Wednesday, March 13, 2013

African Loanwords: Part 1

If you're interested in learning about the history of the lexicon of the English language, then loanwords are the place to look. We've already covered Japanese and Scandinavian loanwords, and today we're going to take a look at some words that have come to our fair language from African languages.

banana - The distinctly shaped yellow fruit gets its name from the word banaana in the Wolof language, spoken in Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania. The word came to English through Spanish or Portuguese, likely when the plant was introduced to the New World in the early 1500s.

A Tongan farmer and his gigantic yams.
They can grow to be 1.5 m long and 70 kg!
yam - If you're from the United States or Canada, you may think that "yam" is another name for "sweet potato". You'd be wrong, as the two similar-looking vegetables come from different scientific families. In any case, yams are delicious, and almost undoubtedly get their name from one (or possibly many) West African languages.

cola - The word cola originally was used to named a genus of trees in West Africa that bear the kola nut, which is used to add caffeine and flavor to soft drinks. The term likely comes from kola in the Temne language of Sierra Leone, or kolo from Mandingo, which is spoken throughout West Africa.

jukebox - In the early 1900s, the southeastern U.S. was home to many juke joints. These roadside cafés mainly run by African Americans featured music, dancing, drinking, and gambling. The word juke came from Gullah, an English-based creole, where it originally meant "wicked, disorderly". It likely originated as dzug, meaning "unsavory" in the Wolof and Bambara languages. Clearly drinking and dancing were not looked upon favorably back in the day! The -box suffix was added to refer to the music-playing machines that were frequently found in juke joints.

mambo - Although this music and dance style was created in Cuba, it got its name from the Kongo language that was spoken by Central African slaves taken to the island. In Kongo, the word is said to mean "conversation with the Gods". What a great name for a dance!

If we were crude, we might make a joke about how both of
today's photos are of phallic-looking vegetables.
okra - If you like crunchy seed pods, then okra is the food for you. It's most often found in gumbo, a Louisiana dish that combines stock, meat, vegetables and of course okra, served over rice. The word likely came from the Igbo language of Nigeria, which uses the term ọkụrụ for the plant.

tote - If you're anything like us, your house is probably full of free tote bags, sturdy cloth bags with handles that are handy for carrying just about everything. It turns out that using tote as a synonym for carry appeared in English around the late 1600s and came from a West African language. Similar words include tota meaning "pick up" in Kongo and tuta, which means "carry" in both Kimbundu and Swahili.

We'll have more African loanwords tomorrow, including terms related to the animal kingdom!