRE on exactly this topic.
Recommendation: Stay critical when it comes to re-translation, all depends on the knowledge of your informants. And never use a dictionary!
Wàhálà: I recorded Òrìṣà prayers on my trip, now a Yorùbá speaker is going to transcribe them for me!
I had this problem when I wanted to have a single song transcribed, an orìkí for Òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun recorded in Òṣogbo around 1980. You can listen to it here on this blog with bàtá drumming, live in the house of Susanne Wenger (with mp3). The problems with its translation is quoted in detail in this article. One translator was a professional proofreader from Ìbàdàn, one was a native from Òṣogbo and one a Yorùbá linguist, what led to three different translations for a few lines of the song. Remember there are many Yorùbá dialects, local expressions might not be known to speakers from other regions. Ifá chanting or songs are a poetical genre, interpretation varies and sometimes there is even a play-on-words with the melody accents. Even if you get a word-by-word translation you need to have the background knowledge to understand it. Òrìṣà songs require a vast knowledge on traditions, paraphernalia, images, medicine, praise names – only the olórìṣà know about these stories!
Recommendation: Try to get a translation immediately from the same person or someone around, not afterwards from another native speaker.
Wàhálà: I have Yorùbá books from Benin and they look so different!
When large parts of Africa were divided between the colonial powers a border was drawn on the map through parts of Yorùbáland. Some subgroups live in the French-speaking countries Benin and Togo. The language politics there are different to Nigeria, as French orthography influenced the spelling of many names. If you speak French, it helps a lot to decipher Béninoise Yorùbá names. I have seen publications from Benin that use kp, sh and characters from phonetic spelling (IPA) instead of the dotted Roman letters, like many other African languages do (e.g. Bambara). I think recently the country changed to the Nigerian standard orthography and made Yorùbá an official language.
Recommendation: Keep in mind that Yorùbá writing has a lot to do with questions of power, politics and colonization, on the African continent and in the trans-Atlantic diaspora.
Wàhálà: Anything else?
Avoid horizontal underlines to imitate a dotted letter. I have seen this in documents by authors from the Yorùbá diaspora or people who are tired of dealing with all the Unicode problems. But this is not Yorùbá! It is ugly. I mean, better than not to mark them at all, but do not use it for professional publications.
All these recommendations are based on my own experience as a blogger and Yorùbá student. I hope it encourages the discussion or development of a few more digital tools or at least helps you in making your personal notes in the future in Yorùbá language script. To all the designers and typographers out there, the story of the PanNigerian font might be of enormous interest and serve as an inspiration! Nigerian publishing houses, please digitalize educational books (or any other Yorùbá books) and distribute them online! Always when I am posting photos from my library tours in the Orisha Image Instagram I get a dozen of e-mails from Brazil, Venezuela or the US ("Where can I get this book? Do you sell it? How much, asere?")
Most problems with Yorùbá writing are based on a combination of the points mentioned in this article. Ask yourself: What program am I working with? Which keyboard will I use? Does the program support the Unicode combinations? Do I have a good font? How will it be interpreted by the printer? How will it appear on a screen? I want to read more professional contemporary publications about Òrìṣà written in Yorùbá language, from the Yorùbáland perspective! Bilingual ones would also be great!
I would like to read from a professional journalist or another blogger about these Yorùbá language issues. What does Unicode say? Why all these problems? Encoded Egyptian hieroglyphes and emojis, but no Yorùbá letters? Seriously? No protests? I can not believe this, can someone please explain it? And what's going on in the language politics in Nigeria and Benin? Where can we find more serious information, contemporary grammar guide books, official orthography manuals without typos, bilingual dictionaries, Yorùbá publishing houses?
In the meanwhile have fun studying and writing Yorùbá! Save the Yorùbá macron! Òrìṣà gbè wá òòò! Àṣẹ!