Language and Style of Akínwùmí Ìṣhọ̀lá

Ẹ káàbọ̀!

Before we begin, you must know that this is a looong read. Too long, in fact, that I have divided it into two parts. For my Master’s program, I had a couple of assignments that tried me and this is one of them. Mostly because I had to read those books! I am so sorry to confess but I do usually fall asleep when reading Yorùbá… Don’t judge me.

Anyway, I hope this helps someone. Here you go.

Background OF Akínwùmí Ìṣọ̀lá

Professor Akínwùmí Ìṣọ̀lá (24th December 1939 – 17th February 2018) was a Nigerian playwright, novelist, actor, dramatist, culture activist and scholar. He was known for his writing in, and his work in promoting, the Yorùbá language. As an actor, he was also known for Agogo Èèwọ̀ (2002), Efúnṣetán Aníwúrà (1981) and Efúnṣetán Aníwúrà (2005).

Ìṣọ̀lá was born in Ibadan in 1939 and attended Labode Methodist School and Wesley College. He studied at the University of Ibadan, earning a B.A. in French. In 1991, he was appointed Professor at the same University.

Ìṣọ̀lá wrote his first play, Efúnṣetán Aníwúrà during 1961-1962 while still a student at the University of Ibadan. This was followed by a novel, Ó Le Kú. In 1986, he wrote and composed the college anthem that is currently being sung in Wesley College, Ibadan. He went on to write a number of plays and novels.

Ìṣọ̀lá broke into broadcasting, creating a production company that turned a number of his plays into television dramas and films. Though he claimed that “my target audience are Yorubas”, Ìṣọ̀lá also wrote in English and translated to Yorùbá. The award-winning writer spent his lifetime producing works that promoted the Yoruba language.

On 4th May, 2015, his book, ‘Herbert Macaulay and the Spirit of Lagos’ was staged at University of Ilorin, Kwara State, at the Performing Arts Theatre. It was directed by Adams Abdulfatai Ayomide for the annual Season of Plays Festival.
In 2000, in recognition of his immense contributions, he was awarded the National Merit Award and a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. He was a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. His works include:

  • Efúnṣetán Aníwúra, Iyálóde Ìbàdàn, and Tinúubú, Ìyálóde Ẹgbá (1970)
  • Kòṣeégbé (1981)
  • Ó Le Kú (1997)
  • Madam Tinubu (1998)
  • Ogún Ọmọdé (1990)
  • Two Contemporary African Plays (1992)
  • Ṣaworoidẹ (2008)
  • Ẹfúnróyè Tinubu (2009)
  • Belly Bellows (2009)
  • Herbert Macaulay and the Spirit of Lagos (2009)
  • The Campus Queen (2009)
  • Òrìṣà Wo Ló Ń Gun Òǹkọ̀wé? (2009)
  • Making Culture Memorable: Essays in Language, Culture and Development (2010)

On his interests in writing and rewards of the job, Professor Akínwùmí Ìṣọ̀lá had this to say (The Sun Newspaper, 2005):

“In other countries, writers who have written what some of us have written would have become millionaires. But I did not start writing in English just because I want to make money. The Yoruba people deserve their own literature. If I write in English and become a millionaire, well, there is nothing wrong, but I will be shirking my responsibility of giving something back to my society.
In any case, if writers don’t struggle to safeguard their culture, it would be difficult for others to do so.”

The ‘Honest Man’ as he was fondly called by colleagues and those closest to him, was a multi-talented writer whose dexterity with the Yorùbá, and also English languages shone forth in all genres of literature. His works in drama include Ẹfúnṣetán Aníwúrà, Kòṣeégbé, and Ẹfúnróyè Tinubu; Ogún Ọmọdé and Ó Le Kú in prose; and his collection of poetry, Àfàìmọ̀ àti Àwọn Àròfọ̀ Mìíràn.

However, for the purpose of this discourse, we shall focus on two novels by Akínwùmí Ìṣọ̀lá to draw out salient distinctive features of his use of language and style.

