In the wake of the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019 and the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032, many Africans have started to take a wide range of actions to advance African languages.
Writing the Yorùbá language in the borrowed Latin script may soon become a thing of the past as one Yorùbá man, Chief Tolúlàṣẹ Ògúntósìn, based in Benin, West Africa, has invented a writing system to encode the Yorùbá language.
The distinct alphabet came to him through divine inspiration in his dreams, according to Chief Ògúntósìn in a Whatsapp interview with Global Voices. He now travels across Yorùbáland — spanning Benin to Nigeria — to promote his “talking alphabet” as sent to him by his ancestors.
Chief Ògúntósìn believes that this alphabet was used by Odùduwà, the father of the Yorùbá people, in ancient times — but was lost. There are 25 symbols in all.
African linguists assert that if Africa is to grow, it must have its own orthographies or writing systems. A civilized and ancient Niger-Congo language like Yorùbá should not rely on a borrowed orthography to encode its thoughts and philosophy.
Read more: Yorùbá loanwords: How languages evolve
In 1843, Reverend Samuel Àjàyí Crowther of the Christian Missionary Society developed the Yorùbá orthography by adopting Latin script with diacritics — or accent marks. Ever since, thousands of books have been published in Yorùbá using Latin script instead of Ajami, an Arabic script used before 1843 to write in West African Indigenous languages such as Yorùbá and Hausa.
Some language advocates contend that using Latin, a foreign script, to encode African languages, keeps the continent in an enslaved mindset.
Instilling this new writing system follows a history of ancient writing systems in Africa, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Adrinka collection of the Akan tribe of Ghana, Ethiopian Ge'ez, the Nsibidi ideographic script of West Central Africa which date back to 5000 BC, as well as Vai alphabet scripts are of African origin.
Divining a ‘talking alphabet’
Global Voices Yorùbá Lingua Manager Ọmọ Yoòbá interviewed Chief Ògúntósìn, via WhatsApp voice note messaging, to learn more about how he discovered this new alphabet.
Chief Ògúntósìn, now 43, explained that after the demise of his father in 1997, he had to care for his siblings as the oldest son and could not further his education after completing secondary school.
However, as a Yorùbá chief, he focused his cultural work on uniting the seven grandchildren of Odùduwa, serving as a mediator. As his cultural integration work progressed, however, he wanted to achieve more.
In 2011, he approached a babaláwo or “diviner” of Ifa, the Yorùbá god of wisdom. The diviner, Olókun Awópẹ̀tu, told him to visit his ancestral shrine within the Farasinmi community in Badagry, Lagos State, Nigeria, and to take whatever he came into contact with at the shrine.
There, he found a “strange object” that he took with him back to Porto-Novo, Benin. When he arrived, the house was completely dark. With no light bulbs in the living room, he usually relied on light emitted from the rays of the TV screen. He placed the object on the table and switched on the TV, only to discover, surprisingly, that the object he placed on the table had disappeared. He turned the entire room upside down and finally found it in a corner of the house.
That night, he slept with the object under his pillow. He told Global Voices:
… I had a dream that I visited the sun. When I got to the sun, it was dark and I was shown the alphabet in the form of lightning. Every time I slept, I had similar dreams, going from planet to planet, teaching people how to use the script…
For three years, he kept dreaming about the alphabet, seeing visions consecutively, yet he did nothing about it.
This time around, in 2016, I went to the sun again, I met a man, Lámúrúdu, who taught me the sound of the alphabet, he afterward sanctioned me to go all over the globe teaching people the mastery of the symbols. I usually look old in my dreams — and tired — when I wake up from sleep.
Things started to become scary for Chief Ògúntósìn — he began to feel weak, he told Global Voices. He decided to narrate his dreams to a close spiritual adviser, Oníkòyí, king of Àjàṣẹ́ in Port-Novo, who counseled him to do what he was instructed in his dreams.
For this reason, he now travels from place to place in Yorùbáland to pass on his knowledge of the Odùduwà alphabet.
The following is a short video of teachers instructing students how to write the Odùduwà alphabet in a Benin classroom:
Promoting theYorùbá alphabet
In 2017, Chief Ògúntósìn, in the company of prominent traditional rulers in Yorùbáland and the diaspora, paid a visit to Rauf Arẹ́gbẹ́ṣọlá, the one-time governor of Nigeria’s Ọ̀ṣun State, in Òṣogbo, the state capital, to solicit support for his newly found Odùduwà alphabet. Arẹ́gbẹ́ṣọlá now serves as the Minister of the Federal Ministry of Interior of Nigeria.
Three years later, regrettably, verbal promises made by former governor Arẹ́gbẹ́ṣọlá to teach the discovered alphabet in elementary schools across southwest Nigeria have gone unfulfilled.
In a bid to make the Odùduwà alphabet popular, Chief Ògúntósìn has written a book and produced a documentary on the orthography — with snippets uploaded on the internet for public viewing — as well as an abandoned cartoon project which did not see the light of day due to lack of funds.
He calls on all stakeholders to support the promotion of his linguistic discovery that will checkmate Western writing culture and give the Yorùbá people their deserved identity in terms of language development.
A kind-hearted Yorùbá man, Sunday Adéníyì, supported the cause by printing 1,000 copies of the “Aèébàèjìogbè Odùduwà Alphabets” exercise book for primary school pupils.
Copies of the educational pamphlets were printed in Igbo, Hausa, English, and French languages respectively. However, more support is crucial to disseminate the alphabet to a wider audience.
The Odùduwà alphabet is a welcome development. Nevertheless, the shift from writing in Latin to the new system will be a major challenge.
That said, the Odùduwà alphabet is a great step in the right direction toward the development and growth of the Yorùbá language — in what Yorùbá people will call their own.