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The central mosque in Abeokuta

A lot of semantic changes in the English language have now stayed long enough for the original meanings of the words to slowly fade.

Semantic changes or shifts—the evolution of the usage of words—are in a way necessary for the evolution of a language to adapt to the linguistic necessities of simultaneously evolving cultures.

I beamed when I observed, while sitting on top of a motorbike in Ibadan, a semantic shift in full bloom in the Yoruba language. The word gbéra translates directly to “lift body.”  The word’s original use is in situations such as leaving to go somewhere else or traveling. The old usage does not have the sense of urgency that new usage(s) of the word has.

Atop that motorbike, on the road linking Bódijà and Secretariat, I was running late for an appointment and, in a move that was almost immediately regrettable, I told the bike-man, “Gbéra.”

The word sent adrenaline coursing down the rider’s vein. He stepped on the pedal. To the bike-rider “gbéra” had become a challenge or an accusation that he was being too timid, and so amidst loosely held-up cars and a blinding sun, he became dare-devil, speeding into road bumps and potholes while swerving dangerously.

I promised myself never to tell a bike-man gbéra again.

Two years later, two weeks ago, I was running late again, and I spat out the magic word. This bike-man reacted to it on a deeper level and sped in the opposite direction of traffic on a federal highway. I have since resolved never to use the word in such circumstances again.

Another new use of the word is in gambling circles, especially in the virtual dog racing subset. Gamblers glue their eyes to the screen after selecting their dog(s) and scream, “Gbéra!” at the virtual beings.

A typical example of this scream is “Ajá four, gbéra!” meaning: Dog Number Four, do not only lift your body, lift it more intensely than other dogs. The use here is in a competitive sense, which the original usage lacks. In popular culture, these virtual dogs have become a metaphor for fortunes, and when Small Doctor in his single titled “Gbéra,” featuring Reminisce, proclaims, “Ajá mi ti gbéra,” it is a metaphor for sudden success or a breakout (known in generally as “blowing”).

In the routine business of daily life, the word has come to have meanings ranging from doing things with greater speed and enthusiasm to having surges of confidence. The latter meaning is exemplified in a mob  goading their friend to go after a dame or a student motivating a fearful classmate before a crucial examination.

The word has in essence evolved from “to lift one’s body” to “to lift one’s soul or spirit.”

 

 

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Post image by Melvin “Buddy” Baker via Flickr.

About the Author:

FullSizeRenderMoyosore Orimoloye is a poet from Akure, Nigeria who has had his work published in The Ilanot Review, The Rising Phoenix Review, The Kalahari Review and The Best New African Poets 2015 anthology. His poem “Love is a plot device and your insecticide is not” co-won the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award in August 2016. He is currently an Intern Pharmacist at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta. He tweets from @MoyoOrims.

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3 Responses to “Semantic Shifts in Yoruba Language: The Case of Gbéra | By Moyosore Orimoloye” Subscribe

  1. EOD 2017/01/18 at 05:50 #

    Really interesting read. Although I would call the fresh usages of the word instances of polysemous usage rather than semantic shift because, in each case, the root meaning remains, and unobscured.

  2. Binogun Winifred 2017/01/18 at 08:59 #

    Great read. Immediately I saw the title, a barage of Twitter memes came to mind.

  3. Adegboyega Shamsideen Thompson 2017/01/19 at 04:30 #

    I have enjoyed your storyline on “‘Gbéra'” in all its ‘creative’ system of writing. It also makes me wonder why in your effort to be ‘creative’ pointing to its “‘sementics'” direction in the Yoruba language, you have minimized it to a couple of ‘usages’ by some Yoruba speakers.

    “‘Gbéra'” fits your story and your ‘story’ fits it in the sense of a Yoruba with an English idea and mindset. Why?

    Can we communicate in English ‘Yorubaically’ (my coinage) no matter our level of the control of the English language in all our ‘Igilarity’/’Englisharity’ (my coinages, meaning “‘Big/Bombastic use of words in the English language)?

    What is English to you–first, second, third, or what-have-you rank as a language?

    Why have you done such a ‘disservice’ to the use of “‘Gbéra'” in the Yoruba language? You have limited its use to the arenas of motor parks and gambling cirlcles (dialogue with an “‘Ọkādà'” motor cyclist and dog fight wagers).

    “Gbé’rā” (Gbé ārā) covers more grounds in the diction and parlance of Yoruba speakers. Its usage is, in most cases, effortlessly sacred and spiritual, in meaning and intention.

    It is a phrase that is used to reconcile us with our “ārā” (body) and “ẹmi” (breath/soul). I will give you some examples here, as follows:

    * Gbé’rā (“Lift your body;” not “‘Lift body'” as you have indicated)

    * “Gbé’rā n’lẹ k’ō dìdē” is your well-wisher utterance, and/or a Bābāláwō’s incantation to a sick person to rise up in good health from his/her sick “mat”…

    “Ēgbé,” as in “‘Ēgbé gbé mī dé’lé'” is a Yoruba spiritually loaded incantation, and therefore “magical” pronouncement for a “jenne” to aid oneself in disappearing to safety from a scene of accident/calamity.

    “Ārā kì nwúwó títí k’álárā má lè gbē” (One’s big and heavy body density should not prevent oneself from carrying one’s body to move around, and/or “dance”)…

    If you have ‘ordered’ the respective “‘Ọkādà'” motor-cylists to, in Yoruba, “‘fò'” (fly) and/or “‘Gbá’rā dì, tú’rāká, gbē n’lẹ,'” I can imagine them responding to your order to ‘fly’ away, with you on their motor-cycles like “‘Dánfó'” transportation drivers.

    If they “‘fly'” away, with or without your ‘orders’, like “‘Dánfó'” drivers speed on our highways, would it make one wonder if they are ‘crazy;’ or not, as in another Yoruba saying, “‘Ōnídánfó ‘ò ‘ṣíwèrè,’ īgbó l’ó d’ōrí ẹ rú'” (A Dánfó driver is not ‘crazy;’ but Indian hemp (“‘marijuana'”) has roughened up/messed up his head)…

    You can see that all these phrases have one thing in common–very much akin to exchange of ‘pleasantries’,’ and/or “‘orders'”/”‘commands’.'”

    Ó d’ìgbà kān ná ō.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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