Africanisms: Racial Attitudes as Reflected in African Loan Words

Tim Ward, © 2003


            One of the prominent features of the English language has been its tendency to borrow and adapt words from other languages and cultures almost at will.  During various periods of its development, English has borrowed massively from a variety of Romance languages including French, Latin and Greek, and significantly from Italian, Spanish, German, Danish and Dutch.  The historical reasons for adopting from these languages are somewhat obvious:  during the Renaissance Latin was the European language of religion, education, learning, and power.  During the Middle Ages French was the language of social and political power and conduit into England of various European ideas and concepts.  English’s close relation to other European Romance languages also simplified the process of borrowing as the similarities between them enabled words to be more easily adapted into the lexicon.  But as English, both as a language and as a political force, began to gain ascendancy in the world geopolitical structure, the pattern of borrowing expanded to also include loan words from its colonial acquisitions and encounters.

            The reasons for this are two-fold.  First, as with the borrowing of many words, close contact with other languages lead to a mixing of languages, particularly when English did not have a word for a particular item or concept encountered in the new culture.  During the period of colonial expansion and exploration, this process was enhanced because of the new discoveries that were being made.  Hence borrowings of words like “chimpanzee” and “gorilla” were necessary because English speakers had previously encountered neither chimpanzees nor gorillas.  Although there was hardly any prestige associated with borrowing from colonial languages, there was an element of exoticism (deeply influenced by European ignorance) that led to the adoption of such words as “cannibal” and “dervish”.  What is particularly noteworthy, if we are to take McArthur’s sampling as indicative of the effect that various cultures had on English, is the relative paucity of Africanisms (McArthur, “Borrowing”, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, p. 140).  His proportional sampling of various cultural regions reveals some startling results when one considers the proximity and period of contact with each major region.  Outside of Europe, Africa is by far the closest region to England and, although England was a latecomer to the colonial enterprise, its contact with Africa far predates that of its other colonies.  Even with the extensive development of its trade in India, the English had little choice but to sail all the way around the African coast to merely reach their East Asian trading posts.  Yet, when we compare the effects of various cultures on the English language, we find that African loan words are outnumbered by Asian words by a ratio of more than 10 to 1.  Amerindian loan words outnumber African word 4 to 1 and even Oceanic languages in the farthest possible outpost of English influence outnumber the Africanisms 2 to 1.  The results are even more staggering when one considers that the largest natural resource that the western hemisphere plundered from the African continent was its people.  Conservative estimates of the number of people removed in a 200-year period range from 40 to 60 million.  Yet, despite this involvement in a trade intimately involved with language, only a handful of African words appear to have entered the lexicon as a result of their massive displacement.

            There is no doubt that a number of impediments blocked the absorption of African loan words.  First, as McArthur points out, loan words tend to flow “down” from “high” languages into “lower” vernaculars.  This process is quite evident in English as already noted by the borrowing of Latin words and the sense that Latin represents a “high” and prestigious language.  By the 18th century though, it is the African languages that are perceived as being the “lower” vernaculars.  Prevailing attitudes in England at the time might have gone so far as to suggest that the Africans had little or no language skills at all.  As Caliban, the child of a North African slave in Shakespeare’s  “The Tempest” cries out,

            You taught me language, and my profit on’t

            Is, I know how to curse.  (Act 1, scene i)

The implication is quite clear: not only has Caliban been taught how to speak English, he previously had no language at all.  As with Caliban, the moral uncertainty of enslaving a specific race of people becomes less problematic if you deny them the fundamental aspect of language. If English cultural biases viewed African languages as simply lower vernaculars or even non-languages at all, it is perhaps hardly surprising that, although millions of people were “borrowed” from the continent, few words ever were.

            A second reason for the lack of words borrowed from Africa is perhaps attributable to disease and in particular, the anopheles mosquito.  The intensive word borrowing from South Asian languages happened in part due to the intense linguistic contact that English speakers had with the native communities.  The history of the British Raj in India is significantly different from that in Africa because while the English set up a complex administrative and colonial empire in India in the early 17th century, they did not do so in Africa until the late 19th and into the early part of the early 20th century.  For two hundred years, English merchants and administrators kept mostly to the coastal areas of the continent, rarely venturing inland due to the destructive effects of malaria.  The extraction of both human and non-human resources such as slaves and ivory was carried out for the most part by the Africans themselves who acted as trading intermediaries and thus greatly reduced the interaction of the English language with indigenous African languages.  It is hardly surprising then that along the east coast of Africa, most of the African loan words come from Swahili, a trading language highly influenced by the Arab trade along the East African coast.  Thus we find loan words like “safari” and “bwana” entering the language from Swahili but no words from the larger interior languages of Luo and Kikuyu etc.

