"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Re: Top 10 Yoruba Names You Never Guessed Were Arabic Names

I rarely publish reactions to articles in my grammar column except in the Q and A series. I am breaking that tradition this week for two reasons. First, in the concluding thoughts of last week’s article I asked a couple of questions to which many readers provided answers. I have a responsibility to share the answers with my readers. Second, I received responses that not only broadened my own understanding of the issues I discussed but that I think will benefit most of my readers who enjoyed last week’s article. It’s obvious that I will have to write a sequel to the article at some point. Meanwhile enjoy some of the insights people shared with me.

Thanks for raising a topic that has not escaped my interest over these years. Will you be surprised to learn that 'Abdulaziz' has another, admittedly less common, yorubised, form like 'Laisi'? Have you also considered that 'Lam' is a further contraction of the short form 'Lamidi'? Do you know that the name Jinadu derives from the Arabic Junaid (dimunitive form of 'Jund')? Of course you must have noticed names like Amusa (Hamza) and Oseni (Husain) in which the 'h' is elided. Or Saka, which is shortened from Zakariya' and in which ‘s’ replaces 'z'.

Raji seems to be the Fulfulde version of al-Razee, the Persian mufassir (Qur'anic exegete) because the Fulbe tend to replace 'z' with 'j'. If so, it could have entered Yoruba usage like other Fulbe names e.g. Bello [and Gidado, Kuranga (Kwairanga) in Ilorin]. As for Badamasi, the fact that the Hausas also use it suggests it might be an Arabic or Arabised toponym like al-Basri (rendered in Yoruba as 'Busari' or 'Bisiriyu') or an occupation like al-Ghazzali (Yoruba: 'Kasali').

One of my mother's uncles was called 'Monmonu'. It took me ages to discover that it was actually Muhammad Nuhu!!! Similarly, the Arabic Ni'mah has morphed on the Yoruba tongue to Limota, or the more recognisable form Nimota! Of course 'Ramota' is Rahmah.

Finally, have you thought of the origin of the Yoruba Muslim female names like 'Simbiyat' or 'Simiyat'? The '-at' ending suggests an Arabic origin but I've not been able to decipher its Arabic roots.
Dr. Muhammad Shakir Balogun, Zaria

Thanks for an illuminating article, Prof. One of the references you made in the concluding part concerns me. LOL! Raji is listed by many websites as a Muslim name which means "hopeful" or "full of hope". Some sites say that it is of Arabic origin while others are silent on its origin. There are a few sites (Indian) which describe it as a Hindu name that means "one who shines". I think its usage among the Yoruba in an unmodified form could be due to the fact that there is little to modify in the name being a four-letter word and already ending with a vowel. These are just my thoughts as a non-expert. It is also possible that it actually has a longer form in Arabic like Al-Rajih. But one reason why I suspect that the Yoruba haven't modified it is because non-Yoruba like the Fulani in the northeast that you mentioned also use it in the same form. The usage among Fulani in the northeast is actually confined to Adamawa and even there, it is virtually restricted to the members of a single clan. It was the name of the founder of the clan, who is my great-grand-father, Modibbo Raji (1790-1866). An interesting fact is that he wasn't a native of Adamawa but settled there in the mid-19th Century. He was a native of Degel in the Sokoto area which means that the name was familiar to people in those parts for a long time. A summary of his life can be found in this Google book review on pages 434 and 435 where he is listed as Muhammad Raji b. Ali b. Abi Bakr. http://books.google.com.ng/books?id=_nKXOThUEpcC&pg=PA437
Dr. Bello Raji, Abuja

As usual, your take on Yoruba domestication of Arabic names is informed and effectively educates us all. The question of bastardization or "destroying nice names" as some have articulated is uncalled for, and only betrays anti-Yoruba prejudice. Thanks for setting them straight. I once had a Turkish roommate whose daughter was named Zeynep. It took me some time before I realized that was Zainab or Senabu in Yoruba rendition. What about Turkish rendering of the Prophet's name as Mahomet, or Mehmet as the famous Dr. OZ is known. He is of Turkish origin.

