Unveiling the taboo of sexual intercourse in the Beulah Yoruba/English Bilingual Parallel Bible.

Author:Ajayi, Temitope Michael


The concept of taboo is a universal concept wherein realisation varies from one language to another, one culture to another, and one speech community to another. For instance, while it might be a taboo in the Yoruba language and culture to refer literally to some private body parts, as direct reference to these sensitive body parts carries connotation of shame and embarrassment, it might not be the case in another culture. In the same vein, religions or religious organisations find certain actions or expressions taboo. Therefore, such expressions are often avoided in embrace of more sacred ones. Such is the case, for instance, where certain expressions making overt and direct reference to sexual intercourse are avoided in many Christian English Bibles in general and their Yoruba versions in particular.

In the KJV-based Beulah version of the Yoruba Bible, where excerpts have been drawn for analysis in this study, rather than make direct reference to sexual intercourse and activities, the translators have chosen to leave those expressions veiled as done in the KJV (from which it was translated). This practice is in tandem with the norms of language use in the Yoruba society. One of such norms is to avoid obscene words and expressions in open discourse. In fact, one of the many ways to demonstrate communicative competence in the Yoruba language and culture is to avoid the use of such expressions that could depict a sense of maladjustment, especially in public discourse, on the part of a language user. This is why an adage in the language says: oro to baye ka so niyewu, a kit so o ni gbangba 'it is inappropriate to discuss in public a matter meant to be discussed privately'.

In several instances in the KJV-based Beulah version of the Yoruba Bible, there are many cases of veiled taboo expressions whose interpretation largely draws on contextual variables such as shared situational knowledge (SSK), shared religious knowledge (SRK), inference (INF), etc. Although scholars have investigated the concept of taboo in the Yoruba language and culture, particularly with respect to its definition, conception and realisations, no scholarly work has attempted an examination of the concept as it relates to Biblical discourse. Our choice of a KJV-based translation in this study is predicated on our observation that the version enjoys the largest readership in the Nigerian context, considering the fact that it is the toast of quite majority of Pentecostal churches like The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Deeper Life Bible Church (DLBC), and Winners' Chapel, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry, to mention but a few. These Pentecostal churches, are no doubt, the fastest growing churches in the country. It is equally worthy of note, that, no known translation or version of the Yoruba Bible deviates from what we have observed in the BBPE that we have chosen for our analysis in this study.

The Concept of Taboo and Types

In the opinion of Timothy (1999, p. 25), taboo language can be divided into swearing, obscenity, profanity, name calling, insulting, verbal aggression, taboo speech, ethnic-racial slurs, vulgarity, slang, and scatology. He obviously has defined taboo language from the view point of 'cursing'. Trudgill (2000, p.18) refers to taboo as something prohibited or forbidden (sic). He asserts his position further in the following statements:

[Taboo is a] behaviour that is supernaturally forbidden or regarded as immoral or improper; it deals with behaviour which is prohibited or inhibited in an apparently irrational manner (p. 18) With respect to language, Trudgill claims taboo is associated with things which are not said, and to him, the phenomenon is a broad concept which could be divided into cursing, profanity, blasphemy, obscenity, insults, sexual harassment and any form of vulgar use of language. Speaking on the concept of taboo, Saville-Troike (2003, p. 210) submits as follows:

Attitudes toward language considered taboo in a speech community are extremely strong, and violations may be sanctioned by imputations of immorality, social ostracism, and even illness or death. No topic is universally forbidden: what cannot be said in one language can be in another and vice versa. Neither are linguistic taboos arbitrary: they relate integrally to culture-specific beliefs and practices in religion or magic, decorum, and social control. The excerpt above affirms the assertions made in the introductory part of this work on the universality of the concept of taboo and the fact that it is culture-specific. Also, it can be deduced from Saville-Troike's (2003, p.210) submission that as members of different speech communities, our actions as well as utterances are guided by certain social rules embedded in our own cultures and communities. Violation of these social rules therefore generates negative reactions from the society to which we belong. There are taboos that relate to the way we sit, greet, eat, converse and observe our religious practices. For instance, in Yoruba culture (and many other African communities), it is a taboo to refer to the death of a king as one would refer to that of an ordinary individual (Okunola, 2005). Therefore, a Yoruba would say, concerning the death of a king, Oba waja "the king enters or climbs the roof' and not Oba ku "the king dies/died". The latter would portray the king as an ordinary mortal, just like every other "common" man, a view not in sync with Yoruba custom and tradition.

Obviously following the positions of the scholars stated above, Battistella (2005, p.38) sees taboo words as offensive language which can be variously categorised: epithets, profanity and obscenity. Just as we have taboos related to family life and activities, we have taboos for religious practices. In fact, with respect to religious taboos (which is the focus of our work here), Saville-Troike (2003, p. 210), citing the views of scholars like Frazer (1922); Leslau (1959); and Smal-Stocki (1950) posits thus:

Taboos related to religion or magic may affect a wide range of linguistic phenomena, and include animal-name avoidances in many speech communities. It may be believed that animals or spirits understand human language, and that mentioning their names would either drive them away (undesirable if one is hunting), or attract them near where they might inflict harm. Related to this belief are the restriction in the former Bangalam Upper Congo against using men's names at home while they are fishing; replacing an animal name with a semantically unrelated word which begins with the same sound (e.g., zagwara 'leopard' becomes zambwara 'disc of wood to cut bread') in Ethiopia; and the substitution of a metaphorical expression for the animal terms (e.g. calling a wolf "uncle" or "nice little dog") by peasants in the Ukraine. In relation to the above, Nwoye (1985) comments on the...

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