Language and Style of Akínwùmí Ìṣọ̀lá in Ó Le Kú.

Ó Le Kú is the story of Àjàní, a young bachelor in his final year at the University of Ìbàdàn whose mother pesters to bring home a wife. The prose takes us through his quest for a wife of his ‘spec’ as three women, Àṣàkẹ́, Lọlá, and Ṣadé (whom he later marries), take centre stage in his life almost simultaneously. However, several factors hinder their relationship.

Àṣàkẹ́, a young school teacher planning to further her education to the university is his first prospect for a wife, but her uncle (who stands in for her father) rejects their union, even when she falls pregnant, insisting that she first graduates from the university as her father would want. Later, the pregnancy is lost and they separate.
Lọla, his second girlfriend whom he dates as a contingency plan whilst with Àṣàkẹ́ is a beautiful and brilliant 100-level student at the same University of Ìbàdàn. She breaks up the relationship when she finds out that Àṣàkẹ́ is pregnant with his child. Àjàní ends up getting married to Ṣadé, a childhood friend who gradually takes center stage in his love life.

Talking about the inspiration and choice of theme behind Ó Le Kú in an interview with The Sun Newspaper (2004), Ìṣọ̀lá says:

“When I wrote O le ku, for instance, many people wrote me letters, asking me while I allowed the main character again to die. Other people wrote me tell me, Oh, this is your life story. We know that you like women. But I am just a man who would react to women like every other men. I am not particularly a casanova. Writers collect experiences from different angles. You have your own personal experiences, other people have their experiences, and in the third category are the experiences that you read about or stories that you hear on radio or reports coming from everywhere.

A writer can select from those categories and weave the story together. If the story that comes out of it is nice, when people are reading that story, they may believe that, what you have written, really happened. That was what happened about Ó Le Kú. Many people tend to believe that was what happened to me when I was a student at the University of Ibadan. I was not even married at that time, I got married after graduation.
But some of the events in Ó Le Kú happened to my friend. So, that is the way writers weave their stories …”

Thus, the main theme in this novel can be summarised as the challenges of modern dating.

While the movie adaption of Ó Le Kú produced by Tunde Kelani is divided into two parts to allow for a seamless flow of events, the novel itself possesses a straightforward plot.
The novel starts with an introduction to Àjàní and Àṣàkẹ́’s budding romance; the rising action occurs when he meets Lọlá and falls in love with her, too; the climax shows us Àṣàkẹ́’s unexpected pregnancy and the unsuccessful tussle they undergo to receive her uncle’s permission to marry; the falling action happens when Àṣàkẹ́ deserts Àjàní, leaving his heart vulnerable for Ṣadé’s love to creep in; the resolution, which is the ending, is tragedy. Àjàní finally gets to marry Ṣadé, but is killed in a car accident only five days after his wedding ceremony – ironically, he died on his way to avenge Àṣàkẹ́ who had attempted suicide in regret.

Set in the new post-colonial Yorùbá society of Ìbàdàn, Akínwùmí Ìṣọ̀lá takes us through a storyline that narrates the “new” realities of youths looking to settle down with a significant other, male and female alike. “New” in the sense that, certain events in the course of their quests differ completely from the traditional Yorùbá norm. For example, the females were either in university, lived apart from their parents, or had the freedom to visit a male friend (in this case, Àjàní), un-chaperoned. Hence, premarital sexual relations took place. Female dressing as mentioned above was also ahead of its time, sparking a fashion trend of the short aso oke Iro and Buba, also called ‘Oleku’, and was listed as one of the ten iconic Nollywood stories from the 90s. Akin Adesokan (2011) described the film as “the best example of Yoruba language film in Nollywood regarding how the actors and actresses articulate their point of views in “undiluted” Yoruba language.”

Ìṣọ̀lá however places the spotlight on the male from the perspective of the main character, Àjàní. Perhaps, this is because he is a man himself and was able to weave the story from experience. The carefully written events and seemingly unnecessary display of emotions, successfully converge to create a holistic picture of what a man goes through in search of a wife.

