"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: February 2021

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Top 7 Expressions You Didn’t Know We Owe to Black America

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In this final article in my #BlackHistoryMonth series, I bring you major expressions in the English language that owe entire debts to the linguistic ingenuity of Black Americans. As you will find below, the contributions that African Americans have made to global English also owe debts to the enduring influences of their (West) African origins.

1. Y’all. This colloquial abbreviation of “you all,” which functions as the plural form of the pronoun “you,” is recognized as the most famous American southernism (that is, the distinctive dialectal English of the American South) to be globalized. However, although “y’all” is now part of the linguistic repertoire of not just American southerners of all races—and, increasingly, the entire English-speaking world— it was invented by enslaved Black Americans during slavery.

Until the 1600s, the English language used to have “ye” as the plural form of “thou” both of which later merged to “you” which is both singular and plural. When enslaved Africans (who spoke the linguistic ancestor of what is now called West African Pidgin English) arrived in America in the 1600s, they couldn’t relate to the use of “you” as both a singular and a plural pronoun, so they invented “you all,” which later became “y’all.”

White Southerners initially derided the expression when they encountered it. For instance, in his 1824 travelogue published as “Letters from the South and West,” Henry Knight (who used the pen name Arthur Singleton), observed that “Children learn from the slaves some odd phrases ... as ... will you all do this? for, will one of you do this?”

As you can tell, Knight got the meaning of “you all” wrong. It didn’t—and doesn’t—mean “one of you.” It is the plural form of “you.”

 Before the invention of “y’all,” Black Americans used “una” as the plural form of “you” because the earliest form of the English creole they spoke when they arrived in America—just like modern West African Pidgin English—used the Igbo word “una” as the plural of you.

Interestingly, “una” is still present in the Gullah language spoken in coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Its singular form is “ya” (or “gi”) in Igbo, which kind of sounds like “you” or “ye.” While “una” is the preferred form of the pronoun in Gullah, other variants exist, such as “huna,” “wuna,” and “unu” (preserved from the original form in Igbo) in African-inflected English pidgins and creoles in the Western Hemisphere. In Gullah, “mi na una” means “me and you,” where “na” means “and,” as it does in Igbo.

In the last few years, “y’all” has exploded in usage in Anglophone West Africa (Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Gambia)— and the rest of the English-speaking world.

2. “I dig it.” In informal English, we say we “dig” something to mean we really like it, as in, “I really dig BeyoncĂ©’s songs.” There’s even a popular social content sharing platform called Digg that is inspired by the expression.

Well, the expression has origins in Black American speech—or what linguists used to call Negro Nonstandard English, which is now called African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). 

In their book The African Heritage of American English, Joseph Holloway and Winifred Vass show that this sense of “dig” is derived from “deg” or “dega,” which they say is the Wolof word for “understand, appreciate, pay attention to.”

3. “Guy/guys.” The informal sense of this word that means a man, a boy, or a fellow is originally Wolof, Senegal’s major language, and came to English thanks to American Blacks, according to Holloway and Vass. They traced its origins to “gay,” the Wolof word for “fellow.” (Gay is pronounced “ga-i”). 

Conventionally, in English, the singular form of “guy” denotes a youth or a man, and “guys” denotes people of both or either sexes. For instance, the expression “let’s go, guys” can be directed at women alone, at both men and women, or at men alone.

 Dr. David Dalby, a well-regarded English linguist known for his popular LinguasphereObservatory, once made the case that the plural, non-gendered “guys” in English owes etymological debts to the Wolof “gay,” which is also non-gendered and plural.

4. “Tote.” This is a bag for carrying things. The word’s adjectival inflection is “toting,” as in “gun-toting soldiers.” Well, this word came to English via Black America who brought it from their Bantu ancestors.

Tote is rendered as “tota” in Kikongo, a Bantu language spoken in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo, where it means “to pick up.” In Kimbundu, another Bantu language spoken mainly in Angola, it is rendered as “tuta.” It means “to carry, load.” 

