A retired Associate Professor of English and ex-Head, Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Dr. Bolaji Aremo, talks about his research findings that Yoruba and Igbo languages had the same parent language with GBENGA ADENIJI
You stated in your book ‘How Yoruba and Igbo Became Different Languages’ published in 2009, that the two languages are historically from the same parent language. How is this so?
We can conclude that two or more languages are historically derived from the same parent language when we compare the languages and find in both of them very many basic vocabulary words that are similar in sound and in meaning. For example: Igbo imi/ Yoruba imu = ‘nose’; Igbo nti/Yoruba eti = ‘ear’; Igbo onu/ Yoruba enu = ‘mouth’; etc. Basic vocabulary words are essential words, such as words for body parts, for which every human language normally has its own native equivalents.
Thus, for instance, it is not likely that the Yoruba examples just given can originally have been borrowed from Igbo, or that the Igbo examples can originally have been borrowed from Yoruba. And so, the very many vocabulary words which are similar in sound and in meaning found across Igbo and Yoruba can only have resulted from the fact that the two languages are indeed from one and the same parent language.
What are some of the linguistic correlations manifest in the two languages to underscore the findings?
The most easily identified indication of genetic relationship between two languages is found at the vocabulary level. And as just explained, there must be a substantial number of basic vocabulary words similar in sound and in meaning which are found across the languages that are thought to be the daughter languages to a prehistoric parent language. Of course, we can also find additional manifestations of the genetic relationship elsewhere in the languages, especially at the sub-level of morphology, which deals with the structure or forms of the words.
Does it mean that the two tribes were of the same ancestral stock?
What can indeed be inferred from our historical linguistic findings is that they used to live in prehistoric times in the same community, in the same restricted culture area. But there are strong suggestions from both Igbo and Yoruba oral traditions that the two ethnic groups were of the same ancestral stock.
You further claimed that many West African languages such as Igbo, Yoruba, Bini, Ewe and Twi are genetically related. In what areas are the noticeable similarities since Yoruba is regarded as a highly tonal language?
It has, in fact, been the claim of linguists that Igbo, Yoruba, Bini, etc. are all tonal languages, and are all genetically related. That is to say, they are all languages in which word meanings are dependent on such voice pitch levels as High [/] and Low [\]. Thus, for instance, depending on the tones used, the Yoruba word ojo could mean ‘rain’, ‘cowardice’, or ‘name given to a type of male child’. Similarly, depending on the tones used, the Igbo word ala could mean (among other things) ‘madness’, ‘breast’, ‘ground’, or ‘bottom’. There must also be other similarities that can be found among them all, since the linguists’ claim is also that they are actually all genetically related. But until more thoroughgoing research like the one on Yoruba and Igbo is undertaken, we cannot say in quite concrete terms what the similarities are like between Igbo or Yoruba on the one hand and any one of the other West African languages on the other hand.
In the book, you noted that it would in fact be absolutely right to conclude not only that Igbo and Yoruba used to be one language, but also that the Igbo and the Yoruba people are brothers and sisters who used to live together as members of the same community. Historically, where did the two tribes inhabit before separation and what caused the division? From the totality of the historical linguistic evidence available, the conclusion can be reached that they lived together in Ile-Ife. Then, of course, it cannot have been the case that some of the people living together in Ile-Ife were known as ‘’Igbo’’ and the others as ‘’Yoruba’’.
The terms ‘’Igbo’’ and ‘’Yoruba’’ were acquired not too long ago, i.e centuries after the separation had taken place. What caused the separation? The answer to that lies deep in prehistory, beyond the reach of our historical linguistic tools. What seems clear, however, is that those were times when a group of friends or relations could, from sheer love of adventure or freedom to do one thing or another their own way, decide to emigrate to some strange unoccupied lands and start off their own pet kingdom.
To what would you attribute the marked differences in the syntactic structure and the other linguistic variations in both languages if they used to be one?
Like other things which endure in time, language is constantly changing, though slowly. Therefore, if two or more groups of speakers of a language are separated and prevented in some way from communicating with one another, each of the groups will eventually develop its own version of the original language.
After a long period of time, the various versions of the original language developed by the different groups will become so different from one another that they will be mutually unintelligible, i.e. they will for all practical purposes become separate languages and there will be nothing like the original language in existence. It may be pointed out, however, that when the changes in the different versions are not so great as to block mutual intelligibility, they are just regarded as regional dialects of the original language.
Thus, Oyo, Ekiti, Egba, Owo, Ife, etc. are just regional Yoruba dialects, because their different speakers can still manage to understand one another, even when they speak the actual dialects and not the general, communicative norm (based mainly on the Oyo dialect). For the same reason, Ahoada, Bende, Ika (Western Igbo), Ikwerre, Owere (Owerri), Onicha (Onitsha), etc., are just regional dialects of Igbo. But Yoruba and Igbo, which were originally dialectal versions of the same language, are now different languages because they are no longer mutually intelligible. The original parent language, the proto-Yoruba/Igbo language, no longer exists.