Use of Language and Style
In Ó Le Kú, Ìṣọ̀lá’s style is evident as seamlessly authentic. As we read, we get the feeling of “originality” as opposed to the watered down choices of words in contemporary Yorùbá literature. We shall now examine the distinctive features of Ìṣọ̀lá’s use of language in Ó Le Kú.

I. Idiomatic Words and Expressions
Ìṣọ̀lá’s masterful use of idiomatic words and expressions is a distinctive feature of his writing style. While explaining his reasons for making use of idioms in certain parts of the book, Ìṣọ̀lá in his interview with Nichols (1981, pg. 65) says:

“For example in my latest novel, Ó Le Kú, in the manuscript there was a particular scene with a boy and his girl friend in a room. And there was a time they were both of them lying down on a bed and they were discoursing amorously. And so the publishers thought that this will not be tolerated in the schools because only young boys are going to study and this may be a very bad influence on them. So I agree with them, I mean you don’t want to worsen a bad situation. So that particular section was cut off. Fortunately it did not distort the message I wanted to get across because it was a very small section. And by the use of special phrases, special proverbs that have double meanings, we were able to get over this problem. So the writer who writes in African languages has very little choice about what he says. He has to conform to the demands of the market and the publishers.”

Examples of these include:
Múfẹ̀ẹ́ – Sexual intercourse (pg. 5)
Jọjẹ – Lovers (pg. 29)
Ojú ajá ń ṣẹ̀jẹ̀ – Examination tension (pg. 70)
Gbegede gbiná – Conflict (pg. 91)

II. Arresting Opening Lines

As with his poems, Ìṣọ̀lá’s style of employing arresting opening lines in his storytelling is a major factor that endears his readers to him. These opening lines are intentionally descriptive, mirroring realistic events that readers resonate with and know to be in fact, true.
Let us examine the first two paragraphs in chapter 5, page 22:

Àkókò ìdánwò máa ń le ní yunifásítì. Gbogbo wọn á rojú kórókóró. Wọn á máa rìn tàánú-tàánú bí ẹni tọ́fọ̀ ṣẹ̀. Tọmodé tàgbà a rù hangogo bi ajá ọ̀lẹ. Àwọn mìíràn a di gbogbo ìwé ayé máyà, wọn a yáwèé bíi méwàá léèkan ṣoṣo, elòmíràn fẹ́rẹ̀ le ṣí gbogbo ilé-ìkàwé lọ sí yàrá rẹ̀.
Àwọn ọmọbìnrin kì í ṣe é rí mọ́. Irun òmíràn a dàbíi ti wèrè ajárímádì. Wọ́n a máa já fíná. Lọ́fíńdà ló kù ti àwọn sisi fi ń bo òórùn ara mọ́lẹ̀. Wọn kì í ráyè kàtíkè mọ́, ojú wọn á máa dán ìdán èéeí. Bí aago mẹ́jọ bá ti lù gbogbo rẹ̀ a di bó ò lọ, o yà fún mi. Lẹ́hìn bí ìṣẹ́jú márùn-ún, gbogbo rè a tún parọ́rọ́, oníkálukú a doríkodò bí ẹni tí ń ronú. Ní irú àkókò báyií, bí a bá tún rí omidan kan téwà rẹ̀ bá tún yọ bí ọjọ́, ó yẹ kí á wò ó léèmejì.

(Exam time is a very busy time in the university. People work about seriously. Some often walk around looking bereaved. Young and old seem to have lost some weight. Most of them go about with books in their hands and they borrow very many books from the library at a time. The ladies are not very attractive at this time. Some of them cannot even do their hair properly and some of them stink but they cover their body odour with perfumes. They don’t have time to make up so their faces shine with dirt. Around 8 o’clock, everybody is in a hurry. But about five minutes later, in the library, everything is quiet again. They all bend down in concentration on their books. So at this particular time, if one happens to come across a girl who still manages to look beautiful, one should take a second look.)
– As translated by Ìṣọ̀lá in Lee Nichols (1981, pg. 86)

This detailed description of the state of activities on a university campus during examinations is an event that undergraduates can relate to; this is also unsurprising as the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, was a major setting in the novel, and students make up a major percentage of his target audience.

