Words of African origin in American English

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Petter, Nov 11, 2007.

  1. Petter Member

    Norway - Norwegian
    Are there any words in American English that are thought to come from African languages? I am thinking here if the African slaves brought to the Americas has had a linguistic impact on the language

    I remember to have read somewhere that the word 'hip',as in hip-hop originally comes from Wolof.

    If anyone knows anything about this, or can point me to some good articles/books about the subject I'd bee delighted
  2. JGreco Senior Member

    Citizen of the World
    Native of: English, Portuguese (oral) , and Spanish (oral)
    I really don't know any words that have African origins in the U.S. I think the style of speak, our food culture, music, and dance were the largest and main influence of African culture in the U.S. I truly believe that R&B, Jazz, Southern, and Creole cooking would not have come into fruition without the existence of African Americans in the U.S.
  3. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Okra and gumbo are said to be of African origin.
  4. jfm Member

    This is an area that has been researched extensively.

    You can have a look at:

    There, you can look up loanwords from individual languages. I have no idea how reliable it is, but it looks useful.

    If you don't mind taking a trip to your local library, you can look up the following books:

    Dalgish, Gerard Matthew. 1982. A dictionary of Africanisms: contributions of sub-Saharan Africa to the English language. Westport CN & London: Greenwood Press. ISBN-10 0-313-2385-6. Pp xvi, 203.

    Holloway, Joseph E. (Ed.) 1990. Africanisms in American culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN-10 0-253-32839-X. Pp 270.

    Holloway, Joseph E.; Vass, Winifred Kellersberger. 1993. The African heritage of American English. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pp xxix, 193.

    Puckett, Newbell Niles. 1975. Black names in America: origins and usage. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co.

    Vass, Winifred Kellersberger. 1979. The Bantu speaking heritage of the United States. (Afro-American culture and society, n 2.) Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California. Pp 122.

  5. Petter Member

    Norway - Norwegian
    Thanks a lot jfm!
  6. zpoludnia swiata Senior Member

    chile english, spanish, german
    Two more terms of African origin come to mind: juke (as in juke box), and bogus. Oh, and banjo.
  7. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
  8. tom_in_bahia Senior Member

    Teixeira de Freitas, BA, Brasil
    South Florida/Phoenix-Tucson/the Adirondacks. Native of North American English
    While pickaninny is not of African origin (but rather Portuguese) it should be noted that it only ended it up BVE (and in a pejorative way in SSE) because of the slave trade - which sent the majority of slaves to Brazil before going to the Caribbean and North America - allowing for a Portuguese pidgin to begin to form. Interestingly, in Jamaican creole English, pikni (sp?) means child.

    I've also suspected that the word 'booty' (meaning butt / backside) is also of West African origin. It's very similar to bunda and bounda (Brazil and Haitian words, respectively) for the same part of the body. Though most etymologies site it as a corruption of the word body, I feel that if anything is the case, it could be just the reason why the nasal was lost before the /d/. Nevertheless, I don't have a full linguistic profile of BVE phonetics, so I don't know whether the sound spoken here would be a /d/ or a /tap/ (as I pronounce it). Interestingly, it should be noted that in both Portuguese and Haitian Creole, the -n- nasalizes the preceding vowel. As nasalization is not a typical feature of American English, I wouldn't be surprised if it was dropped altogether over time in the States.
  9. toolmanUF Member

    Washington, DC
    St. Petersburg, Florida, USA (English)
    I read that the slang word "dig" used in many dialects to mean "understand" is of African origin. (As in: Can you dig it?) Its meaning in this context is not related to the standard verb "dig" which has English roots.

    Also, the slang word for peanuts "goober" is also of African origin (Bantu according to Merriam Webster's).

    And in terms of dialectal expressions and grammar, I think that the use of the verb "done" showing perfect past tense is a loan from certain African languages. (I done told you already!) And also, the word "fixing" to show future tense is as well: I was fixing to go to the store.

    (I done told you; I'm fixing to cook some goobers. Do you dig it!)

    Anybody have any other ones? I find this a fascinating topic!
  10. ralphieb New Member

    Hi all. A new member. I am happy to see so much interest on this subject. I've studied Africanisms in American life for much of my life and was surprised to find how much there is to make note of.

