In the Spring issue of Africa Update we included perspectives
on African-French linguistic interaction as well as Afro-Jamaican language
patterns. We complete the discussion of the pan-African linguistic system
by examining the African-American dim ension. In response to our request
for an up-to-date account of the "Ebonics" debate and aspects
of continental African impact on African-American speech patterns, Dr.
Katherine Harris has provided us with a scholarly detailed analysis
which we are proud to include in this issue. She provided us with more
than seventy references but because of our limited space we found it
necessary to reduce these to a few selected references. Readers who
are interested in the full body of references should fe el free to contact
us for this.
Dr. Harris argues that the Ebonics debate intersects
some important issues such as the geographical configurations of Africa
in the 1500's and after; the linguistic heritage of those Africans that
were EXPATRIATED to the Americas; the ongoing classificat ion of African
languages; indigenous African pictographic and other systems of writing;
and the interesting issue of vocabulary retention. She informs the reader
of a wide range of terms that are of continental African origin, and
which have become embedd ed in African-American speech in particular
and American speech in general. There is also emphasis on some of the
structural changes which have also taken place.
Pan-African language systems have emerged as a result
of historical and social transformation over time and also merit some
sociological analysis. Although this is not a major concern of Harris
we do obtain useful insights related to this issue. We are also reminded
that associated with various words, phrases and verbal forms of expression
are various dimensions of African civilization as these relate to food
processing and culinary taste; musical traditions; and even religious
identity even when these are implicitly suggested. In the Summer 1995
issue of Africa Update we explored briefly some aspects of the literary
sphere as this relates to the discussion of Pan-African systems and
the present issue may thus be seen as a more detailed analysis of an
issue initiated previously.
In the Fall issue of AfricaUpdate we shift to the Central
African region, more specifically to the former Zaire and reflect on
the challenges facing the Kabila regime.
Table Of Contents
by Dr. Katherine Harris, Central Connecticut State University
The controversy over the "Ebonics" issue may
have abated. The discussions have revealed again, however, a duality
which has shaped the experience of the descendants of Africans who arrived
as captives in the Americas. On one level, by emphasizi ng the enhancement
of African American students' English skills, the Oakland Unified School
District (OUSD) has pointed to the quest for academic literacy viewed
as a tool out of socio-economic deprivation. On the second level, the
resolution has accented a need for historical literacy by identifying
the languages of West Africa and the Niger-Congo River confluence as
the ancestral "historical and cultural base" of African American
speech in the 1990s.
The Ebonics debate, however, has brought to the forefront
questions regarding the distinctions between the forms of oral communication,
slang, dialect, and language. Moreover, one might ask, why choose the
term "Ebonics," composed of "ebon y," which is English,
and "phonics," which is Greek. Though "Ebonics"
has been translated literally as "Black Sounds," the use of
a Greek/Latin expression seems incongruous when trying to connect African
American speech to African linguistic bases.
However, the core issue of redressing scholastic inequities
must not be lost. The 1990s debate on segregation in public educational
institutions and unequal distribution of public finances for predominantly
black facilities dates from the 1790s. African American families founded
schools for their children in New York City during the 1790s and 1800s
when it became apparent that the local government was reluctant to provide
Boston schools had been segregated and often unequal
in terms of resources since 1798. The busing crisis in the 1980s briefly
interrupted this pattern. But the need for education for Black children
also prompted l9th century African Americans to form the North African
School and the South African School in Hartford, Connecticut.
The Oakland School Board's initiative calls attention
to long standing issues in educational inequality which persist in the
1990s. In an attempt to enhance educational development of African American
students, therefore, the Oakland School Board develop ed a resolution
to use "Ebonics" or "Pan-African Communication Behaviors"
or "African Language Systems." The board members elaborated:
"African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect
of English. . . . [ S]tudies demonstrate that such West and Niger-Congo
African languages have been officially recognized, are worthy of study,
understanding or application of its principles, laws and structures
for the benefit of African-American students both in terms of p ositive
appreciation of the language and these students' acquisition and mastery
of English language skills." The resolution builds on legislation
which had been passed by the California State Legislature, recognizing
the unique language stature of descendants of slaves which had been
vetoed by various governors. The Oakland Resolutˇon builds also on the
Federal Bilingual Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1402 et seq.) which mandated
the implementation of instructional programs for children having limited
English proficiency. The Oakland School District receives $14 million
in funding to accomplish this, with additional sums provided by the
Federal Government. The School District was attempting to use some of
these financial resources to rectify economic inequities ,which translate
into educational inequities.
