African language influences culture

Bryan Wroten

Wendy Wilson-Fall, associate professor in the Pan-African studies department, spoke to students yesterday afternoon about the origins of ebonics from African languages. SAMANTHA RAINWATER | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

From jazz to house styles, from MC Hammer’s parachute pants to Jelly Roll Morton, African languages’ influences have shaped American culture.

Wendy Wilson-Fall, associate professor of Pan-African studies, spoke yesterday about how Wolof, the main language of Senegal, lives on in America. Her speech, “Testifying Ebonics: Wolof in English,” focused on how the slave trade brought aspects of Western Africa to the New World that went unnoticed at the time.

She said slave owners either ignored the slaves’ language or laughed at it because it sounded strange to their ears. She showed a drawing of religious clerics from Senegal holding a discussion.

“I’m not getting ‘ooga booga’ from this picture,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

She focused on three areas of Wolof’s influence: actual Wolof words, deformed words derived from the mispronunciation or evolution of Wolof, and borrowed concepts.

For her first example, she used the word dig, as in, “Can you dig it?” She said in Wolof, “dig” means understand. Another word she explained was “cat,” as in “Look at that cat over there.” Cat means person.

The influence continues today, she said. Words, such as “hip,” meaning “with it,” and “yo,” meaning person, are still in use.

The baggy pants made famous by MC Hammer are similar to the style of clothing worn by the Baye Fall, a brotherhood in Senegal, she said.

English words and their Wolof meanings:

dig – understand

jig, jiggy – to match or fit together

cat – person

yo – you

be and bop, from bebop (music for listening) – the head

jazz – backyard music

jam – peace, wellness

Jelly Roll Morton, from dieli – musician

tab, from tabby houses – masonry

fly, from noflaye – stylish

Double Dutch, from teubel d&#601tch – jump and crush

front, from font – to show off

“People used hip-hop in the 1980s and cat in the 1950s – there’s something generational going on that we weren’t paying attention to,” she said. “That’s a tragedy.”

Wilson-Fall said generations in one family would live together and pass along the words and culture without realizing their origins. The survival of Wolof from Africa during slavery testifies to the continuing inheritance of the culture from one generation to the next, she said.

The former director of the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, Wilson-Fall said living there for more than 12 years allowed her to see where parts of African-American culture started.

She said she would see something that reminded her of something from America and say, “Oh, that’s where that comes from.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Bryan Wroten at [email protected].