Like many “aleyos” I first came into contact with Orisha worship while travelling to Cuba. I went there to study popular Latin percussion and ended up taking folkloric batá drum lessons. Years later I was learning songs and prayers of the Lukumí-people, as the Yorùbá descendants call themselves there - from my Padrino. I always wanted to know their exact meaning and recognized that interpretation varies a lot. As I was enrolled in African language studies as a student at first I thought it should not be too difficult deciphering the Yorùbá. I started taking private Yorùbá classes with a Nigerian teacher and got into the “retranslation-issue”. I wanted to share some of my personal experience in this post.
The term “Yorùbá” itself has its roots in the Hausa people and their language in the northern parts of Nigeria. They call their neighbours in the south today still “Bàyarabé”. This name was adopted by the colonists and over the centuries became “Yorùbá”. The Yorùbá people in the past would have defined themselves as the subgroup and dialect group they belonged to, linked to different kingdoms, not as a single ”nation”. Also in Cuba various “cabildos de nación” existed, with names like Oyo, Egguado, Ibada, Iyechá, Ketu, Ife etc. This shows that Yorùbá slaves once sticked to their local identities even in the diaspora of slavery. In their own language Yorùbá would call themselves “ọmọ Odùduwà”, childs of Oduduwa. Nowadays the term “Yorùbá” is of course widely in use and many Lukumí in Cuba also use it to describe their culture.
Slave-trade grouped African people together into different categories. Loose ethnic or local descriptions were used for people of the same origin, like Ewe/Fon-speaking slaves from the area of the city Alada in today's Republic of Benin became registered as “Arara” at the port in Havana, or ”Rada” in Haiti. The term ”Lukumí” comes from a name that was given to a certain region in Yorùbá-land called "Ulkami, Ulcumi, Ulkuma, Lucamee" and can be found in historic maps from colonial times in West Africa. In Cuba this became the name for Yorùbá speaking people to refer to their own “nation”.
For this article I differ between Yorùbá, the spoken language in Nigeria, and Lukumí, the remains of this language as used by the Spanish-speaking people in Cuba for reciting prayers and songs of their ancestors. The language Yorùbá had no written form up to 1850, when Samuel A.Crowther, a freed Yorùbá-slave, translated the bible into Yorùbá. He was educated and raised by Christian missionaries in Sierra Leone, where many captured slaveships where unloaded by the British. He developed the first standard of written Yorùbá, using the English alphabet based on Oyo and Ibadan dialects.
We have to keep in mind that our written language is just a more or less developed way of bringing all the different sounds we can form in our mouth into a visible system following local phonetic and grammatical structures. A simple and already confusing example would be the exclamation “Wow!” used in moments of astonishment. Spanish people write the same sound “Uaoh!” or in German it spells “Wau!” – so without getting into phonetics, I would say you could easily understand it wherever you hear it. But if you do not read Spanish, “Uaoh!” would be pronounced by an English reader more like single letters of the alphabet, “u-a-oh”, what a Spanish speaker thus would write “yu-e-o” or “llu-e-o”. I will try to decipher exactly that for Yorùbá and Lukumí in this article.
The Yorùbá sold into slavery most likely had no Western education nor could read or write the Roman alphabet. Their descendants in the diaspora later started to write down what they heard from their grandmothers and grandfathers, using the local language rules. Between 1910 and 1920 the last African-born Lukumí and thus Yorùbá-native speakers on the island of Cuba passed away. Yorùbá was written by the Lukumí following Spanish grammar rules. Problem is that this European language lacks sounds and tones that exist in spoken Yorùbá. While the new African version of written Yorùbá was developed and later improved to render more or less perfectly the spoken word, the Lukumí-version from Cuba never was adequate. This article is not to say who is right or wrong. It might help the interested reader, as many books on Orisha are just available in Spanish language and are based on the Lukumí traditions from Cuba. Today we have access to an incredible amount of written documents and a correct standardized spelling would help a lot I think. Olorisha from Cuba often intonate the right Yorùbá melodies, because they learned it from listening and not from reading, but when it comes to writing things change. Yorùbá poetry, like Ifá-chanting, plays a lot with words and tones, so I think it is an important issue if you want to get deeper insights into the culture of Orisha to understand at least where it all comes from.
Several Lukumí dictionaries exist in Cuba, like the “Diccionario Práctico Lukumí-Español”. I got a very bad copy of it some years ago in a Cuban Botanica, printed without the name of the author, some pages are hardly readable. Its subtitle “El Yoruba que se habla en Cuba” gave me the idea of comparing it to Lydia Cabrera's book "Anagó", which has the same subtitle. So I found out it's an illegal copy. Finally today you can find it even on Facebook, but entitled ”Yorubá-Español” dictionary. It tells a lot about the history of slavery and I appreciate the effort that Cabrera made in the past trying to preserve the language, although, as the liner notes by Roger Bastide say, it can be considered rather a "book of poetry" and not really a "dictionary". A nice example would be the Lukumí term “enikeñi” I found in this book, translated as ”neighbours” - what is wrong, because “ẹnikẹ́ni” in Yorùbá literally means “anyone, whoever”. But I can imagine someone sitting together with his Yorùbá-grandfather around 1900 in Havana, asking ”What does enikeni mean?“ and the grandfather, waving his hand in a circle, responds: “Well, enikeñi are all the people around.” So the young student notated „neighbours“ in his libreta for the idea of “anyone” and years later told it to Lydia Cabrera. Not completely wrong, but let’s say it could be more precise.