In 1971 The Center for Applied Linguistics, based in
Washington, D.C., developed a series of "dialect readers"
called "Black English" as parts of a reading program. Parents
criticized the strategy heavily. Indications are that the rea ders did
not use African language correlations. The "dialect readers"
contained phonetic approximations of expressions and were difficult
for children to use. The readers are not currently in print. However,
scholars continued their investigatio n of "Black English."
In 1973, Robert L. Williams, currently Professor Emeritus
of Psychology and African-American studies at Washington University
at St. Louis, Missouri, and Ernie A. Smith, a Southern California linguistic
researcher, who coined the term "Ebonics," ; conducted studies
of cognitive and language development of Black children with funding
from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Professor Williams told a US Senate committee (1996)
that ". . . Ebonics is a valuable tool for teachers to prevent
minority students from falling behind." Though the seven members
of the Oakland School Board voted January 15, 1977, to amend it s December
18, 1996, Ebonics resolution, deleting the term "genetically based,"
the Board concurred with Professor Williams' view. Board members have
maintained that Ebonics does not have to be taught. Students come to
school with their unique l anguage formations which should be acknowledged
and not viewed simply as substandard English.
While the communities divide and debate the "Ebonics"
issue, fearing that it is another trap to miseducate youth, at the core
of the debate is the need to recognize and build on the reservoir of
intellect, creativity and linguistic formations A frican American children
bring to the classroom via their African heritage. Yet these language
formations require careful unraveling.
Such expressions as, "I says," or the double
negative, "ain't no" ( for example Marvin Gaye and Tammie
Terrell "Ain't no Mountain High Enough") can be heard in the
British Isles and sometimes are considered archaic English r ather than
poor grammar. African American speech patterns can ˇnclude such unique
features as rhyme, rhythmic patterns, repetition, gestures, parables
encoded in speech, alliteration and tone.
But the sources of other expressions - "pacific"
instead of "specific," "baf" instead of "bath,"
"mines" instead of "mine," "womens," or
"mens" instead of "women" o r "men," "skreet"
instead of "street" are more difficult to pinpoint. Moreover,
such verb forms as "lernt" instead of "learned"
may be of German or Dutch origin. It is important to remember African
America n linguistic formations have been influenced by a multiplicity
of European languages - English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German,
Dutch, and even Danish from the Danish West Indies, now US Virgin Islands
and St. Thomas. None of these observations precl ude the fact that some
words are pronounced perhaps incorrectly and/or uniquely, and this tendency
can be found in communities across racial , ethnic and regional lines.
Despite the assault on African languages and cosmological
traditions during slavery, it is worthwhile to explore points raised
by the "Ebonics" discussion. The OUSD coined the phrase, PanAfrican
language system, without defining it. The concept is, nevertheless,
useful. "Pan" refers to many, and it is likely that captured
Africans came from a number of linguistic regional backgrounds, including
the West Africa region.
The language debate might take into consideration the
geographical configurations of Africa in the 1500s through 1800s when
the slave trade occurred. Captured Africans, the ancestors of contemporary
African Americans, came from areas where people and cul tures defined
polities which were usually multiethnic and multilingual. The following
examples illustrate this point. The Mandinka (Mandingos) and Malinke
lived in what is now Senegal, Guinea, Mali, the Ivory Coast and Burkina
Faso (Upper Volta). The Wolo f were in what is now Gambia and Senegal.
The Mano communities were in northern Liberia and southern Guinea. The
Mende and Temne lived between Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Fula (called
Peul in Senegambia) and Tukulor were spread among regions of present
day Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Liberia, Chad, and Niger.
Within the Voltaic family, the Senufos were between Ivory
Coast and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso). Within the Guinean family, (Guinea
was a term of Portuguese origin to describe the gold coins made from
gold taken from the region), the Ewes resided in Togo and Ghana. The
Yoruba were in Nigeria, Togo and Benin (Bini is an uncomplimentary reference
to people in Benin) (Efik, Ibibio and Igbo kingdoms were also clustered
Within the Saharan family, the Tubus were in Niger, Chad
and Lybia. Within the Kushitic family, the Somali were distributed between
the former Italian Somalia, while the Afars and Issas were in Djibouti,
Kenya and Ethiopia.
The Bakongo (Kongos), Balunda, Bakuba, Baluba lived in
what is now Congo (Brazzaville), Angola, Gabon and former Zaire, now
Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa). Ovimbo Herero also resided
in Angola and Namibia. BaLundas lived in parts of Zaire, Angol a, and
Zambia. The Shona between Zimbabwe and Mozambique; the Sothos between
Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya, and Comoro Islands. The Hausa emirates were
spread among Northern Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger.