    For an initial contribution to the dialogue, the very commonly used term 'buku' is a Bantu term used by slaves to denote 'a lot' of something. Many mistakenly think it to come from the French 'boucoup,' but it does not. This was researched extensively by Lorenzo D. Turner in his studies in the Sea Islands and elsewhere. He created a whole dictionary which I once owned a copy of, but it was lost in the post-college move from NY. Another good resource person is Melville J. Herskovits of Northwestern Univ.; he has a center there devoted to his work. A quick google search will pull up a lot of links to his work.

    At some point I plan to make a film about this subject matter (centered around the blues) and this forum I hope will become a resource for ideas and inspiration.
  11. MarX Banned

    Indonesian, Indonesia
    I read that the word "booty" has African origins. I don't know if that's true.
  12. CodeAndBunny Senior Member

    English - US
    It should be noted that these are not considered "slang" but "Creole". It has been considered so for at least the last 20 years, already (though those outside of the community and laymen continue to refer to it as "slang").
  13. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish

    These have been proposed but are nearly impossible to substantiate. These grammatical expressions are and have been found historically in non-standard English speech of different and non-African origin communities. Most of the grammatical feature one finds in AAVE for example can be understood as directly inherited from the non-standard English dialects of white native speakers.

    Unfortunately there is little written history about the flow of African grammatical constructions and lexical items into English as a result of the slave trade. Because of that all arguments proposing such origins are rather tenuous. Nevertheless there are some clear Africanisms such as yam or Gullah nyam from Wolof.
  14. CodeAndBunny Senior Member

    English - US

    The use of the word "done" is an African holdover. One of the problems is that the "determining" of such africanisms is being "carried out" by people outside of the community who hold a eurocentric perspective (e.g. the dated assumption that African-Americans inherited much, if not all, from their enslavers.

    OP, I think it's best that you watch the movie "The Story of English". Interestingly, they reference early English writings (as in, writings from England), the works of Charles Dickens (even his commentary on Whites speaking African Creole, as a result of them being raised by Black women they enslaved, and surrounded by Africans they enslaved) and Caribbean creoles, as well.

    They'll also explain from, an historical perspective, why Whites began using much of the same creole (though the reason seems obvious).
  15. DenisBiH

    DenisBiH Senior Member

    Some version of this 'argument' has probably been used for every language on this board.
  16. CodeAndBunny Senior Member

    English - US
    Good to hear.
  17. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Well, another problem is that those who try to prove African roots sometimes go just that tiny little bit too far, and leap at conclusions before searching for evidence.

    But as I'm no specialist in the field I just wanted to express my scepticism, without having any good examples at hand. :)
    Of course there are several African words in American English, and it might even be that a good part of African American Vernacular English indeed goes back to African roots - but a significant part surely doesn't.

    The problem is, as clevermizo already pointed out above, that the history of Black English is so poorly documented. :)
  18. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    I agree that the assumption that African-Americans inherited most of their idiomatic language from their enslavers is eurocentric. However, it might also be said that the assumption that most or any of the grammatical features of African-American vernacular speech derives from actual African language systems is a reaction against this eurocentrism. There is bias on all sides and very poor objective documentation.

    Allow me to explain what I see as the difficulty. The influence of African languages on the speech of slaves and their descendants would have mostly been in the early period - when most of those people were still native speakers of the languages in question. What must be compared is not a modern African-American form and a modern, say, Mende form, but an original form from a few hundred years ago in both languages. If I see that modern African-American done is similar to a particle in modern Mende, this implies that for over 200-300 years, the spoken languages of these two groups have simply not evolved or that this particle has been so stable to not have been affected by many decades of linguistic change. Now this is of course possible, but it would be preferable to compare historical forms. These forms are undocumented, to my knowledge.

    What is the evidence that the done perfect is of African origin? Is it based on modern forms or historical forms? What are the controls for such comparisons?

    These are not rhetorical questions on my part, I'm quite curious and not as learned as I'd like to be on the subject. My impression has simply been that there is no real conclusive evidence aside modern phonological similarity. If you go looking for phonological similarity between words of similar meaning between any two randomly chosen languages you will indeed find it. It's a regular point of argument here on the EHL forum in fact.