In Swahili, the most popular of the Bantu languages, “tuta” also means “pile up, carry,” according to Gerard Dalgish in his A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language. Several variations of “tot”—and with the same meaning as the English “tote”— appear in many other Bantu languages in Cameroon.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “tote” was first recorded in the southern US state of Virginia in the 1670s. 

Historical records show that 85 percent of the Africans enslaved in Virginia were from four ethnic groups—Igbos from modern Nigeria, Akans from modern Ghana, Bantu speakers from modern Angola and the Congo, and Mande people from modern Senegal and the Gambia. It’s obvious that Bantu people who have now become Black Americans introduced the word to the English language.

5. “My bad.” This phrase is used to offer apologies for unintentional wrongdoing, as in, “Oops, my bad. I didn’t mean to do that.” 

Etymologists trace the origins of the expression to Black American basketball players in the 1970s and the 1980s, but it’s now part of general informal American English and has even crossed over to every part of the English-speaking world.

As the next item shows, the unique ways Black Americans use “bad” to signalize things that are not really “bad”— in the conventional English usage of “bad,” that is, — has origins in their West African heritage.

6. “S(h)e is bad.” In African-American English (and, increasingly, in mainstream American English), “bad”—or, more appropriately, “baad”—doesn’t mean the absence of good; on the contrary, it means an extreme excess of good. In other words, it means excellent, superb. 

 The comparative and superlative forms of this sense of “bad” are “badder” and “baddest,” as in “her sense of fashion is way badder than my sister’s” or “he is the baddest guy in town.” In northeastern United States, especially in the New York area, “wicked” is also used to mean “brilliant, very good.”

 Other seemingly negative expressions that connote a heightened positive in American English are “badass” (which means formidable and excellent) and “bad boy” (which, among other meanings, signifies something extremely impressive or effective).

The expression of positive extremes through negative terms in informal American English, Holloway and Vass say, derives from a direct translation of many West African languages, especially Mandinka, into English.

In Bambara, a linguistic sister of Mandinka, which is spoken mainly in modern Mali, the expression “a ka nyi ko-jugu” literally translates as “it is good badly.” In Sierra Leonean creole, the authors also point out, “gud baad” means very good.

7. “Bad-mouth.” To badmouth someone is to curse them, to talk ill of them, especially behind their back. “Bad-mouth” was initially an exclusively Black American English expression before it went mainstream in America and crossed the Atlantic to the UK—and the rest of the Anglophone world.

English etymologists admit that the expression is West African, but they don’t identify the West African languages from where Black Americans inherited it. 

The expression is a direct translation of Hausa and Mandinka expressions, according to Holloway and Vass. It’s derived from the Hausa expression “mugum baki,” which literally translates as “bad mouth,” but which connotes ill-natured talk about someone. In Mandinka, “da-jugu” also literally means “bad mouth” and is employed idiomatically to mean abuse, insult, etc.

Related Articles:

Gullah: Long Lost Africans in America Who’re Still African

Surprising American Cousins Through My Mother’s Ancestry

Yoruba, Fulani, and Other African Personal Names Among Black Americans

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Yoruba, Fulani, and Other African Personal Names Among Black Americans

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

This week continues my #BlackHistoryMonth series and builds on my February 6 column on the Gullah people, a subset of Black Americans who retain their Africanness more than three centuries after they were taken away from west and central Africa.

If a Black American from the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, or Florida tells you they are Adebisi, Jumare, Laraba, Ogbomosho, Fatimata, or Lafia, don’t assume that they just recently adopted their names just to identify with modern Africans. They might have inherited the name from their Gullah forebears.

In what follows, I identify the African origins of many Gullah personal names, based on my reading of Lorenzo D. Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, which I made reference to two weeks ago. Given that the research for the book from which material for this column was drawn was done in the 1930s, I have updated several of the author’s data. I’ve also extended and enriched his conclusions based on my own experiential and epistemological location in relation to his data.

Thousands of personal names the Gullah people bear are similar to many names people in west and central Africa still bear. It is impossible to mention all of them in this piece; Turner identified more than 4,000 personal names among the Gullah in Georgia and South Carolina, so I am only going to isolate a few, mostly Nigerian, names that stood out for me.