Let me share what I came across in the past years, studying Yorùbá, being initiated into Lukumí traditions, reading a lot and travelling to Cuba and Nigeria. Please note, I am not a linguist, just a Yorùbá student and Spanish is not my mothertongue, although I am fluent in talking. This article illustrates my personal journey through the "re-translation issue" and might serve as a source of inspiration. It is not intended to set a standard and errors might occur. This is why I call it an "Incomplete Guide" - to be completed by all the readers out there who follow the paths of Orisha.
The Incomplete Yorùbá Guide to Lukumí
Yor. 7 vowels (a, e, ẹ, i, o, ọ, u) = Luk. 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u)
Yorùbá has seven vowels, because “o”/“ọ” and “e”/“ẹ” are treated differently and give the “same” word another meaning. In Spanish these sounds also exist, like the open “ọ” in “cosa” and the closed “o” in “magro” or the “ẹ” in “tejer” and the “e” in “mesa”, but the writing is the same. For the English speakers it would be an “ọ” like in “jaw” or “o” like in “dome” or “ẹ” like “bed” and “e” like in “day”, If you do not pronounce it right it sounds strange in English or Spanish, but it does not change the meaning of the word completely like in Yorùbá. I give you some examples: “òfò” (loss) vs. “ọfọ̀” (spell), or “Èkó” (Lagos-town) vs. “ẹ̀kọ́” (study). Written Lukumí, following Spanish language rules, lacks these important two extra vowels.
Yor. “ọwọ́” (hand) or “owó” (money) = Luk. owó (hand or money)
Yor. olófin (law-giver) or ọlọ́fin (king’s title) = Luk. Olofi (name for supreme being)
Yor. ilẹ̀ (earth, ground) or ilé (house) = Luk. ilé (earth or house)
Sometimes the Lukumí term “inle”, like the short name for the Orisha Inle (Erinle), with an emphasis on its first syllable and pronounced with an opened “ẹ”, becomes another substitute for the Yorùbá word “ilẹ̀”, to distinguish in Lukumí between “inle” for earth and “ilé” for house, otherwise you can not tell by reading what is meant – as you have to hear it.
Yor. 3 tones = Luk. 2 tones
Yorùbá has diacritic marks to distinguish between three different tones, they are referred to as “do, re, mi”. This comes from the musical education system known as “solfeggio” to teach the correct pitch of a sound (“do, re mi, fa, so, la, si, do” would be an octave). In Yorùbá “do, re, mi” does not refer to fixed tones, but describes more abstract three possible tone layers. The word “Yorùbá” itself for example would be indicated as “re-do-mi”, middle, low and high tone, “Òrìṣà” would be “do-do-do”, three low tones. Spanish has just one diacritic mark to indicate a higher tone and an emphasis on a vowel, like in “folklórico”. If there is no diacritic mark it is always the second to last vowel that has a higher pitch. Changing the pitch of a vowel in Yorùbá results most likely in a different meaning, so the written Lukumí lacks the correct tone-levels of the language. Examples would be “Ògún” (name of the Orisha), “òógùn” (medicine), “ogun” (war), “ògùn” (name of a river) and “ogún” (twenty) or “ilá” (okra), ilà (facial mark) and ìlà (line, axis).
There is also a general tendency to mark Yorùbá-words in Lukumí with a diacritic mark on the end of the word, as a kind of general sign for any Yorùbá-word. In my experience it is often pronounced correctly in speech, but when it comes to writing, Lukumí often does not correlate to the spoken language. Like the Yorùbá-term “Òsùn” (Ifá-staff, known as “Oricha guerrero” in Cuba). Although written “Osún” or “Ozún” in Lukumí it is always pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable. It seems like the diacritic marks often are just used for decorating a word of African origin.
Yor. Èṣù = Luk. Echú (name of Orisha)
Yor. Ọya = Luk. Oyá (name of Orisha)
Yor. bàtà (shoes), bàtá (name of a drum) = Luk. batá (shoes, name of a drum)
Yor. Ọbàtálá = Luk. Obatalá (name of Orisha)
Yor. ìlù (drum), ilú (city) = Luk. ilú (drum or city)
Yor. ọ̀tá (enemy), ọta (stone) = Luk. otá (enemy or stone)
Yor. ara (body), ará (people), àrá (thunder) = Luk. ará (body, people, thunder)
Yor. J = Luk. Y/LL
What in Yorùbá would be written as a softly pronounced “j”, like in English “juice”, in Lukumí is written and pronounced as “y” or “ll”. Following Spanish grammar rules the double-“L” is pronounced almost like a “y”. Although one has to admit that in Cuban Spanish the “y” has a little soft sound of the Yorùbá “j” as well.
