"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: The African Origins of Common English Words

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The African Origins of Common English Words

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A distinct feature of the English language is its extensive borrowing from other languages. According to some sources, only about 30 percent of the vocabulary we use in modern English is derived from the native tongue itself, that is, from Anglo-Saxon—as English prior to 1100 is called. The rest is derived from an amalgam of different languages, leading some to call the English language a “loaned language.”

So what contributions have African languages made to the vocabulary—and perhaps the syntax— of the English language? As I will point out shortly, the contributions of (black) African languages to the lexis and structure of the English language have been minimal at best and inconsequential at worst.

 In researching this topic, I realized that a lot of work has already been done in this area. Notable books written on this topic include Newbell Niles Puckett’s Black Names in America: Origins and Usage, which was published in 1975; Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States published in 1979; Gerard Matthew Dalgish’s A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language published in 1982; Joseph E. Holloway’s Africanisms in American Culture published in 1990;  and Joseph E Holloways and Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The African Heritage of American English published in 1993.

I haven’t read all of these books yet. When I do, I will update this entry. Perhaps some of my conclusions will change. However, there are several online resources that detail the African heritage of many English words. In this write-up, I am concerned only with common words in everyday English, by which I mean words that are so usual and so actively used in modern spoken and written English that one doesn’t need to consult a dictionary to know their meanings.

A good but by no means entirely reliable starting-point to find out about the African origins of common English words is Krystal.com, which lists several English words that are borrowed into modern English from other languages, including African languages.

Some common words that trace their roots to black Africa include the words “juke” and “jumbo.” Krystal.com says these words are of Bambara origin. Bambara is a Niger-Congo language spoken mostly in the West African nations of Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso.

Most people know that “voodoo” is African. But probably few people know that it’s derived from the Gbe languages (the most widely spoken of the Gbe languages are Ewe and Fon), a Niger-Congo language cluster spoken in parts of Ghana, Togo, and Benin Republic. The word is originally rendered in these languages as “vudun.” 

A related word is “juju.” Both Krystal.com and Dictionary.com claim that the word originates from the Hausa language. I doubt that this is true. The word sounds more Yoruba than Hausa to me. I should know because I have a limited working proficiency of both languages. Someone pointed out that the word is probably French.

“Tango,” the rhythmic ballroom dance often associated with Latin America, is said to owe its etymological provenance to Ibibio, a Benue-Congo language spoken in southeastern Nigeria. It’s said to be derived from the Ibibio word “tamgu,” which means “to dance.” However, my Ibibio friends doubt the authenticity of this claim. They say if "tamgu" existed in the language in the dim and distant past, it no longer does. “Merengue,” another popular Caribbean dance, is reputedly a distortion of the Fulani “merereki,” which means “to shake or quiver.”

Okra ( known to us as okro in Nigerian English) is said to be derived from the Igbo word “okuru” or “okworo,” which refers to the shrub used to make “gumbo” (a southern U.S. delicacy; the word “gumbo” itself is of African origin, but it’s not clear what African language it’s derived from) or other kinds of “slimy” soups. There is a popular folk etymology here in the United States that suggests that “okuru”—or its many dialectal variations— is Igbo for “lady’s fingers.” However, many of my Igbo friends couldn’t confirm this.
The words “chimpanzee,” “funky,” and “zombie” are also said to be derived from Kongo, a Niger-Congo language spoken in the Central African nations of Angola and the Congo. And “milo,” a type of maize from which Milo drink is made, is derived from Sotho, a Niger-Congo language spoken in the southern African nations of Lesotho and South Africa. “Tsetse,” the bloodsucking fly often called “tsetse fly,” is from Tswana, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Botswana and parts of South Africa. A nd “cola,” from which Coca-Cola derives its name, is from Temme, a Niger-Congo language spoken chiefly in Sierra Leone.

“Banana,” “jazz,” “jive,” “yam” are of Wolof origin. Wolof is a Niger-Congo language spoken mostly in Senegal, the Gambia, and parts of Mauritania. Note, however, that some people claim that yam is derived from “nyami,” the Fulani word for the tuber; others said it’s derived from “anyinam,” the Twi word for yam. But it’s important that Wolof, Fulani (spoken in most West African countries) and Twi (spoken in Ghana and Ivory Coast) are descended from the same Niger-Congo language family—in common with most languages in southern and central Nigeria.(Isn't it ironic that, linguistically speaking, Fulani has no familial relationship with Hausa, the language with which it's often grouped in Nigeria's political vocabulary?)

Other common English words with African roots are “kwashiorkor” (from Ga, a northern Ghanaian language where the word literally means “swollen stomach”), mumbo jumbo (i.e., gibberish; unintelligible talk; derived from Mandingo, a West African language spoken mostly in the Gambia, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea), “jamboree” (possibly from Swahili), “gorilla,” “zebra,” etc.