III. Proverbs
Another distinctive use of language and style by Ìṣọ̀lá is his use of proverbs, making it quite obvious from the start that he possesses a deep knowledge and understanding of the Yorùbá language. By virtue of this, he is able to adequately describe events and narrate the emotion and viewpoint of characters, beautifully. So much so, that the movie adaptation produced by Tunde Kelani in 1997 was adopted to teach foreign Yorùbá Language learners in institutions in the United States and Europe due to the standard of Yoruba Language spoken in the movie.

– ‘Bí òwe bí owe lá á lùlù ògìdìgbó o, ọlọ́gbọ́n ní í jo, ọ̀mọ̀ràn ní í mọ̀ ọ́n.’ (pg. 3)
(The ògìdìgbó drum when beaten is full of idioms, the wise know how to dance to it, the learned understand it.)
– ‘Bá à bá rádàn-án, a lè fòòbẹ̀ ṣẹbọ, ẹyẹ lẹyẹ ń jẹ́.’ (pg. 24)
(If we cannot find a bat to sacrifice, we make use another bird. A bird is a bird.)
Ìṣọ̀lá often employed proverb convergence to provide more detail to the topic of discussion at a particular time. For example:
“A! Gbọ́, a kì í gbọ́n bí ẹni tó ń tan ni. Ẹni tí a ó bàá tà, bíbọ là aá kọ́ bọ́ o. Bá a jèlùbọ́ bí èlùbọ́ là á rí, ẹni tó fẹ́ mọ́bọ yóò ṣe bí ọ̀bọ.” (pg. 14)
(Listen! The deceived isn’t always as wise as the deceiver. Whomever we wish to sell, we feed first. When we eat amala, the yam-flour on our body shows to tell, whoever wants to catch a monkey must behave like one.)
Ijaola said this to Àjàní to advise him that getting Àṣàkẹ́ pregnant was the best way to receiving her uncle’s approval.
– ‘Àsìkò ikùn là á jẹun sí. Àtòkèèrè lolójú jínjìn ti í mẹ́kún sun.’ (pg. 24)
(We eat when we are hungry)

IV. Code Mixing
To show the social status of the character making a speech or involved in a conversation, Ìṣọ̀lá employed code-mixing of Yoruba and English. The characters who did this in the novel are students and learned graduates. For example, Olu, Àṣàkẹ́’s old classmate, and Àjàní engaged in an exchange of words thus (pg. 47):
– Ọmọkùnrin náà gbanájẹ, ó óí, ‘irú nonsense wo lò ń bá mi sọ yìí kẹ̀? Mo ti mọ lady yìí long time nígbà tá a wà ní Grammar School, irú excuse wo lo fẹ́ kí n máa tọrọ lọ́wọ́ ẹnìkan tí mo bá rí pẹ̀lú old classmate mi kan?
(The young man exploded in anger and said, “What nonsense are you saying? I have known this lady for a long time since we were in Grammar School, what sort of excuse should I beg from someone I see with an old classmate of mine?”)
– ‘Ṣé o gbọ́ bó ti ń sọ̀rọ̀ sí mi? Who are you? You are a fool.’
(‘Do you hear how he is speaking to me? Who are you? You are a fool.’)
– ‘Let me tell you pe, o ò lè nà mí.’
(Let me tell you that, you cannot beat me.’)