Yor. ìjà = Luk. iya, illa (fight)
Yor. ajá = Luk. ayá, allá (dog)
Yor. ẹja = Luk. eyá, ellá (fish)
Yor. méjì = Luk. meyi, melli (two)
Yor. ojùgbọ̀nà (lit. one who clears the road) = Luk. oyubona, yugbona, yumbona, yibona, yimbona (title for person involved in certain rituals)
Yor. Y = Luk. LL
This is just a change in orthography. A double-“L” in Spanish actually is pronounced (more or less) equal to “y” in English or Yorùbá, as mentioned before. Sometimes one finds this “replacement” in Lukumí. Other Yorùbá words with “y”, like ayé (world), stay the same what the “y” concerns in Lukumí. The double-“L” might confuse people who do not read Spanish.
Yor. ẹyẹlé = Luk. ellelé, eyelé (pigeon)
Yor. iyá = Luk. illá, iyá (mother)
Yor. Ṣ = Luk. CH
The Yorùbá “ṣ” sound, depending on the dialect, is more or less like the English “sh” in “shoulder“ and does not exist in Spanish. Instead it became a strong and sharp sounding “ch” sound (pronounced like in English ”etching”), almost without any exception. Wande Abimbola said in the book “Ifá will mend the broken world” there are also Yorùbá dialects which pronounce the “ṣ” in this strong way and maybe this is also due to the influence of slaves from the Kétu or Ònkò region. Although it is obvious that it has to do a lot with Spanish influence as well.
Yor. àṣẹ = Luk. aché (universal energy)
Yor. Òrìṣà = Luk. Oricha (spiritual entity)
Yor. Ọ̀ṣun = Luk. Ochún (name of Orisha)
Yor. aṣọ = Luk. achó (piece of clothes)
Yor. ṣaworo (jingling bells) = Luk. chaworó (bells on bàtá-drums)
Yor. GB = Luk. GU/GÜ/W/B
Probably one of the most common changes. The “gb” sound, where a “g” and a “b” are pronounced at the same time, does not exist in European languages and is not easy to learn. The Spanish written “gu” followed by a vowel is a kind of “gw” sound in English, like in “egg white”.
Yor. Ẹlẹ́gbára = Luk. Eleguá, Elegguá, Elegwuá, Elegwa, Elewa (name of Orisha)
Yor. àgbàdo = Luk. aguadó, agguadó, aguardó, abardó, abadú (corn)
Yor. gbogbo = Luk. bogbo (all)
Yor. ìgbín = Luk. igüuín, iguín, iwín (snail)
Yor. W = Luk. GU
In Cuban Spanish dialect “gu” followed by a vowel can be pronounced almost like an English “w”. See also the chapter above. The Lukumí “gu” refers often to the Yorùbá “gb”, but sometimes it might come from the Yorùbá “w” as well.
Yor. ìrawọ = Luk. iraguo (star)
Yor. wá = Luk. gua (to come)
Yor. ewé = Luk. egué (leaves, herbs)
Yor. àwòrò, ìwòrò = Luk. iguoro (Orisha priest)
Yor. ìyàwó (newly wedded wife) = Luk. illaguo, iyaguo (recently initiated priest)
Yorùbá P = Lukumí KU/P
The Yorùbá written “p” actually renders a “kp” sound, “k” and “p” pronounced at the same time. Many African languages write this sound as “kp”, but as in Yorùbá there exists no single “p” sound alone, the “p” indicates always a “kp” sound. A sound that does not exist in European languages and is the hardest to learn for Yorùbá-beginners. In Cuba it is substituized through a “ku” (pronounced like English “kw”) or ”p” sound alone.
Yor. àjàpá = Luk. ayakuá (tortoise)
Yor. heépà = Luk. hekua (greeting for Orisha)
Yor. mo dúpẹ́ = Luk. modukue, moducue, modupue (I give thanks)
Yor. pẹ́pẹ́yẹ = Luk. kuekueyé, kuekuellé, guegueyé, pepellé (duck)
Yor. ilẹ̀ mo pe o (earth I call upon you) = Luk. Inlé mokueo (term used in obi divination)
Yor. Ọ = Luk. A
The “ọ” sound of Yorùbá is often pronounced so openly that it sounds almost like an “a” (like the second “a“ in “America“). Try it out, make a closed “o” followed by an open “ọ”-sound followed by an “a”. Often it is hard to say, whether it is still a very opened “ọ” or already an “a”, the transition is fluid. So another version of writing “Ṣàngó” in Yorùbá would be “Ṣọ̀ngó”, which is found often in older books, or even today the standard Yorùbá “má” (do not) is often written as “mọ́”, depending on the dialect rendered. One day I asked my Yorùbá teacher what “ọma” means, a word I learnt from my padrino in a prayer (“ire oma”). She just understood a word I already knew, “children”, which would be written “ọmọ”. There was no difference to her between what I tried to pronounce “ọmọ” or “ọma”. So it is no wonder that in Lukumí we can find words written with an “a” instead of an open “ọ”.
