Common ancestor of American Ebonics and West African Pidgin English

My second Black History Month article dwells on the intriguing but not surprising historical connection between the pidgin English spoken in West Africa (such as Nigerian pidgin English and Cameroonian pidgin English) and the varieties of English spoken by black people in the United States and the Caribbean. he is.

In a series of groundbreaking scientific papers, eminent University of Texas linguistics professor Ian Hancock demonstrated that Nigerian Pidgin English, Cameroonian Pidgin English, Sierra Leonean Krio, Jamaican Patois and all English-based creoles are spoken in the United States and predominantly black Caribbean countries, their roots trace back to a linguistic ancestor that formed on the coast of West Africa in the 1550s.

Even parts of African-American vernacular English (informally called “Ebonics”) in the United States are descended from a West African linguistic ancestor.

Hancock calls the ancestral language that connects large swaths of black people in English-speaking Africa and the Americas “Creole English of the Guinea Coast.” (“Guinea” is the historical term used to refer to black people, which traces the lexical provenance of Portuguese Guinea passing through the North African Berbers Ghinawenwhich means “the burnt ones”, apparently in reference to our dark skin.)

Guinea Coast Creole English was formed along the coasts of present-day Equatorial Guinea, western Cameroon, southern Nigeria, southern Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana, from Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Gambia and Senegal.

Nevertheless, although formed on the coast of West Africa, like most pidgins, Guinea Coast Creole English emerged from Europe and merged with African languages, creating a situation where most of the new language’s vocabulary is European while its structure is predominantly African.

According to Hancock, the English Creole of the Guinea Coast originated when, in 1553, British sailors made the decision to migrate permanently to West Africa. The Portuguese called them – and other Europeans who came to Africa –lancadoswhich referred to people who “threw themselves” from ships into distant and unknown lands.

the lancados from Britain, Hancock pointed out, were a mixture of adventurers seeking entertainment, criminals fleeing justice in their home countries and political refugees fleeing persecution. Their ages ranged from 15 to 30 years old. My own suspicion is that the lancados were sent to West Africa by slave traders preparatory to the mass enslavement of Africans, as I will show later.

At the time of their emigration, standard English had not been born and they spoke different dialects of the English language.

Because they spoke different dialects of English, sometimes unintelligible to each other, they devised a means of communication by identifying what was common to them and abandoning the dialect shibboleths that were unique to them. Linguists call this process ‘leveling’, that is, the standardization of linguistic codes between divergent people to promote unimpeded communication.

After the lancados from Britain arrived on the coast of West Africa, they married African women and gave birth to biracial children who spoke a fusion of the languages ​​of their mothers and fathers. The resulting language was called West African Coastal English (WACE). Over time, other Africans came to live and socialize with the mixed-race communities that had formed on the coasts and learned to speak WACE.

With more Africans speaking the emerging language, it has fundamentally evolved. Words from Mandinka, Igbo, Serer, Wolof, Temne, Susu, etc. began to creep into the language. The new language also began to imitate the structure of the languages ​​of its non-native West African speakers. The resulting language, over time, which later became known as West African Pidgin English, became predominantly structurally African and predominantly lexically English.

Slavery began at this time. Whenever Africans were enslaved from the coast or the hinterland, they were first imprisoned for at least a year “in the coastal barracks and factories before being transported” to America and the Caribbean islands.

In other words, the West African-Pidgin-Anglophone coastal areas served as a place for a linguistic initiation ritual for enslaved Africans before their eventual expatriation to the Americas. That’s why I think Britain’s Lancados weren’t just pleasure-seeking Britons, political dissidents fleeing political persecution, or outlaws avoiding the consequences of their crime at home. They constituted a hard core whose services were essential to the slave trade.

The enslaved Africans who arrived in the Americas from the 1600s to the 1860s were at least bilingual in their native language and in West African Pidgin English. Nevertheless, because the slave raiders did not, as part of a deliberate policy, allow Africans who spoke the same native language to be together for fear of mutinies, they communicated with each other in the western pidgin -African that they had learned during their one-year imprisonment. on the coasts of West Africa before their forced transatlantic transport.