To get back to Yoruba names, your observation that Yoruba insists on starting Arabic names with a consonant even when the original starts with a vowel is extremely interesting. This practice is in sharp contrast to indigenous Yoruba names of which 99% start with a vowel. The consonants in everyday Yoruba names only come up when we drop prefixes such as Ade, Ogun, Oye, Ibi, omo, Ifa and Ola.(You can see that the wonderful names of our deities all start with vowels and they use to prefix many names). As a student of Yoruba language and culture, I have been given one rule of thumb that is also applicable to personal names: 99% of indigenous Yoruba nouns start with a vowel. Names are proper nouns as we all know. So, dropping the initial vowel in Arabic names like Ibrahim (Buraimo/Buraima) and Idris (Disu) consistently is a very interesting finding, to say the least. I wonder what the explanation could be. It has set me thinking.

Finally the version of Yoruba Muslim names that you seem to prefer come from the more Southern reaches of Yorubaland--Lagos, Ijebu, Abeokuta, etc. Amongst Northern Yoruba like Ibadan, Ogbomoso, Iwo, etc. we do not drop the "a" sound and substitute it with "o" as you observed. For example, Muraina is Muraina, not Muraino. In fact, the most famous Yoruba Muraina is the fabulous artist Muraina Oyelami, of the Osogbo School of artists; one of his beautiful paintings presides over my home. Chief Muraina Oyelami is from Iragbiji in Osun state. One more thing: Sunmola is not a Muslim name; it is an indigenous Yoruba name which means move closer to honor.
Prof. Oyeronke Oyewumi, New York

This is very educative and enlightening, but I have a disagreement with the 10th name: Sunmola. Sunmola, I think, is a purely Yoruba name. The 'Yorubaized' Ismaeel is Sumoila. Like you rightly noted, the initial 'I' in Ismaeel or Ismail is omitted and the middle 'a' is replaced with 'o' then the ending vowel 'a' is added to make it 'Sumoila'. I have a Yoruba (Christian) friend that bears Sunmola. I may have to meet this friend again for more clarity about Sunmola.
Seko Jibril Gure, Abuja

Sunmola is definitely from Isma'eel. Listen to the popular Yoruba musician 'Barrister' who uses both 'Sunmola' and 'Sumoila' in the same tale, his own 'remix' of an ancient tale. It’s an interesting consequence of the tonal nature of Yoruba that Sunmonla (mi-mi-mi), a shortened form of Mosunmola, is being confused with Sunmonla (do-mi-do) a variant of d Yoruba domestication of Isma'eel!
Dr. Muhammad Shakir Balogu

Modu, Bukar, Dala, Darman, Bura, Masta, Aisa, Falta, Amodu and Laminu are the Kanuri versions of the following Arabic names: Mohammed,Abubakar, Abdullahi, AbdulRahman, Ibrahim, Mustapha, Aisha, Fatma, Ahmad and Amin. There are many more in Fulani and Shuwa (Shuwaia) Arabs. Your articles are always very interesting to digest. Keep it up!
Mohammed Khurso Zangeri, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Your article on top 10 Yorubaized Arabic names is very scintillating. It draws attention of many to some unique features of Yoruba language and how the Yorubas who adopted Islam adapted and domesticated most of the Arabic Muslim names. Shittu is a Yorubanized shiithu, which is the name of a prophet who was said to be among the children of Prophet Adam (A.S). The last syllable "thu." is the third letter of Arabic alphabet "tha," the equivalent of which the Yorubas do not have.
The second name Raji is an Arabic name which means "Hope" or "Hopeful," though it should be more appropriately spelt as "Raaji" because the first syllable"ra" in Arabic has a slight elongation.
Abdulkadir Salaudeen, Dutse, Jigawa State

On your article on Yoruba names, Shittu is derived from Seth or Seyth, the 3rd and righteous son of Adam and Eve.
Nura Bature, Abuja

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Kainji State? Why Not Borgu State? Thoughts on State Creation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

One of the low points of the ongoing national conference, at least for me, is the recommendation that 18 more states be added to the existing 36. If the constitution is amended to accommodate the 18 additional states, it would mean that Nigeria, with a population of 170 million and a relatively small landmass, would have more states than the United States, the third most populous country on earth with over 317 million people.

