The Translation of Cultures: Engendering Yorùbá Language, Orature, and World-Sense

  • Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí


Questions of language and translation are central to this study.1 Western feminist theorists have underscored the importance of language in the construction of gender. In the English-speaking West, feminists have shown the connections between the male-centeredness of the language and women’s secondary status in their societies.2 Language is a social institution and at the level of the individual affects social behavior. A people’s language reflects their patterns of social interactions, lines of status, interests, and obsessions. That much is apparent in the above epigraph by Austin; if English makes much of gender differences, it is because these are the distinctions that the society found worth drawing. If Yorùbá society did not make gender distinctions and instead made age distinctions, as the Johnson quote suggests it did, then for the Yorùbá, the age distinctions were the ones worth drawing, at least until the British showed up on our doorstep. It is significant that in spite of the fact that Johnson was conscious of Yorùbá non-gender-specificity, his reference to the Yorùbá man in his example, rather than a non-gender-specific Yorùbá person, could be read as the privileging of the male, as in Austin’s usage of the English word “men.” (Feminist linguists have argued convincingly that the so-called generic use of “man” in English is not actually generic but one more way of promoting the male as norm through language.3) The question that this raises is this: In a milieu in which these two interacting languages—Yorùbá and English—articulate different cultural values, how do we distinguish the Yorùbá gender-freeness from the English male-as-norm in the speech and writing of Yorùbá bilinguals?


Religious Cult Gender Category Gender Distinction Western Idea African Literature 
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© Elizabeth A. Castelli 2001

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  • Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí

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