While the English may not have come to the Africans though, there is no doubt that the Africans came to the English.  It is estimated that over a half a million Africans were transported to the American colonies in a period of just over 200 years.  Visitors to South Carolina in the early 1700s commented that it “looked more like a Negro country” with a population of 14,000 whites and 32,000 blacks (Holloway and Vass, xxvii).  If close contact in a multilingual situation is one of the primary reasons for word borrowing then one would assume by the sheer numbers of transplanted Africans that a large number of Africanisms would have been assimilated into North American English in particular.

            However, exactly the opposite process took place as linguistic assimilation was actively resisted by the American colonists who did what they could to decimate the Africans’ linguistic heritage primarily as a means of social control.  Black slaves, almost from their point of capture, were linguistically isolated from other native speakers so as to restrict their ability to organize resistance and possible uprisings (Baugh p.112).  This process was so powerful that early American linguists such as E.F. Frazier argued that the institution of slavery destroyed all African culture and that continuity with an African past could no longer be traced.

            Despite the colonists’ attempts to deny and then destroy African linguistic heritage, more recent work, most notably by Joseph Holloway and Winifred Vass, suggests otherwise and they are able to trace a number of surviving Africanisms back to two ethnic groupings in Africa from which at least 70% of the ancestors of African Americans came from, the Mande and Bantu.  The Africans from the Senegambia region (Mande speakers) were part of the greatest and most advanced of the Sudanic empires and thus were often enslaved as artisans and craftsman.  According to Holloway and Vass, both the Mande and Wolof slaves were more often employed in the housework on the plantations and thus had a greater influence on white American culture.  Many American children for instance would have learned African folk tales from their “mammies”, tales such as Brer Rabbit, Brer Wolf, Brer Fox, and the Uncle Remus stories which were originally Wolof folk tales brought to America by the Hausa, Fulani and Mandinka.

            On the other hand, the Bantu slaves from Angola and Congo regions were employed primarily as field slaves.  As a result, their impact on white culture was minimal, but isolation allowed their culture to develop without as much external interference.  According to Vass and Holloway, their African past was thus able to develop into African American cooking, music (jazz, blues, spirituals, gospel), dance, language, religion, philosophy, and the arts. 

            As a result of both the Mande and Bantu influences through the slave experience in the U.S., Vass and Holloway compile a list of Africanisms that have entered into contemporary American English but a close examination of these words reveal a continuing attempt to culturally disparage the African heritage.  Take for instance the word “banjo” which is traced to a West African stringed musical instrument called an “mbanza”.  The banjo was apparently a popular musical instrument among the black population until the 1840s when it was adopted by minstrel shows who made it part of the black face acts after which it became a symbol of ridicule.  The O.E.D. goes a step farther and calls it a “Negro corruption of the Spanish and Portuguese bandurria”.  One is left to wonder if the Africans were not able to produce their own musical instruments and had to borrow them from the Europeans and why, when Africans borrow a word it becomes a “corruption”.  The O.E.D. similarly denies the African origin of many other Africanisms that Holloway and Vass identify including: bug, a West African word for termite is described in the O.E.D. as  “etymology unknown”; jazz, from the West African “jaja” meaning to make to dance is described in the O.E.D. as “origin unknown”; phony, from the Mandingo “foni” is described as “U.S. of uncertain origin” and even coffee, which Holloway and Vass attribute as a derivative of Kaffa, the region in Ethiopia where the plant originated, the O.E.D. claims as having an Arabic origin in the word “qahwah” although they grant that “some have conjectured that it is an African word disguised”.

            The few words the O.E.D. does accept as Africanisms again reveal a strong undercurrent of racism. “Mojo”, an incantation uttered while spitting (Holloway and Vass) is described in the O.E.D. as African “witchcraft”.  Other similar Africanisms include “juju”, “an object superstitiously venerated by West African native peoples” (italics mine) and “voodoo”, “a form of religious witchcraft prevalent among Blacks”.  The definitions of religious Africanisms thus appear to be often described as occultish and barbaric.

            What becomes apparently clear is that in order to rationalize the subjugation of an entire race of people and their subsequent enslavement, one must first deny the one element that makes them human, their language and, once it is discovered that they do speak, it further becomes necessary to do what is possible to hinder the use of that speech.  As Conrad so eloquently stated, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”(Heart of Darkness). It seems a similar comment could be made about the “borrowing” of loan words.


Suggested Readings

Baugh, John.  Black Speech:  Its History, Structure, and Survival.  The University of Texas Press, Texas, 1983.


Dalgish, Gerard.  A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language.  Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1982.


Dillard, J.  Perspectives on Black English.  Mouton and Co., The Hauge, The Netherlands, 1975.


Holloway, Joeseph and Vass, Winnifred.  The African Heritage of American English. Indiana University Press, 1993.


Mufwene, Salikoko ed.  Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties.  The University of Georgia Press, Georgia, 1993.


Pennycook, Alistair.  English and the Discourses of Colonialism.  Routledge, London, 1998.


Phillipson, Robert.  Linguistic Imperialism.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992.


Wolfram, Walt and Clarke, Nona eds.  Black-White Speech Relationships.  Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, D.C., 1985.