I am particularly surprised by the large number of Yoruba names among the Gullah. Turner pointed out that the people had not the slightest awareness of the Yoruba origin and meaning of their names. 

Among the hundreds of Yoruba names Turner recorded among the Gullah people in the 1930s are names like Ade, Adebisi, Adebiyi, Adekule [Adekunle], Adeniyi, Adewale, Adu, Adosu, Aganju, Akaraje [i.e., eat bean cake], Akawo [Akanwo], Alafia [ “Alafia” is an Arabic-derived word; see Arabized African names below], Alabo, Alade, Alawo, Baba, Bankole, Erelu, Idowu, Iyaoba, Kehinde, Oduduwa, Otunla, Ogboni, Oluwa, Okuta, Ola, Oriki, Olubiyi, Olugbodi, Oyebisi, Sango, Yeye.

There are hundreds more in the book, but I was struck, just like Turner was, that the Gullah people have retained the difficult “gb” sound in their names. Most people, including Africans who don’t speak a Niger-Congo language, usually have a hard time articulating the “gb” sound, which Turner called “the voiced labio-velar plosive,” including the “kp” sound that begins my last name, which Turner characterized as the “gb” sound’s “voiced counterpart” (p. 25).

This, for me, is nothing short of extraordinary. Even my first daughter, to whom my native Baatonu language isn’t a mother tongue, has a hard time pronouncing her last name and has pleaded with me to dispense with the “K” in our last name. I told her that would be a mutilation of the name because “kp” is an independent sound unit like “ch” is in “chair” in English.

The Gullah people also bear many Africanized Muslim names that they obviously inherited from their Fulani, Mandinka, Yoruba, Hausa, Bambara, Wolof, and Mende Muslim ancestors. As I pointed out two weeks ago, the extensive second-hand Arabic influence Turner found in many African-derived Gullah words, which he discovered after speaking with West Africans in London and Paris in the 1930s, caused him to learn Arabic so that he could make sense of his data.

Turner recorded names like Aburika, which is probably a corruption of Abubakar; Adamu, incidentally my father’s first name, which is the West African Muslim rendering of Adam; Aduwa, an Africanization of du’a, the Arabic word for prayer; Ayisa and Ayisata, Mandingo and Bambara Muslim approximations of Aisha, the name of one of the wives of the Prophet of Islam; Ayuba, the Muslim version of Job, which is rendered as Ayub in Arabic; Baraka, which is Arabic for blessing that shares etymological and semantic affinities with Barack, the first name of President Obama; Dirisu, which is how the Mandingo and Bambara people call the Muslim name Idris—Yoruba Muslims call it Disu; Fatuma, Fatu, Fatimata (all Mandingo, Wolof, and Bambara versions of “Fatima,” the name of the daughter of the Prophet of Islam); Fitina (derived from the Arabic word for trouble); Ibrahima, the West African Muslim rendering of Ibrahim, which Christians and Jews call Abraham.

He also recorded names like Jumare, now regarded as a Fulani name but which is actually derived from (al)jumea, the Arabic name for Friday— Yoruba, Ebira, Baatonu Muslims, etc. bear the name as Jimoh; Gibril (which Nigerian Muslims bear as Jibril or Jibrin or Jibo and which Christians and Jews know as Gabriel; Imale (the Yoruba word for Muslim, presumably because Islam came to Yoruba land from Mali); Haruna, which is the West African version of Harun, which Christians and Jews know as Aaron; Lafiya ( derived from “afia,” the Arabic word for good health, which is borne as a royal name among the Borgu people in Nigeria and Benin Republic, and as an everyday personal name in Senegambia and other historically Muslim polities in West Africa; Madina, the name of the second holiest city in Islam known to Westerners as Medina, which West African Muslims bear as a female personal name; Laila; Laraba, a Hausa name given to a girl born on Wednesday, derived from al-arbi'aa', the Arabic word for Wednesday; Woli, (the Yoruba Muslim domestication of the Arabic wali, which means patron saint);  Salihu; Salamu; etc.

