Differences between English and Yoruba intellectual production

Would you say that the type of debate going on in the English-language West African press between the 1880’s and 1920’s was different in any way from the types of debates going on in the local language press, in associational and missionary newspapers, and in the Yoruba-language pamphlets you’ve looked at?

My first answer is yes, of course they were different, but no, they should not be studied as a different kind of production. This ambiguous answer is the result of a misdirected approach to the issue.

The obvious (and with a wider scope) difference between English-language and Yoruba-language presses is, of course, the language. Writing in English or in Yoruba meant that authors had different language skills; publishers/printers needed different kinds of hardware (typeset cases), since the alphabets were not the same; and readers – at least the person who read in common rooms or on the corners of the busy streets – had to know how to read in the written language. So, yes, writing in English was different than writing in Yoruba, especially when taking in consideration the whole cycle of production from the author to the reader.

However, these differences do not mean that authors writing in Yoruba, publishers publishing in Yoruba and readers reading in Yoruba were necessarily different than the ones writing, publishing and reading in English. Of course, there are many examples of authors that only wrote in one language, in the same way that there are many cases of authors writing in both languages; making translations or writing about completely different subjects in each language.

In my database I have registered 320 pamphlets, of which 133 are in English, 86 in Yoruba, 24 in English and Yoruba (bilingual)[1]. Although my database is not complete, these numbers show the complexity of classifying the pamphlets, even with something that seems to be so simple and straightforward. Some of the pamphlets written entirely in Yoruba language have sometimes one sentence in English[2], even when everything else is in Yoruba. And pamphlets in English often had complete sentences or poems in Yoruba. I opted to not classify these cases as a bilingual. In the pool of pamphlets that I did consider bilingual, there were at least three different kinds of bilingualism: those written all in Yoruba, but with a preface, or introduction or title in English[3] (5 from the 24); those with all the content written in both languages (8 from 24)[4]; and those whose topic is about the two languages, such as dictionaries, grammars, translations of proverbs or names of God (11 of 24). There was a fourth possibility – completely different contents in English and Yoruba – that I could not find so far among the pamphlets I have, but I know that in the case of newspapers there were a couple of examples, such as Yoruba News.

Back to the statistics, the numbers of pamphlets written in English (133) and in Yoruba are not so further apart (86). But the ambiguities in classifying the bilinguals, gave me an idea of an interesting exercise. If for a moment we considered the bilinguals as pamphlets written in English [133(English) + 24 (bilingual) = 157], the total number would be almost double of the pamphlets written in Yoruba. But if we considered them as written in Yoruba (which is a very plausible option, since they have complete content in Yoruba Language), the number of pamphlet in Yoruba [ 86 (Yoruba) + 24 (bilingual) = 110] would be very close to those written in English.

The point I want to make here is that the first obvious classification to analyse differences between English language and local language press it is not as clear as it seems. And there are enough cases of doubt and dubiety to change results completely. We cannot even say for certain if there are significantly more pamphlets written in English or just some more.

Focusing on the debates (and maybe finally answering your question), the problem gets even harder. To say if debates published in English were different than the ones published in Yoruba, we could try classifying them in genres or topics and if with Language is already difficult, imagine with debates!! But if we use some generalising genres such as Religion, History, Language and Culture (traditions, proverbs, etc) we may have some results.

a) In the Yoruba Language pamphlets:

History – 14

Religion – 44

Language – 8

Culture and tradition – 12

Other – 8

b) And the pamphlets in English:

History – 49

Religion – 48

Language – 10-

Culture and tradition – 23

Others – 19

Roughly classifying the pamphlets, I found that there are more pamphlets written in English about History and Culture than in Yoruba Language. We could say that the West African press written in English, that aimed to a wider audience,  was more concerned about history than the associational and/or missionary press that were publishing in Yoruba. We could even go as far as Zackernuk goes to say that intellectuals were trying to write their history in English, to fight prejudice – using English categories, concepts and format – to show that Africans were as civilised as Europeans. It could be. But I disagree.