But I can bet my bottom dollar that no new states will be created. It’s all just politics. It makes no sense at all to create more states when the current ones aren’t even sustainable. How many more ward councilors, local government chairmen, senators, governors, etc. can the national treasury support? Plus, creating more states will only open the floodgates to agitations for the creation of even more states since new marginal groups will always be formed in every new state, who would again seek to redress their marginality by demanding the creation of still more states.

The truth is that even if every clan in Nigeria is made a state, harmony and tolerance for difference won’t suddenly be achieved.  As Steve Goodier once said, “We don't get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.”  In other words, we can’t avoid difference. Difference inheres in our humanity. No amount of state creation can erase that. What Nigeria needs isn’t more states. It needs to create foolproof institutional safeguards against the oppression of people on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or region and thereby democratize access to opportunities.

 But since everybody is asking for a state, allow me to indulge in a little parochialism, too. I am from Baruten in Kwara State, which used to be part of Borgu. Many people from what used to be Borgu Empire (which includes present-day Baruten and Kaiama local governments in Kwara State, Borgu and Agwara local governments in Niger State, Bagudo and Dandi local governments in Kebbi State –and northeast Benin Republic) were miffed that the proposal for a Borgu State wasn’t given the nod by delegates of the national conference.  They are even more miffed that the proposal for a Kainji State (which includes parts of ancient Borgu, i.e. Borgu and Agwara local government areas of Niger State) is accepted.

According to colonial documents, in 1904, the area known as Borgu was initially designated as a province, which is the equivalent of a state in modern parlance. It was later downgraded to a “division” of several provinces, including Kebbi Province, Kontagora Province and Ilorin Province.  When Kwara State was created in 1967, most of Borgu became a part of the state. 

Borgu’s distinction is that it has always been a pluri-ethnic socio-political formation loosely united by the common Songhai ancestry of its various ruling families. The major ethnic groups in the empire are Baatonu, Bokobaru, Bussa, Kyenga, Kambari, Sabe, Fulani, Zarma, and Dendi. There are several other ethnic groups that number only a few hundred people.

But, in spite of its deep historical roots, so little is known about Borgu both by others and by the Borgu people themselves.  As ethnically and linguistically diverse as the people are, they cherish a common myth of origin. They all claim to be descended from a mythical figure called Kisra who reputedly came to Borgu from Mecca by way of Borno. This is, of course, pure nonsense.  Archeological finds show that there has been life in the area known as Borgu much earlier than there was ever life in Arabia.

The myth of origin dates Kisra’s migration to Borgu (first to Bussa and later to Nikki and Illo) to the 7th century since Kisra was supposed to have left Arabia because of his disagreements with the prophet of Islam. Well, again, archeological evidence shows that Borgu people have lived in their current locations several hundreds of years before the 7th century.

It is only fairly recently that historians have come to terms with the fact that several of the ruling families in Borgu, particularly in New Bussa, Nikki (in Benin Repblic), Kaiama, Illo, Okuta, Yashikiru, etc. are actually descended from the Soninke Wangara. The Wangara were gold merchants and Islamic scholars who integrated with the Songhai culturally and linguistically and helped spread Islam in West Africa. They also established kingships in many West African polities. For instance, the first Muslim ruler of Katsina, Mohamed Korau, was a Wangara. He ruled, according to historical records, between 1492 and 1493.

The same Wangara people moved to Borgu, overthrew the indigenous ruling families but without a fight, established feudal dynasties, and made a disparate group of people to cherish membership of one big political family. As is the case with the Wangara elsewhere, they married into the local populations and became culturally and linguistically indistinguishable from them. In order to legitimize their hold to power, they claimed to be descended from some imaginary man called Kisra who putatively landed in Borgu after rebelling against the prophet of Islam. In time, their story was adopted as the story of origin of the entire Borgu people whose languages are not even mutually intelligible and whose cultures and histories are diverse.

I am currently reading a manuscript on the Baatonu people written by Alhaji Hussaini Lafia who has written several books on Borgu. He draws uncommon insights from several works on Borgu written in the French language and from troves of linguistic evidence from a major Songhai language, which the author speaks fluently.  His book makes the case that based on the names and honorific titles of the early rulers of Borgu, the rulers were clearly of Songhai/Wangara origins. In any case, the royal lineages in Borgu, especially in the Baatonu and Bokobaru parts of Borgu, are called “Wasangari,” which is clearly a corruption of Wangara.

