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The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. I am taking a break from English grammar this week to discuss a fascinating 22-page article I read on the...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I am taking a break from English grammar this week to discuss a fascinating 22-page article I read on the Arabic roots of many contemporary Yoruba words. Titled “On Arabic Loans in Yoruba,” it was written by Professor Sergio Baldi, a well-regarded Italian linguist, who presented it at the Annual Conference on African Linguistics in California, USA, in March 1995.

The article lists scores of common Yoruba words that are derived from Arabic sometimes by way of Hausa, at other times by way of Songhai (Zarma and Dendi languages in present-day Niger, Mali, and Benin republics are examples of Songhai languages), and occasionally directly from Arabic. (To read the full article, click here).  

In this essay, I isolate only words that, from my modest knowledge of Yoruba, enjoy widespread usage and that are not limited to the vernacular of Yoruba Muslims. It is noteworthy that different versions of many of the words below are also used widely in Hausa, Kanuri, Igala, Ebira, Batonu, Nupe, and many Niger-Congo languages in northern and central Nigeria. In fact, “wahala,” a common Nigerian Pidgin English word, has Arabic origins, as you will see shortly.

1. Abere. This Yoruba word for “needle” traces its etymology to the Arabic “ai-bra,” which also means needle.

2. Adura. This is the Yoruba word for prayers. In fact, there is a popular syncretic Christian sect in Yorubaland that goes by the name “aladura,” meaning “people who pray” or “praying people.” Many other northern and central Nigerian languages have some version of this word to denote prayers. It is derived from the Arabic “du’a,” which also means prayers.

3. Alubosa. This Yoruba word for “onion” was borrowed from the Hausa “albasa,” which in turn borrowed it from the Arabic “al-basal.”

4. Alufa/Alfa. This is a widely used word for a Muslim scholar (and occasionally any Muslim) not just in Yorubaland but in Nupeland, Borgu, Igalaland, Ebiraland, etc. It is now increasingly used by Yoruba Muslim women as a term of respect for their husbands. 

Surprisingly, the word is absent in the Hausa language. It came as no surprise therefore when Professor Baldi suggested that the word came to the Yoruba language—and many other central Nigerian languages—through the Songhai. It is derived from the Arabic “khalifah,” which means a “successor” or a “representative” (of the prophet of Islam). It was first corrupted to “Alfa” by the Songhai who later exported their version of the word to western and central Nigeria—and to other parts of West Africa. Many Songhai were itinerant Islamic preachers who traveled all over West Africa.

5. Atele/itele.  It means “following” in Yoruba, and it is derived from “at-talin,” which also means “following” in Arabic.

6. Amodi. It means “disease” in Yoruba and is derived from “al-marad,” the Arabic word for disease.

7. “Amo.” It is a conjunction in Yoruba, which performs the same function that the word “but” performs in English; it introduces contrast. It is rendered as “amma” in Hausa, which is the way it is rendered in its original Arabic form.

8. Anfani. This Yoruba word for “utility” or “importance” also occurs in Hausa, Batonu, and many northern and central Nigerian languages. It is derived from the Arabic “naf,” which means “advantage, profit.”

9. Ara/ apaara. The word means "thunder" in Yoruba, and is derived from the Arabic “ar-ra’d.”

10. Asiri. It means “secret” in Yoruba, Hausa, and in many other Nigerian languages. It is derived from the Arabic “as-sirr” where it also means “secret.”

11. Barika. This is the Yoruba word for “congratulations.” It is rendered as “barka” in Hausa. The word’s original Arabic form is “al-baraka,” which means “greetings.”

12. Borokinni. It means a “gentleman, respected man in a secure financial position.” The word is also found in many Borgu languages, such as Batonu and Bokobaru, where “boro” means a “friend.”  It is derived from the Arabic “rukn,” which means “support, corner, basic element.”

13. Faari. It means “showing off” or “boastfulness” or “ostentatious display” in Yoruba. It has the same meaning in many Borgu languages. It is derived from the Arabic “fakhr,” which means “glory, pride, honor.” (Note that “kh” is a guttural sound in Arabic, which is close to a hard “h” in English. That sound was dropped by Nigerian languages).

14. Fitila. It means any kind of lamp. Its roots are located in the Arabic word for lamp, which is “fatil.”

15. Ijamba. Professor Baldi defines this word as “bodily harm,” but the meaning of the word I’m familiar with is one that associates it with cunning, cheating, deceit. It is derived from the Arabic “danb,” or “danba,” which means “sin, crime.” (Note that Arabic frequently dispenses with end vowels (that is, a, e, i, o, and u) in words, whereas many Nigerian languages almost always end words with a vowel—and add them to words they borrow from other languages if such words lack an end vowel).

16. Imale. This is the Yoruba word for “Muslim.” I read previous interpretations of this word from Yoruba scholars who say it is Yoruba for “that which is difficult” to underscore the difficulty of Islamic practices like praying five times a day, fasting for 30 days during Ramadan, etc. Other Yoruba scholars said the word initially denoted “people from Mali” since the Songhai people who Islamized Yoruba land in the 15th century were from Mali. 

