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Of Yoruba, Arabic, and Origins of Nigerian Languages

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. My May 13, 2012 column titled “The Arabic origins ofcommon Yoruba words” elicited interesting reactions. These...

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

My May 13, 2012 column titled “The Arabic origins ofcommon Yoruba words” elicited interesting reactions. These reactions can be categorized into three: outrage that I dare suggest that Arabic has any influence on the Yoruba language, claims that the presence of Arabic words in Yoruba is linguistic evidence of the age-old myth that the ancestral provenance of Yoruba people is actually traceable to the Middle East, and contestations of the accuracy of the Arabic etymology of some of the Yoruba words my article highlighted.

The first reaction isn’t worthy of a serious response because it is inspired by visceral, knee-jerk, and pity-inspiring ignorance. Every living, progressive language in the world borrows from other languages. Any language that stops borrowing will sooner or later die. That’s an enduring truth about languages. Borrowing isn’t suggestive of weakness; it’s mere linguistic self-preservation. After all, English, the world’s most widely spoken language, is also the world’s greatest beneficiary of loan words from other languages.

As for the suggestion that the presence of swaths of Arabic words in Yoruba is indicative of the Middle Eastern origins of Yoruba people, nothing could be more ridiculous than that. First, for historical reasons, Arabic loan words started to appear in Yoruba only from about the 15th century at the peak of the Trans- Saharan Trade. Before then, there was no shred of linguistic evidence that Arabic and Yoruba had had any relationship. 

Second, the Middle Eastern myths of origin that most Nigerian ethnic groups cherish about themselves are basically nineteenth-century fictions that British colonialists helped to popularize in order to create collective identities among our disparate ethnic and linguistic groups. Like all myths of origin, they have no basis in truth.

Third, most of the Arabic words in Yoruba did not come to the language through direct borrowing; they came to it by way of the Hausa language whose speakers had extensive trade and cultural relations with the Yoruba from about the 15th century. Interestingly, many early Arabic words in Hausa were also not borrowed directly from Arabic; they came to Hausa through Kanuri, the first major Nigerian language to borrow directly from Arabic. (The Kanuri have had contact with the Arab world from as early as the 9th century, that is, only two centuries after the founding of Islam and at least two centuries before any part of Nigeria had any contact with Arabs or Islam).

From a socio-linguistic perspective, what the presence of Arabic loan words in Yoruba (and other Nigerian languages) evidences is the reality of the time-honored linguistic and cultural conversation between Nigeria’s diverse peoples—and among the three major African language families found in Nigeria. 

There are four major language families in Africa: the Afro-Asiatic language family, the Niger-Congo language family, the Nilo-Saharan language family, and the Khoisan language family. The only language family that has no representative in Nigeria is the Khoisan family, which is exclusively found in southern Africa.

Kanuri is a member of the Nilo-Saharan family (although some scholars now question the accuracy of this classification), Hausa is a member of the Afro-Asiatic family, and Yoruba is a member of the Niger-Congo family. Yet, in spite of belonging to different language families, Kanuri, Hausa, Yoruba, and other Nigerian languages extensively shared the vocabularies of a foreign language for trade, cultural and religious purposes. In other words, what the Arabic presence in Yoruba language provides evidence for is the robust Trans-Saharan Trade-inspired historical and cultural interactions between Nigeria’s north and Nigeria’s southwest before the advent of British colonialism. 

 That, for me, is the biggest take-away from this whole debate.

The third reaction to my article came mostly from Yoruba academics, the most prominent being Professor Akinbiyi Akinlabi. Akinbiyi is a professor of linguistics at Rutgers University, USA, and president of the World Congress of African Linguistics.

In his response to my article in the USA/Africa Dialogue Series, an Internet discussion group of African and American academics, he wrote: “while I agree with your judgment on most of the words you discussed, I doubt two of the words: atele ‘following’ and asiri ‘secret’.

“Atele ‘following’ the word ‘tele’ ‘follow’ is completely native. It is from two verbs ‘te’ ‘press’/’step’, and le ‘drive’/‘come after’. It has to be a compound because the phono-tactics of the word disobeys the regular harmony, because the two vowels [E] and [e] normally do not co-occur in the same root. (The initial [a] is just a noun-forming prefix.). Finally the stem ‘tele’ undergoes normal reduplication, as in tele-n-tele ‘one after another’. No other LOAN you cited behaves this way.

