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Oduyoye Celebrating a Language Expert at 80

It was a gathering of radical, unapologetic thinkers at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, the Oyo State Capital. The occasion was the celebration of a most distinguished exegete, language engineer and polyglot, Octogenarian Modupe Oduyoye at 80. Deputy Editor, YEMI OGUNSOLA and Features Editor, GBUBEMI GOD’S COVENANT SNR were part of the celebration. Their report.


Wednesday, March 18th was a day Christians, scientists, Orunmila devotees, atheists and agnostics, gathered to celebrate Modupe Adedoyin Oduyoye, the man who speaks and teaches in English and Yoruba fluently and reads and writes Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Akkadian and Ugarit. Oduyoye also has teachable knowledge of many Nigerian and African languages like Hausa, Tiv, Efik, Ibibio, Igbo, Fon, Twi… the list is endless.

All these he wields as a formidable WMD – Weapon of Mass Discovery – to make astounding discoveries about the origin, meaning and relationships between words, languages and the peoples who speak them.When he turned this “weapon” on the Book of Genesis, he came out with “The Sons Of The Gods And The Daughters Of Men”; When he turned it on Yoruba language, he came out with “Yoruba Religious Discourse”. There are about eleven other equally illuminating books in his kitty.

He tells us Yoruba alejo (stranger) is cognate with Arabic Elhaj; that Igbo dibia (medicine man) is cognate with Arabic tibia, Hebrew baal (lord), eloahare cognate with Yoruba baale and oluwa respectively; Yoruba ehoro, English hare and the words hurry, hour are all linked by the h-r consonants expressing the concept of time, speed. He draws our attention to the fact that the species of cows reared by the Fulani is something indicus (related to India) then asks us why in all West Africa, it is the Fulani maid that exposes her navel – like it’s done in India.

Let us meet this man who started out poor in mathematics, not good in algebra and who failed his first year in secondary school at Ijebu Ode Grammar School in 1947, but overcame all that to study Hebrew at Yale in the United States in 1964, Comparative Semitic Linguistics at the Linguistics Institute of the Linguistics Society of America on a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1965, Arabic at Yale from 1965 to 1966 and Middle Egyptian in London from 1969 to 1970.

Daily Times wondered what propelled the frail-looking academic into studying all those languages. His reply:

“Latin was taught in almost every secondary school in Nigeria in my time; so that gave me my third language automatically after Yoruba and English.

“Hausa and Ibo came as a result of environment circumstances because my father was transferred to the North when I was about five years old.

“While in Jos, I went to St. Jude’s school; it was an Anglican primary school and most of the pupils there were from Southern Nigeria comprising Yoruba and Igbo mostly. While we played together as pupils, I listened and learnt when they spoke their Ibo language, and in the Jos environment I picked up some Hausa. So, I already got more than one Nigerian language even before I left Primary School.

Like stepping into destiny, the passion for language research came naturally after his secondary education. Oduyoye was teaching at Ibadan Boys High School when he was approached to teach Yoruba language to some expatriates who were in town, and this was arranged through the Extra Moral Department of the University College, Ibadan.

“I was teaching the expatriates Yoruba language and this enabled me to ‘roll back’ (because years of English literature and English Language was distancing me from Yoruba); now that I had to teach people my language, the etymology (meaning of words) of my language began to come back.

“I began to analyse and explain to them things which we Yoruba did not need to explain to ourselves. So, this was the beginning of my analysing the language in order that a non-native speaker can understand it. That procedure is called ‘contrastive linguistics’. You analyse one language and analyse the other, then you transfer from one to the other to teach to pupils.”

Still flying on the wings of destiny, Oluyoye offered to be Travelling Secretary for the Students Christian Movement in 1963, and the President of the Movement, Professor Okparaji Idowu, noticing his passion, thought theological studies would do him some good. That threw Oduyoye into digging further into ancient European languages at Yale Developing School in the United States where theOld and New testaments of the Bible were studied.

“The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, while the New Testament was in Greek, so there was opportunity for me to study Greek and Hebrew; that was strengthening the Indo-European side of my acquisition of European languages. I addedSanskrit (?) to the Latin, but the Hebrew was my first Semitic language.

“At the same time I was doing a course in Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics in the Linguistics Department at Yale; so by the time I got to second year when I was going to start Hebrew, I had already got interested in the comparison of languages.”

