You’ve heard a few Yoruba proverbs and idioms before, haven’t you? Those colorful expressions capture age-old wisdom and truths in a few poetic words. The Yoruba language is filled with hundreds of proverbs and idioms, passed down through generations, that provide guidance on life, relationships, wisdom, and morality.
In this article, we’ll explore 50 of the most well-known Yoruba proverbs and idioms. For each one, we’ll share the literal translation into English and discuss the deeper meaning and wisdom they convey. Some of these proverbs and idioms may be familiar to you, while others may be entirely new. Either way, you’re sure to gain new cultural insights and a deeper appreciation for the poetic wisdom woven into the Yoruba language.
An Overview of the Yoruba Tribe
The Yoruba people make up one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. Over 40 million Yoruba live in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. They share a common language and culture.
The Yoruba traditionally believe in a supreme god called Olodumare, who delegated authority over the earth to lesser gods and spirits. They also believe in ancestors who act as intermediaries between the living and the supreme god.
Family and community are very important in Yoruba culture. Children are valued and respected, and kinship groups form the basis of social organization. Politeness, good manners, and greetings are emphasized. Yoruba people greet each other with “E kaaro” (good morning), “E kaasan” (good afternoon), and “E kale o” (good evening).
Music, dance, and art play an important role in rituals, festivals, and daily life. The talking drum is popular, along with other percussion instruments.
The Yoruba have a rich cultural heritage, as evidenced by their expressive arts, folklore, and the important role that proverbs and idioms play in their language. By gaining insight into their beliefs and values, you’ll have a better understanding of Yoruba wisdom and worldview.
Introduction to Yoruba Proverbs & Idioms
Proverbs and idioms are an important part of Yoruba culture. They are metaphorical sayings used to convey wisdom and life lessons.
Proverbs play an important role in Yoruba culture. They are used in everyday speech to convey meaningful thoughts or illustrate a point. Parents pass them on to children as moral guidance. The proverbs often reference nature, animals, or everyday objects to share insightful messages about life, relationships, and society.
Some common themes in Yoruba proverbs include:
- Wisdom and knowledge. For example, “The world is like a mask dancing, if you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.” Meaning you must experience and observe life from different perspectives to gain wisdom.
- Caution and fate. For example, “However long the night, the dawn will still break.” This encourages perseverance in the face of difficulties.
- Family and community. For example, “A single tree does not make a forest.” Illustrating the importance of unity and togetherness.
Proverbs have been an integral part of Yoruba culture for centuries. By understanding the proverbs, you gain insight into the values, beliefs, and experiences that have shaped the Yoruba people. They continue to be highly relevant and offer thought-provoking life lessons for today.
50 Yoruba Proverbs, their Literal Translation and Meanings
The Yoruba language is rich with proverbs and idioms that provide wisdom and guidance. Here are 50 common Yoruba proverbs and their meanings:
Ewé kan kì í bọ́ lára igi, kí Ọlọ́run Ọba má mọ̀
Literal Translation: No leaf drops off a tree without God’s foreknowledge.
Meaning: Nothing surprises God; nothing is beyond Him; lean on Him.
Ohun tó ṣe àkàlàmàgbò tó fi dẹ́kun ẹ̀rin rínrín, tó bá ṣe igúnnugún, á wokoko mórí ẹyin ni
Literal Translation: If what took laughter away from the crow had befallen the vulture, it would have been stuck brooding on its eggs.
Meaning: Be tolerant; different strokes for different folks!
Àpa àímú délé ni kò jẹ́ kí a mọ̀ pé ológbò ńse ọdẹ
Literal Translation: Its penchant for not bringing home its games is why the cat is not known for hunting.
Meaning: Be strategic; don’t eat your future; don’t sacrifice it for the present!
Asúùfé ya àgbàdo; ó f’ojú jọ olè, óf’ojú jọ olókó
Literal Translation: The one who harvests corn on a farm whistling (carefreely) could very well be the farm owner and could very well be a thief.*
Meaning: Appearance can be deceptive; look beyond the obvious!
A kò lè tìtorí pé ọ̀nà jìn kí a wá padà sẹ́hìn
Literal Translation: Because the destination is far, there is no reason to abort a journey.
Meaning: Be steadfast, be undaunted: resolve challenges and keep the focus on the goals; finish whatever you start!
Ọ̀dùnkún ì báà mọ tíńtín, dandan ni kó dùn dé lẹ̀.
Literal Translation: Even if sweet potato is just a tiny bit, it certainly must be sweet, wholly.
Meaning: We remain true to who we really are deep down; we can hardly pretend to be who we are not for long!
Ọlọ́run kì í ṣe nǹkan, kó má fi àyè ọpẹ́ sí i; tó bá pá baba lórí, a sì fi irùngbọ̀n rọ́po
Literal Translation: God never does a thing without leaving room for thanksgiving; if God makes a man bald, He’ll give him the beard in replacement.