Yor. ọmọ = Luk. oma (children)
Yor. Yemọja (yeye ọmọ ẹja, mother of children of fish) = Luk. Yemayá
Yor. ọlọ́fin, aláfin = Luk. alafin (king’s title)
Yorùbá R = Lukumí L/N
The “r” in Yorùbá is not as rolled and hard as the Spanish version, in fact the Yorùbá “r” often reminds me on American English, it is very soft and nasalized, like in “Arnold Schwarzenegger” (sorry I am Austrian). Sometimes in Lukumí the “r” got substituted by an “l” or "n". You can try it out very easily by yourself, form a soft “r” and later an “l” or "n" – your tongue moves a little bit forward. I came across this in a few expressions, like in:
Yor. ọkùnrin = Luk. okuní (man)
Yor. obìnrin = Luk. obiní (woman)
Yor. Èṣù Alágbára (Eshu the powerful one) = Luk. Echú Alaguana, Alawana (praise name)
Yor. Ògún Onírè (Ogun who owns the town of Ire) = Luk. Oggún Onilé (praise name)
Yor. aberíkùrá (one with unsanctified head) = Luk. aberikulá (unconsecrated batá-set)
Yor. afínná má rù (bellowblower don’t get weak) = Luk. afina malu (a rezo for Ogún, in Cuba often interpreted as “strong as a bull”, from Yor. “màlúù”, what means cattle)
Yor. NASALIZED VOWELS = Luk. Ñ/N
Although Cuban spoken Spanish has many nasal sounds, the written language has not. In Yorùbá, every vowel followed by an “n” is nasalized, this means the “n” will not be pronounced. Thus e.g. the letters “an” in Yorùbá sound like the end in French “façon”. Nasal Yorùbá sounds often got substituted through the Spanish “ñ” and sometimes an “n”.
Yor. oyin = Luk. oñí (honey)
Yor. àrun = Luk. ano (sickness)
Yor. ẹyin = Luk. eñí (egg)
Yor. eyín = Luk. eñe (tooth)
Yor. Àyàn = Luk. Añá (Orisha of the drum)
Yor. ará ọ̀run = Luk. ará oñú, ará onú (people of the heaven)
Yor. K = Luk. C/QU
Especially in older Cuban books on Orisha you can find this, today it is not so widespread anymore and most of these Lukumí words are already written with a “k” as in Yorùbá. In Spanish the “c” is pronounced like an English “k” before the vowels “a”, “o” and “u” (or like an English “s” before “e” and “i”, what is very rare).
Yor. Olókun = Luc. Olocun (name of Orisha)
Yor. Òrìṣà Oko = Oricha Oco (name of Orisha)
Yor. àkóbá (victimization) = Luk. acobba, acoba (sudden bad luck)
Yor. iṣẹ́gun = Luk. aceggun, achegun (victory)
Yor. má má ké ènìyàn (do not hurt/cut anyone) = Luk. mamaquenya, mamakenya, mamakeña (a phrase frequently used in prayers)
Yor. double vowels = Luk. one vowel
Yorùbá often makes use of double vowels with different tones whereas the Lukumí use one vowel only, like in the sentence “Èṣù bí ì”, which is also a common name and means “Eshu gave birth to her/him/it“. In fact the last deep and single “ì” is the object of the whole sentence. The Lukumí have an Eshu with this name, written and pronounced “Echubí” – for a Yorùbá speaker this sounds like an incomplete sentence without the gliding sound on the vowel.
Also in Yorùbá words can be shortened this way, most often when they have two equal vowels at the end of the word separated only by one consonant. Ẹlẹ́gbára so becomes Ẹlẹ́gbàá or “ìrukẹ̀rẹ̀” becomes “ìrukẹ̀ẹ́“. Yorùbá speakers hear this with gliding sounds on the vowels, which in Lukumí do not exist anymore, in Lukumí it is “iruké“ or „Elegbá“. This is also how “Òrìṣà” becomes shortened to “Òòṣà”, by the way.
Spanish grammar on Yorùbá words in Lukumí
If you want to express the plural in Yorùbá one would add the word “awọn”, like “awọn obìnrin” meaning “some women”, in the sense that we are talking about more than one woman. The Lukumí uses Spanish plural-endings to mark the plural of Yorùbá words, like “ikines” for the palmkernels used by a babalawo, “orichas” to speak of more than one orisha, “acheses” for the intestines of sacrificied animals as a plural of “aché”, “ebboses” for the plural of “ẹbọ” (sacrifice), “ifáses” to speak of various Ifá-initiations or “otanes” for more than one ”ọta” (stone).