“Asiri ‘secret’, is at best questionable. The reason is that the stem again has been argued to consist of two verbs: si ‘open’, ri ‘see’. Again, the initial [a] is just a noun-forming prefix.”

In my response to Akinlab’s response, I noted that my article was not a serious scholarly interrogation but merely a "popular" reflection inspired only by Italian linguist Baldi's paper on the subject. Not being a native Yoruba speaker or a professional linguist, I added, I deferred to his judgment on the untenability of claims of Arabic origins for "atele." However, I pointed out, evidence from other Nigerian languages challenge his conclusions on "asiri." 

It isn't only in Yoruba that “asiri” means "secret." The word is also present in Batonu (my native language, which is spoken in Nigeria's Kwara State and in northern and central Benin Republic by over a million people), Hausa, Kanuri, and several languages in central and northern Nigeria. So it's unlikely that “asiri” is native to Yoruba. The case for the word's Arabic origin, I said, seems compelling.

What is more, the first scholarly article on the Arabic origins of common Yoruba words, which formed the backdrop of Baldi’s own paper, was written by a Yoruba man by the name of M.O.A. Abdul. Titled “Arabic loan words in Yoruba” and published in 1976 in YORUBA: Journal of the Yoruba Studies Association of Nigeria, the article listed “atele” and “asiri” as having Arabic origins. 

Curiously, it was Professor Akinlabi who not only called my attention to Abdul’s paper but sent a scanned copy of it to me.  (If you’re interested in seeing the original paper, click here). Yet he missed the fact that I was not the one who assigned Arabic origins to the words in contention. I only called attention to it.

Another Yoruba professor who followed my exchange with Professor Akinlabi jumped in and committed several unpardonable historical fallacies in his bid to support Akinlabi. He wrote: “I think Professor Akinlabi’s etymological arguments are far more compelling here.  We must remember that Yoruba civilization once was an imperial power with forages into Benin Republic.  (See the late I.A Akinjogbins DAHOMEY AND ITS NEIGHBOURS).  We must always remember that the encounter between civilizations isn’t always a one-way traffic from the more powerful to the less powerful.” 

I got furious and wrote the following rebuttal: “Of the many languages I mentioned that deploy ‘asiri’ to denote ‘secret,’ you singled out only one language (Batonu) that I said is spoken in Benin Republic and in Nigeria and then proceeded to make the astonishingly parochial claim that the word's presence in that language is a vestigial linguistic remnant of the Yoruba colonial heritage of the speakers of the language. You conveniently ignored the other languages I mentioned, perhaps, because reckoning with them would vitiate the validity of your claims.

“Well, first, go and read your West African history properly. Central and northern Benin Republic, that is, Alibori, Atakora, Borgu and Donga departments (states are called ‘departments’ there) were at no time in history under Oyo (or what you call ‘Yoruba’) suzerainty. In precolonial times, the name ‘Dahomey’ referred only to the southern third of what is now Benin Republic. French colonialists adopted the name and applied it to the whole area--to the displeasure of other parts of the country.

“When Matthew Kerekou, a northerner from Atakora Department, seized power in the early 1970s he changed the name of the country to the culturally neutral "Benin" (culturally neutral, that is, in the context of the country's politics) -- in the tradition of other West African countries that renamed their countries after precolonial African empires even when those empires didn't have any geographic, cultural, or historical affinities with the modern countries after which they were named.

“So don't confuse ‘Dahomey’ and ‘Benin Republic.’ They evoke different significations. ‘Yoruba influence in Dahomey’ isn't the same thing as ‘Yoruba influence in Benin Republic.’ The Fon of Dahomey do indeed share many linguistic similarities with the Yoruba and were, according to many historical accounts, under the suzerainty of Oyo Empire at some point. So are the Aja and many Yoruboid groups in the country. 

“The Batonu of Borgu, Donga and Alibori departments, however, were never under Oyo suzerainty. Nor were the Somba of Atakora. That's not to say, though, that there are no linguistic interchanges between the Yoruba and the people of northern and central Benin Republic; it is just to say that if such interchanges exist--and they do exist--they are not the consequence of any fictive ‘imperial power’ of one group over the other. But that's even by the way.

