Naming Names With A Web Dictionary

Editor's Note:

This is a guest post by Kola Tubosun, one of our members here at CapitalSquare.

When he emailed us about this project, I was glad to see it, and particularly interested because I'm a great believer in the power and importance of names. It's my personal opinion that the simplest way to show respect for someone is to make the effort pronounce their name correctly. Just wanted to put that out there :)

So read about his project below, and make sure you donate, share, or get involved in some way. Thank you!

- Dupe Macaulay

The distinction between dictionaries and encyclopedias is not only the one that is practically impossible to make, but one that is fundamentally misconceived. Dictionaries are encyclopedias.
— John Haiman

Facts first: I’m currently building a multimedia dictionary of Yoruba names, online, using tools of technology in order to preserve a culture and reverse a negative trend. You can read about it here on Tech Cabal, here on TheCable, and here at WeRunsThings – three news sites that have been nice enough to help publicise the work on their platforms. The project is envisioned as more than a dictionary however, but a wiki of sorts where content is generated not just by administrators but by users: a place where all the names in Yorubaland are properly catalogued, defined, annotated, and can be heard pronounced by a professional voiceover artist. It is a project long overdue, and for which demand has been around for a number of years.

A couple of days before we created this Indiegogo campaign for the project, I was watching a video clip from the Today’s Show in the US where British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo tried to show Jimmy Fallon how “Oyelowo” is pronounced. It was funny and illustrative of a number of things, chief of which is the difficulty by non-Africans to pronounce African names. You should see that video, by the way. It was the final push I needed to begin the project which has been dear to me since my undergraduate days which culminated in a BA project titled “The Multimedia Dictionary of Yoruba Names”. I began to wonder why there was no place where foreigners can go to learn how an African name is pronounced.

There was something else fascinating to me in the video, however. It was that the two times Mr. Oyelowo pronounced his own name, he actually pronounced it in two different ways. The first way was the regular Oyo standard pronunciation while the second was the Ijesha/Ekiti dialect (which, unfortunately, can’t be represented here in writing). Each has a different tonal pattern and those fluent in Yoruba will be able to tell both apart though it will likely sound the same to a non trained ear. However, today, there is nowhere online where Africans interested in these little tidbits of cultural and linguistic information can go to have their curiosities satiated. Not just for Yoruba, by the way. With a continent of about 2100 languages (Wikipedia), the web is lacking in a lot of cultural input from us, the different communities scattered across the land.

I decided to start something, but this time a place where Nigerian (and non Nigerian) users can go to hear how a name is pronounced so that awkward situations of pronouncing them in a European manner will not keep coming up. A television host in the United States is more likely to go online to find out how to pronounce a Swedish name, for instance, if he or she intends to speak with a Swedish guest with an unfamiliar name. Why can’t we have the same for African names? The tools are there now after all. There is no logical answer to that question, hence this project.  But that is just a small part of the vision. In any case, Yoruba is just a minor slice of the larger picture. It is just a most logical place to start. Hopefully, more African languages will follow and the next decade will have us with more robust cultural and linguistic representation in information technology.

This project is just a start in that direction. Please join us.

To donate, share, and volunteer, or read more about the project here, go here: .


Kola Tubosun is a linguist, teacher, and writer. He has a travel blog at and is currently involved in translating twitter into Yoruba. He can be found on twitter at @baroka