IBADAN, Nigeria

When I met Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, the well-known Nigerian writer and linguist, in Ibadan, his family was gathered for a wedding. He was holding his 3-year-old son under the shade of a large tree while his wife, dressed in traditional formal attire, a purple iro and buba, sat fashioning a headscarf.

Túbọ̀sún asked his son to recite the numbers one to 10 in Yoruba. The toddler recited the words haltingly but with a competency that belied his age. Túbọ̀sún beamed when he was done and asked him to repeat the exercise in English.

“It’s our party trick,” his wife said dryly as she looked at her reflection in her phone. A week later, I found a recording of Túbọ̀sún’s son repeating the exercise on his Soundcloud page.

Túbọ̀sún would be just as pleased, however, if the trick weren’t so extraordinary. His life’s work is to keep Yoruba off the list of endangered languages. So two years ago, he turned to the internet to raise $5,000 to create an online dictionary of Yoruba names. After more than 100 people contributed, YorubaName.com was born in 2015. In an interview with Brittle Paper, an African literary blog, Túbọ̀sún explained that his project is “a way to document Yoruba cultural experience on the web in order to provide useful resources, and to ensure the language’s survival in the 21st century.”

“The aim is to also have a place where people who do not speak Yoruba can hear how Yoruba names are pronounced,” Túbọ̀sún told me as he wrestled a Pringle out of the cylindrical tube for his 3-year-old son.

Yoruba is a tonal language spoken by over 30 million people worldwide, with descendent variations appearing in Cuba and Brazil. More people speak Yoruba than Dutch and Swedish combined. In Nigeria, English is the lingua franca, but the country has over 300 tribes that speak over 500 different languages. Of them, the three most popular native languages, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, are spoken along state lines, with Yoruba dominating Nigeria’s southwestern cities.

I met Túbọ̀sún for the first time in Ibadan, home to one of the largest Yoruba speaking populations in Nigeria. He traveled roughly two hours from Lagos with his family for his sister-in-law’s wedding in the town of Akobo, the same city he grew up in. Although Túbọ̀sún’s family moved out of Akobo almost 20 years ago, he drove through the town with ease, pointing out houses he recognized while providing anecdotes about the families that lived there. Túbọ̀sún took me to his alma mater, University of Ibadan. It was a Sunday morning so the campus was empty except for a few students and the ever-present crowd of taxi drivers at the university gates. Still, we were surrounded by Yoruba’s melodic diction everywhere we went.

But even here, Túbọ̀sún pointed out that there were no major street signs or public notices written in the language. Many government officials believe that because of Nigeria’s medley of indigenous languages, it’s easier for English to remain Nigeria’s dominant language. Even billboards advertising local churches and business in Túbọ̀sún’s town are written only in English.

Túbọ̀sún’s work meets at the intersection of language and technology. He has been working to preserve Yoruba and other indigenous Nigerian languages by archiving them online and advocating for their use in the digital space as well as outside of it. Túbọ̀sún’s digital efforts are provision for when physical history books are no longer able to hold centuries’ worth of language and culture. It is also an interrogation of how and why Nigeria has arrived at a place where parts of our history are at the brink of erasure.

“Over time, indigenous languages will survive in spoken form,” Túbọ̀sún said. “But they will die in written form, and the work people have done in written form will be lost.”

Túbọ̀sún tried his hand at broadcasting for a local radio station after secondary school, but it was fate that led him to study linguistics at the University of Ibadan. Túbọ̀sún initially applied to study communications. But that department was full, so he was stuck with his second choice: linguistics. After graduating, Túbọ̀sún taught students Yoruba at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as a Fulbright scholar, before receiving his masters in linguistics in 2010. After graduating, Túbọ̀sún worked as a volunteer English-as-a-second-language instructor and editor at a Nigerian literary magazine.

Túbọ̀sún began his crusade in 2012, rallying users on Twitter to demand a Yoruba translation of the site. After 24,000 tweets featuring the #TweetYoruba, Twitter decided to look into it. In 2014, Twitter made the language available on the site’s translation center as its second African language (Afrikaans was the first), but three years later there is still no  Yoruba Twitter interface.