In addition, C.K. Meek, in his 1969 book titled The Northern Tribes of Nigeria, wrote: “The Kisra tradition possibly represents the early Mandigan or Songhay influence in Nigeria. Kisra may possibly have been Ali Kolen of Songhay, who captured Timbuktu in 1468 AD and who though nominally a Muslim became a by-word throughout the Sudan, on account of his persecutions of the followers of the Mossi emperor Nasira.”

Now, if the national conference wants to create states, it can’t possibly ignore Borgu. But the conference should be prepared for another agitation for a Baruten State (for the Baatonu people) after which I will personally lead the agitation for a Kperogi State (for the Kperogi clan in Okuta). Heck, I’ll even ask for my own state!


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Top 10 Yoruba Names You Never Guessed Were Arabic Names

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


I have always been fascinated by Yoruba people’s creative morphological domestication of Arabic names. There are scores of Yoruba names that are derived from Arabic but which are barely recognizable to Arabs or other African Muslims because they have taken on the structural features of the Yoruba language.

This is not unique to Yoruba, of course. As scholars of onomastics or onomatology know only too well, when proper names leave their primordial shores to other climes they, in time, are often liable to local adaptation. (Onomastics or onomatology is the scientific study of the origins, forms, conventions, history and uses of proper names. Anthroponomastics specifically studies personal names, so this article is an anthroponamastic analysis of Yoruba Muslim names). That’s why, for instance, there are many Arabic-derived personal names in Hausa, the most Arabized ethnic group in Nigeria, that would be unrecognizable to Arabs. Names like Mamman (Muhammad), Lawan (Auwal), Shehu (Sheikh), etc. would hardly make much sense to an Arab.

I am drawn to the onomatology of Arabic-derived Yoruba names because their morphological adaptation to Yoruba’s structural attributes seems to follow an admirably predictable, rule-governed pattern. I have four preliminary observations on this pattern.


One, because most Niger- Congo languages (of which Yoruba is a prominent member) end almost every word with a terminal vowel, every Arabic name borrowed into Yoruba is fitted with one. This is important because the majority of Arabic names don’t end with a vowel. To give just a few examples, Arabic names like Muhammad, Saeed, Umar, Abdulmumin, etc. (with no vowel endings) are almost always rendered as Muhammadu, Saeedu, Umaru, Abdulmumini, etc. (with vowel endings) by speakers of Niger Congo and other African languages. I have tried several times to think of any word in Yoruba and in my native Baatonu that does not end with a vowel (that is, a, e, i, o, and u) and have not had any success. So the first thing Niger Congo languages do when they borrow a foreign word is to add a terminal vowel to the word if it doesn’t have one.

Two, in most cases, when Arabic names start with a vowel, the Yoruba morphological domestication process dispenses with the initial vowels and starts pronouncing the word from the next consonant after the vowel. So, for example, Imran is often rendered as Muroino in Yoruba. I can’t explain the linguistic logic behind this since several Yoruba names begin with vowels (e.g. Adewale, Iyabo, Olusegun, Ekundayo, etc.), but Yoruba is pretty consistent in doing away with initial vowels when it borrows names from Arabic.

Three, it also seems to be the case that whenever Yoruba borrows names from Arabic and, in fact, from all other languages, it usually replaces the “a” sound in the names with an “o” sound, especially if the “a” sound is intermediate or terminal. That’s why Rahman becomes Romonu and Imran becomes Muroino. There are exceptions, though.

Four, Yoruba Muslims tend to be way fonder of names that are derived from the 99 names of Allah than northern Nigerian Muslims. A prominent morphological feature of such names is that they are always prefixed with “Abdul,” which is Arabic for “servant.” So AbdulRaheem means “servant of the merciful.” Yoruba naming conventions tend to eliminate the “Abdul” part of the names of Allah, which northern Muslims consider borderline blasphemous because they say by dispensing with “Abdul,” bearers of such names are claiming Allah’s qualities.  (My immediate younger brother is called Abdulmumin, and my dad, who is an Arabist, fought anybody, including my mother, who eliminated the “Abdul” from his name. To this day, I can’t bring myself to call my brother Mumini). This arises from the Yoruba fondness for the short forms of names. Even Yoruba names that start with “Oluwa” (God), “Ade” (royalty), “Ola” (wealth), etc. are often shortened. That’s why Oluwaseun is often rendered as Seun, Adewale as Wale, and Olanrewaju as Lanre, etc.