But Baldi argues that “imale” is the corruption of the Arabic “Mu’alim,” which means a teacher.  In the Hausa language, the word is rendered as Maalam. It’s interesting that “Mallam” has become the synonym for Hausa (or northern) Muslim in southern Nigeria.

17. Iwaju. It’s the Yoruba word for “front part.” I didn’t imagine that this word had an Arabic origin until I read Baldi’s article.  It is derived from the Arabic “al-wajh,” which means “front” or “face.”

18. Iwaasu. It is the Yoruba term for “preaching” or “sermon.” It is used by both Christians and Muslims in Yorubaland, and is derived from the Arabic “waz,” which means “admonition” or “sermon.” (The Yoruba language has no “z” sound, so it substitutes “z” with “s” when it borrows words from other languages with “z” sounds).

19. Suuru. It means “patience” not only in Yoruba but in many languages in central and northern Nigeria. It is derived from the Arabic “sabr,” which also means “patience.”

20. Talaka. It means the poor. It came to Yoruba by way of Hausa, which borrowed it from the Tuareg (where it is rendered as "taleqque" and where it means “a poor woman”).  It’s also used in Mandingo, Songhai languages, Kanuri, Teda, and many West African languages. Baldi says this word has no Arabic origins. On the surface, this may be true. After all, the Arabic word for a poor person is “fakir” (plural: “fuqura”).

 However, “talaq,” as most Muslims know, is the Arabic word for divorce. (The chapter of the Qur'an that deals with the subject of divorce is called Suratul Talaq). Talaq is derived from the verb “talaqa,” which means to “disown,” to “repudiate.” In times past (and it’s still the case today in many Muslim societies) if a woman was divorced, she was invariably thrown into poverty. Thus, Tuaregs used the term “taleqque” to denote a “poor woman.” But Hausa, Kanuri, Yoruba, Mandingo, and other West African languages expanded the original Tuareg meaning of the word to include every poor person. This is my theory.

21. Tobi. This Yoruba word for “women’s knickers” is derived from the Arabic “taub,” which means “garment,” “dress,” “cloth.” Another tonal variation of this word leads to a different Yoruba word, which means “big.”

22. Wahala. Well, this isn’t just a Yoruba word by way of Hausa; it’s made its way into most Nigerian languages—and into West African Pidgin English. It means “trouble,” and it’s derived from the Arabic “wahla,” which means “fright,” “terror.”

Someone called my attention to the fact that "alafia," which also appears in the greetings of many northern and central Nigerian languages (and which is rendered as "lafia" in Hausa) is also derived from the Arabic "afiya," which means "health."


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  1. Wao! This is an interesting topic. Most languages I believe, have loan words but what I didn't understand in this case is the relationship between the two languages considering that they may not belong to the same family, neither is Arabic the official language of any state/country which has contact with states in Nigeria where Yoruba is spoken.

    I recently tried collecting Tiv words which origin is Hausa and surprisingly three of such words featured here:
    Aduwa - prayer (yange i aduwa – day of prayer – Sunday; same word could also mean Church in Tiv.
    Alabisa – onions
    Tobi – skirts (sometimes actually referring to women underskirts)
    One other interesting word in your list which in Tiv doesn’t really have connection with Yoruba but Hausa is Anura – needle (sometimes also used to mean injection).

    It is interesting to note how sometimes words appear in several languages with the same meaning and a few phonological alterations to reflect the new language to which they have been added.

    This is indeed very useful for those whose interests are in morphology, lexicography anthropological linguistics. Thanks Prof. and more ink to your pen

  2. This is a great piece. Thanks for sharing. It inspired me to write something similar on Swahili and other Kenyan languages: . I look forward to reading more of your linguistics pieces.

  3. Great article prof! Most of the words feature in my Ososo dialect and most Akoko/Akoko-Edo dialects too. I think the Arabic influence came through Egypt too according to a pamphlet written about 40years ago by Rev. Ogunbiyi of the Anglican Communion. Alufa refers to a pastor ,and is mostly used by christain folks in yorubaland . I also enjoyed your article in the Daily Trust on 'double down to trickle down' during the recently concluded US presidential elections. The question is ,prof, how do we build institutions in Nigeria? Without leaving my bed, i reached out to a US Government organisation that promotes farmers' exchange and training on sustainable agriculture worldwide . We have even signed a GPA with them! But i'm having headaches trying to get the attention of the state here! See for yourself prof. if there is anything as good presently now and here as the MESA Warmest regards, Adelemoni Gbenga Cele, keffi, Nasarawa state.

  4. Alfa is a shortened form of 'Al-faqih' the Arabic word for one who is versed in fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence, the fort of Islamic scholars. It is not from khalifah, which the Yoruba call as '(h)alifa' or 'Alefa'also used to refer to throne. Although 'alifa' sounds like Alfa or alufa, al-faqih in both sound and meaning is more cogent as the root of the word. All the other arguments, I agree with them. I hope this is helpful. Refer to Prof Asmau G. Saeed's biography of her father.


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