Also a priest of e.g. Orisha Ọ̀sanyìn, who would be called “Ọlọsanyìn” (lit. “the one who owns Ọ̀sanyìn”) in Yorùbá, is called “Osainista” in Lukumí, adding a Spanish ending. This is very common, as for those Babalawo who own a sacred vessel of “Olofi” (what is Odù in Yorùbá), they are called “Olofistas”.
Some words also invent completely new forms of nouns, like the Yorùbá-Spanish term “iyaworaje”, which means the time of being “ìyawò“, Yorùbá for “wife”, and used to name the time of being a new initiate.
Various changes of vowels and consonants
Also the writings of Yorùbá consonants and vowels can become very creative in Lukumí. With a little knowledge about the Cuban Spanish dialect Lukumí gets closer to Yorùbá than it might look like when written. Spanish also offers multiple ways to write what would be pronounced equal.
Yor. ológìní = Luk. olégüine (cat)
Yor. ewúrẹ́ = Luk. auré, euré (goat)
Yor. ọ̀gẹ̀dẹ̀ = Luk. oguede (plantain)
Yor. Ọ̀sanyìn = Luk. Osaín, Ossain, Ozain (god of plants)
There might be consonants in Lukumí where there are no ones in Yorùbá, often “l”, “r”, “n”.
Yor. Olódùmarè = Luk. Olordumare
Yor. ìjà = Luk. inya, iyan, iña (fight, war)
Yor. àdìmú (something to hold on to) = Luk. ardimú (bloodless food offering)
Yor. Aganjú Ṣọlá = Luk. Algayú, Algallú, Argayú or Agayu Cholá
Vowels get mixed up, especially “u” for ”o”, “e” for “i” and viceversa.
Yor. ikin = Luk. ekín (palmkernel)
Yor. omi tútù = Luk. omi tuto (fresh water)
Yor. ẹja gbígbẹ̀ = Luk. ellá güi güi (dried fish)
Yor. ore yèyé o = Luk. orí yeyé o (greeting for Oshun)
Vowels might be added in Lukumí.
Yor. pupa = Luk. pupua (red)
Yor. n lọ = Luk. un lo (is going away)
Vowels might be left out at the beginning of a word.
Yor. ẹlẹ́rìí ìpín (witness to creation) = Luk. lerí iküin, elerí kuin (Orunmila as witness)
Yor. alágbẹ̀dẹ = Luk. laguedé (blacksmith)
Yorùbá-prepositions might become part of the Lukumí-word itself, often “ní” (in, at), short "l"
Yor. iyàrá = Luk. niyará (room)
Yor. etí = Luk. leti (ear)
Yor. ojú = Luk. loyú (eye)
Yor. one consonant = Luk. double consonant
Double consonants in Lukumí are not rooted in Spanish orthography. I think they were introduced to mark a word of African descent. The letters B/D/G are weakly articulated in Cuban Spanish, what might be the main reason why especially those are often doubled (Thanks to linguist Victor Manfredi for this information).
Yor. àdìmú (something to hold on to) = Luk. addimú (bloodless food offering)
Yor. pàtàkì (important) = Luk. pattakí (a story about Orisha)
Yor. odù Ifá = Luk. oddun Ifá (Ifá corpus)
Yor. ẹbọ = Luk. ebbó (prescribed sacrifice)
Yor. Ògún = Luk. Oggún (name of Orisha)
Luk. GB = Yor. B/W
The “gb”-sound has a very “African” appearance and is used in written Lukumí words, although it is not pronounced in speech by the Olorisha in Cuba nor has it ever been used in the original Yorùbá in these words. This is the other way round of the ”Yor. GB = Luk. B” we had before, but in an artificial “reafricanization-way".
Yor. mo júbà (I give homage) = Luk. moyugba (prayer)
Yor. abẹ̀bẹ̀ = Luk. agbebé (Oshun’s ritual fan)
Yor. ìwòrò = Luk. igboro (Orisha priest)
Another important fact to mention is that people hear what they are used to, our mind links sounds instantly to ideas and objects in our own language. Many Lukumí and Yorùbá songs have lines saying “awa”. In Yorùbá this often means “we, us” or “we have come”. Written in Lukumí as “agua” it is equal to the Spanish term for water. There is the refrain “awa ṣe’ṣ’ìmọ̀“, Yorùbá for “we do it with wisdom”. In Lukumí this song for Yemayá it is often written “agua sesima”. Here the water refers to the deity’s identity and Cubans singing this song think of water, as the Yorùbá meaning is not known exactly.