The following 10 Yorubaized Arabic names appear to be guided by the morphological rules I identified above.

1. Bakare. This is the Yoruba rendition of Abubakar (or Abu Bakr), the nickname of the first Caliph of Islam. As you can see, the “Abu” in the name is dispensed with, and the “Bakar” part of it is fitted with a terminal vowel. Refer to rules one and two above. Perhaps the most prominent bearer of this name in contemporary Nigeria is Pastor Tunde Bakare, former vice presidential candidate to General Muhammadu Buhari. Pastor Bakare was born a Muslim but converted to Christianity in his teens.

2. Buraimo. I doubt that many non-Yoruba Muslims will recognize this name as Ibrahim, but it is. It follows the second morphological principle I identified in my introductory remarks. The “I” in Ibrahim is dispensed with, and intermediate and terminal vowels are added to produce Buraimo, which is sometimes spelled as Buraimoh. People who follow Lagos politics are probably familiar with the “Baale Buraimo Edu of Epe.”

3. Disu. This is the Yoruba rendition of the Arabic name Idris. The initial vowel in Idris (that is “I”) is eliminated and a terminal vowel (that is, “u”) is added to it. Abdul Karim Disu, the first Nigerian to earn a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1944, is perhaps the first known Disu in Yorubaland.

4. Lamidi. I once had a conversation with a friend from Kastina about prominent Yoruba Muslims who bear no Muslim names.  I mentioned former Minister of Justice Prince Bola Ajibola, First Republic politician Alhaji Adegoke “Penkelemesi” Adelabu (who is late). My friend interrupted me and mentioned “Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu.” He was shocked when I told him Lamidi was a Muslim name.

“Which Muslim name is Lamidi?” he asked.

“Abdulhamid,” I said.

He was unconvinced. I told him because of Yoruba people’s fondness for the short forms of names, they often dispense with “Abdul” in Muslim names that begin with that prefix. So that leaves us with Hamid. Now, there is something some people call the “h-factor” in Yoruba, which is the tendency for Yoruba speakers to unconsciously eliminate the “h” sound in words in which it is normally pronounced and to add it to words that don’t have it. So “eat” is often pronounced as “heat” and “heat” is pronounced as “it.” Given this phonological characteristic, “Hamid” becomes “Amid,” but the interference of the “l” sound in “Abdul” can also cause it to be rendered as “Lamid.” Now, like all Niger Congo languages, it’s unnatural for words to not have a terminal vowel, so a terminal vowel is added to Lamid to produce Lamidi.  My friend was persuaded.

5. Muroino or Muraino. As I explained in my introductory remarks, this is the Yoruba domestication of Imran, the father of Maryam (Mary) in the Qur’an. The initial vowel is eliminated and intermediate and terminal vowels are added.

6. Lasisi. This is Abdulaziz.  The “Abdul” in the original name is dispensed with, the “z” sound in the other half of the name is replaced with an “s” sound since there is no “z” in Yoruba phonology and orthography, and a terminal vowel (“i”) is added.

7. Romonu (Raymond).  This is the shortened form of Abdulrahman.  Its domestication follows the same morphological principle as the preceding name.  The only thing to add is that in contemporary times many people who bear Romonu (or Ramonu) tend to Anglicize it to Raymond. 

8. Sulu (and Sulufilu). Most Nigerians are familiar with the name Sulu-Gambari courtesy of the traditional ruling family in Ilorin. Well, the “Sulu” in the name is the Yorubaization of Zulkarnain (which is more correctly transliterated as Dhul-Qarnayn).  Since Yoruba has no “z” sound, the “z” in Zulkarnain is replaced with an “s,” and the rest of the name is lopped off.  Sulufilu, another Arabic name that is popular with Yoruba Muslims, is the domestication of Zulkifil.

