Yoruba Language: A Legacy of People, Literature, and Culture

February 1, 2024
Yoruba Language: A Legacy of People, Literature, and Culture

People know Yoruba as a language, but it’s the name of the mother tongue spoken by the ethnic group that was named after the language itself. The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in the African continent, with communities primarily found living in West Africa with a population of around 40 million people. 

Historical Background and Origin of the Yoruba Tribe

The Yoruba (or Yariba) weren’t originally known by that term. The people have had different names throughout history, such as “Akú”, "Lucumi”, "Nago,", "Anago," and "Ana". The name Yoruba came in much later, in the 16th century, when it was written in a treatise by a Songhai scholar, Ahmed Baba. Ever since then, the use of the word “Yoruba” came to mean both the language and the people who speak it, spreading the nomenclature across West Africa.

It was said that the history of the Yoruba people came from two varying creation myths. One of the myths describes a man named Oduduwa, who sent his children to spread out and conquer other existing Yoruba tribes from Ile-Ife, the spiritual heartland, and place of origin for the Yoruba civilization. Eventually, his children’s descendants unified the divided cultural practices and the ethnic groups had similar ways of life.

The other myth still involves Oduduwa, but more as a religious or spiritual figure, as he’s sent by Olodumare, the Creator, to form humankind out of the clay of Ile-Ife. 

The Yoruba Language

The Yoruba language belongs to the Niger-Congo language family, one of the main language families in the African continent, spoken predominantly by the Yoruba people. It has a rich linguistic texture and is known for its tonal qualities, with three distinct tones that can change the meaning of a word.

The language has adapted over time, incorporating elements from other languages due to trade, migration, and colonial influences. Yoruba is not only a means of communication, but also an integral part of the cultural and philosophical expressions of the Yoruba people.

Yoruba Geographical Distribution and Dialects

The Yoruba language is interesting in its widespread use in several countries and communities. While the Yoruba people live in a specific region in the African continent, the geopolitical divide has sectioned its speakers into more distinct locations, mainly in Nigeria, but also in its neighboring countries such as Benin and Togo. This geographical spread is not just limited to West Africa; Yoruba language has found its way across oceans, resonating in the voices of the African diaspora in countries like Brazil, Cuba, and Trinidad and Tobago. Each region, whether in Africa or beyond, adds to the dynamic nature of Yoruba, making it a living, evolving language that not only serves as a means of communication but also as a vessel of cultural identity and continuity.


Nigeria has the most Yoruba speakers and has one of the largest populations in various communities, comprising 21 percent of the population of modern-day Nigeria. The Yoruba people are primarily found in the southwestern part of the country, including states like Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, and Oyo. Each region has developed its dialects over time, although Standard Yoruba, based on the dialect of the Oyo area, is widely understood and used in education and media.


In the Republic of Benin, Yoruba language speakers are mostly found in the southwest, near the border shared with Nigeria with around 14% of the population speaking it. The flavor of Yoruba spoken here has been influenced by other local languages and, more majorly, French, the official language of Benin.


Similarly, in Togo, Yoruba is spoken in regions close to the Benin border, used by around 2% of the population. One of the things to note is that Ewe had a significant effect on the Yoruba language spoken by the locals.

Other countries

Beyond these primary regions, Yoruba communities and diasporas exist in various countries around the world, including Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States, contributing to the global tapestry of Yoruba language and culture.

Yoruban Literature and Oral Traditions

Yoruba literature is predominantly oral, with a rich tradition of storytelling, poetry, proverbs, and songs. These oral traditions are not just forms of entertainment but are also means of preserving history, moral values, and the Yoruba worldview. Epic tales, folklore, and Ifa divination chants form a significant part of this literature, offering insights into the Yoruba's understanding of the cosmos, ethics, and society.

Yoruba’s Impact on African and Global Culture

The Yoruba people have significantly influenced African culture through their religious beliefs, art, and music. Yoruba religious concepts have spread across Africa and into the Americas, notably in forms like Santería and Candomblé.

Meanwhile, Yoruba artistic expressions, especially in sculpture and mask-making, have been globally recognized for their aesthetic value and influence on modern art. Moreover, the Yoruba diaspora has played a critical role in shaping cultural identities in many parts of the world, particularly through music and cuisine.

It’s not uncommon, especially in high-immigrant countries like the U.S., to find smaller Yoruba communities sharing their food and culture with visitors who are interested in learning more about culture.


The Yoruba people, with their rich history and vibrant culture, have made a profound impact on the world. Their language, literature, and traditions continue to be a source of fascination and respect. As we delve into the depths of their cultural legacy, we find a tapestry rich in mythology, philosophy, and artistry, offering invaluable insights into not just African history, but also the shared human experience. Contact Tomedes for your Yoruba translations, and work with professional and reliable translators.

By Raphaella Funelas

Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.



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