The Gullah even bear puzzling names like Kafiri (a derogatory name for a non-Muslim, which Yoruba and Baatonu Muslims call keferi, which is an African approximation of the Arabic kafir) and Saitan, which is the Muslim rendering of Satan!

They also bear the names of West African ethnic groups as personal names, perhaps indicating the ethnic origins of some of the Gullah people. They bear names like Fulani, Fulbe, Fula (which refer to the same people), Ibibio, Ijesa, Ogbomosho, according to Turner’s records. 

The name Yoruba didn’t exist as a collective name for people in what is now southwest Nigeria. That is why only names like Ijesa (a Yoruba sub-group found in present-day Osun State) and Ogbomosho, rather than “Yoruba” appear in the records of people enslaved in the West from West Africa.

Gullah people also bear Kwora, the name for River Niger (which is rendered as “Kwara” in the northcentral Nigerian state where I am from) in many West African languages, including Hausa, Baatonu, and Fulani from where it was probably passed down to the Gullah. Interestingly, among the Baatonu people, Kwora is a name reserved exclusively for members of royal families in both Nigeria and Benin Republic.

 While the gendering of many Gullah names corresponds with their gendering in West African names (for instance, many of the Yoruba names among the Gullah are unisex, like they are among the Yoruba), there is a discordance in others. For example, a name like Aba, which is a male name in Gullah, is the name of a girl born on Thursday among the Fante people of modern Ghana.

Turner found out that most of the personal names that the Gullah bear can be traced to Arabic (by way of members of several Islamized West African ethnic groups who were enslaved to rice plantations in Georgia and South Carolina); Bambara ( who are now found primarily in Mali, but also in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Senegal); Bini in southern Nigeria; Bobangi in the Congo; Zarma who now live mainly in what is now Niger Republic; Ewe who can be found in Togo and Benin Republic; Efik in southern Nigeria; Fante in Ghana; Fon in Benin Republic; Fulani; Hausa; Igbo; Ibibio in southern Nigeria; Kongo in Angola; Kikongo in the Congo; Kimbundu in Angola; Kpelle in Liberia; Mende in Sierra Leone; Malinke, Mandinka, and Mandingo in Senegambia, Mali, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc., Nupe and Gwari in central Nigeria; Susu in Guinea; Songhai in present-day Niger, Mali, and Benin republics; Twi in Ghana; Temne in Sierra Leone; Tshiluba in the Congo; Umbundu in Angola; Vai in Liberia and Sierra Leone; Wolof in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania; and Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria.

This series will be concluded next week.

Related Articles:

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Surprising American Cousins Through My Mother’s Ancestry

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

My fascination with and curiosity about America started at the inchoate stage of my educational career. The elementary and high schools I attended were established by American Baptist missionaries. And in my first semester of elementary school at age 5 in my hometown in Kwara State, I had an American Baptist missionary kid by the name of David Burkwall in my class. He later left for Jos. 

But I had not the foggiest inkling that I would have hundreds of blood relatives in America, relatives that I’ll probably never meet physically until I die, courtesy of my mother.

My serendipitous discovery of my American cousins (most of whom are Black, a few of whom are white) came about because I did an ancestry DNA test for my mother who visited me here between 2017 and 2018. I did the test not to fish for American relatives (whom I’d never have guessed I had in my wildest dreams) but to resolve a longstanding argument she and I had had about her distant Malian ancestry.

 I had told her that based on the patronyms her parents bore—which are Manneh and Toure—her ancestors were most likely originally Mandinka from the ancient Mali Empire.

The Mandinka, also known by several names in West Africa such as Mandingo, Malinke, Soninke, Wangara, Dioula, Bambara, etc. (who belong to what linguists call the Mande language group), are West Africa’s second most widely dispersed ethnic group after the Fulani.

They are found in large numbers in such countries as modern Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, Mauritania, etc. They are also found in (northern and western) Nigeria (and are credited with being the most important proselytizers of Islam in these parts), Benin Republic, and Niger Republic, but they’ve lost their language and identity in these places.