The Swahili resided in Tanzania (including Zanzibar),
Somalia, Kenya, and Comoro Islands. The Fang were in migration when
colonial boundaries were set and became caught in political units Gabon,
Cameroon, and Equitorial Guinea, which formed parts of the French and
Excavations of the African burial ground in New York,
thought to hold up to 10,000 graves, have uncovered artifacts not only
from West Africa, but from the Indian Ocean African kingdom of Madagascar
as well. Moreover, records document that captured Afric ans from Mozambique
who spoke MaShona also became part of the American slave community.
Any analysis of African American speech and African culture retentions
would have to involve a continent wide geographical range.
The Ebonics discussion intersects another important issue
besides geography. It is the ongoing research into the classification
of African languages. Scholars have designed flow charts of the Niger-Congo
Rivers region linking Kwa (a coastal area) and off shoot languages Akan,
Gbe, Yoruba, Nupe, Igbo and another branch Benue-Congo and its linguistic
offshoots Ibibio and Bantu.
Some linguists use such problematic terms as "Bantu,"
which has little meaning in the sense of identifying a specific language.
Indeed "Bantu" might be derived from "Abantu," a
Luganda expression which means "all these people." (26) This
is spoken in Buganda, or present-day Uganda.
Researchers explore other linguistic breakdowns. For
example, Tshi-Luba (Congo) and Luba Kasai and Luba Katanga are attempts
to classify speech of Baluba communities based on the Tshi, which is
a river, the Kasai, which a basin, and the Katanga mineral p rovince
of the present Congo Democratic Republic (Zaire). Scholars also challenge
each other's spellings of terms. For example, one writes Tshi-Luba and
another Chiluba to refer to the same regional speech pattern.
These attempts at classification can become quite entangled
as scholars search simultaneously for similarities and differences in
African language constructs. Yet evidence suggests the linkage of languages
previously thought to be separate and distinct, noting that all African
languages derive from four clusters, amongst which are Niger Congo and
Nilo-Saharan. Linguists who drafted a Hausa grammar text acknowledged
that the language is most dominant in Northern Nigeria and spoken in
large parts of West A frica, but is "genetically related to such
well-known languages as ancient hieroglyphic Egyptian, . . . but also
of importance [in] "Amharic and Somali."
Indeed similar terms, sometimes with similar and sometimes
with different meanings, appear in Hausa and Kiswahili and also Amharic
and Fula. The relevance of these issues to the Ebonics topic is again
to signal the need to broaden the scope of inquiry in to the origin
of African American speech patterns.
In the public debate regarding "Ebonics" it
might be pointed out that Africans had written languages, some of which
were pictographs; for example, the Adinkra symbolic systems of the Akan.
The experience of captured Africans help document this. In 1839, Sing-gbe
[Cingue], a Mende (Mendi) speaker from Sierra Leone, led captured Africans
in a revolt on the Spanish slave schooner, La Amistad. Kaw-we-li, who
had escaped slavery and joined the British Navy and whose English name
was James Covey, was also from Mendi country and happened to be New
York. He served as an interpreter for the Africans who were tried and
ultimately freed in Hartford, Connecticut. One of the thirty nine captured
Africans included Kimbo, who spoke Mendi and explained the fol lowing
counting system: "... 1, eta; 2, fili; 3, kiau-wa; 4, naeni; 5,
loelu; 6, weta; 7, wafura; 8, wayapa; 9, ta-u; 10, pu." (31) Gilabaru
[Grabeau] was born at Fulu in Mendi country and was also among the surviving
former captives. He explain ed that in his home he had seen people write
"from right to left." Besides Mendi, he spoke Vai, Kon-no
and Gissi [Kissi].
Africans arrived on these shores with their own writing
systems in some cases. Muslim Africans were often literate in Arabic.
But slaveholders viewed African writing and the ·k n Adinkra and other
symbolic pictographs as evil, and use of them was cause f or a beating,
sale or worse. Moreover, symbols and African linguistic tones could
not easily be transposed into Greco-Latin-Roman alphabetical script.
Yet excavations in New York City's African Burial site
uncovered terrain in 1991 containing the "Sankofa" Adinkra.
It is an ·k n symbol attributed to an African sovereign from what is
now Ivory Coast, though the Adinkra symbols are most often a ssociated
with modern Ghana. But ·k n speakers live in parts of present day Ivory
Coast and Togo in addition to Ghana. The ancestor who traced the 'Sankofa'
Adinkra could have come from any of these places.
However, the use of African writing scripts by African
Americans did not survive into the 1990's, and the lost of these writing
systems is a reminder of slavery's devastating erosion of language.
Yet records exist of Africans who knew their linguistic li neage. Phillis
Wheatley was from Senegambia, the home of Fula and Wolof communities.
Olaudah Equiano was Ţgbo from the eastern part of contemporary of Nigeria.
