The three possible syllable structures of Yoruba are consonant+vowel (CV), vowel alone (V), and syllabic nasal (N). Every syllable bears one of the three tones: high ‹◌́›, mid ‹◌̄› (generally left unmarked), and low ‹◌̀›. The sentence 'n̄ ò lọ' I didn't go provides examples of the three syllable types:
- n̄ — [ŋ̄] — I
- ò — [ó] — not (negation)
- lọ — [lɔ] — to go
Standard Yoruba has seven oral and five nasal vowels. There are no diphthongs in Yoruba; sequences of vowels are pronounced as separate syllables. Dialects differ in the number of vowels they have; see above.
|Oral vowels||Nasal vowels|
|IPA vowel chart with audio|
|Paired vowels are: unrounded–rounded|
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The status of a fifth nasal vowel, [ã], is controversial. Although the sound does occur in speech, several authors have argued it to be not phonemically contrastive; often, it is in free variation with [ɔ̃]. Orthographically, nasal vowels are normally represented by an oral vowel symbol followed by ‹n› (i.e., ‹in›, ‹un›, ‹ẹn›, ‹ọn›), except in case of the [n] allophone of /l/ (see below) preceding a nasal vowel, i.e. inú 'inside, belly' is actually pronounced [īnṹ].
|Plosive||b||t d||ɟ||k ɡ||k͡p ɡ͡b|
The voiceless plosives /t/ and /k/ are slightly aspirated; in some Yoruba varieties, /t/ and /d/ are more dental. The rhotic consonant is realized as a flap [ɾ], or in some varieties (notably Lagos Yoruba) as the alveolar approximant [ɹ]. Like many other languages of the region, Yoruba has the labial-velar stops /k͡p/ and /ɡ͡b/, e.g. pápá [k͡pák͡pá] 'field', gbọ̄gbọ̄ [ɡ͡bɔɡ͡bɔ] 'all'. Notably, it lacks the common voiceless bilabial plosive /p/, which is why /k͡p/ is written as ‹p›. It also lacks a phoneme /n/; though the letter ‹n› is used for the sound in the orthography, it strictly speaking refers to an allophone of /l/ which immediately precedes a nasal vowel.
There is also a syllabic nasal which forms a syllable nucleus by itself. When it precedes a vowel it is a velar nasal [ŋ], e.g. n ò lọ [ŋ ò lɔ] 'I didn't go'. In other cases its place of articulation is homorganic with the following consonant, for example ó ń lọ [ó ń lɔ] 'he is going', ó ń fò [ó ḿ fò] 'he is jumping'.
Yoruba is a tonal language with three level tones: high, low, and mid (the default tone.) Every syllable must have at least one tone; a syllable containing a long vowel can have two tones. Contour tones (i.e. rising or falling tone melodies) are usually analysed as separate tones occurring on adjacent tone bearing units (morae) and thus have no phonemic status. Tones are marked by use of the acute accent for high tone (‹á›, ‹ń›), the grave accent for low tone (‹à›, ‹ǹ›); Mid is unmarked, except on syllabic nasals where it is indicated using a macron (‹a›, ‹n̄›); see below). Examples:
- H: ó bẹ́ 'he jumped'; síbí 'spoon'
- M: ó bẹ 'he is forward'; ara 'body'
- L: ó bẹ̀ 'he asks for pardon'; ọ̀kọ̀ 'spear'.
Assimilation and elision
When a word precedes another word beginning with a vowel, assimilation or deletion ('elision') of one of the vowels often takes place. In fact, since syllables in Yoruba normally end in a vowel, and most nouns start with one, this is a very common phenomenon, and indeed only is absent in very slow, unnatural speech. The orthography here follows speech in that word divisions are normally not indicated in words that are contracted as a result of assimilation or elision: ra ẹja → rẹja 'buy fish'. Sometimes however, authors may choose to use an inverted comma to indicate an elided vowel as in ní ilé → n’ílé 'in the house'.
Long vowels within words usually signal that a consonant has been elided word-internally. In such cases, the tone of the elided vowel is retained, e.g. àdìrò → ààrò 'hearth'; koríko → koóko 'grass'; òtító → òótó 'truth'.
Notes and references
- After Bamgboṣe (1969:166).
- Notably, Ayọ Bamgboṣe (1966:8).
- Abraham in his Dictionary of Modern Yoruba deviates from this custom, explicitly indicating the nasality of the vowel; thus, inú is found under inún, etc.
- Several authors have argued that the mid-tone is not specified underlyingly, but rather is assigned by a default rule (Pulleyblank 1986, Fọlarin 1987, Akinlabi 1985). Evidence includes examples like the following:
rí 'see' aṣọ 'clothing' → ráṣọ 'see clothing', contrasted with rí 'see' ọ̀bẹ 'knife' → rọ́!bẹ 'see a knife'
In the first example, the final vowel of the verb rí is deleted but its high tone easily attaches to the first syllable of aṣọ, the mid tone of which disappears without a trace. In the second example, the Low tone of the first syllable of ọ̀bẹ is not as easily deleted; it causes a downstep (marked by ‹!›, i.e., a lowering of subsequent tones. The ease with which the Mid tone gives way is attributed to it not being specified underlyingly. Cf. Bamgboṣe 1966:9 (who calls the downstep effect 'the assimilated low tone').