Túbọ̀sún continued to work with tech and languages. In 2015, Túbọ̀sún took a gig at Google working to expand the capacity of voice-based products by programming them to identify “Nigerian English” (that is, English spoken with a Nigerian accent). Although the project never launched, Túbọ̀sún has turned his attention to developing a text-to-speech synthesis program for YorubaName. If launched, the software will process written Yoruba names and allow users to hear how they are pronounced.

In 2016, Túbọ̀sún became the first African author to be awarded Il Premio Ostana Internazionale Scritture in Lingua, a global prize for those who’ve made significant efforts to preserve minority languages.

The preservation and use of languages like Yoruba is not a sentimental act. Providing translated versions of texts—street signs, books, manuals, ATM screens—allows indigenous language speakers to participate in the economy and society. And it goes beyond hard numbers.

“Having information translated into indigenous languages is not just a matter of economics, but people access information best in the languages that best capture their realities,” Francis Egbokhare, a linguist at the University of Ibadan, told me in an email.

In Yoruba culture, names carry great cultural significance. Names are often used by parents to imbibe certain characteristics they hope their child will grow to have. Names are also used to reflect the circumstances of a child’s birth or the child’s perceived role in the family.

Kọ́láwọlé is usually given to the first boy born in a new house built by the parents because it translates as “he brings nobility, wealth, honor into the house.” As Túbọ̀sún’s first name, it’s quite fitting. Túbọ̀sún was born fourth of his siblings, but he was the first born in the family’s new home in Akobo, a district on the outskirts of Ibadan. His last name, a shortened version of the name Ọlátúbọ̀sún, is his father’s first name.

It was Túbọ̀sún’s father, Ọlátúbọ̀sún Ọládàpọ̀’, who blazed the trail that Túbọ̀sún has been following ever since. Ọládàpọ̀’ is renowned in the Yoruba community for his work as a Yoruba writer, poet, broadcaster, and as the founder of a record company that promoted Yoruba artists and music.

“Kọ́lá chose the profession I chose, but in a bigger way,” said Túbọ̀sún’s father, Ọládàpọ̀. “I chose the Yoruba language, to be a teacher of the Yoruba language, but he took it farther than I did and I am very proud of him.”

In a recent TEDx Talk, Túbọ̀sún referenced an interview by Jimmy Fallon with award-winning actor David Oyèlọ́wọ̀ (star of Selma, among other blockbusters). In the two-minute clip, Fallon says Oyèlọ́wọ̀’s name haltingly, not sure he’s getting it right. Fallon ignores the contours of the Yoruba language, unaware that in Yoruba, ọ́ and ọ̀ are not /o/. In the first iteration of the letter, the speaker must raise the pitch of the o sound, while the second is a deeper sound and requires the speaker to make an an almost guttural sound when pronouncing the letter.

Fallon asked if he got it right. “You’re saying it correctly for Europe and America,” Oyèlọ́wọ̀ said. “Don’t try. Don’t even go there.”

The Yoruba language is governed by tonal markings that determine the inflection of a letter and the overall meaning of a word. For example, the term Ìgbá means a fleshy green and white fruit, commonly known as garden egg in Nigeria; Igba means 200; and Ìgbà means time or season. The meaning of a word is not determined by spelling, but rather by tone. Unlike the Igbo language, which has two tonal levels, Yoruba has three — elevated, middle and depressed. The tonal marking above the “a” is used to dictate whether the speaker’s voice should be elevated, even or depressed in order to distinguish what they are actually saying. The diacritic dot below a letter (mostly vowels) is used to indicate how the letter should be pronounced. The letter “ṣ” is different from the letter “s” because it requires the speaker to make a rushing “sh” sound. If the dot is placed below “ẹ” or “ọ”, the speaker is also required to elongate the sound of the letter or make an open-e or open-o sound.

The dexterity of the Yoruba language isn’t limited to how words are pronounced. According to The History of Yorubas by the Rev. Samuel Johnson, Yoruba adverbs are often created to suit the word it qualifies and thus intensify the idea conveyed by the word. In Yoruba, adverbs are known to deepen the meaning of words, which in turn allows the speaker to convey a more expressive phrase.

