A distinct feature of the English language is its extensive lexical borrowing from other languages. Some schools of thought in linguistics posit that only about 30 percent of the vocabulary we use in modern English is derived from the native tongue itself, that is, from Anglo-Saxon—as English prior to 1100 is called. The rest is derived from an amalgam of different languages, mostly Latin and Greek but also several other languages, leading some linguists to characterize the English language as a “loaned language.”
A number of African languages have also enriched the lexical repertoire of the English language. In this article, I isolate a few quotidian English words that trace lexical descent to African languages, often by way of African-American Vernacular English (now informally called Ebonics).
In their book, The African Heritage of American English, Joseph Holloway and Winifred Vass aver that two major senses of this word—that is, to annoy or bother persistently and a small insect— are derived from West African languages. They say the sense of “bug” that means annoy (as in, the paparazzi bugged the celebrities endlessly) traces its roots to the Mandingo word “baga,” which means “to offend, annoy, harm (someone).” “Bugal,” they point out, is the Wolof equivalent of the Mandingo “baga.” Wolof and Mandingo, as I’ve pointed out in previous articles, are the main languages in Senegal and the Gambia and belong to the same Niger-Congo language family.
The sense of bug that means any insect, which is chiefly American, is derived from the Mandingo word “baga-baga,” which means “termite, white ant, insect.” “Bugaboo,” an American English term for an object of fear or alarm in both the literal and figurative sense, is a derivative of bug. It’s noteworthy that the Liberian and black Jamaican English word for termite is “bugaboo.”
In informal English, when you “dig” something, it means you understand, like, or appreciate it, as in, “Do you dig the meaning of this letter?” or “I really dig Celine Dion’s songs.” That expression began exclusively as Negro Nonstandard English (as African-American English used to be called until fairly recently), then made its way into mainstream American English, and finally crossed the Atlantic to Britain—and to the entire English-speaking world. The word is derived from “deg” or “dega,” which is the Wolof word for “understand, appreciate, pay attention to.”
The informal sense of this word that means a man, a boy, or a fellow is originally Wolof. Its lexical ancestry is traceable to “gay,” the Wolof word for “fellow.” (Gay is pronounced “ga-i,” not “ge-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.
The English language owes this alternative word for nervousness to the Mandingo word “ji-to,” which means “frightened, cowardly.”
As a noun, it means a bag for carrying things. (It’s also called a “tote bag” or a “holdall,” especially in British English). When used as a verb, it means to carry with a lot of effort, as in, “I helped the old man tote his bag of books.”
The word is derived from Bantu languages. It’s 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” and means “to carry, load.” In Swahili, the most popular of the Bantu languages, “tuta” also means “pile up, carry.” Several variations of “tot”—and with the same meaning as the English “tote”— appear in many other Bantu languages in Cameroun.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says “tote” was first recorded in the English language in the 1670s in the US state of Virginia. According to historical records, 85 percent of the African slaves brought to Virginia were from four ethnic groups—Igbos from present-day Nigeria, Akans from present-day Ghana, Bantu speakers from present-day Angola and the Congo, and Mende people from present-day Senegal and the Gambia.
The words “chimpanzee,” “funky,” and “zombie” are derived from Kongo, a Niger-Congo language spoken in the Central African nations of Angola and the Congo. And “milo,” a type of maize from which Milo drink is made, is derived from Sotho, a Niger-Congo language spoken in the southern African nations of Lesotho and South Africa. “Tsetse,” the bloodsucking fly often called “tsetse fly,” is from Tswana, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Botswana and parts of South Africa. Finally, “cola,” from which Coca-Cola derives its name, is from Temme, a Niger-Congo language spoken chiefly in Sierra Leone.
Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D., professor of journalism at Kennesaw State University, blogs about language, culture, politics, and education at www.farooqkperogi.com. He is the author of Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World