9. Sumonu. That is Usman. Its formation follows the same morphological process that gave birth to names like Bakare, Buraimo, Disu, and Muraino. I used to have a classmate in primary school whose name was Sumonu Lamidi Lasisi.

10. Sunmola. That is Ismaeel. Like Bakare, Buraimo, Disu, Muraino, Sumonu, the first vowel in Ismaeel is chopped off and intermediate and terminal vowels are added to it.

Concluding Thoughts
Several other names came to mind when I thought of this article—names like Waidi (Abdulwahid),  Mukoila (Mikail), Muda, (Mudassar), etc. There are also other names that I simply couldn’t trace to any existing Arabic name I know of, but which Yoruba Muslims bear nonetheless.  This includes names like Shittu, Gbadamosi (now rendered as Bhadmus, which Hausa people bear as Badamasi),  Raji (which many Fulani from northeastern Nigeria also bear), etc. I hope someone reading this can educate me on the origins of these names.

Whatever it is, it is remarkable that Yoruba Muslims have successfully domesticated Arabic names to the point of making them sound like native Yoruba names.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Re: No, Algeria is an African, Not an Arab, Nation



I frankly didn’t anticipate that last week’s column would resonate with as many people as it did. In particular, I didn’t realize that so many people aren’t aware that Algerians are not ethnic Arabs and that “Africa” initially exclusively referred to North Africans. The responses I reproduce below show that the efforts I put to writing my article was worthwhile. Enjoy.

I read your earlier articles on the origins of the term Africa and the “multilingual illiteracy” in Algeria. This is a very good sequel to these articles. Like most of your articles, this was very enlightening. I am sure many people find it hard to believe that Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Libyans, etc. are the original Africans. It was hard for me to believe as well. It’s the ultimate reality check that black people are not Africans. Or never used to be Africans until fairly recently. Thanks for your insights.

Have you considered that the reluctance of Berbers to identify with Africa may have something to do with what you once called “white flight”—that is, white people leaving a place in droves once black people move in there? I guess that was what you were hinting at when you wrote:  “Our blackness has stained the ‘purity’ of their name. Now, they would rather be ‘Arabs’ than ‘Africans.’” They probably had no problems being Africans until black people became part of Africa. But it’s interesting that Arabs don’t consider North Africans as Arabs even though many of us just think of North Africans as Arabs. These identity issues are just confusing. But thanks for another brilliant and informative article. Please don’t writing.
Umar Sabi’u


What I’m about to write may not sit well with you and may not be popular with many people, but I’ll write it anyway. From your write-up, we have learned that black people are not the original Africans. The original Africans are the Berbers in North Africa, who are now avoiding their identity because black people are made to share the identity with them. I suggest that black people cease to be called Africans. Let us carve a separate continent for ourselves and call our continent Kemet, which is an ancient Egyptian word for “Black land.” I am tired of being forced on people who don’t like me. Let Berbers retain their Africa so that they don’t have to beg to be Arabs, which they are not. You wrote that “Arabism and Africanity” are not mutually exclusive…” Well, I think they are. But Africanity and Berberism are not.
Musa Abdullahi

You know what is interesting about the origins of the term Africa that you highlighted in your article? Many pan-Africanists try to tell us that Africa should be spelled with a “K.” They claim that it is the original spelling before Europeans bastardized it. It is laughable to realize that in actual fact “Africa” is a European name, a European creation. As you pointed out, it’s a Latin name for country of Berbers. In a way, North African Berbers are right to reject a name and a continent that was chosen for them by others, but I don’t understand why they hanker after an Arab identity when the real Arabs don’t really care for them. From today, I have stopped being worried about the correct way to spell Africa. I really don’t care about being “African” because I am not one. It’s all European imposition. Knowledge is power. Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge and research with us.
Solomon Otunla
Highly informative piece as all your works are. Thanks for, especially, the root of the word and entity Africa... first in my life. 
Salihu Sule Khalid

Nicest write-up of the year. I thumb you up for this analysis. 
Bala Ali

Great write up! Thank you for the research. 
Patricia Badobre

Splendid article. But seriously, how many Blacks really care about these people on the other side of the Sahara and their Middle Eastern kinds? I don't. 
Hassan Alhaji