Frederick Douglass's grandmother Betsey Bailey's patrilineage was from
Broteer Furro, also known as Venture Smith, was from
Dukandarra in Guinea where Susu and Mano are spoken. Alexander Crummell's
father was Temne from Sierra Leone. Abd-al-Rahman Ibrahima (known as
Prince on the plantation), a West African prince from the kingdom of
Tambo in the Gambia, was sold into slavery in New Orleans in 1788 at
the age of 26. He was Fula (Fulbe) and was multilingual. He spoke Fula,
Arabic, and possibly Wolof and Mande.
Martin Delaney's heritage included Gola, Mandinka and
Dey (in modern Liberia). The late Supreme Court Justice, Justice Thurgood
Marshall, spoke about his paternal ancestor from the Congo region -
though he did not name the specific place (Bakongo).
But Frederick Douglass has left an important commentary
on the persistence of African language and its adaptation on the plantation
where he was enslaved. He wrote:
There is not, probably, in the whole south, a plantation
where the English language is more imperfectly spoken than on Col. Lloyd's.
It is a mixture of Guinea and everything else you please. At the time
of which I am now writing, there were slaves there w ho had been brought
from the coast of Africa. They never used the "s" in indication
of the possessive case.
. . . and me they called "Captain Athony Fed."
Cap'n Ant'ney Tom," "Lloyd Bill," "Aunt Rose Harry"
means "Captain Athony,'s Tom," "Lloyd's Bill," etc.
"Oo you dem long to?" means, "Whom do you belong to?"
"Oo dem got any peachy?" means "Have you got any peaches?"
This language was spoken by all slaves on the Lloyd plantation - field
hands and artisans.
Douglass used an occasional African word, too. He wrote
"My grandmother afforded relief from [a] journey of 12 miles by
"toteing" me on her shoulder." Some researchers connect
the word to a Latin base "tollit," but recent sc holarship
points strongly to its African origins: "tota" from Konga/Kikonga/Gullah
meaning to pick up or to take; tuta (Kimbundu) meaning to carry or a
load; "tot" from Sierra Leone and "tut" from Cameroon.
Professor Sterling Stuckey elaborated that African languages
could still be heard in New York, particularly Albany, where the Pinkster
Festival of African drama, music, dance and historical pagentry were
celebrated until it was quashed by officials in 18 65. But this tradition
had made its appearance in American literature. James Fennimore Cooper
provided a description of Pinkster in Satanstoe published in 1845.
The combined assault, however, through sale of the mother
- the primary transmitter of language, the disruption of family, the
deliberate destruction of language through seasoning - rape, torture,
and abuse, took its toll on African language retention. T hough the
last ships arrived between 1858 and 1861 in the Georgia Sea Islands,
the Mobile River of Alabama, and the Florida Keys, the passage of time
especially after 1865 also disrupted linguistic retentions.
It is nevertheless too simplistic to conclude that African
Americans retained nothing of their multilingual heritage. One can look
briefly at naming practices to find evidence of linguistic ties. For
example, Juba, one of the day names given to a male ch ild along the
Guinea coast, was also a nickname given to a girl born on Monday in
slave communities to describe "tomboy" (1620s-1800). The name
Juba, which was fairly common among African men in the l7th and l8th
centuries, was also the name of a region in modern Kenya/Somalia and
The erosion of African names also occurred. Samba, meaning
comfort in Wolof, is still recalled in musical form in Brazil, where
there remains a strong African presence. A possible derivation of Samba
is Zambo (Southern/Central Africa), which also means t o give comfort.
Other derivatives are Sambu in Mandinka and Sambo in Hausa. The fact
that the name was at one time fairly common and no longer used may have
relationship to a song popularized by white Americans during the war
from 1861-1865, "Sambo's Right To Be Kilt," and especially
the derogatory usage of the name enshrined in the book Little Black
Other names remained in the African American community
and which have strong affinity to African derivations: Gaye from Gueye
from Wolof in Senegal and Gambia; Esi (Essie) from ·k n, for a girl
child born on Sunday; and Bess for a first born girl. Almost every African
American family has someone called "Nana," meaning grandmother
(but also part of a man's name to denote his matriclan and matrilineal
descent) also from the ·k n language cluster.
Some personal names, especially in the Gullah and Geechee
communities in the African American community, are drawn from places.
Examples are Kano from Northern Nigeria and Abomey from Dahomey (present
A real impediment to the retention of some African language
expressions was their uniqueness. English had no real parallels for
some African language forms. These included genderless expressions;
for example in Ţgbo - "numadu," "0", o r "nya."
Some terms found English translations. Perhaps reverence for a concept
from Ţgbo "chi," soul, and the spirit force or "ka"
from the Nile Valley cultures transfered into English - soul meaning
force, energy, spirit - soul food, soul talk, soul handshake, soul brother,
soul sister, and soul mate.
