The Impact of African Languages on American English
Joseph E. Holloway, Ph.D.
California State University Northridge

  1. Another Wolof word popular in present-day American English is “dig,” as in “dig this man.” This word stems from the Wolof word dega, meaning either “look here” or to “understand,” often used to mark the beginning of a sentence. In the English spoken by African Americans in the 1960s, “dig” means ” to understand something.” An example in Wolof is dega nga olof, “Do you understand Wolof?”
  2. Linguists also see a connection between the Wolof term gay and the American term “guys,” used informally to mean “persons” or “fellows.” In Wolof it is always used as a plural. Other Africanisms found in American English include uh-hum (yes) and unh-unh (no), which occur in various parts of the world but nowhere as frequently and regularly as in Africa and the United States.
  3. Several Wolof words were popularized during the jazz era. For example, “jive” in Ebonics (Black English) means “misleading talk,” which is code language originating from the Wolof word jey.
  4. The American words hep, hip, and hippie translate roughly into “to be aware or alive to what is going on,” or an awareness especially to drugs. In Wolof, the verb “hipi” means “to open one’s eyes.” The American slang cat means a person, as in hep-cat or cool cat, and is similar to the Wolof kai used as a suffix following the verb.
  5. The Wolof lexicon jamboree is now a standard part of American language. Originally, a jamboree was a noisy slave celebration. A “jam session” during the days of plantation slavery meant a time when enslaved musicians and their friends assembled for dance and entertainment. We still use the term today. The origin most likely is the Wolof word for slave, jaam.

African slang words

  1. aweh – (said in excitement, as in: Aweh my boss said I can go home early today.)
  2. dinges – thingamabob, a wotzit or a whatchamacallit
  3. jirre – wow! (Afrikaans: ‘Here’, meaning ‘Lord’)
  4. jislaaik! – wow!
  5. keballas – somebody one thinks of as a friend

Words from Xhosa, Zulu and the other Nguni Languages

  1. chana – my mate (from Zulu, ‘my nephew’); umshana
  2. laduma! – a popular cheer at soccer matches, “he scores!” (literally: “it thunders”, in Zulu)

English language words that come from any of the sub-Saharan African languages

  1. chachacha possibly from Kimbundu, onomatopoeia for ringing bells or rattles worn around the legs of a female dancers
  2. An indaba is an important conference held by the izinDuna (principal men) of the Zulu and Xhosa peoples of South Africa. Such indabas may include only the izinDuna of a particular community or may be held with representatives of other communities.The term comes from a Zulu language word, meaning “business” or “matter”. The term has also found widespread use throughout Southern Africa and often simply means gathering or meeting