There is a lot of debate over whether the word “OK”-- aptly described as “the best-known and widest-travelled Americanism, used and recognised even by people who hardly know another word of English”-- is of African origin. People who support a theory of African origins for the word say it’s derived from the Mandingo phrase “O ke,” which stands for “certainly.” Others say it is derived from the Wolof “waw kay,” which translates as “yes indeed.” But this is folk etymology.

Many other languages have some version of the “OK” sound in their lexicons, which incidentally share semantic properties with the English OK. Speakers of such languages also lay claim to being the sources of America’s most popular linguistic export. In the Finnish language, for instance, the word oikea means “correct, exact.” In the Native American Choctaw-Chickasaw language group, “okah” means “yes indeed.”

I am persuaded by the evidence, which I shall present shortly, that OK has no African origins. As linguistic researchers know only too well—and as the examples above illustrate—the possibility for “accidental evidence” in glottochronological research is often immense. (Glottochronology is the study of the evolution of languages from a common source). For instance, what the English people call “sun” is called “son” in Batonu, my native language. The Hausa word for the English “sixty” is “sitin.” This in no way, of course, suggests that Batonu, Hausa, and English are cognate languages; these are just linguistic accidents. English is an Indo-European language, Batonu is a Niger-Congo language, and Hausa is an Afro-Asiatic language.

 Sometime ago, a Japanese professor of linguistics went to Plateau State in central Nigeria to investigate the link between any of the Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in China and the Chinese-sounding local languages spoken in Plateau State. He found about 20 percent (?) lexical similarities between the Plateau and Sino-Tibetan languages. He dismissed his finding as “accidental evidence” and as insufficient basis to establish cognacy between the languages.

Untrained, “feel-good” researchers often hold up accidental gluttochronological strands of evidence as inviolably self-evident empirical proofs of their preconceptions. So what is the true origin of the word “OK”?

 The Online Etymology Dictionary says—and this has been corroborated by many authorities— that OK is actually a slangy and jocular abbreviation of the humorous phrase “oll korrect,” which emerged in Boston in 1838. During this period, there was a trend to humorously spell words as they sounded, what one might call “pronunciation spelling.” The word "OK" would have died like other jocular abbreviations of the time had the New York re-election campaign group for Martin Van Buren, America’s 8th president, not created a group called the “OK Club.” This was in 1840, two years after the word was first invented in Boston. Buren lost his re-election bid, but America—and the world— gained a new word.

Now back to the contribution of African languages to the English language. It’s obvious that the words that black African languages have contributed to the English language fall into four categories: names of plants that are originally native to our soil, names of animals that were exclusively found in Africa, names of material and immaterial artifacts that trace their provenance to Africa and, finally, derogatory terms in modern English that arose out of the deep-seated disdain that the first English people to set foot on Africa had for us.

What became obvious to me in the course of researching this topic is that so-called sub-Saharan languages have collectively made the least contribution to the vocabulary of the English language, leading someone to note that “Africa isn’t sharing its words.” According to him, “Africa, especially Sub-Sahara Africa, despite having been known and explored for thousands of years, has not given us nearly so many words as the Native Americans, discovered only five centuries ago.” But is Africa deliberately hoarding its vocabularies?

Well, it isn’t just our vocabulary that the English language has been reluctant to accept; our languages have also not made any significant impact, as far as I know, on the idioms and structure of English. To appreciate the point I am making, consider the fact that Sino-Tibetan languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese have not only enriched the vocabulary of the English language, they have also influenced its idioms and structure. For instance, the phrase “pidgin English” is China’s gift to English. It was originally the Chinese (mis)pronunciation of “business English.”

 Similarly, the phrase “long time no see” (which is really non-grammatical by the standards of Standard English, but which is now so integral to the English language that no one thinks of its grammatical awkwardness) is China’s gift to English idioms. In proper English syntax, the phrase should have been rendered as, “We have not seen in a long time.” The Oxford Dictionary says “long time no see” started as a humorous imitation of Chinese English in the United States. Now it has stuck. 

And such ungrammatical but now perfectly acceptable idiomatic phrases as “have a look-see,” “no-go area,” “to lose face,” etc are direct translations from Chinese, sort of like “you and work” becoming an accepted form of greeting in English in conformity with how that greeting is literally rendered in many Nigerian languages such as the Yoruba “eku ise” and the Hausa “sanu da aiki,” which we instead render as “well done” in Nigerian English.

I think it bears repeating that it isn’t Africa that isn’t sharing its words; it’s the English language that isn’t accepting Africa’s words. This is probably a linguistic manifestation of the ice-cold contempt the Brits had and still have for us. Or it could be the consequence of the time-honored unequal, exploitative, one-dimensional cultural exchange between Britain and Africa, which has resulted in Africa’s low symbolic and cultural power in global cultural politics. African languages certainly have more to offer to the English language than simple names and derogatory phrases.

 Perhaps, the popularization of West African and East African English is one way Africa can make inroads into the lexis and structure of English. But even that isn’t very promising for now.

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