From a social point of view, languages come into being as a crystallisation of particular imaginations of identities linked to particular ways of speaking. Sometimes these ideas grow over long periods of times. In other cases, particular encounters, with people or ideas, act as catalysts for language movements that radically alter the status quo. In my first post, I looked at Sulemaana Kantè’s vision for West African Manding, a vision for the unity of this language that is gaining traction.
Today, I present another well-documented case of the birth of a language. The birth story of Yoruba is linked to Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c. 1809-1891). Crowther, originally from Lagos, had been captured by Fulani raiders to be sold into slavery as a child, but his slave ship had been captured and, as many freed slaves of the time, he had been brought to Sierra Leone by the British who intercepted his ship. In Freetown, became part of the growing Creole community of Sierra Leone, encountered missionaries of the Church Missionary Society and converted to Christianity. After a stay in England, he enrolled at Freetown’s newly founded Fourah Bay College, where he was the first student and later, teacher. Upon his return to Nigeria, he began charting the linguistic blueprint of what became Yoruba identity in 1843: the notion of a language based on a grammar, standard orthography and codified texts. This view, close to their own romantic language ideas, found the approval and support of British colonial actors and missionaries, which added to its spread.
Yoruba nationalism became an influential movement that was not just limited to Lagos or Nigeria but extended to Brazil, where it influenced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. This change in turn had an impact on how this diaspora religion became linked to the newly established Yoruba identity. Rather than being vestiges of age-old languages and religions, standard Yoruba and Candomblé testify how, as J.L Matory put it, diasporas are not connected with homelands, but create homelands.
Read more on Yoruba genesis in this book:
Falola, Toyin & Ann Genova. 2006. Yorùbá identity and power politics (Rochester studies in African history and the diaspora, 1092-5228 [v. 22]). Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press; [Woodbridge : Boydell & Brewer]
You can find out more on Candomblé and its transatlantic entanglements here:
Matory, James L. 2005. Black Atlantic religion: Tradition, transnationalism, and matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton, N.J., Woodstock: Princeton University Press.
4 thoughts on “Diaspora dynamics and the creation of Yoruba”
Really enjoying all these posts and the fact they are accessible write-ups that point to more in-depth scholarship!
I’ve never looked at the Yoruba case closely really, but always wondered if Sulemaana Kantè was aware of Crowther. Also interesting in light of Crowther’s Christianity, relationship to “les colons”, use of Latin script etc., to see how the Yoruba case evolved compared to Manding as envisioned by Kantè.
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Also, Don Osborn just tweeted this link of a little write-up and call for a feature film about Crowther 🙂
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That is a wonderful idea! We need to pay more attention to figures like him in the early history of African linguistics.