In one of African American author Ishmael Reed's novels,
his character prepares ointments for a client indicating "She must
bathe in this and it will place the vaporous evil Ka hovering above
her sleep under arrest and cause it to disperse." In terestingly,
too, Reed titles his novel Mumbo Jumbo and provides the following etymology
for the expression: "Mumbo Jumbo - Mandingo (Mandinka] ma-ma-gyo-mbo,
'magician who makes the troubled spirts of ancestors go away:' ma-ma,
grandmother + gyo, tr ouble + mbo, to leave."
The presence of the Guichee or Gu1lah communities provides
the clearest case study of the persistence of multiple African languages
within the twentieth century African American community. Researchers
debate the origin of the term Gullah. Vass has sugges ted that it came
from "ngola," a royal title which the Portuguese mispronounced
and applied to the area now called Angola. Other suggestions are that
the term Gullah comes from the Gola people who came from Liberia, while
the term Geechee origin ated from the Kisi (Kissi) also from Liberia.
Researchers also dispute the supposedly "Bantu"
words in Gullah/Geechee speech, a thesis offered by Vass and Holloway.
Manfredi has countered that some of these names or words are ·k nÄ"Abby"
or Aba and the genders of these names for males and females are mismatched.
African American linguist L. Turner identified African
language precedents for the diphthongs, verb tenses, consonants and
vowel sounds, tongue position, phoneme, diacritics, and syntactical
patterns spoken in the sea island communities of North and Sout h Carolina
Turner's study does not identify Gola words among his
detai1ed etymological list of African expressions or names. But Turner
does provide lists of names, words, terms, and cities, used variously
as personal names and place names from Wolof, Malinke, Man dinka, Ţgbo,
Bambara, Fula, YorŁb , Hausa, Temne, ŢbŤbŤ•', Fon [Dahomey], Vai, ·k n
[the Ashante Twi, Ewe and Fante], Ga, terms from Central and Southern
Africa - Kimbundu, Kongo from Angola, and Congo (Democratic Republic
Turner pointed out that the inter-dental fricative th
does not exist in Gullah nor in the West African languages included
in his study. In pronouncing English words containing this sound, he
noted, both the Gullah speaker and the West African substitute [d] and
[t], respectively, for its voiced and voiceless varieties
The American Heritage Dictionarv elaborated further,
that in South Carolina and Georgia low country, African Americans used
the African term "det" meaning "heavy;" for example
"det rain" as in "heavy" rain and &quo t;det"
shower or "heavy" shower. Some listeners of these speech patterns
concluded, however, that "det" was a mispronounced "that."
Loan words from the Geechee (Gullah) assimilated after back vowels,
as in "fa" (fall) and "saut" (salt). These patterns
penetrated the speech of white American southerners.
Manfredi criticizes Turner's work as educated guesses
rather than observations, though Turner spent considerable time among
the Gullah and Guichee communities and studied African languages. None
of Turner's challengers have been able to provide evidence refuting
his basic premise that African American speech, especially Gullah/Geechee
(Guichee), contains elements of African languages. One of the most majestic
portrayals of the Gullah/Guichee communities is Julie Dash's film "Daughters
of the Dust,& quot; produced by Geechee Girls Productions. Dash is a
descendant of these African American Georgia Sea Islanders.
The Gullah/Geechee speakers have created a Creole language
which merits preservation and being compared to Papiamento spoken in
the Dutch Antilles, Haitian Creole, or Trinidad's Creole, based on their
linguistic heritage from Yor—b and Hausa ancestors, portrayed in Maureen
Warner-Lewis's Guinea's Other Suns.
It is nevertheless possible to hear expressions of African
origin encoded in twentieth century English spoken by African Americans
outside the Sea Islands. Lorenzo Turner pointed to expressions of African
words which some observers misinterpreted as misp ronounced English.
These included the Mende word "suwangc" meaning to be proud
of, which was viewed as a corruption of the English "to swagger;"
the Wolof word "lir" meaning small, but viewed as a corruption
of little; or the Twi word "f " meaning to take, has been
explained as a mispronounciation of "for."
Some sounds and expressions did not repronounce entirely
and surface in altered form. For example, in "a-go-go" is
thought to be derived from "Ngongo," meaning assembly or meeting.
It is the term for the traditional Council of Doula ( Cameroon). Remember
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Going to a-go-go"?
African terms are recalled in songs "way down yonder
in the paw-paw patch." Paw-paw is still heard in parts of West
Africa to refer to papaya.
