African languages

Languages of Africa, the Caribbean, and Beyond

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February is Black History Month here in the USA, so for this Word Nerd blog post, we’ll be learning about and hearing, a few of the languages of Africa, America, and the Caribbean.

The Most Widely Spoken African Languages

The Swahili Language

Spoken in many African countries, the Swahili language has Arabic roots and began as a language of trade between the Bantu people of the East African coast and traders from Arabia and Persia.  You might recognize the word safari, which is a Swahili word that means “journey.” 

If you’re traveling too fast on your safari, a friend might say polepole, which means “slow down.”  When you get to where you’re going, make sure to say jambo, or “hello,” and when you’re ready to go, say kwa heri, or “goodbye.”  If you’re having trouble getting started on something daunting, it’s good to remember Haba na haba hujaza kibaba, which means “Little by little, the pot is filled.”  Here’s an example of someone speaking Swahili:

The Zulu Language

The Zulu language is spoken by the Zulu people of South Africa.  The language was first documented by European missionaries who wrote it using phonetic Latin script.  If you wanted to wish someone a happy birthday in Zulu, you’d say, Halala ngosuku lokuzalwa!  And if someone wished you a happy birthday, you’d thank them by saying ngiyabonga.  Here’s an example of someone speaking Zulu:

The Amharic Language

The Amharic language is spoken in Ethiopia and like Swahili, has Arabic roots, though, unlike Arabic, the written language is read from left to right, just like English. Here’s an example of someone speaking Amharic. You can really hear how the language is similar to Arabic in this video:

The Twi Language

In southern and central Ghana, people speak Twi.  One of the interesting linguistic customs of Twi-speaking Akan people is that a child’s first name is based on the day of the week on which they were born.  So, if you were born on a Friday, your first name would be Kofi if you are male, and Afia if you are female. Here’s a woman speaking Twi:

Caribbean Languages

Many new and unique Creole languages were formed due to the dispersion of African people during the long and brutal years of the slave trade and the appropriation of land and culture caused by colonization.  These languages include Bahamian Creole (spoken in the Bahamas), Bajan Creole (spoken in Barbados), and Jamaican Patois.

The Bahamian Creole Language (Bahamianese)

Here’s a fun video of a mother and daughter speaking Bahamian Creole and explaining some commonly used phrases:

The Bajan Creole Language (Barbadian English)

Bajan Creole, though derived from English, is heavily influenced by French, Spanish, Portuguese, and African languages.  The French influence can be heard in words like mési, meaning “thanks,” from the French merci.  The word pickney, means “small child” and comes from the Spanish word pequeño and the French word petit, both of which mean “small.” 

Here’s a video of a young woman speaking and translating some phrases in Bajan Creole:

The Jamaican Patois Language (Jamaican Creole)

Jamaican Patois is probably the most well-known of the Caribbean languages, and there are many local dialects depending on where a person is from. A phonetically written language with no standardized spelling, Jamaican Patois often contains words that are created by combining other relevant words. For example, yeye-wata, means “tear,” and nose-ole, which means “nostril.” 

Jamaican Patois also has words that come from West African languages. For example, the word nyam, means “eat,” and is thought to be from the Wolof language.  A duppy, is a malevolent spirit or ghost and is thought to have been influenced by the word adope, in the Ga language of Ghana in Africa. 

The word for “spider” is anansi, which is from Akan, and the Jamaican Patois plural of “you” is unu, which is from the Igbo pronoun únù.  Here’s a video of a woman speaking Jamaican Patois:

The Taino Language and English

Not unlike how Caribbean Creole languages are influenced by other languages, the indigenous language of the Caribbean influenced English.  Before colonization and disease wiped out much of their population, the Taino people were the native inhabitants of the Caribbean islands, and we still use some of their words today.  The word hurricane comes from the Taino word hurakán, which meant “god of the storm,” and the word potato comes from the Taino word batata, which was their word for yam or sweet potato.  Both of these words, and many more such as maize, hammock, canoe, and tobacco, were absorbed by the Spanish colonizers and eventually made their way to the English language.

Closely related to Bahamian Creole, the Gullah language, or Sea Island Creole is spoken in the Carolinas, Georgia, and northeastern Florida.  Spoken by over 5,000 people, the language includes over 300 loanwords from several African languages and has survived in part due to the folk tradition of storytelling.

The Gullah language (Sea Island Creole)

The refrain of the popular hymn Kumbaya is actually a Gullah phrase meaning “Come by here.”  Here’s an example of a storyteller speaking in the Gullah language:

There is some debate about whether Gullah was the origin of African-American Vernacular English, but Gullah shares more in common with African languages in its vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and semantics.  

African American Vernacular English

Speaking of African American Vernacular English, there has been much scholarly debate about whether it is a dialect or its own distinct form of English.  Some linguists theorize that both Gullah and AAVE have roots in a pidgin language that arose from a need for West African people to communicate with English speakers before and during the slave trade. 

AAVE has some very interesting grammatical differences from Standard American English, including the use of a double negative, ex. “I didn’t say nothing,” and five or more different present tenses, all of which mean different things depending on the situation.

As you can see, the languages of Africa, the Caribbean, and America are creative and diverse, and within them can be found the stories of culture, trade, war, slavery, colonization, freedom, and regeneration.  Who knows how many languages and dialects were lost to time due to the slave trade and colonization? 

Connect with Your African or Caribbean Heritage through Pimsleur

If you’d like to connect with Black history by learning an African or Caribbean language, Pimsleur offers courses in Haitian Creole, Twi, and Swahili.

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