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Saturday, October 1, 2022

15 Little Known English Words with African Roots

The modern English language has just about 30 percent of its words from Anglo-Saxon, which is the native English language.

Therefore, over 70% of English words come from loanwords and a combination of diverse languages.

In truth, languages do not build up in seclusion, so linguistic borrowing is an essential aspect of every language.

African languages play significant roles in the modern English language’s lexis, structure, syntax, and glossary. We use most of these English words with African heritage daily without even knowing their origin.

Read further to find out the 15 little-known English words with African roots.

1. Yam

Yam (Dioscorea species) is an edible tuber vegetable with long, white, purple, or red flesh. It is a staple food in West Africa and cultivated across Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America.

Origin of the word ‘yam’

Some authors argue that yam emerged from the Twi word ‘anyinam.’ Others claim it originates from the Fulani language locally called ‘nyam,’ which means ‘to eat’ or ‘tuber.’

Others opine that yam traces its origin from Wolof’ nyami’ or ‘nyam.’ Wolof, however, is a Niger-Congo language common among people in Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal. Generally, the word ‘yam’ originates from West Africa to other parts of the world.

When did yam become an English word?

Yam became a popular English word in the 1600s. It got to other parts of the world during the slave trade as they fed it to the slaves while on transit to America.

Additionally, through Brazil and Guyana, Spanish people and the Portuguese took yam to Caribbean Americans.

While introducing yam to the Caribbean in the 1500s, Portuguese called it ‘ inhame,’ Spanish called it ‘iname,’ and the English called it ‘igname.’ 

Though the tuber vegetable was later known as yam generally, some supermarkets in America confuse yam with being sweet potatoes.

2. Aardvark

Aardvark is a nocturnal animal with a snout like that of a pig. It comes from the Orycteropodidae family, also of the order Tubulidentata.

African origin of ‘Aardvark.’

The word ‘Aardvark’ is of Afrikaans root. Afrikaans is a West Germanic language most common in Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana.

Aardvark, a medium-sized, burrowing animal, is of African origin, mostly called ant bear, known globally for its quiet nature and elongated pig-like snout. The word ‘Aardvark’ denotes ‘ground pig’ or ‘earth pig’ in Afrikaans.

When did Aardvark become an English word?

The animal was first taken out of the African continent in 1869 to London Zoo, alongside other South African animals. Since then, people have globally known ‘Aardvark’ for its daring attack on soldier ants and hunting for food.

3. Banjo

Banjo is a threaded musical instrument popular in Africa, the United States, and Europe. It weighs about 12 pounds with tunes similar to violin and viola.

Origin and African root

The word ‘Banjo’ got its derivation from a Kimbundu language in South Central Africa.

People believe that banjo was initially called ‘mbanza’ in Kimbundu before foreigners changed it.

A different citation says that ‘banjo’ is of Portuguese from the word ‘bandore.’

Banjo is also believed to be a Mandinka root and is locally called ‘bangeo.’ Mandinka language is common across Gambia, Guinea, and Senegal.

When did ‘Banjo’ become an English word?

Banjo is a musical instrument that came to America from West Africa. Slaves took banjo with them during the slave trade around the 18th century.

Africans later sent this stringed musical instrument to Europe and other parts of the world that appreciated it for its unique sounds.

4. Jumbo

Jumbo is a common word or slang used to refer to an extensive or massive sampling of its kind. It is a common popular English word.

African root and origin 

The word ‘Jumbo’ is of Swahili derivation ‘jumbe’ meaning ‘chief.’ Swahili is a Niger-Congo language common in East Africa.

Most countries that speak this language include Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, and South Sudan.

When did Jumbo become a widespread English word?

Historians opined that Jumbo was a baby elephant captured in East Africa and sold to France in 1861.

After some years, they resold it to a zoo in London as a key attraction because of the size. Shortly after its arrival, they transferred it to an American circus in 1882.

Before his death, Jumbo was a calm but large animal of 3.6 meters tall. Afterward, people commonly use ‘jumbo’ as slang about the elephant to mean ‘huge’ as can be seen in many restaurants, stores, and supermarkets.

5. Chigger

Chigger, also called Tungiasis, is a mite and parasitic insect called berry bugs, scrub-itch mites, red bugs, or harvest mites. They attack human flesh injecting enzymes that bring about itching.

Chigger origin and African root

Chigger originates from Africa to South and Central America. The Yoruba language (common in West Africa) spell Chigger as ‘jiga,’ which means ‘insect.’

However, it is also possible that the word originates from the Wolof language (common in Mauritania, Gambia, and Senegal).

When did Chigger become an English word?