I have read it. It is nice. Initially I thought Algerians were completely Arabs.
Muhammad Lawal Tijjani

That is true. With that fighting spirit, they are truly Africans.
Ayub Olatokun

A beautiful, well-researched piece, Prof.
Adam Alqali

Very enlightening post. Thanks, Prof., for widening the horizon of knowledge at all times. I look forward to your educative column always.
Adewale Adewole

Very instructive write up. All Africans share common historical attributes.
Godwin Godsent

I know the Egyptians have also lost feel of the ancient Nile, but they have really integrated. They speak some of the best classical Arab while I don‘t know if they also speak some of the ancient languages. Please, weigh in on this, Prof!
Abdullahi AbdullahiGinya

My Response:
Most contemporary Egyptians are ethnic Arabs whose ancestors invaded and conquered Egypt from Arabia between the 7th and 8th centuries. They are not “native” to Egypt, and they are different from the Berbers of the Maghreb. The Copts, who constitute about 10 percent of the Egyptian population, are considered the surviving descendants of ancient Egyptians.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Top 10 Negative English Words with Positive Meanings



 Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This week’s column was incited by my reminiscence of an incident that happened in the 5th year of my high school. In one of our English reading comprehension passages, we had read Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s description of his wife as a “jewel of inestimable value.” Some students in the class told our teacher that the word “inestimable” sounded rather negative. “Does Awolowo mean that his wife is like a worthless jewel?” one student asked.

The teacher answered in the negative and added that words like “invaluable,” “priceless,” “measureless,” “numberless” also appear to be negative but actually have positive meanings. A friend of mine took this lesson to heart and couldn’t wait to impress his girlfriend of his mastery of the recondite morphological logic of the English language.  So the following day he told his girlfriend that the love he had for her was “valueless!” As you would expect, the girl was enraged. My friend’s attempt to lecture her on negative-sounding English words that have positive meanings failed. “Even the great Awo called his wife inestimable or valueless,” he said in a last-ditch effort to salvage his relationship.


When he came to me to bemoan how the inability of his girlfriend to grasp the weird structural logic of some English words cost him his relationship with her, I asked him to recount for me exactly what happened. It turned out that what he really wanted to tell his girlfriend was that his love for her was “invaluable.” But “priceless,” “measureless,” “numberless,” and all these other words that end with “less” that our teacher had taught us, acted as false attractions, which caused him to mistake “valueless” for “invaluable.” My friend lost his girlfriend but gained an invaluable lesson in first mastering the garbled morphology of English before flaunting it.

When I shared this story with a friend some weeks back, a flood of several negative-sounding English words with positive meanings came to my mind, and I thought I should share them with my readers. Find below the top 10 words I came up with that fit the bill.

1. Immeasurable. As I show in number two below, the affix “im-” often functions to introduce negative meanings in independent words that begin with an “m.” That’s why words like “immaterial,” “immature,” “immodest,” “immoderate,” etc. are the negative forms of the root words they modify. But “immeasurable” isn’t the negative form of “measurable.” It means too great to be measured.

2. Invaluable.  Although most English words that begin with the morpheme “in-” often have a negative meaning because “in-” signifies “not” or “opposite of” (think of “inelegant,” “insurmountable,” “ineradicable,” “inelastic,” “insane,” “incompetent,” etc.), “invaluable” means so valuable that it’s difficult to calculate. 

In English morphology  the affix “il-“ is used to form negative meaning in root words that begin with an “l” (e.g. “illiterate, “illegal,” “illegitimate,” etc.), “im-“ is used before words that begin with the letters “a” “b,” “m” or “p,” (e.g. “imbecile,” “immaterial,” “impractical,” etc.), “ir-“ before words that begin with an “r,” (e.g. “irreplaceable,” “irreparable,” “irredeemable,” etc.) and “in-“ before most letters.

But the “in-” in “invaluable” isn’t negative. On the contrary, it signifies a surfeit of positives. The Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition defines it as “having great value that is impossible to calculate; priceless.” The word entered the English language in the 1570s with this meaning. By the 1630s, however, there was a shift in its meaning. It came to mean “without value; worthless.”  That meaning didn’t last long. After the 1630s, “invaluable” reverted to its original meaning, and has retained that meaning ever since.