    Well to be fair, I believe that the creoles spoken on plantations actually are in fact decently documented. However what I've been led to believe is poorly documented are the steps in between. Of course all the historical documentation about this is going to come from slave masters and other whites of the period, but because of the strength of racist ideology, I'm sure it's all presented as "corruption of English" and it will be hard to determine clear Africanisms from it.

    And this is exactly why I think truly providing clear evidence of Africanisms or a West African substratum must be very difficult indeed, and must resort to comparing modern forms, which I find a very tenuous argument.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2010
  19. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    Other folk say that 'dig' = understand is a variant of 'twig' = understand and comes from the Irish tuig.

    Have a look at dig 2, on this page:

    and follow the link to twig at the end of the origin comments.
  20. LaVieja Member

    U,S,A, English
    How about "juba", that dance the slaves did with the hand-clapping and knee-slapping?
  21. CodeAndBunny Senior Member

    English - US
    Thanks you for your response. I will say that on the word "done" denoting past tense being of African origin, all we have to do is look at African language. As an afterthought, we can compare this with European languages (and not just English, because English itself came from other European languages).

    I was surprised by your question. Please understand I do not mean to sound offensive and I apologize in advance if I sound so. But I think we should be a lot farther along than to ask such a question. This means that WR is not necessarily the place for such a discourse. I wanted to offer you an answer to your question though:

    Past tense in African-based languages in the diaspora

    Mauritian Creole: fin _________ (fin means in French, ending/end)
    US (Native Afro-American) Creole: done ___________
    Bahamian Creole: done ______________
    Haitian Creole: fin ________________
    West African Pidgin: done ________________

    I could go on by now including African languages, but considering that this was already an old post that I only just now saw, then this is enough. Research African languages, including Bantu languages, and you'll see that they use a marker usually translating to "done" or "ended" before the verb. If there's any diaspora language or region (besides the spanish speaking ones) that uses a past tense that deviates from this pattern, then I've yet to find it.

    I don't agree about comparing "historical forms" (it should be noted that not everyone takes the euro approach to research & analysis). I tend to think such theories are merely attempts to prevent or dissuade the acknowledgement of these african holdovers. They perform (limited) research on European native languages, for example, in France and they make comparisons to find connections between two or more. Their languages did not become written languages until they were conquered by the romans (and even then, many of those native France-based languages still remained unwritten languages. So they lack historical documents on those native languages as well (many of which are lost now or nearly so). Yet that does not hinder their research or analysis. But when it comes to African language, this same lack of historical documents is supposed to be a challenge? I don't agree at all. Also, missionaries provided plenty of documentation of African language anyway from the early European colonization period onward.

    When we consider the conditions under which African-Americans have lived, particularly in the south and the mid-west, we can understand why so many African verb tenses (there's more than one of course) and words have survived in the US. African-Americans were not running about hand in hand with whites. The lived in their own communities and did not have the sort of exposure to whites that they do now (many still do not). Exposure was often through labor and especially through child-rearing. (The term "nanny" (anglicized) comes from "nani"/"nana" and means old woman, mother, or grandmother in many African languages, including Temne, Ga, Twi, and others.

    These elderly women were among the primary caregivers to white children during slavery.

    What is more important is to compare African-based languages throughout the world. When we find a common ground, a common trend, in spite of the differences in colonizers and colonial languages then we realize there's an African origin for it.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2012
  22. CodeAndBunny Senior Member

    English - US

    You're right about the word budi coming from bundi/bunda. Only someone in Brazil would pick up on that! Or maybe a kikongo speaker.

    The nasalization is often (though not always) dropped in native afro-american creole.

    Pikinini still means child in the US. However, the perception of that child has been marred by the depiction of Black children in white-produced racist films and propaganda. I've noticed the same meaning and perception in Bahamas.
  23. CodeAndBunny Senior Member

    English - US

    This is an example of eurocentrism. Though the term in the US is almost always used among Afro-Americans in particular, we attempt to convince them that the origin is not African, but Irish??

    Let's consider that eurocentrist argument for a moment; and then destroy it: Tuig does not have the same meanings that deg/dig has. If you know the language (which I'm assuming you don't) then you'd know that deg/dig means more than just "to understand" among Afro-Americans. It also means TO HEAR. In Wolof, it ALSO has the same two meanings: "to hear" and "to understand". However, this is not the case with your Irish tuig.