Another good example is the famous line of the refrain of the Cuban song “Ẹ l’ádé Ọ̀ṣun” (Yorùbá for “you own the crown, Oshun”), always one of the highlights in ceremonies. The chorus today is often sung with the words “o felicidad”, Spanish for happiness. Originally this line was in Yorùbá and might come from “òfé yí sí dáà“, meaning “the clever person turns to good things” (according to John Mason’s book Orin Orisa, which I will dedicate another blog-entry in the future, although I am not so sure about this translation). The Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba tells their dancers not to sing the Spanish version, instead they learn to sing “o feri ki da” to sound more “original“. On the streets the Spanish version is widespread.
Yor. Word = Luk. Word with other meaning
Some words changed their meaning, in the sense that Yorùbá cultural traditions were adepted to the new colonial society and environment. In Cuba the term “igbodú”, “igbodún” or “nibodún” refers to the “cuarto del santo”, the room in the household where the sacred vessels of the Orisha are kept. The African slaves could not live any longer in family-owned compounds or follow family-lineages, neither were there public shrines nor palaces, where usually Orisha would be honoured. Instead every initiate kept his Orisha, if possible, inside the house - in the special “igbodú”. In Nigeria ”igbó Odù” (lit. forest of Odù) is the name for the sacred site outside of town where Ifá-initiations take place. This links the small individual rooms for the Orisha in the diaspora-households to the idea of a sacred open space in nature, used by the community of a town - a collective memory.
“Aleyo” in Lukumí names “a person who is not (yet) initiated in the religion”. In Yorùbá “àlejò” simply means “outsider, visitor”. As “aleyo” has its roots in a Yorùbá-word, in the diaspora it became linked to the ritual world only, in the sense of a “non-initiated”.
Yor. Sentence = Luk. Word or Idea
As the Lukumi people do not speak the language Yorùbá anymore, they know approximately the meaning of what used to be sentences and translate whole phrases into single words or ideas. “Mabinú” is translated as adjective “angry” in the Lukumí dictionary. In Yorùbá “má bínu!” is an imperative sentence and means ”don't get angry!”.
The Lukumí expression „kinkamaché“, from Yorùbá “kí nkan má ṣe” meaning literally “that something (bad) is not happening to” or “may nothing disturb” becomes known as “prayer for health” or “health” in general. It is not completely wrong, but does not follow any language rules. In Cuba interesting books have been published, like “Obbedi. Cantos a los Orishas: Traducción e Historia” by Lázaro Pedroso. I would call it more an interpretation, not a translation, but it gives very interesting insights and poetic hints where the Lukumí words might come from originally.
One of the most prominent and most often misspelled sentences is the Lukumí “Osobo”, often written “Osorbo” or very frequently “Osogbo”. According to “Fama’s Ede Awo Dictionary” this comes from the sentence “ó sọ ìbò”, meaning “it throws off ibo”. Ìbò are the small objects used by a diviner, they can indicate that something bad is going on. “Ósọ’bò” thus became the antagonist of “ire”, luck, in Cuba, whereas in Nigeria Babalawo rather use the term “ìbi” for bad fortune in divination. This Lukumí word for bad luck has nothing to do with the Nigerian city of Òṣogbo! The “gb” seems to be just another example of the “gb-Africanization” in the spelling of the Lukumí sentence “ó sọ’bò”.
Another example is the Lukumí “achegunotá”, actually it is a Yorùbá sentence. “A ṣẹ́gun ọ̀tá” means “we are victorious over the enemy”. If you want to use it like a noun the “a” would be replaced by an “i”, so correct for a Yorùbá speaker would be the term “iṣẹ́gun ọ̀tá” if you pray for example for “ire iṣẹ́gun ọ̀tá”. A small detail, but one time you pray for a community of people that includes yourself, one time it is more general.
The phrase “ibaé bayentonú“ or „ibaé layentonú” is very important in Cuba and frequently recited when saluting the ancestors with their names. It is often translated as “may you rest in peace”. It comes from the Yorùbá sentence “ìbà rẹ, ìbà rẹ, ẹ̀nì tó nù“, which can be shortened to “ìbà’ẹ, ìbà’ẹ, ẹ̀nì tó nù”. “Ìbà” means “respect, reverence”, “re” is a second or third person pronoun (depending on the correct tone) and can be shortened to “ẹ”, so all together this means “reverence to you/him/her”. “ Ẹ̀ni tó nù” means “the ones who disappeared” (also see Wande Abimbola: Ifá will mend our broken world, Aim Books, 2003, for more examples).