Would you agree with the declaration of the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, during the 2019 Aje festival that the Igbo and the Yoruba are aboriginal to Ife?
Oh, absolutely! From the available historical linguistic evidence, the Ooni must be right. I understand a spokesperson for the Ohanaeze has said the Igbo were the first settlers in Ile-Ife, and that the Yoruba later came to join them there. He is also quoted to have said that in Ile-Ife, the Yoruba learnt Igbo and that is what is responsible for the similarity between Igbo and Yoruba today.
Moreover, he is said to have claimed that Oduduwa was an Igbo prince, his name being an Igbo word that means ‘last child’. With due respect, I would like to say that he didn’t quite get the facts. No, Oduduwa is not an Igbo word at all. What indeed there in Igbo is odu nwa, and it is this Igbo compound word that means ‘last child’, or literally ‘bottom child’ – like Yoruba abikehin. The word Oduduwa is a different word altogether. It means ‘the great or mighty one (Odu) who created (da) existence (uwa, ua, iwa, wiwa). When divested of its mythological garb, the word Oduduwa must have been an honorific title (and not the real name) of the Yoruba Patriarch. He must have been given the title in recognition of the many civilising changes he was said to have brought to Ile-Ife, the way he was said to have made the people know for the very first time what they could regard as true existence.
Understandably, he became so popular with the people that he was eventually able to replace the king who had been ruling them before he came to Ile-Ife as an immigrant. Actually, from all indications, the Igbo would appear to have left Ile-Ife long before Oduduwa came.
This could explain why there does not seem to be anything in their language to show that they actually knew him or any of his famous children or grandchildren. The real point, however, is not that Igbo developed from Yoruba or that Yoruba developed from Igbo; rather, it is that their two languages developed from the same parent language, which they spoke when they lived together in Ile-Ife. And the parent language no longer exists. If one could bring back to life any of those who actually spoke that parent language, they would not be able to understand the Yoruba or Igbo that is spoken today! That is the way of language.
In the book, you advised the two tribes to “for the good of all, try and jettison their patently counter-productive legacy of mutual distrust and once again relate with one another as real brothers and sisters.’’ How do you think this can be achieved considering the disturbing deepening distrust and disagreement between the two tribes?
It is indeed a shame that two of the most highly educated and enlightened ethnic groups in the black world, the Yoruba and the Igbo, can allow themselves and their children to be hooked on the counter-productive legacy of mutual distrust. It is very unfortunate. I think it is all political rivalry of the self-defeating type.
And they have been at it right from the Zik/Awo election quarrel of 1951, working at cross purposes ever since, even at critical moments when their working together would have steered our country away from the murky depths in which we have all been wallowing till today. I would like to believe that common sense will soon prevail, and members of the two groups will once again be relating with one another as real brothers and sisters – for the good of all!
Since languages are not well taught in schools nowadays, what do you envisage as the fate of the two languages among the current and coming generations?
It is sad that, as you have said, languages are no longer taught well in schools. With their salaries and other emoluments not regularly paid in most states, one can understand why there could be generally little motivation for teachers of languages and even of other subjects to do their work well nowadays.
But there must be other problems which our educational authorities should urgently look into and try to resolve. It is not quite right, however, to expect that the fate of Yoruba, Igbo or any of our native languages would be determined solely by the quality of classroom teaching it receives. A great deal would also depend on the opportunities made available for its communicative use in real-life situations. Only there is a daunting problem in that regard, given the pervasive dominance of English or its pidginised variant as a common language in the country today.
Parents and guardians may help to some extent by getting their children or wards to use the native language at home. But are they prepared to do so, as they are usually more interested in getting the children prepared early for performance targets in the all-important English? Perhaps in the end, the best we can hope for is a situation in which the native language survives with a very large number of English words borrowed and adapted into its vocabulary, while only the grammar remains basically unchanged.
That has been the lot of even the world’s number one language, English: for though still largely retaining its old English grammar, it uses today only about 30 per cent of its original native words while the remaining 70 per cent or so are borrowings from the foreign languages (Latin, Greek, French, Italian, etc) with which it has been in contact around the world.
What motivated you to undertake the groundbreaking research?
As already explained in the Preface to the book, I got into it all by chance. I was at the OAU Bookshop for a particular text when I stumbled on some copies of Professor Echeruo’s Igbo-English Dictionary. I picked one and tried to flip through the pages as we usually do with new books that catch our attention.
I noticed that there were several Igbo entries that not only looked somewhat like Yoruba words but also had translations in English that read much like those for the similar Yoruba words.
It then occurred to me that I should buy the copy and find time to go through it more carefully. To cut the story short, I ended up deciding that I should work on a book in which I would share my excitement with others. I had never expected that degree of closeness between Igbo and Yoruba. It was simply amazing!
I should perhaps go further and clarify one point. It is that I did not undertake the research or write the book to help in actualising any hidden political agenda as some have tried to insinuate. I have never had any political ambition, and I have never been close to any politician. Like many people, I just admire all politicians, who, by their achievements in office, have contributed significantly to making their people know the true meaning of existence.