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Background on Yoruba Tonal System and its Acquisition

Mastering tones represents an integral aspect of Yoruba language acquisition as it constitutes the basis for an in-depth appreciation of its syntax, grammar, phonology, morphology, semantics, and pragmatics. As the first aspect of language acquisition to be unconsciously achieved by every child born into a Yoruba speaking family, tonal acquisition however poses a difficult challenge to L2 Yoruba learners, especially the adults whose power of adaptation to strange lexical tone types and patterns is attenuating. Surprisingly, without tonal signs, some native users of Yoruba language also find it hard to read appropriately and comprehend the exact meaning intended by the writer. In simple language, the importance of tone in Yoruba language cannot be compromised since it represents a factor that both syntactically and semantically distinguishes words of identical origins without which the language sounds unintelligible.

Ward (1956) defines a tonal language as “one which makes use of the pitch of the voice as an essential element in the formation of words and in connected speech” (p.29). The author further posits that tone can appear either as part of what makes up a word or as a differentiating factor in meaning.

Generally, it is necessary to note that there are three kinds of tones all of which are featured in Yoruba language. In his journal article entitled ‘Tones of Yoruba Language’, Adetokunbo (1989) classifies tonal patterns of tonal languages into three categories, namely rhythmic tones, syntactic tones, and semantic tones.


Rhythmic Tones

Rhythmic tones are what can be referred to as ‘intonation’ in English language. They represent the undulation of pitch in the course of human’s verbal communication. Every language has a unique intonation system which can be easily noticed when the L1 users attempt to use a L2 or foreign language. For instance, an adult Yoruba English learner would unconsciously display the intonational contours of his mother tongue during his English conversation.


Syntactic Tone

These are the tones that categorize a statement into a variety of syntactic meanings. As in many other languages, a statement in Yoruba can be declarative when it reports a fact. It can be interrogative when it intends to seek for a response, and exclamative when the speaker aims to express his surprise in regard to the fact.

O ti r àá         He/She has bought it.          Affirmative

O ti r àá         He/She has bought it?          Interrogative

O ti r àá         He/She has bought it!           Exclamative

In the above examples, the tone somewhat glides up in the interrogative statement, but remains balanced in the affirmative. Whereas it slightly glides down in the exclamative.


Semantic Tones

Semantic tones are tones that create different meanings for words spelt and pronounced the same way, but with different tones. The Yoruba semantic tone pattern adopted from Pike’s ‘significant contrastive pitches’ is made up of four contrastive tone levels, namely high tone (/) as in ‘rá’, meaning vanish, mid tone (-) such as ‘ra’, meaning shrink, and low tone (\) as in ‘rà’, meaning buy.

Moreover, these three lexical tones vary in terms of strength; the high (/) tone appears as the strongest, then comes the low (\) tone, whereas the mid (-) tone is the weakest since it disappears in what may be referred to as contraction as in the clause “Alàgbà náà kọ ìwé” meaning “The elderly man wrote a book”. Then once the mid-tone verb ‘kọ’ is contracted with its object noun ‘ìwé’, it changes from the former mid tone to a low tone as in the following: “Alàgbà náà k’ọ̀wé”.


L1 Interference and Age as Factors Influencing Yoruba Tonal Acquisition

Research has shown a number of factors affecting L2 learners’ Yoruba tonal acquisition, among which first language interference and age are of significant influence (Olanike, 2006). Yoruba language, which comprises the earlier stated three contrastive lexical tones, is rather incompatible with most Indo-European and Semitic languages. For instance, both English and Arabic recognize high (/) and low (\) tone levels, but overlook the mid (-) tone.  However, in efforts to produce Yoruba words orally, Yoruba L2 learners tend to be challenged by mid (-) tone, and thereby produce either high (/) tone or low (\) tone instead. The following example can illustrate this phenomenon:

Yoruba words/names                      Pronunciation by foreign learners

Ọlá                                                       Ọ́là

Adé                                                      Ádè

Oba                                                     Ọ́bà

Adébáyọ̀                                             Àdèbáyọ̀

Furthermore, age factor has substantial influence on Yoruba tone acquisition since psycholinguists believe that children below the puberty age tend to learn a second language faster than adults. This widely embraced belief is based on the Lenneberg’s theory which holds that during child’s intellectual development, there is a particular time known as critical period lasting until puberty during which a child is believed to learn a second language easier and achieve a native-like accent. He further asserts that after attaining the puberty age, language acquisition will become more challenging due to brain’s ability and adaptation that begins to diminish at that point (Richards, 1984).

In conclusion, as a lexical tonal language, Yoruba is such a language whose acquisition may prove futile without an awareness of the foregoing tonal patterns. Moreover, adults may find it hard to master a native-like Yoruba accent due to their limited ability to accept tones they have never been accustomed to. However, although sounding almost like native users may be somewhat difficult to achieve, is it undeniable that adult L2 learners are still capable of developing communicative competence with which to convey their thoughts in different communicative situations.



Pike, K. L. 1948. Tone languages: A technique for determining the number and type of pitch contrasts in a language. University of Michigan Publications in Linguistics 4. Ann Arbor, MI.

Olanike, O.O. (2006). L2 Acquisition and Yoruba Tones: Issues and Challenges. Selected Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, ed. Olaoba F. Arasanyin and Michael A. Pemberton, 121-128. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

Richard, J.C. (1984). The Context of Language Teaching, Cambridge, M.A: Cambridge University Press.

Adetokunbo, A. (1989). Tones of Yoruba Language. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, vol. 79, no.1, p. 29-34.