Last but not least the famous “arikú babawa“ from the Lukumí prayers, which is a good example to show that the retranslation of Lukumí into Yorùbá is very difficult. We begin with “Arikú”. A typical “ire“, a fortune for the Yorùbá people, is “àìkú”, immortality (lit. “there is no death”). But where does the “r” come from in “arikú”? To me in this case it seems unlikely to insert an “r”. Most people translate it thus with ”immortality” and forget about the “r”. But like in the previous “achegunota”, where the ”a“ speaks of “we”, we could also make a sentence out of it. “A à rí ikú” could be a variant of “a ò rí ikú”, what means “we do not see/find death”. A gliding sound on the first vowel “aà” would make the difference, a sound that is not used consciously rendering Lukumí. Reader Seyi Adebayo wrote me an interesting e-mail and explained that adding an “r” would be a typical habit of Ekiti dialect speakers. He gave me the examples aije=arije, aiyo=ariyo, aisun=arisun, alaidaa=alaridaa, aibimo=aribimo, aibaje=aribaje. Maybe speakers of this dialect were involved in the formation of this standard Lukumí prayer in Cuba.
I believe, “babawa” is the short form of “bàbá ìwà”, what means literally “father of the character”. “Ìwà” is a word you come across often in Orisha worship, many proverbs speak of maintaining a good and stable character. “Bàbá” can also be translated in a more general sense not only as “father”, but as a guiding senior principle. The Lukumí “babawa” is often interpreted as Yorùbá “bàbá wa”, meaning ”our father(s)”. Although Yorùbá culture is patrilinear, if Yorùbá would speak of their ancestors, they would not call them ”fathers“ only, although on the other hand the Spanish people would call them their “forefathers”, what might have influenced the Lukumí. Lydia Cabrera interprets the babawa/babagua" as "Padre Nuestro", Our Father, like the Christian standard prayer Lukumí-slaves heard in Cuba, what is also probable. See also below the "timbelese"-discussion for another example on Christian images in Lukumí-prayers. A small diacritic mark, whether the final “wa” is an “wà” (low tone) or an “wa” (middle tone) would make the real difference in its meaning, talking about the “character” or “father(s)”. Victor Betancourt translates it in his book "La Lengua Ritual Lúkúmí" literally as "the luck to see the death of our father" (bendición de ver la muerte de nuestro padre). This should be understood as to live long enough and let things go their natural way. Something also my Yorùbá teacher interpreted once, or speculated about it. Parents never should face the death of their children, it should be the other way round. I personally think that this Lukumí-“ire” (luck) speaks about maintaining a good character and not about the immortality of our ancestors or addressing the Lord in heaven or death of our father, but I might be wrong. It can't be deciphered anymore.
Some more examples
I could continue this discussion with a few more variants on “arikú babawa”, but you see, it is already quite complicated. A small change in the melody already makes a huge difference. Yorùbá words are often shortened, when one word ends with a vowel and the next one begins with a vowel, one of them will be skipped in speech – but its abstract tone pattern remains and is transferred to the other vowel.
So when you are Lukumí, you stick to what you learn, and as we know the Orisha will understand. Many Lukumí-expressions can hardly be interpreted anymore, or the question is also how to deal with the various possibilities. In my theory, as you read above, some vowels and consonants changed, but there are other theories. I will give you two examples:
The common and widespread Yorùbá praise name “Èṣù Alágbára” (lit. Eshu the powerful one) became, in my opinion, ”Echú Alaguana”, also written ”Alawana” in Cuba. John Mason often takes the Lukumí-pronounciation as 100% Yorùbá in his retranslation of Cuban songs in his book “Orin Òrìṣà”. “Alawana” thus becomes the Yorùbá ”Aláwá ọ̀nà”, short “Aláwá’nà” (lit. the divider of the road) or Alàgba’nà (lit. elder of the road). He is aware of the gb/w changes, but not of the r/n changes I would also consider in this case. Alltogether one Lukumí-word has three possible interpretations that all make perfect sense, all refering to qualities of Eshu. After publishing this article Babaláwo Nathan Lugo sent me the information that "Láàgbánná" is a name for a certain type of Èṣù in Nigeria, so this is probably the original source of the word.
The same applies to Mason's Yorùbá-interpretation “Èṣù Alayíkí” from Lukumí “Echú Alayiki”, which he translates as “Eshu, owner of the roll salute”. Maybe this is a praisename for Eshu in some Yorùbá regions or dialects, none of my informants could tell me what a “roll salute” was, but I am sure Mason did a lot of research. Thus a common Nigerian praise name today for Eshu is “Alájíkí” (lit. the one who is greeted when awakening). If the “j” turned into a “y” this might be the root of the word – we just do not know it exactly and it stays speculative. Another Yorùbá-friend heard it as “Aláìkí” (lit. one who does not greet), interpreting it as “the one who does not associate”, which is also a good description for Eshu’s role. Betancourt translates "Alaàjekí" as "the one with gluttony" (quien posee la glotonería). So who is right? We can’t say. The Lukumí-dictionary describes “Layikí (Echú)” as ”the one no one knows about how he is beginning or ending”.
