My May 13, 2012 column titled "The Arabic origins of common Yoruba words" elicited interesting reactions. These reactions can be categorized into three: outrage that I dare suggest that Arabic has any influence on the Yoruba language, claims that the presence of Arabic words in Yoruba is linguistic evidence of the age-old myth that the ancestral provenance of Yoruba people is actually traceable to the Middle East, and contestations of the accuracy of the Arabic etymology of some of the Yoruba words my article highlighted.
The first reaction isn't worthy of a serious response because it is inspired by visceral, knee-jerk, and pity-inspiring ignorance. Every living, progressive language in the world borrows from other languages. Any language that stops borrowing will sooner or later die. That's an enduring truth about languages. Borrowing isn't suggestive of weakness; it's mere linguistic self-preservation. After all, English, the world's most widely spoken language, is also the world's greatest beneficiary of loan words from other languages.
As for the suggestion that the presence of swaths of Arabic words in Yoruba is indicative of the Middle Eastern origins of Yoruba people, nothing could be more ridiculous than that. First, for historical reasons, Arabic loan words started to appear in Yoruba only from about the 15th century at the peak of the Trans- Saharan Trade. Before then, there was no shred of linguistic evidence that Arabic and Yoruba had had any relationship.
Second, the Middle Eastern myths of origin that most Nigerian ethnic groups cherish about themselves are basically nineteenth-century fictions that British colonialists helped to popularize in order to create collective identities among our disparate ethnic and linguistic groups. Like all myths of origin, they have no basis in truth.
Third, most of the Arabic words in Yoruba did not come to the language through direct borrowing; they came to it by way of the Hausa language whose speakers had extensive trade and cultural relations with the Yoruba from about the 15th century. Interestingly, many early Arabic words in Hausa were also not borrowed directly from Arabic; they came to Hausa through Kanuri, the first major Nigerian language to borrow directly from Arabic. (The Kanuri have had contact with the Arab world from as early as the 9th century, that is, only two centuries after the founding of Islam and at least three centuries before any part of Nigeria had any contact with Arabs or Islam).
From a socio-linguistic perspective, what the presence of Arabic loan words in Yoruba (and other Nigerian languages) evidences is the reality of the time-honored linguistic and cultural conversation between Nigeria's diverse peoples--and among the three major African language families found in Nigeria.
There are four major language families in Africa: the Afro-Asiatic language family, the Niger-Congo language family, the Nilo-Saharan language family, and the Khoisan language family. The only language family that has no representative in Nigeria is the Khoisan family, which is exclusively found in southern Africa.
Kanuri is a member of the Nilo-Saharan family (although some scholars are now questioning the accuracy of this classification), Hausa is a member of the Afro-Asiatic family, and Yoruba is a member of the Niger-Congo family. Yet, in spite of belonging to different language families, Kanuri, Hausa, Yoruba, and other Nigerian languages extensively shared the vocabularies of a foreign language for trade, cultural and religious purposes.In other words, what the Arabic presence in Yoruba language provides evidence for is the robust Trans-Saharan Trade-inspired historical and cultural interactions between Nigeria's north and Nigeria's southwest before the advent of British colonialism.
That, for me, is the biggest take-away from this whole debate.
The third reaction to my article came mostly from Yoruba academics, the most prominent being Professor AkinbiyiAkinlabi. Akinbiyi is a professor of linguistics at Rutgers University, USA, and president of the World Congress of African Linguistics.
In his response to my article in the USA/Africa Dialogue Series, an Internet discussion group of African and American academics, he wrote: "while I agree with your judgment on most of the words you discussed, I doubt two of the words: atele 'following' and asiri 'secret'.
"Atele 'following' the word 'tele' 'follow' is completely native. It is from two verbs 'te' 'press'/'step', and le 'drive'/'come after'. It has to be a compound because the phono-tactics of the word disobeys the regular harmony, because the two vowels [E] and [e] normally do not co-occur in the same root. (The initial [a] is just a noun-forming prefix.). Finally the stem 'tele' undergoes normal reduplication, as in tele-n-tele 'one after another'. No other LOAN you cited behaves this way.
"Asiri 'secret', is at best questionable. The reason is that the stem again has been argued to consist of two verbs: si 'open', ri 'see'. Again, the initial [a] is just a noun-forming prefix."
In my response to Akinlab's response, I noted that my article wasnot a serious scholarly interrogation but merely a "popular" reflection inspired only by Italian linguistBaldi's paper on the subject. Not being a native Yoruba speaker or a professional linguist, I added, I deferred to his judgment on the untenability of claims of Arabic origins for "atele." However, I pointed out, evidence from other Nigerian languages challenge his conclusions on "asiri."
It isn't only in Yoruba that "asiri" means "secret." The word is also present in Batonu (my native language, which is spoken in Nigeria's Kwara State and in northern and central Benin Republic by over a million people), Hausa, Kanuri, and several languages in central and northern Nigeria. So it's unlikely that "asiri" is native to Yoruba. The case for the word's Arabic origin, I said, seems compelling.
What is more, the first scholarly article on the Arabic origins of common Yoruba words, which formed the backdrop of Baldi's own paper, was written by a Yoruba man by the name of M.O.A. Abdul. Titled "Arabic loan words in Yoruba" and published in 1976 in YORUBA: Journal of the Yoruba Studies Association of Nigeria, the article listed "atele" and "asiri" as having Arabic origins.
Curiously, it was Professor Akinlabi who not only called my attention to Abdul's paper but sent a scanned copy of it to me. (If you're interested in seeing the original paper, go to my blog at www.farooqkperogi.com for a PDF version of it). Yet he missed the fact that I was not the one who assigned Arabic origins to the words in contention. I only called attention to it.