In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Yoruba Language and Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Commentaries
  • Bibliographies
  • Early Newspapers
  • Post-Independence Newspapers and Magazines
  • Journals
  • Popular Theatre
  • Modern Written and Media Poetry
  • Written Drama
  • Language History
  • Dictionaries
  • Yoruba Grammars
  • Beginners’ Language Courses
  • Translations into Yoruba

African Studies Yoruba Language and Literature
Karin Barber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0156


Yoruba is a tonal language of the Niger-Congo family and is spoken by about thirty million people, predominantly in Western Nigeria but with numerous speakers also in the neighboring Republic of Benin and Togo. Yoruba cultural influences are strong in the Caribbean and Brazil, and poetic texts associated with the worship of the Yoruba deities survive and are being reinforced by international travel between West Africa and the New World. Yoruba oral literature is rich and varied. Written Yoruba was first produced in ajami (adapted Arabic script) but extensive written texts in Yoruba began to be produced after the advent of Christian missions in the mid-19th century and were written in the Roman alphabet. One of the long-standing debates was over the appropriate way to represent tones and open and closed vowels by adapting this alphabet. Print culture, introduced by the missions in the 1840s, was quickly espoused by educated urban elites and a flourishing written literature became established from the 1880s onward. English and Yoruba texts coexisted and interacted throughout the colonial period and up to the present day, and a number of leading writers functioned equally well in both. This article provides an overview of the history of literature in the Yoruba language. It looks at oral and written texts, at Yoruba literary criticism, and at Yoruba dictionaries, grammars, language histories and beginners’ language courses.

General Overviews and Commentaries

A number of historical overviews exist. Babalọla 1985 provides a concise but comprehensive overview of a range of oral and written genres, with biographical notes on a number of key writers. Barber 2004 similarly covers both oral and written genres and includes modern performance genres from the 19th century to the present. Ogunbiyi 1988 is a collection offering very succinct but informative historical overviews. Afọlayan 1982 and Falọla and Oyebade 2011 are collections of essays by various authors touching on different aspects of oral and written literary production. The edited work Abimbọla 1975 is a compendium of essays on oral (and some written) traditions. Iṣọla 1992 makes the case for Yoruba as a literary language close to the life-world of its speakers, while Adejunmọbi 2008 takes a long historical view of the vitality of Yoruba as a literary language, from the 19th century to the present day.

  • Abimbọla, ‘Wande, ed. Yoruba Oral Tradition: Poetry in Music, Dance and Drama. Ifẹ, Nigeria: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ifẹ, 1975.

    This volume of more than one thousand pages stemmed from a major conference at the University of Ifẹ (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University) and features work by almost the whole of the then-Yoruba literary establishment. Despite the title, it includes essays on oral prose, written poetry, and miscellaneous cultural topics.

  • Adejunmọbi, Moradewun. “Technorality, Literature and Vernacular Literacy in 21st Century Africa.” Comparative Literature 60.2 (2008): 164–185.

    DOI: 10.1215/-60-2-164

    This essay considers the possibility that Yoruba-language print culture, after a century of efflorescence, is on the decline because of the growth of the media and the intensification of globalization. It concludes that Yoruba-language creativity is not waning but may be shifting into new mediatized forms such as video drama.

  • Afọlayan, A., ed. Yoruba Language and Literature. Ibadan, Nigeria: University Press, 1982.

    This volume of conference proceedings contains classic essays by luminaries of Yoruba Studies including Oyin Ogunba on festival songs, Ọ. Ọlatunji on the classification of oral poetic genres, Ayọ Bamgboṣe on lexical matching in Yoruba poetry, and essays on aspects of Yoruba grammar, dictionaries, lexical borrowing, dialect, and language in education.

  • Babalọla, Adeboye. “Yoruba Literature.” In Literatures in African Languages. Edited by B. W. Andrzejewski, S. Pilaszewicz, and W. Tyloch, 157–189. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Succinct and comprehensive historical overview covering both oral and written literatures and including biographical notes on twenty-four significant writers. Very informative.

  • Barber, Karin. “Literature in Yoruba: Poetry and Prose, Travelling Theatre and Modern Drama.” In The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature. Vol. 1. Edited by F. Abiọla Irele and Simon Gikandi, 357–378. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    This historical overview essay covers oral, written, media, and performance genres from the 19th century to the 21st century, contextualizes the development of new genres and traces the relations between oral, print, and mediatized forms. Attention is given to early print culture and to popular oral and media genres often overlooked in literary overviews.

  • Falọla, Toyin, and Adebayọ Oyebade, eds. Yoruba Fiction, Orature, and Culture: Oyekan Owomoyela and African Literature and the Yoruba Experience. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2011.

    Festschrift for Owomoyela, comprising twenty-seven essays on aspects of oral literature and its interface with writing. Topics include praise poetry, proverbs, ancestral masquerade chants, oral genres in ritual, festivals, and as historical sources; intertextuality and translation; orature in media; and legal and scientific dimensions of orature.

  • Iṣọla, Akinwumi. “The African Writer’s Tongue.” Research in African Literatures 23.1 (1992): 17–26.

    Eloquent argument in favor of writing in one’s mother tongue, by a leading Yoruba-language novelist, playwright, and poet who is also a master of English-language writing.

  • Ogunbiyi, Yẹmi, ed. Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present. 2 vols. Lagos, Nigeria: Guardian, 1988.

    This collection of short essays by a stellar cast of scholars focuses mainly on English-language literature, but it includes overviews of the history of Yoruba literature as a whole and individual pieces on the work of D. O. Fagunwa, Adebayọ Faleti, Ọladẹjọ Okediji, and Akinwumi Iṣọla.

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