Despite how pervasive Yoruba is, the life expectancy of the language is directly affected by who is speaking it. Like every country, the Nigerian middle class shapes the nation’s socio-economic direction. With a per-capita daily consumption of $2-20, Nigeria’s middle class accounts for almost 23 percent of the total population, according to a 2011 African Development Bank report. It’s the economic power behind Nigeria’s reported $2 million weekly online transactions in 2014. Nigeria’s middle class is also educated. In survey conducted by Renaissance Capital, a Russian investment bank with projects in sub-Saharan Africa, 92 percent of Nigeria’s middle class has obtained a post-secondary education or studied at an institution of higher learning. The middle class has enough economic and educational power to determine what language is used to communicate to them and a majority of Nigeria’s population.

Egbokhare, the Ibadan linguist, said the ubiquity of English will determine what kinds of products Nigerians buy, pushing them toward imports intended for generalized international consumption. “The dependence on foreign products is also driven by a culture import mentality sustained through the use of foreign languages,” he said.

“To break that, [Nigeria] needs to return to local languages as tools for encoding local economies and adapting foreign ones.”

Túbọ̀sún notes that the responsibility falls on entities like the government, schools and cultural institutions to emphasize the importance of learning and preserving indigenous languages. Nigeria’s most recent national policy on education, which was revised in 2004, states that from early childhood up until secondary education, indigenous languages that are the primary language spoken in the area where the school is located should be used as a medium of instruction while other indigenous languages should be taught as a foreign language.  But as curriculums balloon with government-mandated trade classes like marketing, bookkeeping and fishery, little time is dedicated to teaching Nigeria’s indigenous languages. Meanwhile, French remains a major part of many curricula.

According to Túbọ̀sún, who taught English for over three years in a private, Catholic school in Lagos, the failure to emphasize Nigerian language education in schools is a failure to model the Nigerian curriculum in a way that is truly representative of the students it is meant to serve.

“We have created a syllabus for ourselves that tells us the world is one way, when it is not,” Túbọ̀sún said. We are standing in the airy quadrangle that is part of University of Ibadan’s Arts Department.

“Even the literature taught in schools,” he continued. “Why are we teaching students literature in English, which is usually always Shakespeare? Why don’t we just teach literature and have students read Igbo text, Yoruba text and so on? Just call it literature and have them read from as many texts as possible. Limiting it to English is also limiting the imagination of the students. Nigerian students leave secondary schools thinking that literature is only Shakespeare.”

Organizations like the National Institute for Nigerian Languages (NINL) were established to champion the country’s indigenous languages by teaching educators how to teach students using indigenous languages as a means of instruction while also offering general indigenous language education to educators. Unfortunately, a lack of funding and a misunderstanding of the Institute’s role has resulted in an overall weakening of the organization’s authority. Nigeria’s National Universities Commission has challenged NINL on its authority to train and award degrees to educators or interested students because of its role as an institute and not a university.

“Statements like ‘institutes don’t award degrees’ are incorrect,” said Ben Elugbe, former executive director of NINL. “You have to know language and the basis of the policy for you to understand the importance of maintaining an organization like NINL.”

In 2017, Túbọ̀sún will launch Yorubaword, an offshoot of his existing platform that will focus on providing definitions for every Yoruba word and phrase. Laila Le Guen, a team member at YorubaName, said the new website and Túbọ̀sún’s work is a response to “a yearning to see one’s culture represented online.”

Several weeks after I met him in Ibadan, Túbọ̀sún and I were in a bookstore in Lagos. As we stood inside, a woman walked in to purchase a compilation of Yoruba proverbs. Túbọ̀sún noticed and, unable to ignore the coincidence, asked, “Are you interested in Yoruba?” The woman nodded, and Túbọ̀sún launched into it.

“You should check out YorubaName.com. It’s online dictionary that provides translations for Yoruba names.”

Ashley Okwuosa
Ashley Okwuosa is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria.