Monday 20 June 2022

Research Notes: About the Name Yoruba by Stephen Banji Akintoye, Retired Professor, Department of History, University of Ife

"A curious debate is going on about the group name of the Yorùbá nation, the name ‘Yoruba’. All sorts of strange and fanciful things are being said about this name. Also, many people are calling on me to intervene in the debate. I therefore hereby intervene.

But I cannot participate in the more flippant levels of debate over this or any matter; I can only make known the results of my serious research. I might add that what I reveal here is a small peep into a very important body of research on the Yoruba nation, a body of research.

In 1963 also, in the course of an interview of a group of Ìkìrun Chiefs and Elders in Ìkìrun (mostly about Ìkìrun’s role in the 19th century Yorùbá wars), I learnt about an old local ruler, Oḅa Adékans̀ọ́la,́ the Oḷóbaagun of Oḅaagun, near Ìkìrun.

Oḅa Adékaǹsọlá was locally reputed to be much informed about Yorùbá history and traditions. Next morning, I went to interview the Oḷoḅaagun.  He was a man of advanced age, mentally alert, well-travelled, and remarkably knowledgeable about Yorùbáland and Yorùbá traditions.

In the course of a long and richly informative interview, we came to the issue of the name Yorùba.́ The Oḷọ́baagun stated that this name was the common name for the entire Yorùbá people from ancient times. He added that according to traditions that were still alive in some parts and among some traditional elite elements in Yorùbáland, the name was first applied to the early Yorùbá traders who used to go and trade in the countries of the Upper Niger (roughly modern Mali).

Most of those early traders were from the early group of settlements in the Ife area – before all the settlements in that area merged together to form the town of Ile-Ife and the kingdom of Ife. The name, he said, became, in the marketplaces of the Upper Niger, the name for all traders who spoke various dialects of what we now call the Yorùbá language and who came from the same distant forest homeland in the southeast of the Upper Niger.

Over time, the name came home with the traders. He added that by the time, later, when Arab traders began to come south across the Middle Niger to trade directly with Yorùbá people in the ancient settlements of the Ifẹ̀ area, Yorùbá people in general were already loosely known as Yorùbá or Yariba – and that that is why Yorùbá people call the Arabs Laŕúbaẃa.́

Asked to explain the point about Lárúbáwá, he answered, “We were known as Yorùba,́ but when the Arab traders came, they called us Yárúbáwá which means ‘Yorùbá people’ in their language. In our marketplaces, our people turned that around and called them Alárúbáwáor Laŕúbáwá. – meaning ‘the ones who say Yárúbáwá’, or ‘the ones who call us Yárúbáwá’. We still call the Arabs Lárúbáwá today, and I have been told that we are the only people in the world who call them so”.

1909 - 1913 Yoruba (not located); Photographer  - Northcote Whitridge Thomas ; Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge UK P.29063.NWT.

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