    And to take it a step further, it also means amongst Afro-Americans, "to be in harmony with another person or thing". In Wolof, its meaning is also "to have harmony with something or someone". Again, this is not the case with your Irish tuig.

    The pronunciation, the meaning, and the spelling are not consistent when you compare the Irish "tuig" and the Afro-American "deg/dig".

    However, when you compare the Wolof and Afro-American words, their pronunciation, meaning, (and even the spelling) are virtually identical between the Wolof and Afro-Americans. This points to a Wolof origin. NOT a eurocentrist Irish origin.

    I'd like to see a day when these things are not approached with eurocentrism and thinly-veiled insecurity, but with a serious interest in preserving language and acknowledging the true origins.
  24. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    If you want to say: “the English word X comes from the Hausa/Wolof/Twi word Y”, then that is something we can discuss.

    To say: “the English word X is used mainly by Afro-Americans, so it has to be of African origin” is not a valid linguistic statement.
  25. CodeAndBunny Senior Member

    English - US
    I already proved my point. There's nothing more to say.
  26. aasheq Senior Member

    London, UK
    English (Estuary)
    The people of Ireland, with the exception of a very small number on the West Coast, have lost their native language (Irish) and adopted the language of their perennial oppressors (English). My parents came to this country from the Middle East, but I cannot speak their language, but only that of our ex-colonial masters. To make these statements is not Euro-centric or Anglo-centric, it is an acknowledgement of socio-linguistic reality.
  27. tonyspeed Senior Member

    English & Creole - Jamaica
    This is not technically a word, but the sucking of the teeth that only black americans do is African in origin.
  28. azizip17 New Member

    Pittsburgh, Pennslvania
    English-US, African American English
    The phrase "suck your teeth" is documented as early as 1915 in Jamaica and is also found in Barbados, Belize, and Guyana, Trinidad, and the United States (particularly among African Americans). In Tobago, kiss teeth is called "hiss teeth" and in the Cayman Islands it is called "sucking your mouth".

    "Kiss" and "hiss" are onomatopoeic “[that’s the sound you make when doing it].

    In the Caribbean kiss teeth is represented by the initials "KST" (kiss teeth) and "KMT" (kiss my teeth). Among people from the Caribbean, kiss teeth can be represented in writing using the words "Cho!", "Chups", "Tchuipe, "Chupes", "Stchuup”, and similarly spelled words. These words are both nouns and verbs.
  29. azizip17 New Member

    Pittsburgh, Pennslvania
    English-US, African American English
    Since I'm new to this forum, I can't include any links. However, the information that I posted is from a source that is credited in a post on my pancocojams cultural blog. The title of that post is What Kiss Teeth (Suck Teeth) Means
  30. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    Any evidence?
  31. azizip17 New Member

    Pittsburgh, Pennslvania
    English-US, African American English
    The OP cited "hip" as an example of an English word from West Africa, and cited "hip-hop" as an example of that word. While I believe that hip is from the Wolof word xippi, the word "hip-hop" isn't actually from that source. "Hip-hop" is an alliterative term that was patterned after the term for "bebop", a type of jazz

    Wolof is widely spoken in The Gambia & in Senegal. The "x" in "xippi" is pronounced like the "h" in the English language.

    "Xippi" means "to open one’s eyes / to have one’s eyes open". "Hip" basically means "being aware, being in the know."

    In addition to "hip", the other English words that I believe come from the Wolof word "xippi" are "hep", "hepcat", and "hippie/s".

    Slate magazine has an interesting article online written by Jesse Sheidlower which questions the Wolof source of "hip" (and other Wolof words in English). The witty title for that article is "Cry Wolof". However, in my opinion, the commenters to that article more than adequately responded to the concerns that Sheidlower raised about the problems he saw with the position that "hip" etc came from Wolof. Because I'm a new member, I'm unable to link to that article, but it's quite easy to find online.
  32. azizip17 New Member

    Pittsburgh, Pennslvania
    English-US, African American English
    Cut-Eye andSuck-Teeth: African Words and Gestures in New World Guise Author(s): John R.Rickford and Angela E. Rickford Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol.89, No. 353 (Jul. - Sep., 1976), pp. 294-309 Published by: American FolkloreSociety Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539442Accessed:
  33. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    Thanks for the reference.
  34. azizip17 New Member