Other expressions, like the prayer “Ñakiña, ñakiña loro, vara lláguese, lláguese loro“ or „Ñaqui nana qui yaloro, varayawece yawece loro“ can hardly be interpreted anymore I guess, unlike you find some Yorùbá-informants who can decipher it. It depends highly on the ritual knowledge of the Yorùbá-informants, when it comes to retranslating. It is known that Cubans make use of words from Oyo-dialects. The Lukumí call the head "lerí", as in Oyo "orí" is rather called "erí", or refer to the bean-cake (as a dish for the Orisha) not as "moin-moin" but "olelé". A Yorùbá-informant from Lagos, who does not know Oyo-dialects, might simply tell you "erí" is wrong or he does not know ”olelé”. Songs and chants are full of poetic expressions, praisenames, references to myths, the Orisha’s qualities, preferred offerings or plays on words only insiders can understand. Olorisha and Babalawo in Nigeria kept on explaining me about the ”deep” or ”old” Yorùbá, that is used in reciting prayers. It is poetry, full of artistic expressions and vocabulary one might not use in daily contemporary conversation. Some Lukumí-expressions might find an interpretation explaining their circumstances when used. While e.g. one informant translated my Lukumí ”Echú otá oricha” as Yorùbá ”Èṣù ọ̀tá Òrìṣà” (lit. Eshu the enemy of the Orisha), another (more versed Olorisha) explained it to me as ”Èṣù ọta Òrìṣà“ (lit. Eshu the cornerstone of the Orisha). Eshu’s single position might allow it to call him an enemy in a poetic expression, maybe refering to a special story, where he acts like an enemy of someone. For sure he is a cornerstone, as he takes all the sacrifices and is marked by a stone in front of the compounds in Nigeria. But what a difference in interpretation, without knowing the exact tones of the vowels and the circumstances of using this description!
A language never is static. Many people, even Nigerian Yorùbá, are surprised when they hear that “àláfíà“, a very widespread word even in the diaspora, is originally an arabic word meaning ”peace” - among many other arabic words. Today’s Yorùbá word for “candle” in Nigeria is “àbẹ́la” and has Portuguese roots (“vela”), as candles were introduced through colonial trade. Interesting that the Lukumí in Cuba call candles “ataná”, what is a native Yorùbá expression and means something like “thing to lit on fire”.
I was surprised when I told some Lukumí-prayers to Olorisha in Nigeria and came across the phrase “tí mbẹ l’ẹsẹ̀ Olódùmarè“ what means “who is sitting/residing at the feet of god”. Immediately all of them told me “this is Christian church-Yorùbá, not Yorùbá for Orisha”. And it is true, it is an image well-known in European culture, “a los pies de dios“ in Spanish refers more to a baroque oilpainting of Jesus Christ than to the Yorùbá-idea of Olódùmarè. The Nigerian Olorisha immediately deciphered this phrase used in a Lukumí-prayer for the ancestors as not indigenous to their tradition. This means the Yorùbá-slaves in Cuba also incorporated catholic expressions and ideas into their native tongue, what is a very interesting fact I think. Yorùbá must have been lingua franca in Cuba for some generations and people adopted expressions from Spanish language as well. We know that “Santeria” adopted a lot from European imagery, but it was new to me that also the language was influenced in this way.
This reminds me on a trip to Havana. I was walking along the streets and a man was passing by with his bicycle shouting to his friend “Salam Alaykum“, the friend responded “Alaykum Salam“. First I thought I might have witnessed two people of the obviously very small Muslim Cuban community. Later I was told that this is an “African greeting“ used by Abakua or Paleros and today I see it written on Facebook like “Nsala Maleko“ in a kind of imagined “Congo-way“ or "Bantu-style" spelling of a once arabic Muslim greeting. Many slaves sold to the colonies were Muslims in fact, as also back home the Yorùbá had Hausa-slaves, whose rebellion once even brought the kingdom of Oyo to fall. Today in Cuba it is the code for greeting other initiates of the same belief, but has nothing to do with Islam anymore.
We have to be aware of the fact that our cultural traditions are in a constant change and I deeply refuse any conservative attempt of sticking to traditions, just because “it has always been like that” – because we know it has not. Life is changing like the river is flowing. At the end of the day, the Orisha understand what their devotees tell them, whatever language you are using. You do not have to be able to speak a perfect Yorùbá or know all the Lukumí-expressions and prayers a Babalawo might recite, I think. But it can give you a deep insight into the culture and its values.
A last example for this would be the “limpieza”, the popular Cuban cleansing ritual, called “sarayeye”. The Lukumí sing “sarayeye, bakunlo, etc.”. Asking a Cuban I was told this means “to wash the body (Yor. ara), so that there is no death (Yor. ikú)”. Visiting Nigeria I heard exactly the same song in a ritual and was explained that this is really sung to the body - to the body of the bird. So that it sprout its feathers (Yor. iyẹ́) smoothly (to take away the bad influences) and “ba ikú n lọ”, accompanies the death in going away. These moments make it worth studying Yorùbá.
So keep on learning to strengthen the bounds between Orisha and mankind, translate, adopt, create and enjoy the beauty and history of Yorùbá or Lukumí cultural traditions and be an active part in it! Ire ooo!