In both Nigerian and Beninese Borgu, the Mandinka/Wangara still identify with their patronyms such as Manneh, Toure, Cissey, Taruwere (Traore), Fafana (Fofana), and Daabu (Darboe) even though they neither speak the language nor identify with the ethnic group.

 Because Manneh and Toure are well-known patronyms among the Mandinka, I told my mother that her family couldn’t possibly be identified with the names by accident, more so that her family has centuries-old historical association with Islamic proselytization, which the Mandinkas are identified with. 

My mother disputed my suggestion that some of her ancestral roots are traceable to Mali, insisting that her grandparents never once mentioned that to her. She had never even heard of Mandinka—or any of the other names by which the people are known.

 As I pointed out in my August 7, 2009 column titled “In Search of My Maternal Roots in Parakou, Benin Republic,” even my mother’s maternal relatives in Benin Republic trace descent from Borno and Katsina.

“My maternal grandmother, for instance, always told us she was part Katsina and part Kanuri (or Baribari, as she often said) …,” I wrote. “My mom’s cousin in whose house we stayed told me exactly the same thing. He said the traditions of their origins are handed down to them through a folk song, which he sang for me—in Dendi, which I don’t understand for the life of me. The only words that were intelligible to me in the song were ‘Katsina’ and ‘Borno.’”

However, some years ago, I read an interesting journal article by Andreas W. Massing titled “The Wangara, an Old Soninke Diaspora in West Africa?” in the bilingual French journal Cahiers d'Études africaines that resolved this issue for me. Using various primary and secondary historical sources, Massing showed that the Wangara migrated from Mali to Songhai (in present-day Niger Republic), abandoned their language, adopted the Dendi language (a dialect of Zarma), and moved further south to Borno, Hausaland, and Borgu as Dendi people.

Apparently, the folk memory that my mother’s grandparents had of their ancestry stopped at the time they came to Borno and Katsina, which makes sense because they had renounced their language, which is an important receptacle of identity. However, they retained their Wangara/Mandinka names.

To test this, I bought an Ancestry DNA kit for my mother and me. We spat into it and sent it off. The results came back a month later and showed that my hunch wasn’t groundless: we both have significant Malian bloodline even though our Nigerian ancestry is the predominant one. My mother was shocked.

She was even more shocked to discover that she—and I—also had some Asante ancestry. I got to know this because AncestryDNA matched her with a fourth cousin whose last name is Acheampong. I reached out to him and found that he is a Ghanaian from Accra who lives in New York. No one had ever told my mother that she had any consanguineal affiliation to the Asante.

 But the most shocking surprise for us was that AncestryDNA’s database matched us with hundreds of cousins who turned out to be mostly Black Americans—and a few white Americans.

In the case of my mother, she had up to five fourth cousins who are Black Americans. That means she shares the same great-great-great grandparents with them. That touched her noticeably. She would look at their photos on AncestryDNA’s database and get misty-eyed.

Not being literate, she hadn’t known, until I told her, that Black people had been enslaved in America centuries ago. She had thought that every Black person in America was a recent immigrant like me. Before taking the ancestry DNA test, and after learning about the enslavement of Black people in America, she would always ask me if certain Black people we saw when I took her out were from “home” or “my mother’s children.”

“My mother’s children” was how she called Black Americans. One day I got curious and asked why she called Black Americans her “mother’s children.” She said it was just her visceral feeling.

 After the AncestryDNA results showed that she had hundreds of 5th through 8th cousins—and five fourth cousins—among Black Americans, she reminded me that she was probably referring to these relationships without realizing it.

But more was to come. As we went through the photos of hundreds of distant cousins that AncestryDNA’s matches showed, she was struck with astonishment to find lily white people as her eight cousins. She asked how that was possible. I explained to her that in the American South, where most Black people were enslaved, many slavers sexually exploited the enslaved, the consequence of which DNA results are now revealing.

As an example, the professor who supervised my master’s thesis—with whom I’ve become family friends—found out that he has up to 5 percent bloodline from Mali when he took an ancestry DNA test years back. And he doesn’t have the slightest phenotypic Black African feature.

