I sometimes think Mankind, in spite of our great divide in ethnic and racial origin, languages and culture, probably have something linking us together other than the fact that we are all God’s creation and regardless of the color of our skin. Every time I watch Oprah Winfrey Talk Show on ABC or some other distinguished Black stars like Bill Cosby, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Jamie Fox, Nat King Cole the late Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, the great Mohammed Ali and so many others that time will not permit me to list in this article, I often cannot see the difference between the average white guy and the black guy in intelligence and otherwise. All of these leave me to depose that there is something fundamentally common to all of Mankind. And when I notice there are a few words in most world languages that are quite identical in meaning and connotation as well as effect, I see a compelling reason to explore this notion a little bit further.
Yes. It is generally believed that most languages derive from basically the same source and that all human beings are basically the same. It is often argued that the Greek language, the Roman Language not to talk of Aramaic, Arabic, Swahili and Hebrew to mention a few, are the foundations of languages like English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and others. I studied Latin in my Secondary School days, and I was very good in it, making a distinction in it in my School Certificate Examinations. When I later studied French in my University days at Obafemi Awolowo University in the 60s and Spanish after my relocation to the United States in the late 80s, I began to see some correlation between English and all of these languages.
In the late 70s, I was for three years, the Director representing Nigeria at the Board of Directors/Trustees of CAFRAD (African Training and Research Center in Administration for Development based in Tangiers, Morocco). During my tenure in that office, I took time off, to privately study Arabic and to brush up my French because the official languages in the Organization was Arabic, French and English. It was in that process that I discovered some striking commonalities or similarities between all of these languages. That was when I also discovered, for the first time, that there were certain words in Swahili, that were derived from Arabic or vice versa. The word ‘Salama’ in Arabic is the same as ‘Salam’ in Swahili meaning peace. So is the word ‘sadaka’ meaning alms, not only in Swahili, but also in Arabic and Hausa. You hear the almajeris in Nigeria going around singing ‘Sadaka Sabo da Allah’. If you are fluent in Swahili or Arabic, you will have no problems understanding what they are saying. You can talk of so many words like that in Swahili, Arabic and Hausa. It is just amazing, if you think about it.
I am not just talking of common words like ‘Mama’, ‘Baba’ which are used the same way in both Yoruba and Hausa, and occasionally now in English Language. The word ‘Babangida’ in Hausa simply means head of Household from the word ‘Baba’ meaning father or head of Family in Yoruba. I see some names in English, and I can identify similar names in Yoruba. The name ‘Erin’ is one such name. Erin in Yoruba could mean ‘elephant’ or ‘laughter’. The first time I saw ‘Erin Coach’ in America, my mind quickly went back to the word ‘Erin’ in my Yoruba language. The first time I was in Rio and Brasilia in Brazil and Havana in Cuba, I was surprised how much of their verbiage in their native dialect are derived from Yoruba in some of their neighborhoods. I am aware the slave trade may have been responsible for some of this observation. If you go to a village named Oyotunji in North or South Carolina, you will be amazed how much of their verbiage, in daily conversation, are derived from Yoruba, not to talk of their culture, their values and norms in the midst of one of the greatest civilization the world has ever known.
The most intriguing of these observations, I like to share in this article, is the one I have observed between the Ebiras of Okene in the present Kogi State or the former Kwara State in Nigeria, as vividly captured in my graphic title to this article. ‘Ota mi de, ada mi da’ is a classic to illustrate the point I want to make. The word ‘Ota’ in Ebira language means friend whereas in Yoruba, the same word means enemy. By the same token, the word ‘Ada’ in Ebira means father, where as in Yoruba the same word means cutlass or sword. Of course, the word ‘Mi’ in Ebira and Yoruba simply means mine, and the word ‘De’, ‘has arrived’ means exactly the same thing in both Yoruba and Ebira. Therefore, ‘Ota mi de, ada mi da’ in Ebira simply means ‘My friend has arrived, where is my father to help me welcome him’. In Yoruba, the same statement means, ‘My enemy is here, get me my cutlass’.
Can you imagine the cause and effect that the two statements may have provoked in two friends and classmates visiting each other during their long vacation in Nigeria? The visiting friend was a Yoruba boy, and the friend being visited is an Ebira boy and the venue was Okene town, the primadona of all towns in Ebira Kingdom. There has not been any exchange of the Ebira popular mode of greetings which I used to joke, so much about, as a young boy growing up in Akure as I played with my friends and age group whose Ebira parents were hired by my father to give us a helping hand in our Farms in those days. For those who may not know, the Ebiras of Nigeria are great agrarian people who are very versatile farmers but beautiful people all the same. The words ‘Ta ho, we de hi, e koro’ always feature very prominently in their greetings and so are the words. ‘Adanika da mi, da mi ahaya ni’. I used to join my friends in singing ‘Adanika’ in those days, even though I cannot now remember the real meaning of the song. But the observation I would never forget till I die, is the story anchored on ‘Ota mi de, ada mi da’ and the reactions or responses it had provoked in the person making the statement and the hearer.
The Ebira friend was excited to want to introduce his visitor friend to his father, but his Yoruba friend had picked a different version of what is meant or intended. Of course, that was the end of the visit, as the Yoruba friend wondering what has gone wrong with his Ebira classmate, took to his heels, running as fast as he could, to get away from the looming disaster.
Those who argue there is power in the spoken word cannot be more correct. I think there is, without any question.
I rest my case.