Continued systematic etymological study is required to
authenticate root words. But the following passages provide a small
sampling of African words which fused with English spoken by African
The Fula language offers the following. The word "Jam,"
meaning 'peace or well being appears in such expressions as "Jam
tan," meaning "fine," or "Ąallen jam," meaning
"Good, Let's spend the day in peace." ; In African American
speech, "jam" can mean "a good party" or "an
Certain sounds and words came from Yor—b , but are usually
considered mispronounced English. For example, "f•," to jump,
and "f ," to draw, stretch, to be slow, crawl, or glide. It
is quite possible that these words were intentionally used in the spiritual,
"Swing low sweet chariot. Coming f• (f ) to carry me home."
"To drawl or to jump" appears twice: Yor—b and English. The
repetition serves as emphasis.
Other words from Yor—b include "jiga," meaning
jigger; "da," which means "where is," and possibly
"b‚Š," which means "like that," "bŠ" to
exist, and "bŠ" to beg. African American spee ch blurred the
distinction between these "like that," "be" to exist,
and "be" to beg, and it quite possible that the expression
which is considered incorrect English grammar, "I be like,"
has an African precedent on two levels. The Yor—b "b‚Š" has
fused with the English "be" and the repetition parallels a
device used in many African languages to convey emphasis. Some examples
are J—-JŁ, a Nigerian musical form or the Geechee expression "don
e done" to emphasize "finished" or "completed."
Two major themes in j—jŁ music have been the urban experience and the
ijinlŠe Yor—b tradition, but the term J—-jŁ took on a negative connotation
From Tshi-luba [Chiluba] in the Congo region come such
words as "jambalaya" from "tshimboebole" meaning
cooked corn, although the term is used in the US to describe a rice,
vegetable and seafood dish. Jazz is said to be a derivative o f the
word "jaja," pronounced "jas" or "jass."
"Kingombo," meaning soup, is also a thick soup of okra and
shrimp spiced with file, especially in Louisiana-Georgia Sea Island
African American communities in which it is called gumbo. "Jiggaboo"
or "jigabo" is from "tshikabo," meaning meek or
servile and came to have very derisive meaning in English.
From Ewondo, spoken in Cameroon, comes the word "nyam."
"Nyam" is used among the Serer in Senegal and is called "nyama"
in Fula, which is spoken throughout western and parts of central Africa.
It is "djambi" in Vai , "nyambi" in Southern Africa,
and "njam" in Gullah. It has been used as "yam"
in English and mistakingly applied to the sweet potato. "Nyam"
has also been used a verb meaning "to eat."
From Mandinka, there are the words "Jitterbug"
linked to "jito-bag" and describes a dance crazed person.
In the 1940s, the jiterbug was the name of a popular dance done to swing
From possible Temne origin is the expression "Yo"
from Sierra Leone. It is an ending participle of an emphatic statement.
It appears frequently in African American speech and among some youth
in other ethnic groups as well. Though the speakers may be unaware of
that it is of African origin, "yo" persists in such expressions
as in "Give me back my ball, Yo!" The expression. 'Ya' is
also used as an ending participle.
Wolof offers examples of words or expressions which also
appear in contemporary African American speech. "Jama" is
a Wolof word meaning crowd or gathering. "Jam" in African
American speech can mean "to fight" or "put so meone
in a bad situation." Its uses range from the song title "Bad
Mama Jama" to "jam," "jamming," and "jamboree."
These words have become a part of the national and international lexicon.
Other Wolof grammar constructions are similar to those
in African American speech. For example, "def" is the Wolof
verb "to do" or "to make." In Wolof, 'djam"
(jam) means "peace." In African American parlance, "def"
is an adjective or adverb describing something of "excellent [or]
highest praise." "Def jam,"literally "to make peace,"
may have made its way into African American speech in the 1990s in "Def
Commedy Jam ." The young African American performers who gave this
name to their group may not be aware of these words' similarity to their
African language inheritance.
The use of "da" i n African American speech
also has an Af rican precedent. "Da" (or "dafa")
in Wolof, meaning "it," is an explicative predicator. For
example, "Da nga mun(-a) naan lool." "It is that you
drink" too much or "You drink too much." Turner points
out that "da," "de," appears frequently in African
language constructions. Some African languages did not have a "th"
sound, and Africans transfered t he familˇar sound "da" or
"de" as a substitute. But "da" is still used in
contemporary speech as "it" or "it is;" for example,
"da cold" for "it is cold".
Wolof also includes "Bii," "Bee,"
which were confused with the English verb root "to be." In
Wolof, "Bii," "Bee," functions as "you,"
a noun determiner to express distance. One prevalent use of the concept
among some African Americans is "be," or "She be at home."
Wolof has contributed the word "jev" to African
American speech which is written "jive" or "jiving."
"Jev" means in Wolof, false or careless talk.
Wolof words which have multiple African etymologies include
"juke," "jook" from "juka" in the Niger-Congo
cluster, "dzug," from Wolof, and in Gullah, juke-house or
jook house describes a roadside inn, type of music , or loose life-style.