3. Inestimable. Like “invaluable,” the affix “in-“hasn’t made the word the opposite of “estimable.” It rather means too estimable to be estimated. The Random House Dictionary defines it as “of incalculable value; valuable beyond measure; priceless.” It’s a Latin word whose original form is “inaestimabilis.”  It came to French, according to etymologists, in the late 14th century as “inestimable” from where it made its way to English. The word has been used in English to mean "too precious to set a value on, priceless" since at least the 1570s.

As my prefatory remarks show, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s famous description of his wife as his “jewel of inestimable value” helped popularize this word in Nigeria.

4. Inflammable. This is perhaps the most perilously misunderstood word in the English language. In spite of appearances to the contrary, it is not the opposite of “flammable”; on the contrary, it is synonymous with “flammable,” which is a relatively recent made-up word, as you will see shortly. It means capable of catching fire, combustible.  Several accidents have happened in the English-speaking world as a result of the semantic confusion that arose from this word. Materials that are described as “inflammable” are often misunderstood as “not capable of catching fire,” which is the exact opposite of what the word actually means.

In light of the accidents that the misunderstanding of the word has caused, American safety experts launched a sustained campaign as early as 1920 for the abandonment of the word and for its replacement with “flammable,” at least in technical usage. “The National Safety Council, The National Fire Protection Association, and similar organizations have set out to discourage the use of the word ‘inflammable’ and to encourage the use of the word ‘flammable’ instead. The reason for this change is that the meaning of ‘inflammable’ has so often been misinterpreted,” a statement said in 1920. 

The British Standards Institution followed suit. It also discouraged the use of “inflammable.” In a 1959 statement, it said, “In order to avoid any possible ambiguity, it is the Institution’s policy to encourage the use of the terms ‘flammable’ and ‘non-flammable’ rather than ‘inflammable’ and ‘non-inflammable’.”

Inflammable came to English from Medieval Latin around 1600 and meant exactly what it means in English—well, until native English speakers decided to chop off the “in” in the word to have “flammable.” Interestingly, Latin-based languages like French still use “inflammable” to mean “capable of catching fire.” In Canada where government regulation requires combustible materials to be labeled in both English and French, the English warning often reads “flammable” while the French warning reads “inflammable” on the same combustible material! Now, that’s REALLY combustible!

This confusion is a result of the morphological characteristics of Latin, which has two uses for the affix “in-.” The first obvious use of the affix is to form opposites of words, as I showed earlier. But a second, less-known use is to accentuate the meaning of a word. Examples can be found in words like inculcate, incubate, indoctrinate, etc. Inflammable falls in that category.

5. Inhabitable. This negative-sounding positive word almost causes the same confusion as “inflammable.” In its contemporary usage, it is the synonym, not the antonym, of “habitable.” An inhabitable place is a place that is fit to live in. It is an entirely positive word. However, etymologists point out that in the late 14th century when the word made its first appearance in English, it used to mean the exact opposite of what it means today. It meant “not fit to live in.” That was the meaning William Shakespeare had in mind when, in 1597, he wrote:  “Even to the frozen ridges of the Alps, / Or any other ground inhabitable.”

“Inhabitable” took its current meaning (that is, fit for habitation) from the 1600s. It came about as a derivational morpheme of “inhabit” (inhabit + able), which has always meant to live in or to dwell both in English and in Latin (where it is rendered as inhabitare). The modern antonym of “inhabitable” in English is “uninhabitable.”

6. Numberless. Although the word can mean “without numbers” (the suffix “less” means “without”) it often means too numerous to be counted.

7. Peerless. Although the suffix “less” introduces negative meaning in words (such as “useless,” “careless,” etc.) the “less” in peerless isn’t negative. It means beyond comparison, matchless (another word with the “less” suffix but which means something positive). A peerless scholar has no rival. He is the best of the best. 

8. Priceless. This is another positive word with a “less” suffix. It means “having a value beyond price.”

9. Inimitable. It means too great to be imitated, irreproducible, without comparison, one of its kind.

10. Unnumbered. Although this word can mean “without number” (as in “unnumbered pages”), it can also mean “too numerous to be counted” as in, “she spent unnumbered hours reading the committee’s bulky report.”

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