Meaning: There’ll always be reasons to be thankful to God!
Ẹni sọ̀rọ̀ púpọ̀ yó ṣìsọ; àsọjù ló ńmú ìyá ọba pe ara rẹ̀ ní ìyá ọ̀bọ
Literal Translation: Whoever talks inordinately will misspeak; inordinate talk made the king’s mother (inadvertently) refer to herself as the mother of monkeys.
Meaning: Moderation is crucial; exercise self-control, always!
Bí ìgbà bá ńgbáni ká máa rọ́jú, bó pẹ́ bó yà ìgbà ńbọ̀ wá gbani
Literal Translation: If time afflicts one, one should persevere, as it will eventually favor one.
Meaning: Keep hope alive; if we won’t quit, we’ll win!
A kì í ṣíwájú ẹlẹ́èdẹ́ pe ẹ̀ẹ́dẹ́ nítorí a kò mọ̀ bóyá ẹ̀ẹ́dẹ́gbẹ̀ta ló fẹ́ pè ni àbí ẹ̀ẹ́dẹ́gbẹ̀rin
Literal Translation: Don’t preempt anyone who started saying “ẹẹ́dẹ” as you do not yet clearly know if he or she intends to say “ẹẹdẹgbẹta” (500) or “ẹẹdẹgbẹrin” (700).
Meaning: Hear people out before jumping to conclusions; don’t be presumptuous!
Ààrò kì í gbóná títí kó má tutù
Literal Translation: No matter how long the fireplace has been hot, it will become cold eventually.
Meaning: Whatever is hot today will one day become cold; tough times won’t last forever; keep hope alive; it’s not over yet.
A kọ́ni ò ní ká ṣìkà bí a kò níkà nínú; tani ńkọ́ni kí a tó ṣe rere
Literal Translation: That one was so advised is no reason to be wicked if one isn’t inherently wicked; who teaches us to do good?
Meaning: Advice we accept reflects who we are deep down; we always embrace what sits down well with us!
Literal Translation: God hates lies; man hates truth, yet there is no third option in a discourse.
Meaning: It is better to always stick with the truth, even when there are no easy options.
Literal Translation: It’s the gourd itself that will indicate where on its body the rope (to carry it) should be affixed.
Meaning: People themselves will indicate to you how you should treat them, and when they do, believe them!
Literal Translation: Stop taking nips at a piece of meat that you have no intention of eating.
Meaning: Don’t start what you won’t finish; finish whatever you start!
Literal Translation: A lamp is not valued in the afternoons but does get appreciated at night.
Meaning: There’s always a right time and place for everything; solutions are most appreciated during trying times!
Literal Translation: If we flap our arms for twenty years, when are we going to fly?
Meaning: Make hay while the sun shines; promptly exploit opportunities!
Literal Translation: No one knows the future for certain; otherwise, one would have prepared for it ahead of time.
Meaning: Only God knows the future!
Literal Translation: If the frying pan is not heated up, the corn cannot pop.
Meaning: Good things do not always come easy; no pain, no gain; hang in there: don’t give up!
Literal Translation: I own today, and I will own tomorrow is how a youngster runs into debt.
Meaning: Change is constant. Don’t be presumptuous about the future; plan and prepare for it today!
Literal Translation: When on a horse, fling your head backward with restraint; sudden jumps of horses often throw riders.
Meaning: Never abuse privileges; exercise self-control; safeguards against abuse do exist!
Literal Translation: The supper is prepared in every home; some stews are simply tastier than others.
Meaning: We are all blessed, albeit in different ways and to different extents; keep hope alive and remain grateful!
Literal Translation: If farming were that fantastic, would blacksmiths opt to make hoes (for others)?
Meaning: Look beyond the surface: think critically; don’t be naive or simplistic; things are often not quite as they appear!
Literal Translation: When an issue tarries, it will eventually become history.
Meaning: No matter how long an issue takes, it will one day come to an end; regardless of how it looks, EVERYTHING certainly has an expiry date: nothing lasts forever; keep hope alive!
Literal Translation: The Ijeṣa person is not hungry, and he rejects corn loaf prepared by an Ọ̀yọ́ person; when hunger gripped the son of Obokun (an appellation for Ijeṣa people), he ate ori(the Ọ̀yọ́ name for corn-loaf.)
You are only choosy because you’re not desperate enough.
Literal Translation: Even if we pound it in a mortar or grind it on the grinding stone, pepper will remain inseparable from its character.
Meaning: Old habits die hard; we can hardly pretend to be who we are not for long!
Literal Translation: It is a wise person who learns from the experience of others; fools learn from theirs.
Meaning: It’s wise to learn from the experience of others; it’s less risky and less costly!
Literal Translation: The marshy place keeps aloof as if it is unrelated to the river.
Meaning: When the going gets tough, pretty few will stick with you. Mentally prepare for this; everybody loves the winner, but when you lose, you are on your own!