In 1526, after Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes published a journal about Chiggers, the Europeans became familiar with the word.

Through colonization and migration, chiggers spread across all countries of the world. Presently, you can find them in rivers, ponds, forests, and any other moist area.

6. Chimpanzee

Chimpanzee is an ape that you can find in their natural habitats at parks in West and Central Africa, especially Tanzania and Uganda.

Origin/African root of chimpanzee

The word ‘chimpanzee’ traces its origin from the Kongo language in Niger-Congo.

The Kongo language is common among central African countries like Congo and Angola. From other citations, chimpanzees originate from the Bantu language.

In Tshiluba language, they call Chimpanzee’ Kivili-chimpanzee, which they translate to stand for ‘ape’ or ‘replication of man.’

When did Chimpanzee become a common English word?

In tracing the origin of man, especially around 1738 and 1870s, the word ‘Chimpanzee became a popular English word.

The animal, through exportation medium, is now in many recreational parks across Europe and America. Chimpanzees are believed to share the same ancestors as human beings and have existed for more than 13 million years.

7. Cola

Cola is a carbonated soft drink consumed globally, and it usually comes with cinnamon, citrus, and vanilla flavors.

Origin/African root 

Cola is of Temne origin, coined from the non-alcoholic beverage Coca-cola. Temne is a Niger-Congo language typically spoken in Sierra Leone.

In Temne language, ‘cola’ emerged from ‘kola’ or ‘Kola nut,’ a nut from an African tree containing caffeine.

When did cola become a common English word?

Kola nut is one of the primary ingredients for producing coca-cola. In the Mandinka language, the Mandinka people of Guinea, northern Guinea-Bissau, call it ‘kolo.’

Cola became a popular English word after the introduction of coca-cola in 1886 by John S. Pemberton.

8. Coffee

Coffee is a popular drink in Africa brewed from roasted berry seeds of diverse coffee species or coffee beans. The staple food looks more like “tea,” produced from the seeds of the coffee fruit. 

African root or origin 

Coffee is another English word of African origin. The term ‘coffee’ originates from the Kaffa kingdom in Ethiopia around the 15th century, and others dispute that it is of Arabic origin with the name ‘kahawai.

When did coffee become a common English word?

Coffee became recognized in the English language in 1582 from the Dutch language, ‘koffie.’ coffee is a drink brewed from coffee beans.

9. Gumbo

Gumbo is a stew made with dried shrimp, okra (the most popular thickener), onions, peppers, and celery is eaten mainly with rice.

African Origin/root 

Gumbo is an English word that originates from the Bantu language prevalent in Angola. In the Bantu language, they call gumbo ‘ngombo,’ which means ‘okra.’

When did Gumbo become a common English word?

Gumbo became a recognized English word from the 18th century during the exchange of cultures. Louisiana Crealo calls it ‘Gombo,’ and it is their main cuisine.

Gumbo is a delicacy in the Creole culture of which the primary ingredient is okra (a slimy long green vegetable used in thickening stews and sauces.)

10. Jamboree

Jamboree is a term used to refer to a lavish party. Presently jamboree is common across America as slang meaning a large gathering.

Origin/African root of Jamboree

The word ‘Jamboree’ originates from a Southern African language Swahili in ‘Jambo,’ which means ‘hello.’

When did jamboree become a common English word?

The word became popular across the globe from 1920 when Baden Powell used it to open the 1st World Scout Jamboree.

He has spent many years in southern Africa and then thought it a good name with the ‘ree’ addition while scouting.

11. Jazz

Jazz is a music genre characterized by freedom of creativity, blues, rock, and syncopation. It is common across Asia, Africa, and India.

African root of ‘jazz.’

Jazz derivation came from ‘Wolof,’ a Niger-Congo language. You can find people that speak Wolof across Mauritania, Senegal, and The Gambia.

Etymologically, Jazz came from different West African languages, the most popular of which are Mandinka language ‘jasi’ and Temne language ‘yas.’

When did Jazz become a common English word?

Jazz is a genre of music with a fusion of blues and ragtime, and it combines music from Europe and Africa. In New Orleans, Jazz came from and became a recognized music genre from the 20th century.

12. Impala

Impala is a slender antelope with a length of 130 centimeters and a speed of about 90 kilometers per hour.

African origin or root of the word 

Etymologically, Impala became a recognized English word in 1875. However, it originates from the Zulu language ‘im-pala.’ Zulu people reside mainly across Kwazulu-Natal of South Africa, among other southern African countries.

When did impala become a common English word?

Before its recognition as an English word, there were attempts by the Tswana people naming it ‘pallah or palla, which means ‘red antelope’ in 1802. The Southern African brownish antelope has ever since been called impala.