During his first long vacation in the United States, Oduyoye won a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies to study at the Linguistics Institute of the Linguistic Society of America. “There I did a course in grammar, phonology and in Comparative Semitic Linguistics with comparison with Ancient Egyptian and other African languages and that threw me into what I now call the Afro Asiatic Languages — and Hausa was already recognised as one of them. When I came back to Nigeria, I decided to brush up my childhood Hausa at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Ibadan.

“There I was told Prof Hoffman was going to take a course in Hausa and I told him I wanted to register for the course; he asked me why, and I told him about my interest in pursuing the relationship between Hausa and Hebrew, Arabic and Yoruba. He said he didn’t think it was worthwhile, that he didn’t think there was any possibility of doing that kind of comparison.”

But unwilling to discourage the young African altogether, Prof Hoffman personally took Oduyoye to Professor El Garr, an Egyptian in the Department of Arabic and Islamic studies, who was so excited at the young man’s record that he asked him to be coming from home to his Arabic Literature class even when he didn’t register as a student at UI.

“Gradually I was informing him of the parallels I was seeing between Arabic and Yoruba and then one day he said, ‘I think it’s time for you to give a seminar in the Department of Linguistics on this matter’.

“So I did a seminar in UI on Multiple Stage Linguistic Relationship, Yoruba and Semitic Languages in January of 1968. By the time I gave that lecture, I think I was already launched on my career of exploration of linguistics comparisons.”


Who would he really say the man, Modupe Oduyoye is?

“If I say I am Modupe Oduyoye, I don’t know if that means anything. I would say circumstances of life from teen age have thrown me into periods of problems.

“My father was invalidate from the Federal Civil Service because of illness and that changed our family structure. We used to be ‘civil servant’s children’ with our father’s salary assured every month, pension to look forward to, travelling on government’s ticket. When your father is transferred from Jos to Ibadan, for example, government just issues a warrant on Nigerian Railway and all of you get into 2nd Class cabin. We lived in government quarters in Jos.

“Now, daddy had to be on his own and we began to see money coming in; money not coming in; and he had to become an employer of labour and since he couldn’t afford so many, he began to involve his growing children in his work. We began to face the reality of self-employment…

“I am glad that those circumstances happened in our lives because it didn’t make us rest on our oars thinking that the future is secure. We lived from week to week, I can say, but we managed to have a living.

“Since my father left government service as a result of failing health, the failing health began to manifest as alcoholism. Later on in life, I learnt that alcoholism is a type of mental illness. We had to cope with that from when I was about ten … till practically when he died in 1983.

“That meant that my elder brother and I had to grow up fast to uphold the family. He had given us very good foundation. I can speak for myself. When I saw things trying to crash, I said to myself, ‘no, this house cannot crash; this man has two sons’.

A house of our own

We moved in here when I was 25 years old. I graduated at 23 and closed my eyes to owning a car in an age when, if you were graduated, by the following week you’re driving a car around. But I just shut my eyes to it because I said to myself, my father had a house before when we were young, he sold it; we had no address anymore. I felt like a person without a fixed address. So I said we must restore this fixed address of ours.

This place has been our fixed address since 1960; and to be able to do it, I had to forego a car; and I remember somebody who said, ‘Dupe, you’re still riding a bicycle after you graduated? You will not get a wife in this country’.

“Lo and behold, I did not get a wife in this country, because it was difficult at that time to call yourself a graduate and you’re riding a bicycle around, who was going to marry you?

Did attempt wooing any lady?

“No lady actually said ‘I won’t marry you because you don’t have a car’, but I noticed they were watching and waiting for me to have a car, and I was telling myself:

‘Sorry, that’s not what’s in my head. I can’t be driving a car around and my father will be living in a rented house; and then when our family is coming to meet your family, when it comes to yours coming to meet us, where would you come? A rented apartment? No.’

“So I went in for the house; and I told myself this premises is my first car; I got it in 1960, and I am still living in it by God’s grace.”

How long did he have to wait to get married?

“I waited eight years; met her at a conference of the World Students Christian Federation in Ghana. I was General Secretary of the Students Christian Movement in Nigeria and she was treasurer of the Students Christian Movement in Ghana. We got married in 1968.


The discourse with Oduyoye continues with his findings on blood, reincarnation, abortion, God and Christianity, the forbidden fruit and many others.

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