- Cf. Bamgboṣe 1966:6: The so-called glides […] are treated in this system as separate tones occurring on a sequence of two syllables.
- See Bamgboṣe 1965a for more details. See also Ward 1952:123–133 ('Chapter XI: Abbreviations and Elisions').
- Adetugbọ, Abiọdun (1982). "Towards a Yoruba Dialectology". In Afọlayan (ed.). Yoruba Language and Literature. pp. 207–224.
- Afọlayan, Adebisi (ed.) (1982). Yoruba language and literature. Ifẹ / Ibadan: University of Ifẹ Press / Ibadan University Press.
- Ajayi, J.F. Ade (1960). "How Yoruba was Reduced to Writing". Odu: A Journal of Yoruba, Ẹdo and Related Studies (8): 49–58.
- Bamgboṣe, Ayọ (1965a). "Assimilation and contraction in Yoruba". Journal of West African Languages (2): 21–27.
- Bamgboṣe, Ayọ (1965b). Yoruba Orthography. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.
- Bamgboṣe, Ayọ (1969). "Yoruba". In Elizabeth Dunstan (ed.). Twelve Nigerian Languages. New York: Africana Publishing Corp. p. 166. ISBN 0-8419-0031-0.
- Fagborun, J. Gbenga (1994). The Yoruba Koiné – its History and Linguistic Innovations. LINCOM Linguistic Edition vol. 6. München/Newcastle: LINCOM Europe.
- Fresco, Max (1970). Topics in Yoruba Dialect Phonology. (Studies in African Linguistics Supplement Vol. 1). Los Angeles: University of California, Dept. of Linguistics/ASC.
- Ladipọ, Duro (1972). Ọba kò so (The king did not hang) — Opera by Duro Ladipọ. (Transcribed and translated by R.G. Armstrong, Robert L. Awujọọla and Val Ọlayẹmi from a tape recording by R. Curt Wittig). Ibadan: Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.
- Oyètádé, B. Akíntúndé & Buba, Malami (2000) 'Hausa Loan Words in Yorùbá', in Wolff & Gensler (eds.) Proceedings of the 2nd WoCAL, Leipzig 1997, Köln: Rüdiger Köppe, 241-260.
- Oyenuga, Soji www.YorubaForKidsAbroad.com (2007). "Yoruba". In Soji and Titi Oyenuga. Yoruba For Kids Abroad - Learn Yoruba In 27 Days. Saskatoon, Canada: Gaptel Innovative Solutions Inc. pp. 27 days. ISBN.
- Adetugbọ, Abiọdun (1973). "The Yoruba Language in Yoruba History". In Biobaku, S.O. (ed.). Sources of Yoruba History. pp. 176–204.
- Biobaku, S.O. (ed.) (1973). Sources of Yoruba History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Hair, P.E.H. (1967). "The Early Study of Yoruba, 1825-1850". The Early Study of Nigerian Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Law, R.C.C. (1973a). "Contemporary Written Sources". In Biobaku, S.O. (ed.). Sources of Yoruba History. pp. 9–24.
- Law, R.C.C. (1973b). "Traditional History". In Biobaku, S.O. (ed.). Sources of Yoruba History. pp. 25–40.
- Abraham, Roy Clive (1958). Dictionary of Modern Yoruba. London: University of London Press.
- CMS (Canon C.W. Wakeman, ed.) (1950). A Dictionary of the Yoruba language. Ibadan: University Press. Check date values in:
- Delanọ, Oloye Isaac (1958). Atúmọ̀ ede Yoruba [short dictionary and grammar of the Yoruba language]. London: Oxford University Press.
- Sachnine, Michka (1997). Dictionnaire yorùbá-français, suivi d’un index français-yorùbâ. Paris: Karthala.
Grammars and sketches
- Adéwọlé, L.O. (2000). Beginning Yorùbá (Part I). Monograph Series no. 9. Cape Town: CASAS.
- Adéwọlé, L.O. (2001). Beginning Yorùbá (Part II). Monograph Series no. 10. Cape Town: CASAS.
- Bamgboṣe, Ayọ (1966). A Grammar of Yoruba. [West African Languages Survey / Institute of African Studies]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Crowther, Samuel Ajayi (1852). Yoruba Grammar. London.
— the first grammar of Yoruba.
- Rowlands, E.C. (1969). Teach Yourself Yoruba. London: The English Universities Press.
- Ward, Ida (1952). An introduction to the Yoruba language. Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons.
- Yetunde, Antonia & Schleicher, Folarin (2006). Colloquial Yoruba. London: Taylor & Francis Ltd (Routledge).