"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 09/18/10

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.

Related Articles:
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3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
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10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
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14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
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The Strange Bedfellows America Makes

Farooq A. Kperogi

When on January 6, 2007 I wrote about Keith Ellison, the first American Muslim to be elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives, an angry Nigerian reader wrote back to tell me that I had misled my readers. He protested that Mr. Ellison, who is also African-American, wasn’t a “real Muslim.” What kind of Muslim, he said, would be endorsed, supported, and campaigned for by Jews and homosexuals?

The reader checked out Ellison’s Web site and realized that the man he thought was a Muslim in the mold of Muslims in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East had received endorsements from many prominent Jewish and gay-rights organizations, groups he had been brought up to see as “enemies” of Islam. (For the record, Ellison is a Sunni Muslim who practices the same kind of Islam that Sunni Muslims in other parts of the world practice. He, in fact, has once been asked by a conservative newsman called Glenn Beck to “prove” that he is not “working with [America’s] enemies.”)
                                       Keith Ellison and President Barack Obama
But America makes strange bedfellows. Here, blacks, Jews, gays, Muslims, women, and other historically oppressed minorities tend to identify with the “liberal” strand of American politics. That is the big tent that gives shade and comfort to people whose identities don’t fit the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) label, people who fall outside the orbit of historical “white privilege.” (Liberals predominate in the Democratic Party.)

This alliance of the oppressed and sympathizers of the oppressed can be confusing to first-timers in America—or to casual observers of American politics. In moral and cultural politics, white conservative Christians actually share a lot in common with conservative Muslims. For instance, both groups are united in their common resentment against homosexuality, Jews, abortion, and the radical versions of women liberation. But it’s also the case that in America’s domestic politics, cultural conservatives, who predominate in the Republican Party, define themselves and are defined by their hatred of and contempt for anybody who isn’t WASPish. And that includes conservative Muslims who would have been solid allies in conservative white Christian Americans' “culture wars” with liberal Americans.

In 2000, George Bush, a conservative Republican who campaigned on the platform of “culture war” issues like gay marriage, which appealed to the cultural sensibilities of conservative Muslims, won more than 70 percent of the American Muslim vote. Some analysts say the percentage was actually 90 percent.  This massive Muslim support for Bush led conservative commentator Grover Norquist to proclaim in a 2001 American Spectator article that "Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote." Suhail Khan, an American Muslim commentator, went so far as to declare Bush “America’s first Muslim president” in a recent article in the influential Foreign Policy magazine.
President Bush and American Muslims
American Muslims, who had just come of age politically in 2000, would later realize that they were na├»ve. Concordance of emotive cultural beliefs with a group, they later found out, isn’t a sufficient basis for an enduring political alliance with that group, especially in America. 

Since the 1960s, the Republican Party has turned itself into a sanctuary for hate-filled conservatives of all hues. And the one thing that defines American cultural conservatism, as I pointed out earlier, is its visceral, deep-seated hate for and alienation of people who aren’t white male heterosexual Christians. That, of course, means that blacks, Hispanics, women, Jews, Muslims, and gays are not welcome in the Republican Party.

And that is why the unhinged Pastor Terry Jones of “International Burn a Qur’an Day” infamy is as Islamophobic as he is anti-Jewish and anti-gay. For instance, on August 2, about the time he was planning to burn Qur’ans, he also organized what he called a “No Homo Mayor” campaign to protest the election of an openly gay mayor in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, where the pastor also lives. This would be sweet music to the ears of many Muslims, except that the same man says “Islam is of the Devil.”
Now, consider the fact that some of the greatest and most vociferous defenders of the right of American Muslims to build the so-called “ground-zero mosque” in New York are Jews. Michael Bloomberg, New York Mayor and America’s 8th richest person, not only vigorously and uncompromisingly supports the “ground-zero mosque,” he also says its opponents should be "ashamed of themselves," And he is a practicing Jew. 

In fact, a prominent pro-Israeli lobby group called J Street collected over 10,000 signatures in support of the “mosque,” which it delivered to New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Appalled by the opposition to plans by American Muslims to build a community center in lower Manhattan modeled after Jewish Community Centers all over the country, J Street is collecting petitions in support of religious freedom and against anti-Muslim bigotry,”  the group announced on its Web site. It also unequivocally condemned Pastor Jones’ planned Qur’an burning.

So, although in international and religious politics, Jews and Muslims are supposed to be sworn enemies, they are forced to align in America. Note, too, that Jews were at the forefront of the civil rights struggles for black people here in America and that although African Americans can be some of the most devoted Christians you can ever meet anywhere, they are also about the most tolerant group to Muslims that I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps these groups are only exteriorizing the empathy they have come to develop for unjustly suppressed peoples from their own histories of brutal oppression on account of their identities.

So, in general, liberal politics in America encompasses every historically disadvantaged group. That’s why Jews, blacks, women, gays, and now American Muslims tend to be liberal. It’s in liberal circles that they find acceptance and comfort, although the individual cultural and religious beliefs of people in this alliance may be diametrically opposed. Call it unity in adversity, if you like.

Nothing in what I am saying by any means suggests that every Jew, black, woman, gay, and Muslim in America is liberal. Or that every white heterosexual Christian male is conservative. Or even that every conservative American is a hater. There are virulently anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-gay Jews, for instance. Characters like David Horowitz and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman immediately come to mind here. A traditionally liberal Jewish group called the Anti-Defamation League sent tongues wagging here when it opposed the “ground-zero mosque.” And there are black conservatives, tolerant conservatives, racist “liberals,” etc. But they stand out like sore thumbs precisely because they displace the norm.

It’s noteworthy, too, that there are many white heterosexual Christian males who are liberals. In fact, the bulk of liberals in America come from this demographic category. But they are different from their conservative counterparts because their politics is animated by the ideals of tolerance, inclusion, and empathy for and defense of the weak and the vulnerable. So it’s the same sentiment that drives a liberal American to fiercely defend Muslims that also drives him to defend gays and Jews and women and Hispanics.

When you are aware of this, you tend to also learn to respect and defend the differences of others—or to strategically seek their alliance if only to defend your own self-interest. It’s all about self-preservation.