I believe that the categories used above are big concepts used to cover a variety of genres that are very difficult to classify. I think that there are more pamphlets about History, because I am –as a historian – adding those pamphlets under the history umbrella; and – as it happened with Language – numerous pamphlets would have to be classified in more than one genre, including in genres that cannot/should not be included in those used above. In other words, genres are not a good way to approach the pamphlets.

I argued in the chapter 4 of my thesis that the best way to study the Lagosian intellectual production and their authors is through the debates. As I explained, one of the characteristics of the intellectual debates in West Africa is that they continued through different media (oral and written, newspapers and pamphlets, English and Yoruba). For instance, the polygamy debate that I used as my study case: following the discussion of Christians could be polygamous, we could see how the debate transcended barriers of language and genre (and also media, place, social class etc).

Again, I am not saying that no differences can be found in both presses. Even in bilingual newspapers, where the same content supposedly was written in both languages, we find that this is not true. Barber explained that translations were like writing another text over again. Not only that language changed, but many times the content too. And this was not only between English and Yoruba. Translating from oral to written, and from newspapers articles to pamphlets also had a similar transformation. When the media changed, the process of translation also involved rewriting the text.

I have not found yet a big debate exclusively in Yoruba language. But as I said before, my Yoruba skills are poor and I still have a lot of material to cover. But even if the Yoruba press had some exclusive debates, I do not believe that  we can say they were a separate or complete different kind of press. As I explained before, many of the authors were the same, and many debates crossed over the two languages with no interruption in the line of reasoning. The pool of intellectual production, even with some differences that have to be pointed out, was the same pool. And the search for differences usually rises from a generalising approach to this production. To find the differences, these publication should be read one by one, in detail (as Barber was doing with the Yoruba Newspapers) and not with generalising concepts that cover all the differences and richness.

Conclusion: I argue in my thesis that the best way to understand the intellectual production in West Africa is as part of a whole. Detaching books from the newspapers, or Yoruba language press from the English written ones is a secluding approach, that breaks the dynamism of the intellectual network. The differences between English and Yoruba written intellectual production are obvious: the language, and in part the public aimed. But in my opinion there is no advantage in studying them like this.

So, is there a difference between both productions? Of course there is! But they should not be studied apart. This kind of question shows that the way this production is intended to be studied is simplistic.

[1] the 77 remaining are divided between French, French and Yoruba and information not available

[2] “Native of Ibadan” for instance

[3] Which again, brings doubts over those pamphlets that I do not have with me and that were added to the English language pool, but although they have a title in English, the content may be all in Yoruba.

[4] One more question, to make the issue even more complex, I cannot guarantee that the complete translations I quoted above (8 among 24) were necessary the same content. My Yoruba is poor, so I wouldn’t risk my neck on it. I will talk about translations as different texts further on.

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching

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6 replies

  1. Hi Nara – great post – brilliant to see your database (see previous post Hard Data on Our Soft Heads – https://africainwords.com/2012/05/30/hard-data-on-our-soft-heads-the-lagosian-intellectual-network-database/) in action and working to produce those specific results.
    Wondering about circulation and distribution, in terms of the language content – what reached who, and where were they, or where did they go to/travel to? Be interested to see how that affects your data, if at all, or any info. on it… x

    • I am working on it. But it is very difficult to follow so many, specially because we are talking about late 19th century. But I have decided to work with a case study. I am following one specific publication that are taking me all over the Atlantic, very interesting!!

  2. You mentioned some pamphlets concerning grammar in both the languages. Is there any way you could let me know a database where I could find them or similar ones? I’m in a grammar and usage class right now and for our final project I want to create a lesson plan that explores how grammar is used differently across the languages of Igbo, Hausa, Yorba, and Fula.

  3. I believe itis high time that native languages should be preserved and that the world learning a few languages is a way of the owners of these languages colonizing the world. The Yoruba language like other natives in Africa is the most populous by Masses so we should all make sure we teach our children and also make sure that our textbooks or means f learning are also done in these natives languages. For God sake that someone can’t speak French, English or Spanish does not make them a fool


  1. Differences between English and Yoruba … – Africa in Words | Metaglossia
  2. Now We Are One « Africa in Words

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