"Juke" is also the root word of jukebox.
"May" is also a name which is used with
some frequency and is possibly related to the Wolof "may,"
"to make a present," in (double object transitive verb) names
Annie May, Eula May, or Ula May, Beulah May, or Mae. The sound of "may"
differs from Wolof (in that it is pronounced as two syllables instead
of one), but the Wolof "may" and the English "May"
for the month overlapped.
"Boo" appears in Wolof as the temporal
relative pronoun second person "you." For example, "Boo
ligg‚‚y bee," "When/if you (singular) work." African
Americans use "Boo" as a nickname for a boy or girl.
In Wolof, "ma" is object pronoun and "ma"
the subject pronoun, "I." African American speech uses both
the Wolof "ma" and the English "my" to show possession.
African languages had other constructions which did not
really transfer in meaning into African American speech. For example
"na," which is sometimes considered a slurred pronunciation
of "no," was nevertheless a familiar sound which persists
in African American speech in the 1990s. "Na" in Wolof is
a dependent subject predicator.
"Dem" is a verb in Wolof meaning "to
leave;" for example, "Mangi dem na k‰r." "I am leaving
[to go] home." One source cites "dem" as a deliberate
corruption of "them," but it may be the natural transfer of
familar sound, though African American speech does not use "dem"
as the Wolof.
Some languages were, nevertheless, lost. African American
speech does not use Hausa expressions of possession - na plus da phrase.
The perfective appears in such expressions as "Na Manta an fita
da dabbobi," "na" verbal nouns and ver b forms. The Hausa
interrogative "ya" meaning "how" in English does
not seem to be used either.
Researchers have suggested that some words of African
origin survived: Mojo - charm, from "muoyo," meaning "life;"
moola - money, from "mulambo" - tax money; mosey from "muonji,"
meaning to work slowly, meandering; hulla-balloo, from "halua balualua;"
and gooly, from "ngula." Remember the Stylistics' "Betcha
Manfredi calls Vass' etymology absurd, but corroborates
the existence of African words, noting many are Mandekan and others
are ·k n. He has no explanation, however, for words proven not to be
of English origin. The vocabulary suggests other words from A frican
language bases: "Yack‚ty-yack," a word from African languages:
"yakula-yakula-yack," meaning a stupid person or stupid conversation.
Vass has suggested place names, originating possibly
in "Bantu," or more accurately, of African origin. Vass admits
that a certain Creolization occurred in language because of the mixture
of Cherokee-Choctaw-African. Indeed the Cherokee word &q uot;Seminole"
means "runaway" for those African Americans who left the plantations
and joined Native American communities.
But other evidence suggests African origins for some
place names. A few of these appear on road maps from the 1970s and 1990s.
For example, in North Carolina: Ulah from Ula, meaning to purchase or
buy; Aquone from Akuone, meaning let him scrape, scrub, p lane, shave
off (sawmill or carpentry work); Ela from Ela, meaning cast, throw,
pitch, pour, pour out; N kina from Nuakina, meaning hate, be cruel to,
be mean to (plural imperative); and Ngakina (I am hating, being cruel
In Virginia: one example is Chula, meaning frog. In South
Carolina: Alcolu from the root word Alakana, meaning hope for, long
for, desire exceedingly (freedom); Ashepoo from Ashipe, meaning let
him kill. Manfredi suggests an inaccurate transcription by Vass. She
wrote "ashipe" instead of Asˇpa, deleting the accent and adding
an "h." It is important to note, however, that these accents
are imposed on the language in attempt to transcribe African sounds
into English. It might be diffic ult to say which is more correct. In
any case the spellings of place names were recorded, not by African
Americans using their own scripts, but by white officials who tried
to reproduce the sounds as best they could.
In Mississippi: Lula from Lula, meaning be bitter, refuse
to obey and Osyka from Oshika, meaning burn up, catch on fire. In Missouri:
Chula from Tchula, meaning frog.
In Georgia: Cataula from Katuulua, meaning he never comes
(absentee master?); Chu1a from Tschula, meaning frog (also Chula is
the Choctaw word for "fox"); Suwanee from Nsub'wanyi, meaning
my house or my home; Inaha from "Hinaha" meani ng right here,
at this very place; Zetella from "Jetela" meaning be languid.
In Florida: -Chuluota and -Wauchula (from Waujula) have
possible African origins.
In Alabama: -Eufaula from Uhaula, meaning loot, pillage
; -Chunchula from Tshutshuluka, meaning to be held back, restrained;
Wedowee from Wetuwee, meaning our very own (a Luba expression); and
- Coatopa from Kuatupa, meaning to give them to us (rations or supplies).
