March 08, 2005

Jive etymologies

In reference to the October post "Trevor's Law of Hip Etymology," I must agree with the verdict that the black English terms HIP, DIG, and JIVE are not borrowings from Wolof. However, the proof that most compels me is from a wider view of where slaves in America came from and how Black English arose.

Clarence Major proposed that, for example, HIP comes from Wolof's HEPI "to see" in the early seventies, when the study of just where slaves in a given colony were drawn from in Africa was in its infancy. At the time, the general sense was that slaves had come from a wide variety of locations, and that for that reason, pretty much any African language was fair game for an etymology. In these days, it was typical to see even obscure languages like Vai and Susu and Kpelle treated as sources for this word or that feature.

But nowadays, creolists and specialists on Black English know more about how these varieties arose and which slaves were most important in creating them. And that light, 35 years later Major's etymologies, piquant though they were, must be gently consigned to the realm of history.

For one thing, although the Wolof are relatively prominent to many Americans because of the large number of Senegalese immigrants in this country, and to black Americans because the Goree Island slaving settlement is a popular tourist attraction, the fact is that there is no evidence that Wolof speakers were predominant among slaves in the United States, numerically or culturally. For example, Lorenzo Dow Turner's seminal work on the provenience of African names among Sea Islanders (rural blacks who speak Gullah Creole) points to countless languages up and down the African coast: Wolof is just one of the many.

Of course we might say that lots of other groups were making their contributions, and that HIP, DIG and JIVE were just the two cents that the small number of Wolof speakers tossed in. But this means that we should expect that dozens of other Black English words had been traced to, say, Bambara, Mende, Twi, Yoruba, Efik, Umbundu, and so on. But they haven't. Most Black English slang clearly traces to words that started out in Merrie England. No one proposes that a word like PHAT -- roughly equivalent to the once-celebrated use of BAD to mean GOOD -- just sounds like FAT but actually traces to Igbo. There is no handful of cool black slang words that we are told trace back to Kikongo. Rather, the grand old HIP/DIG/JIVE trio stands out by itself, endlessly quoted over the decades.

In fact, if there any one African language that we could even begin to treat as "black Americans' native tongue," it is Mende of Sierra Leone. This is the language that some old Sea Islanders still sing folk songs in, although no longer knowing their meaning. If Wolof had ever had enough juice that its speakers would contribute vibrant words that would last centuries, then we would expect Wolof folk songs.

Finally, the Wolof etymology doesn't even help if we look at earlier stages of African slaves' varieties of English that fed into what happened here in America. A good portion of the slaves who helped to found the Charleston colony, for instance, were brought in after having served in Barbados, rather than directly from Africa. They spoke the Barbadian variety of Caribbean Creole English, such that Gullah is one more variation on that pattern. But Caribbean Creole English, again, exhibits no especial Wolof contribution. Its grammar, for example, reflects languages of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria -- but there is not a hint of Wolof's very different structure.

The HIPI myth has even made it across the ocean. Years ago I gave some lectures in Dakar where a local English teacher was quite taken with the idea that the HIP and JIVE he had learned about in black Americans' English were Wolof words. I didn't see any point in arguing with him, but for Language Log I thought it might be better to give the facts -- you dig?

Posted by John McWhorter at March 8, 2005 11:28 PM