 After he shared his AncestryDNA results with me, I jocularly said to him, “Hi bro!” and he responded, “Hello blood!” It was his lighthearted way of acknowledging that more connects us than we realize and admit. We might not be mere “brothers” in the non-familial sense of the word; we could very well be distant cousins for all you know.

I didn’t prepare for what awaited me after letting my— and my mother’s—DNA be part of AncestryDNA’s database. Several of our Black American cousins sent me private messages asking to know what our ethnic groups were so they could determine from us what West African ethnic groups they might be descended from since AncestryDNA only shows estimates based on modern countries. 

Well, my mother and I, we discovered, embody multiplicities of West African ethnicities, and it would be inaccurate to claim just one ethnic identity as our authentic ancestral provenance. The language we speak and the ethnic group we identify with is Baatonu/Bariba found in Nigeria’s Kwara State and Benin Republic’s Borgou, Alibori, and Donga provinces. 

And several of my mother’s Black American cousins share a common Malian ancestry with her, but she didn’t know she was even remotely Malian, which I suspect is Mandinka/Wangara based on the names of her ancestors. So how could I possibly help my cousins without misleading them?

Whatever it is, my discovery of my distant American relatives—and my knowledge that their ancestors helped to build America with free, forced labor—deepened my emotional investment in my American citizenship. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Gullah: Long Lost Africans in America Who’re Still African

 By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In the United States and Canada, February is celebrated as the “Black History Month.” As I often do when the circumstances permit, I will dedicate most of this month to sharing my thoughts and perspectives on the experiences of Black people in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in the United States where I’ve lived for nearly two decades.

This week, I want to talk about the Gullah (pronounced something like gah-lah) or Geechee people, a subset of Black Americans who live in the sea islands of the southern coast of the United States in such southern US states as Georgia (where I live), South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida.

The Gullah were, for more than 300 years after being enslaved in the United States, insulated from the dominant cultural and linguistic currents of the rest of the country principally because the sea islands in which they were forced to work on rice plantations by their enslavers were malaria-infested, and white people didn’t have the genetic immunity that the Gullahs had to survive the devastation of malaria on the islands. 

This insulation enabled them to retain some of their African cultures and to develop a distinct form of the English language that creatively combines the syntactic and lexical features of various African languages and English.

In William Pollitzer’ absorbingly informative book titled Gullah People and Their African Heritage, we learn that slave records of the Port of Charleston in South Carolina show that most Gullah people are descended from west and southwestern Africa. About 39 percent of them, records show, were enslaved from what is now Angola (from where some scholars say the term Gullah is derived), 23 percent from what is now Sierra Leone, 20 percent from what is now Senegal and the Gambia, 13 percent from what is now Ghana, and 5 percent from what is now (coastal) Nigeria, Madagascar, and Mozambique.

When these divergent African ethnicities converged in the sea islands of southern United States, they lost their linguistic singularities but forged a new collective linguistic identity that combines a substrate of their various African languages and a superstrate of early modern English to form a unique English creole that has captured the imagination of researchers of varying disciplinary orientations.

It wasn’t until 1949 when African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner’s magisterially game-changing book titled Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect was published that the world learned of the enormous phonemic, lexical, and syntactic similarities between Gullah and several west and southwestern African languages.

Turner caused the world to see Gullah not as an incompetent mimicry of Standard English, but as a complex, well-ordered, grammatically self-sufficient language that blends features of several African languages and English. 

As Katherine Wyly Mille and Michael B. Montgomery noted in their Introduction to the 2002 edition of Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, the book “provided, for the first time, concrete, comparable, and measurable correspondences between Gullah and African languages, tangible objects for those wanting to substantiate speculations about the history of this unusual variety of language, which H.L. Mencken characterized as the only type of American speech not intelligible to outsiders” (xii).