“Would you also say that Kanuri and Hausa people's use ‘asiri’ to mean ‘secret’ is a holdover from their Yoruba colonial heritage? Or that Arabs use ‘as-sir’ to denote ‘secret’ because of the irresistible cultural force of ‘Yoruba civilization’? What point, exactly, are you trying to make?”

Of course, the man wasn’t making any point. He had no defense. He only apologized and pleaded that I be less caustic in future correspondences with him. You see, tracing the roots of languages and identifying the paths of their evolution is at once political and emotional. But it is also a scientific undertaking. That, though, is a topic for another column.

In the course of the heated discussion that my article generated, Professor Folu Ogundinmu, a Nigerian professor of communication and journalism at Michigan State University, asked what it meant “to say a word is derived from another language when the etymology of the word is not clearly established?” He added: “How do linguists determine the order of direction or origin in such matters - say as in a Yoruba, Igbo, or Batonu word having origin in Arabic or another language?” 

I understood the questions as intended to prod us to problematize notions of derivation, borrowing, and linguistic nativism. I am entirely in agreement with his understated but nonetheless apparent skepticism about what I like to call vulgar etymologies. If we can't determine with certainty that a particular word is native to a language (and what, by the way, is nativism given the labyrinthine interconnectedness of languages?), how can we make claims that it has "loaned" a word to another language? What if the "loaned" word is itself loaned to that language by another language?

I am no professional linguist, but my sense is that when linguists say a word in one language is derived from another language, they mean nothing more than that the word's immediate (and not necessarily its deep) roots are traceable to that language. One example will suffice. In Sierra Leonean Krio, for instance, "yabas" means onion. That word is "derived" and “corrupted” from the Yoruba "alubosa." The Yoruba alubosa, in turn, is "derived" from the Hausa "albasa," which is itself "derived" from the Arabic "al-basal." It is entirely conceivable that "al-basal" isn't, in fact, native to Arabic. I recently read a fascinating article about Greek and Latin loans in Arabic. Arabic borrowed heavily from Greek and Latin when Muslim scholars translated classical Greek works through which the Western world recovered its lost past.

Glottochronologists and lexicostatisticians also claim to be able to scientifically map the evolution of languages through the examination and analysis of certain “basic vocabularies.” They can give insights into the origins and circulations of words across languages.

I have, for instance, been fascinated by the many uncanny similarities between Japanese names and African names. Does this fact suggest common origins? What about the similarities in sound and rhythm between Plateau State languages and the Sino-Tibetan languages of China and its environs? Well, a Japanese linguist once investigated this and found that less than 30 percent of the similar-sounding words between Plateau State languages and China’s Sino-Tibetan languages share similar meanings. Linguists call these kinds of similarities "accidental evidence." In other words, the researcher found that there was no evidence of common origin for Chinese and the Plateau languages; just accidental similarities in sound. 

After all is said and done, historical, cultural, geographic and even political factors all conspire to shape the evolution, patterns, and socio-linguistic contours of all languages. 

Given the intense interest in language families that this write has generated in my readers, next week I will write on language families and the interconnectedness of Nigerian languages. Did you know, for instance, that Fulani is linguistically closer to Yoruba and Igbo than it is to Hausa? Then keep a date next week.

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14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
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55. The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words
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58. Q and A on Nigerian English and Usage Rules


  1. I found it interesting when you said:

    "Second, the Middle Eastern myths of origin that most Nigerian ethnic groups cherish about themselves are basically nineteenth-century fictions that British colonialists helped to popularize in order to create collective identities among our disparate ethnic and linguistic groups. Like all myths of origin, they have no basis in truth."

    Because Batonus believe themselves descendants of Kishra, a Persian prince who fled Arabia after suffering defeat at the hands of the Prophet (pbuh). I vaguely remember my dad telling me as a kid, and to buttress the 'fact' he also told me there are still ligering and glaring anti-Islamic sentiments in some cultural aspects like music, in some of the lyrics especially among some folk singers which are supposedly reminiscent of the defeat of their ancestors.

    If all this is a myth, then I am curious to know about the real origin of Batonu people. Surely they must have had a sense if identity priot to the arrival of the British.

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