13. Safari

Safari is a trip that one makes to discover and search for animals in their natural environment. Safari is a common word across East Africa as tourists’ troupe in almost daily to this area.

African root 

People call it ‘safar’ in Arabic, meaning ‘to make a journey or ‘travel.’ Safari on its own as an English word means ‘journey’.

The word ‘Safari’ comes from the Swahili language of Arabic origin. The Swahili language is common across Congo and other parts of East Africa.

When did safari become a common English word?

In the 20th century, safari discovery and adventure became widely known, attracting people from across the globe to discover African exotic wildlife and nature.

14. Tango

Tango is a popular ballroom dance or music. 

African Origin

Tango is a word that traces its origin from a language in Benue-Congo, ‘ Ibibio.’ The Ibibio language is native to southern Nigeria. However, you can also find people from Ghana, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea that speak the Ibibio language.

Tango is a musical ballroom dance similar to that of Latin America. In Ibibio, ‘tamgu’ means ‘to dance,’ and the modern-day ‘tango’ got its name from it.

When did the tango become a common English word?

The 1890s recorded the first and widespread usage of tango as an English word in Argentina. Within that period till date, ballrooms and artists from across the globe started recognizing tango.

15. Voodoo

Voodoo is an ancient African traditional religion also adept across the Southern part of the United Kingdom and the Caribbean.

Origin/African root of the word voodoo

Voodoo originates from the Gbe language, especially by the Fon and Ewe people. You can find people from the Benin Republic, Ghana, Togo, and other parts of Niger-Congo speak this language.

When did voodoo become a common English word?

Before recognizing voodoo as an English word, it was called ‘vudun,’ ‘Vodoun,’ or vodun which means ‘spirit’ or ‘God.’

Voodoo became popular during the slave trade around the 16th century where people exchanged beliefs, cultures, and values.

What is the root word for African?

There are many ideologies on the root of the word Africa. However, according to Queen Afua’s Sacred Woman, Africa originates from the Arabic word ‘frik’ or ‘firk,’ which means ‘conquer’ or ‘divide.’

Dr. Van Sertima opined that the word ‘Africa’ comes from ‘Afro-ika,’ which has an Egyptian meaning of ‘Motherland.’

Other speculations say that the name ‘Africa’ is from the Latin word ‘Afer’ meaning ‘dark’ or ‘black.’ 

Also, others have it that the word originates from Rome after Carthage conquered when they identified the word as Africa terra, meaning Afri or the land of North Africa.

What were two words of African origin introduced into the English language?

The two most common words of African origin are ‘mumbo jumbo,’ which means incoherent talk or gabble. It originates from Mandigo, a language spoken across Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Liberia.

The second most popular English word with African origin is ‘Kwashiokor,’ derived from the Ghanaian language Ga, which means swollen stomach.

What word entered the English language due to colonization in Africa?

Okra is one of the many words that entered the English language due to the colonization of Africa. Okra is a pod-like green, tall vegetable used in making many meals, and Okra pod is slimy when you cut them.

It originated from the Igbo language in Nigeria, West Africa, with the name ‘okuru.’ It got to Europe, the US, and the Caribbean around the colonial periods in the 1700s.

Okra is now a part of the Creole culture as the main ingredient for preparing gumbo. Surprisingly, gumbo means okra. Also, in Louisiana, America, okra has become one of their significant soup and stew thickeners.

How do you say love in Africa?

According to over 2,000 languages Africans speak and their native dialects, there are several ways to say I love you.

Ahurum gi n’anya or a fuulu m gi n’anya means ‘I love you in the Igbo language.

In the Lingala language, you say Nalingi bino mingi, while in Yoruba, you say mo nifee re.

In Kolo or Ewondo, I love you is ‘ma dzing wa’ or ‘ma ignore wa,’ and in the Hausa language, you say ina son ka.

I love you in Kikuyu, or Gikuyu language is Neguedete while it is noppna la in Wolof language.

You can say “nya raakna” to mean I love you in Kanuri, whereas in Kongo or Kikongo, you can say mono ke Zola nge.

Other ways of saying I love you in Africa are Me lonwo in Ewe, Ana uhibbuk in Arabic, Begg naa la or Naku Penda in Swahili, aheri in Dholuo, and ani sin jaaladha in the Oromo language, among others.

Final Words

Among the different features of the English language is its all-embracing access to many languages. It borrows more than half of its words from other languages, Africa inclusive.

The list above shows the many English words with Africa heritage as well other related information about them.

The lists above show that these English words with African origin cover names of material and immaterial relics, animals, and plants that originate in Africa.

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