To prevent a phenomenon called ‘folk-etymology’ in linguistic analyses, we do what we call a cross language comparison of terms to get at the core of their meanings that may be forgotten in one language or another. When it comes to names of deities, often a culture will forget the original meaning of the name, or they ‘forget’ because it never was a name that originated in their language. In other words, it is a borrowing. As a result of not knowing the true meaning of a term, a speech community will often try to analyze the name from within their language by trying to break the term down using words from their language that make sense to them. We in the Black community do this a lot, especially with the word “history” by trying to break it down into “His-Story.” This is an example of folk-etymology (etymology done by the common people with no knowledge of historical comparative linguistic methods for ascertaining the meaning of words).
This folk-etymology has been done within the Yoruba tradition with name for a popular goddess Yemoja. Folk-etymology argues that the name Yemoja means “mother of fishes.” This is incorrect for a number of reasons. Firstly, the word for “fish” is ẹje in the Yoruba language. However, they did get the word for “mother” correct, ye. It is a variant ofìyá “mother,” which can also be pronounced ìye. It really is a word for “life’ and has cognates with Yoruba Eyo “the dead come back to life,” oya “bush animal,”ìyè “survival, salvation, life” (< ye “to survive, to live through”), aye “life, world,” aya “wife”; Hebrew hay “living being.”
The reason why Yemoja is often rendered “mother of fishes” is because she is associated with “water” and there is a word in the Yoruba language, ẹje, which means “fish.” Because a “fish” lives in “water,” the Yoruba people have made a conceptual connection with the term. They, however, fail to reconcile the -m- phoneme in yeMoja. This cannot represent the preposition “of,” because this is rendered in Yoruba as ti or niti “of.” We also have to reconcile the -o- after -m- as the word ẹje does not contain the -o- sound. We know the m is not the continuous particle m/n because they are attached to verbs and “fish” is not a verb. We know “mo” cannot be the pronoun mo “I” because it wouldn’t make sense in the sentence: i.e., Ye “mother” + mo “I” +ẹje “fish” = Mother I Fish (a three noun sentence). This makes it more difficult to reconcile when one notes that Yemoja can also be rendered Yemaja (Yemaya in the Diaspora).
We argue here that Yemoja is simply a name meaning “Mother (of) waters” or “The (living) spirit of/in waters” or simply “Living waters.” The word moja is a Niger-Congo word for “waters” and has a cognate in the Kiswahili-Bantu language as moji “waters.” There is a cognate in Hebrew may’im (where ‘im is the plural marker in Semitic);Berber a-ma-n “water”; Cushitic (Somali) ma-n “sea”; bangi, Ngala, Poto mai “water”; Egyptian mwy “watery, moist,” mwy “water, rain, semen, fluid, oedema.” The sounds /i/ and /y/ are interchangeable (also /j/), and are in fact variants of each other in general. The word for “water” in Yoruba is omi and not moja. The -ja- in Yemoja is the root and comes from Proto-Bantu *jíjì “water” (> *njí, *jí, *jígì, *junja, *día, *jíja, *dìbà “water”). It actually derives from Proto-Western-Sudanic *gia, *gi “water”; Kpelle ya“water”; Mano yi “water.” [NOTE: g > y > j > i] The m- morpheme is an old Niger-Congo noun-class affix used to denote mass liquids.
My contention is that the goddess Yemoja/Yemaja/Yemaya comes from further south of Nigeria in Gabon among the Mitsogho speakers there. Dr. Kairn Kleiman, in her book The Pygmies Were Our Compass (2003:135-136) discusses this goddess within a Mitsogho context. Among the Mitsogho, water and wind are seen as forces of fecundity and creation. The importance of the former is associated with Ya Mwei, who is considered to live in the bottom of rivers. Ya Mwei is also the focus of one of the most important men’s societies in Gabon. This goddess is believed to have an influence over the maintenance of social order. This society requires that young initiates (age 7-8) undergo a series of challenging proofs at an initiation camp in the forest. It is there that they begin to receive her knowledge. Ya Mwei is associated with particular cascades or waterfalls. Adepts frequent these locations to interpret the messages that she sends. Ya Mwei is the supreme symbol of fertility and is often assimilated with the earth as well.
Therefore, Yemoja is not “The Mother of Fishes,” but simply “Living waters,” the birthing power found in water. Water is life and life is symbolized by “water” and “wind.” As noted, Ya Mwei is connected to the “earth” and I argue that the earth is also considered a “womb” and all life comes from the “womb” deep inside the earth. Before appearing on land it must “arise” from the “ocean” (the waters) just like human beings burst from the ‘ocean’ in our mother’s womb. Thus, Yemoja/Ya Mwei is simply the life principle itself symbolized by water. Because the Yoruba did not have –moja native to its language, they reanalyzed it and created a myth and symbolism surrounding her grounded in their understanding of the name from within the Yoruba language. This is why we cross compare African languages and cultures because related languages and cultures provide critical pieces of the puzzle that have been disjointed over time as a result of natural language change, migration and semantic slippage. I hope you have enjoyed this note.
Asar Imhotep (Ifamuyiwa Fagbemi)
(Praising the spirit of the mother of all fisheries)
Wè isé àjé mogbé jinà
Fi bun mi omodé
Fi bun mi aláàfíà
Má kò àjé je mi
Má kò enia buburú pa mi
Yemoja ìyá gbogbo
Yemoja Mother of the fish
Mother of the water on earth
Nurture me, my mother
Protect and guide me
Like the waves of the ocean
Clean the witchcraft that I took away
Give me children
Give me peace
Do not let witches devour me
Do not let the evil people destroy me
Yemoja, mother of all
Nurture me my mother.