In researching the African heritage of the Gullah language in the 1930s, Turner first recorded the folk stories, chants, songs, speech patterns, etc. of the people, then went to the University of London to study with scholars of West African languages and cultures, where he learned and gained a working mastery of Sierra Leonean Krio, Twi (spoken mostly in Ghana), Kimbundu (spoken in Angola), Efik (spoken in the southern Nigerian state of Cross River), Fante (spoken in Ghana), Ewe (spoken in Ghana, Togo, and parts of Benin), Yoruba, Mandingo/Mandinka, and other African languages.

 He also studied Arabic at Yale University because, after interviewing scores of (French) West Africans in Paris in 1937, he realized that languages such as Mandingo/Mandinka and Yoruba were heavily influenced by Arabic, an influence that was transferred to Gullah.

In addition, Turner visited and lived in Africa, notably in Sierra Leone and in Nigeria, where he was a Visiting Fulbright Lecturer between 1950 and 1951 at the then University College in Lagos, which later became University of Lagos. That means he came to Nigeria a year after his book was published.

Anyway, in Turner’s book, we read of the fascinating story of a family in coastal Georgia that had preserved and handed down a folk song called “A waka” relatively unchanged for more than 200 years. It was later discovered that the song is in Mende, a Niger-Congo language spoken Sierra Leone.

More than 40 years after the publication of the book and 20 years after Turner’s death, three researchers by the names of Joseph Opala, Cynthia Schmidt, and Tazieff Koroma found a rural Mende community in Sierra Leone where people still sing that very song—with the same diction, rhythm, and cadence.

 The story of the uncanny congruence between the centuries-old “A waka” folk song in the Gullah language in the United States and in the Mende language in modern Sierra Leone inspired the compellingly enthralling documentary film titled “The Language You Cry In” (the 57-minute documentary is available online for free).

From the 1990s, the Mende people in Sierra Leone and the Gullah people in the US have established formal linkages. They send representatives to each other’s cultural festivals. In 2007, I ran into a man, who later told me his name was Suleiman, at the International Your Delkab Farmers’ Market here in Atlanta.

 I was looking for Nigerian food and found someone who struck me as distinctly Nigerian, so I stopped him to ask for help. He told me he was Sierra Leonean, not Nigerian. Of course, from his accent I could tell that he was Sierra Leonean because I was around Sierra Leoneans a lot during my undergraduate days at Bayero University in Kano.

But I was intrigued when Suleiman told me he was in the US to represent a Mende community at a Gullah cultural festival in Savanah, Georgia. He said it wasn’t the first time he’d represented the king of some Mende community, and that Gullah people also send representatives to Mende cultural festivals in Sierra Leone. It was through him I first learned about the Gullah people and their cultural and linguistic affinities with the Mende of Sierra Leone.

Seven years later, in 2013, I took my family to Savannah, Georgia, for a conference. While we were having dinner at a hotel, my wife (who is part Black American) and I overheard a barely audible conversation that struck us as distinctly and unmistakably West African, although we couldn't tell what West African language it was. 

I decided to go ask the people what West African language they were speaking. The closer I got to them, the more it sounded to me like they were speaking some dialect of what linguists broadly call West African Pidgin English. I concluded that they were probably Sierra Leonean (Krios). I was wrong. They told me they were Gullah!

That encounter reminded me of Suleiman from Sierra Leone who had told me of the connections between the Gullah people of Savannah, Georgia, and the Mende of Sierra Leone (who also speak Krio, an English-based creole).

 It also reminded me of my then 6-year-old daughter's teacher in 2010 who taught her students that "Kumbaya" (the title of a popular campfire spiritual song here in the US that has origins in Gullah) was an "African word."

 My daughter came home to ask me what the word meant in "African." LOL! Although the word does sound West African, it is actually the Gullah idiosyncratic phonetic approximation of the English "come by here."

I am sharing this anecdote to make the point that Gullah definitely does sound West African. Today in American English, the expression “sing kumbaya” is used, often with a sarcastic undertone, to mean “engage in a show of unity and harmony with one's opponents or enemies,” as in, “You have betrayed me and you want me to sit in a campfire with you singing Kumbaya. No, I will pay you back in your own coin.”

Next week, I’ll write about my mother’s (and my) unexpected cousins among Black Americans that a DNA ancestry test revealed.