– ‘Kò bad rárá’ (pg. 23)
(It isn’t bad at all)

– ‘Film wo lo rí níbẹ̀?’ (pg. 35)
(What film did you see there?)
Ìṣọ̀lá also employed code switching with the use of words like ‘brainwash’ (pg. 3), ‘dissapoint’ (pg. 3), ‘London’ (pg. 18)
Other loan words the author made use of include:
Sìmẹ́ǹtì (pg. 4)
Taksi (pg. 10)
Sinimá (pg. 35)
Hẹ̀ló (pg. 72)

V. Poetry
In Ó Le Kú, Àjàní’s shows his love to the three females of his love interest with poems. Àṣàkẹ́ (pg. 20-21), Lọlá (pg. 39-41), Ṣadé (pg. 111-114). For Ṣadé, Ìṣọ̀lá brings back a poem from his collection of poetry, Àfàìmọ̀ àti Àwọn Àròfọ̀ Mìíràn (1978:22-23), titled, ‘Àjọkẹ́’. Here is an excerpt below:
… Ó joun p’Ólúwayé ò sùn,
Kò sùn lọ́jọ́ tó ń dá ‘Şadé
‘Şadé rí wẹ́kú, ó gúnrégé,
Ó wáá rí rọ̀gbọ̀dọ̀,
Ó ń dá mi lọ́rùn
Ó rí yọyọọyọ bí òdú,
Òdú orí ilẹ̀ tuntun.
‘Şadé rágbọ̀n ìwà kẹ́wà sí;
Bí mo ti ń wẹwà nìwà ń wù mí,
Ìdùnnú ṣubú layọ̀,
Ọmọ ní yóó rẹwà lọ́wọ́ àwa.

(It looks like God was not asleep,
He was not asleep on the day he created ‘Ṣadé
‘Ṣadé looks cute, she looks good,
Everything on her body is in the right place,
She pleases me
She looks as bright as fresh òdú vegetable,
Òdú on rich soil.
‘Ṣadé found a large enough basket to store beauty;
I am drawn by her character as I am enthralled by her beauty,
Happiness and joy knows no bound,
The likes of us behold beauty.

In this poem, we see the writer’s dexterity with poetry as well as prose. By the writer’s creativity, he also makes Àjàní employ vivid adjectives in the description of his female love interests. For example, when he sees Lọlá for the first time at the library, he makes an Internal dialogue thus:
Àjàní kò mọ ọmọbìnrin náà. Ó dúdú, ó ń dán, ó tẹ́ẹ́rẹ́. Ó rí gólójó, ó rí sósóró. Esè rè dúró níle, ó fi tééré wu ni. Bí ààyè tí há tó un, ó ráàyè dirun tire-Qlóun sì firun ké ę. (pg. 22)
(Àjàní did not know the lady. She was dark, shining, and slim. She looks stunning, straight as a whip. Her feet were solid on the ground, she had a good posture that made
Ìṣọ̀lá also spotlights songs as elements of social entertainment in his settings. In the opening scene, Fẹlá’s song plays in the background. ‘Bọ̀dé, Àjàní’s elder brother, also sings a song to support his point of view when Àjàní asked for his advice concerning choosing the better woman between Àṣàkẹ́ and Lọlá (pg. 38):
Kristen má ti i wá simi
Máşe lérò ìrora,
Ní ààrin ọ̀tá lo wà,
Máa şóra.

(Christian don’t rest yet
Don’t have thoughts of hardship
You are in the midst of enemies
Be careful.)

VI. Repetition

“Má mutí, má męmu, má mu sìgá, má jáde, má wọlé, má şu, má tọ̀, má dúró, má bẹ̀rẹ̀!” (pg. 18)

(Don’t drink alcohol, don’t drink palmwine, don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t go out, don’t come in, don’t urinate, don’t stand, don’t bend down!)
The repetition of ‘má’ (don’t) in this excerpt is Àjàní’s emphasis on the strictness of an ex-girlfriend’s father.

Whew! You got here? Wow wow wow. Continue in next post!

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About One Yoruba Girl

Morẹ́nikéjì Olówóyọtán has had 10+ years of cumulative learning and teaching experience, with 400+ hours of online tutoring experience in Yorùbá language. She is a published researcher in the Journal of Yorùbá Studies Association of Nigeria (Vol. 11, No. 1, 2022) and promotes Yorùbá language learning online with her brand, One Yorùbá Girl.

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