Literal Translation: The snake has only one single head, yet, with this, routs two hundred other heads.
Meaning: Not just the numbers, but the substance behind them that counts; not the quantity, but the quality that matters!
Literal Translation: The initial shame is for the tortoise; the subsequent ones are for its in-law (who exposed it to the shame in the first instance).
Meaning: Be perceptive: Ultimately, we embarrass ourselves when we expose those close to us to embarrassments!
Literal Translation: The maize seed goes into the soil absolutely naked; it ends up with multiple peelings only after sprouting.
Meaning: The best is yet to come; keep hope alive!
Literal Translation: Even if the served rice contains stone particles, we should not be hearing the complaint from a beggar.
Meaning: A beggar can’t be choosy; be moderate!
Agbẹ́-igi-lére kan kò lè gbẹ́ inú u rẹ̀.
Literal Translation: No sculptor can carve the internals of the statue he or she is carving.
Meaning: There is a limit to what anyone can do. Be reasonable in your expectations; most people are doing the very best they can, regardless of how it seems!
Literal Translation: It’s the borderline that will reveal the farmland of the indolent
Meaning: Hard work is the antidote for shame, shun laziness and save your face from disgrace.
Literal Translation: A matter that affects everybody must be cautiously confronted single handedly by one person.
Meaning: Don’t make a general problem a personal one; there’s strength in numbers; cooperate and collaborate!
Literal Translation: Patridge’s lack of perseverance is what gave it its dirty garb.
Meaning: Perseverance is it; Lack of perseverance may deprive you of what ought to rightfully be yours!
Literal Translation: Character is like smoke; it cannot be covered up.
Meaning: No one can pretend to be who he or she is not for long; ultimately, our character shows through!
Literal Translation: A royal heir who’s wearing a cap is simply in haste; he’ll get to don far more than velvet caps upon ascending his father’s throne.
Meaning: Be patient; don’t force issues before their time!
Literal Translation: A fellow who insists on beating a drum implicatively ought to know that the person who’s to dance to it isn’t stupid.
Meaning: Take no one for a fool; respect everyone!
Literal Translation: A hand with pepper cannot be used to wash the face; the one with palm oil cannot be used to handle a white cloth.
Meaning: Even with the best of intentions, some things are just inappropriate!
Literal Translation: The diligent isn’t stupid; he or she simply wants to defeat poverty; the person who refuses to work really seeks to partner with poverty.
Meaning: Diligence is a choice: choose right!
Literal Translation: No matter how long the hearth gets hot, it will become cold eventually.
Meaning: Whatever is hot will one day become cold; whatever has a beginning will have an ending. Nothing lasts forever: change is certain; keep hope alive!
Literal Translation: One is never too old to learn what one does not know
Meaning: There is no end to learning; be open to it; age is no barrier to learning.
Literal Translation: One shouldn’t have to genuflect to kill a bush rat, genuflect to sell it, and still have to genuflect to collect the sales proceeds.
Meaning: Service shouldn’t be seen as servitude; deny no one his or her due!
Literal Translation: If the chicken’s (incubated) egg did not crack, the chick could not have been hatched.
Meaning: Adversity may well be a stepping stone; keep hope alive!
Literal Translation: Be focused on where you are going, not where you had fallen (in the past).
Meaning: Be forward-looking; leave the past where it belongs: in the past!
Literal Translation: The crab on the bank of the river is not far gone from home yet.
Meaning: If you are in a hole, stop digging; don’t double down on stupidity; it’s never too late to do the right thing!
Literal Translation: Eating together isn’t pleasant when one party lacks; we are usually happy to share when we all can give.
Meaning: It’s good to give to others, but better to empower them; it’s better to teach people to fish than give them fish!
Literal Translation: Abusive words never grow any fruit on anyone.
Meaning: Disparaging attacks are defused when ignored; keep moving: don’t major on minors!
Literal Translation: Prostrating does not necessarily connote good manners; people are simply after what they can get.
Meaning: Excessive genuflection or servility is often nothing but an attempt at sycophancy; appearance can be deceptive!
Proverbs are an integral part of Yoruba oral tradition and folklore. They have been passed down through generations to educate, advise, and impart wisdom. The Yoruba have a proverb for nearly every situation, and proverbs are frequently used in daily conversations and speeches to make a point or convey a message in a poetic yet meaningful way. Their significance in Yoruba culture cannot be overstated.
So there you have it: 50 common Yoruba proverbs and idioms, along with their direct translations and meanings. Proverbs showcase the richness of the Yoruba language and provide insights into the values and philosophies of the Yoruba people.
Hopefully, this collection has given you a glimpse into this aspect of Yoruba language and culture. The next time you hear a Yoruba speaker use one of these proverbs in conversation, you’ll be in the know and better able to appreciate the depth of meaning and cultural context.