Origin of the Word Yoruba
By Prof Banji Akintoye
The name “Yorùbá” By Professor Stephen Adebanji Akintoye, Emeritus Professor of History
Some non-Yoruba Nigerians are claiming that it was their own ethnic nation, such as the Hausa or Fulani, that gave the name Yoruba to the Yoruba nation, but there is absolutely no evidence confirming such an assertion. Some are also concocting derogatory meanings for the name Yoruba, apparently in order to make the Yoruba people ashamed of their nation’s name – and this is very obviously something from their hostile attitudes to, and hostile perceptions of, the Yoruba people today. There is no evidence at all that the Hausa and the Yoruba people were hostile to each other in their early history. In fact all the evidence that we have about early times is that the Yoruba and Hausa were very closely related, and that there was much trading between their two countries. Such closeness bred, among the Hausa, some myths and traditions to the effect that some Hausa communities (such as Gobir) were originally Yoruba settlements. It was not until the Fulani came with the Jihad in the early 19th century that any strain of hostility showed up between Hausaland and Yorubaland, and that strain of hostility was never between the Yoruba and the Hausa but between the Yoruba and the Fulani. Yoruba peoples’ prolific traditions have nothing about hostility between Yoruba and Hausa.
This name was the common name for the entire Yorùbá people from ancient times,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 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.
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 Lárúbáwá. We were known as Yorùbá, 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 Alárúbáwá or Lárúbáwá. – meaning ‘the ones who say Yárúbáwá’, or ‘the ones who call us Yárúbáwá’. We still call the Arabs Lárúbáwá today, we are the only people in the world who call them so.
On the whole, therefore, the available evidence seems to indicate that the Yorùbá did have, and were widely identified by, an early common group name, the name Yorùbá, in much of the West African interior. The available evidence indicates that the name was originally given to them as a group by other peoples – but, there is nothing strange in that since, in the history of the world, many peoples or nations were given their group names by neighbours or by some other peoples with whom they came in contact.
Ultimately, what is important about a nation is not its name but its record of contributions to human civilization. On such a basis, the Yoruba nation has a very great deal to be proud of, and the name Yoruba deserves to ring out proudly on the earth. My message to every Yoruba person: Your nation’s Yoruba name is a great and noble name in the world; bear it proudly everywhere, and, by your conduct, always strive to enhance its greatness and nobility.