    Pittsburgh, Pennslvania
    English-US, African American English
    This was in response to fdb' request for evidence of the African source for "cut-eye", suck-teeth".
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2012
  35. azizip17 New Member

    Pittsburgh, Pennslvania
    English-US, African American English
    You're welcome.
  36. tonyspeed Senior Member

    English & Creole - Jamaica
    Personal evidence. If you grow up in these cultures it is obvious. White people don't do it. Black people do. The origin must be Africa.
  37. tonyspeed Senior Member

    English & Creole - Jamaica
    I'm not sure where you got this information but it is wrong. The Jamaican word cho is a stand alone word that is completely different from the kissing of the teeth we do.
    The closest English equivalent is 'damn.' All the other words you listed are correct.
  38. aasheq Senior Member

    London, UK
    English (Estuary)
    The ancestors of the Black Jamaicans came to the New World 200 years ago or more. So you think their culture has not changed at all in two centuries?
  39. tonyspeed Senior Member

    English & Creole - Jamaica

    But the key factor is that it is not just in Jamaican culture. It is anywhere where the culture is based on african slave culture. Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad ...
    If it is everywhere where there is slave culture (including black american culture), but it is not used by white americans, the answer should be obvious. It is impossible that the phenomenon could be so widespread only within black cultures and its origin not be Africa.

    But for more conclusive evidence see: Perspectives in American English By Joey Lee Dillard (which contains the above mentioned essay)

    http://books.google.com/books?id=6z...onepage&q=sucking of the teeth africa&f=false

    (In addition, the percentage of African-decent in Jamaica is 90%. Who is there to change the culture other than American cable TV?)
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2012
  40. zacherystephenson New Member


    OK well I know you wrote this cretinously PC and mindlessly, needlessly over-protective of anything African-related post a few years ago but you're unquestionably wrong.

    The original poster that proposed the expression originates from the Irish word 'tuig', rather than being some cotton-field-owning racist, attempting to steal a sacred word from Africans, had neglected to elaborate that use of the word in a question would be 'duigean tu?' meaning 'do you understand?' or 'you dig?' The phonetics of 'duigean tu' omit the 'u' so it would be 'diggan too?'

    Since no other reasonable etymology of the word has been proposed by anyone, in any language, African or otherwise, I suggest that it is a perfectly valid and reasonable origin of the expression and not a conspiratorial plan to further subjugate the black man.

    You are a textbook example of the kind of idiot that ferociously seeks out racism and, not finding enough, you invent it. It's bewildering because it sets back the fight against genuine racism so much.

    Just another question, do you get offended when people use the word 'blackboard'?
  41. Cenzontle

    Cenzontle Senior Member

    English, U.S.
    The OP referred to hip-hop.
    Four days ago I attended an excellent lecture on the history of hip-hop by Dr. Lasana Kazembe.
    I trust that if anyone knows the precise origin of the expression "hip-hop", he does.
    He pinpointed the first use of the term in a spontaneous scat-singing utterance by a known individual disk jockey,
    pretty much confirming what azizip17 (#31) said,
  42. Cenzontle

    Cenzontle Senior Member

    English, U.S.
    I made a direct inquiry to Lasana Kazembe (see above, #41) about the origin of the term "hip-hop". He answered in a matter of hours, explaining that there are actually two theories. The one he prefers is that the term was coined by a disk jockey named Afrika Bambaataa in 1973 or '74 (I think he meant 1983/84; Starski was born in 1960). Kazembe says "Bambaataa stated in an interview that he lifted the term 'Hip-Hop' from a song by another Bronx DJ named Love Bug Starski." The song by Starski is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP37qhOi9cw, and the hip-hop reference starts around 1:10. "Hip, hop, shoo-wop de bop!" How's that for an etymology!

    (The other theory is that hip-hop artist Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins was joking about his cousin who had joined the military, and "Wiggins was mimicking the marching cadence ('left-right-left-right') by saying 'hip-hop-hip-hop.'")

    Kazembe also confirmed what has been said here about "hip" being traced to Wolof and meaning "in the know" or "aware" in that language.

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