“Word Shout Song” at the DuSable Museum
An exhibit traces English word origins back to Africa
This summer, the DuSable Museum plays host to “Word, Shout, Song,” a traveling Smithsonian exhibit on scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner, who first linked African roots to the language of the Gullah (now referred to as Geechee) people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. We take a closer look at some words from the exhibit with Thomas Klein, a linguistics professor at Georgia Southern University.
English tote (to carry)
Gullah tot (to carry)
Kikongo (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) tootu (to pick up)
When Turner’s seminal work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect was published in 1949, some didn’t want to accept that African languages had any influence on American speech. The origin of the verb tote is still controversial. “There is an Old English root from a thousand years ago when the English language looked very different, totian, which also means to carry,” Klein explains.
English jigger (mite)
Gullah jiga (insect)
Yoruba (from Nigeria) jiga (insect)
The common Southern word jigger is sometimes spelled chigger. Wal-Mart even sells an ointment for bug bites called Chiggerex Plus. “When you encounter foreign sounds, you choose to understand and pronounce the sound that’s closest to the foreign one from your language,” Klein says. The original word would have been pronounced with a ds sound like in fads.
English voodoo (hex)
Gullah wudu (deity)
Fon (from Benin) vodun (deity)
Turner listed a variety of African meanings for this word, including witchcraft, sorcery or sorcerer, but the English word voodoo today generally refers to the religion. Our understanding of voodoo probably came from the other main area West African slaves were taken, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, rather than Gullah culture.
“Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities Through Language” is at DuSable Museum, 740 E 56th Pl, until December 31.