UWI STAN is pleased to continue the “Language Matters” series for the 50th Anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago. The series is provided by the Linguistics Section, Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI, St Augustine.
Yoruba is spoken by one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. It is also the mother tongue of segments of the population in the neighbouring Republic of Benin (previously Dahomey), Togo, and among immigrant groups in Ghana. The language came to the Caribbean as a result of the slave trade. From the late seventeenth century Oyo, the political capital of the Yoruba Empire, took advantage of the Atlantic trade and began capturing neighbouring peoples as well as Yoruba-speaking peoples on the fringes of their empire. These captives were traded through ports in Dahomey (Benin). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the opening up by the British of a port at Lagos, immediately south of Oyo, encouraged an increase in the trade, which flourished in the nineteenth century on account ofthe political disintegration of Oyo and a sequence of civil wars among the Yoruba-speaking sub-groups. The largest cohorts of Yoruba in the western hemisphere were likely products of these nineteenth century forced migrations.
On the basis of sentence remnants and vocabulary items collected in Trinidad in the 1960s and 70s from firstand second-generation descendants of these immigrants, the sub-groups of Yoruba speakers arriving in Trinidad and other eastern Caribbean islands were: the Ekiti, Ijesha, Egba, Egbado, Oyo, and Ijebu. Lexical (vocabulary) choice substantiated the identification by informants of the geographical origins of their ancestors. Variant grammatical forms, as well as phonological peculiarities, were other indices of divergent regional origins. Informants’ shifting between these varieties suggests that there was insufficient diachronic depth in the immigrant experience for a koine to have developed, and the first-generation Caribbean-born descendants did not enjoy an exclusivity of Yoruba language immersion for a consistency of usage to have evolved.
This linguistic variation was, however, insufficient to prevent mutual intelligibility among originary regional dialects, as social intercourse in Trinidad was strengthened by the pattern of residential settlements in Yoruba language ‘blocks’ or ‘islands’. Such settlement practices were possible especially in the post-emancipation period. This is because Africans continued to be brought into the colonies despite the suspension of the slave trade in 1809 and the cessation of slavery in 1838. These importations continued well into the 1860s.
Social and ritual activities among the immigrants included christenings, marriages, and funerals; there were also collective work, financial, and marketing events. Some villages received Yoruba names; some children were given Yoruba names reminiscent of ancestors or of the conditions surrounding their birth. First- and secondgeneration children growing in an environment where Yoruba formed the domestic and social language were apt to develop an affective relationship with the language, but the pressures from the wider society of schooling and peer usage of languages such as French Creole and English Creole undermined their practice of Yoruba expression. Yet the language was retained as a secret code and as a signal of ethnic bonding by younger speakers. However, by midtwentieth century, Yoruba had declined into non-reciprocal and minimally productive use as its speakers lapsed in memory, and reduced in numbers.
Throughout the twentieth century individuals have publicly advocated the teaching of Yoruba as a vehicle for re-connection with Africa, and some persons have privately held classes to this end. But interest in such projects has quickly waned in light of the limited usefulness of this language to Trinidad and Tobago in a language environment dominated by the world importance of English, and the ubiquity of Spanish in the Caribbean context.
Yet a still relevant domain of Yoruba language use remains that of religion. One rite distinguished the Yoruba: the ceremonies in adoration of the orisha or deities, who are mainly symbolic of powerful natural phenomena. Hundreds of short, repetitive chants in praise of the orisha continue in use in Trinidad and Tobago among adherents of the Orisha religion. Less well-known among the present-day Yoruba religious community are songs which lament death and exile, or celebrate kinship, love, and social cohesion. Such songs were known by the Yoruba descendants who were still alive in the midtwentieth century. In addition to these sung corpora, there is a vocabulary of religious terminology, sometimes expressed in Yoruba, and at times in English calques. Food preparations, which were once routine, are retained in religious observance and are identified by their Yoruba names. Although a minority religious observance, a revival of the Orisha religion has been a result of the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s and has concomitantly brought about a resurgence of interest in the Yoruba language. This has involved the introduction of new terms for religious functionaries, ritual actions and concepts, along with the learning of Yoruba religious texts, especially from the corpus of Ifa divination, an adjunct to Orisha worship. These users are not however productive speakers, but rote reproducers of poems and prayers. Attempts have also been made to interpret the Yoruba of the traditional chants and to render them in English translation. The singer and Orisha devotee, Ella Andall, has made several recordings of some of these songs. Similar renditions have been made by Cuban and Brazilian Orisha adepts. Indeed, the networking with other Orisha communities, whether in Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, or the United States, has led to travel to such locations and the interchange with them of linguistic and religious knowledge.
Yoruba has loaned a few words to the lexical repertoire of Trinidad and Tobago. Among them are: obi seed ‘kolanut’, dada head ‘matted hair’, susu ‘collective savings drawn in rotation by the contributors’, akra ‘fried batter of wheat flour and shredded salted fish’, god-horse ‘praying mantis’, wood-slave ‘gecko’, Shango and Shango Baptist ‘names for Yoruba-related religions in Trinidad and Tobago’.
Did you know? The last Africa-born Yoruba speakers came in the 1860s (apart from recent immigrants), well after emancipation. Other languages from the Niger-Congo language family that came to the Caribbean include Akan (Twi or Asante), Igbo or Ibo, Mandingo or Maninka (Mande) and Fon. Afro-Asiatic languages, such as Hausa, a Chadic language, also came, as well as Arabic by way of the Hausa, Fulani and other Islamicized Savannah peoples of West Africa, particularly those living in urban centres.
Selected vocabulary and other contributions to T&T language: accra, dada, Shango, sousou (susu) and word-for-word translations (calques) such as “X is people too”; “What do you?”; “me one”; “one-one”; “throw water to (the plant or other noun phrase)”; “to go in town”; “all time”; “to bad talk”; “sweet mouth”.