In Delaware: -Angola from Ngola actually the title of
political officials in the Lunda kingdom which Portuguese called Angola.
Manfredi criticizes Vass's approach as absurd and suggests
she is also ignorant of African languages, though she too lived among
communities of Central Africa and had use of the 1937 dictionary of
"Bantu" words published by African American Alt hea Edmiston
Brown. Yet, he concedes that Angola is of African origin and "Chumukla"
is possibly derived from the Tsiluba (Chiluba). Manfredi provides no
alternative as to how other non-English place names, personal names,
and words have come i nto the language patterns of African Americans,
nor does he provide the origins of place names which Vass maintained
are not derived from the Creek, Choctaw or other communities.
Vass wrote down songs and, though the exact African origin
of the songs may be debated, it is unlikely that they came from the
Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee or other aboriginal communities in what became
the southern United States.
Critics of Ebonics have pointed out that words attributed
to African origin are spoken sometimes by white Americans. This is true
to a degree, and Frederick Douglass has left an important observation
on this point. He wrote that white planters and their children adopted
these expressions to communicate with African captives. J. L. Dilliard,
Molefi Asante, Roger Abrahams, and John Szwed have identified such African
linguistic expressions as "OK, wow, uh-huh and unh-unh, daddy and
buddy." David D alby has traced such expressions from Wolof as
OK, bogus, boogie woogie, bug, phoney, guy, dig, and fuzz.
African American author Zora Neale Hurston uses the term
"akimbo" to describe the gestures of one of her characters.
The term rings of African origins, though the American Heritage Dictionary
defines "akimbo" as an adjective and adve rb which means "with
the hand on the hips and the elbows bowed outward," suggesting
that the word is derived from "kenebowe" from Middle English.
This and other words or expressions bear further exploration, however.
Many African expressions fused with English over the
centuries and have remained a part of contemporary English, though the
African root words are seldom recognized. As scholars continue their
etymological investigations, they explore the use of time, se ntence
structure and verb placement in African American speech which have African
precedents. Perhaps it was this combination of linguistic research and
the need for academic progress for African American children which encouraged
the "Ebonics" resolution of the Oakland School Board.
The controversy surrounding the resolution has quieted,
but the formulation of strategies to enhance the language skills and
educational development of African American children is likely to be
a critical topic for some time.
Table Of Contents
- J. Dillard. Black English: Its History and Usage in
the United States. NY, Random House,1972.
- J. A Fashagba. The First Illustrated Yor—b Dictionary,
- C. Fields, "Histrionics About Ebonics 101- What
we have learned." Black Issues in Higher Education. Jan 23 1997,
Vol 13, no. 24.
- Broteer Furro (Venture Smith). A Narrative of the
Life and Adventures of Ventura, A Native of Africa. New London, 1798.
Recently edited by Arna Bontemps, Wesleyan University Press, 1988
- J. E. Holloway. "The origins of African-American
Culture." Holloway (ed), Africanisms in American Culture. Indiana
University Press, 1991.
- W. Kellersberger Vass. The Bantu-speaking Heritage
of the United States. UCLA, 1979.
- C. Major. Juba to Jive; A Dictionary of African-American
Slang. Penguin Books, 1994.
- V. Manfredi. "Sourcing African English in North
America." International Journal of African Historical Studies.
Boston University, 1994.
- Randy Ross. "Why Black English Matters."
Education Week, January 29, 1997.
- "Oakland Amends Ebonics Resolution."
Black Issues in Higher Education. Vol, 13, no. 25, Feb 6, 1997.
Zenebworke Bissrat served for several years
as Senior Management Expert at the Ethiopian Management Institute, Addis
Ababa. She is at present associated with the CMRS, Ethiopian Catholic
Church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Maimouna Diallo is an economist and also
a consultant to the United Nations Development Program. She resides
in the Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa.
Julius Ihonvbere is a Professor of Government
at the University of Texas, Austin. Among his books are Nigeria,
the Politics of Adjustment and Democracy (New Brunswick: Transaction,
1993) and The Political Economy of Crisis and Underdevelopment in
Africa (Lagos: Jad Press, 1989).
Paulus Gerdes is the Rector of Mozambique's
Universidade Pedagogico, Maputo, Mozambique. He has extensive publications
on African mathematics and is the Chair of the Commission on the History
of Mathematics in Africa.
Mosebjane Malatsi is a Senior Policy Analyst
at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, based in Johannesburg. He
is a leading member of the Pan-African Congress.
Alfred Zack-Williams is from Sierra Leone.
He teaches in the Department of Historical and Critical Studies at the
University of Central Lancaster, UK. He is also a member of the Editorial
Board of the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE), United Kingdom.
Table Of Contents
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