In the Americas, enslaved Africans spoke West African Pidgin English. On the plantations where they were forced to work, they were supervised by indentured white men whose dialects of the English language they incorporated into their West African Pidgin English.

Subsequent generations of enslaved Africans in the Americas creolized the West African Pidgin English spoken by earlier generations. Pidgin, derived from the Chinese mispronunciation of “business”, is defined as a “contact”, “emergency” or “trade” language that emerged from the mixing of foreign (usually European) and indigenous languages (generally non-European) without native speakers. The pidgins become “creole” when they become the mother tongue of a people.

Because enslaved Africans in most parts of the United States were surrounded by white people, the West African Creole English they spoke underwent a process of decreolization, which is the conscious or unconscious purging of structures and vocabularies of a non-European language in the creole languages. .

But the decreolization is not always total. This is why linguists speak of “residual post-creoles”, which are decreolized languages ​​which nevertheless have weak echoes of the native languages ​​of which they have purged themselves.

For example, as I have shown in a previous article, Nigerians and Black Americans say someone has “home training” (sometimes “good home training”) to mean that the person has a good education. Thus, “home training” is synonymous with what white English speakers call “good manners”, “proper husbandry”, or “polite behavior”.

White native speakers of English use “home training” only to refer to training animals (such as pets) at home and for physical exercise at home rather than in the gym.

But in vernacular African-American English, it’s worth noting that “homeschooling” means exactly what it means in Nigerian English. I did not understand why this is the case. But one theory I have offered is that the phrase is likely a remnant of Ebonics’ weak and distant linguistic affinity with Guinea Coast Creole English or its descendants.

“Home-schooling” is probably a direct translation from one or more of the West African languages ​​that contributed to the formation of West African Pidgin English from which Ebonic emerged.

There is also what linguists call “unconjugated being” in African American English, which is clearly a remnant of its connection to West African Pidgin English. It is entirely realized in the African-American English phrase “who dat?” which means “who is it?”

Black American English, in common with West African Pidgin English, generally dispenses with the verb to be (as in the phrase “qui dat?” instead of “who is it?”) or leaves it unconjugated (as in the sentence “she be nice” instead of “she is nice”).

But the phrase “who dat” has a cultural meaning in America that goes beyond its semantic properties. It is popularly associated with the New Orleans Saints, an American football team located in the state of Louisiana in the southern United States. During games, the team’s fans always chant, “Who is it? Who is it? Who said he was going to beat the Saints?” [Who is that? Who is that? Who is it that says the Saints will be defeated?]

As any contemporary speaker of West African Pidgin English can see, there are fascinating echoes of West African Pidgin English in the syntactical structure of this quintessentially Black American English mantra.

We also know that most African words and expressions in the English language (such as “yam”, “tote”, “okra”, “banana”, “chimpanzee”, “bug”, “to bad-mouth”, etc. . ., which I have chronicled in a four-part series called “The African Origins of Common English Words“) came to the English language through African-American vernacular English.

While most African-American vernacular English has been decreoleted, Gullah, found in the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas, about which I have written several articles, still sounds largely like West African Pidgin English because speakers of the language were isolated from mainstream America for centuries.

English-based creoles in the Caribbean islands (such as Jamaican Patois) also retain a heavy dose of African words, and the one word almost all of them share is the Igbo word “unu”, which is, as in Igbo, the form plural of “you” (the singular is “ya”, as is the case in Igbo).

While “una” is the preferred form of the pronoun in Gullah, other variations exist, such as “huna”, “wuna”, and “unu” (preserved from the original form in Igbo). In Gullah, “mi na una” means “me and you”, where “na” means “and”, as it does in Igbo.

Centuries of separation have not severed our linguistic and cultural ties. It’s fascinating.

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