Many names used in American English and Ebonics were borrowed from African languages during the acculturation of African slaves in the New World. This is seen clearly in the Proper Names of slaves in Colonial America, in Africanisms found in black naming practices, and in African American nicknames. These naming practices illustrate the transition the Africans were experiencing, and to what effect the Africans had on the Standard English spoken in the United States at that time.
Many of the Africans arriving in the New World had obvious contact with Europeans on the western coast of Africa. For example; Holloway stated “Africans arriving in South Carolina from the costal communities of Africa generally spoke some pidgin or Creole English prior to coming to America” [i] This point was also clearly made in the PBS documentary The Story of Black English. Like the immigrants of today, acculturation and the learning of English among younger Africans was much faster than that of their seniors, who learned English with greater difficulty. Over time, and with each generation, less and less of the African culture and language was retained. However, Africans in Colonial America, and especially South Carolina continued to give their children African names well into the nineteenth century.
During the first few decades of life in the new World, Africans maintained their traditional proper naming practices of the days of the week, months, seasons and weather. This included the popular names of Cudjoe (Monday), Beneba (Tuesday), Cuffee (Friday), and Quasheba (Sunday). After the first and second generations, Africans began to substitute African proper names for the English translation, such as August, January, or Thursday. The text gives a wonderful account of why this practice happened from the very voice of an ex-slave, Thursday Jones:
“Dey name me dat way jis cus uh happen tuh be bawn on Thursday, I guess. Sech things seem tub be in our fambly. I had ad uncle who name tis Monday Collins. It seem tuh come duh fus ting tuh folks’ mine tuh name duh babis fuh duh dey is baw on. “ [ii]
This gradual change of using the African language illustrates the African American's slow acculturation into American linguistic practices, while still maintaining a connection with their past. However, the African tradition of naming children after the day of the week or month in which they were born spread into the naming practices of whites in the New World, and names such as April, August, and May are still commonly used today.
Many African American names during the early Colonial period contained what we call Africanisms, or characteristics of African culture that can be traced throughout the African diaspora. Examples of these Africanisms included changing the name of a person in correlation with the stage of their life, changing a name to indicate the personality of the bearer, or changing ones name to indicate some sort of striking occurrence in one’s life. The text cites a wonderful example of this, stating that the historically well know Sojourner Truth, who was a crusader for black emancipation and feminine equality, was known as Isabella until the age of twenty, when she was freed by her owner. She had a vision that revealed to her what her new name was to be, and that her mission would be to free her people. The text lists THIRTEEN pages of words commonly used in contemporary American English that contain Africanisms. Three words that were particularly interesting to me were “Honkie”, “Hulla-ballo”, and “Okay.” I am familiar with the Ebonics word honkie, and it’s reference to whites coming into black communities and honking their car horns. I was surprised to learn that the word really originates from the African Wolof word Hong, which means pink in color, and is used to describe white people in African languages! From the Bantu African “halua balualua” (meaning noise or racket), the word “hulla-ballo” is a term I use frequently! My children are used to me saying, “What’s all the hulla-ballo about?” Lastly, I do not know of a single American who does not use the term “okay” in their everyday language. Based on the African Mandingo “o-ke”, it literally means “yes indeed” in West African. The Story of Black English documentary also points out the prevalence of the term okay amongst the slaves arriving in Charleston. Clearly, Colonial Americans assimilated many aspects of the African linguistic style. African linguistic patterns continue to impact mainstream speaking patterns today as hip-hop words such as swag, swagger, fat, beast, my bad, and dope have all become a part of American English .
Another important African practice that still survives in America today is the use of nicknames. The text claims that almost every black person is known of by more than one name. This was especially prevalent in the Gullah in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Many of these Gullah slaves had American English names given to them at birth, and over time a nickname of African language nature was assigned. Holloway cited many examples of these nicknames, including:
“Pie Ya, Puddin’-tame, Frog, Tennie-C, Monkey, Mush, Cooter, john de Baptist, Fat-Man, Preacher, Jack Rabbit, Sixty, PopCorn, Old Gold, Dootes, Angel-Eye, Bad Luck, Sky-up the Greek, Cracker Jabbo, Cat-Fish, Bear, Tip, Odessa, Pig Lasses, Rattler, Pearly, Luck, Buffalo, Old Blue, Red Fox, Coon, and Jewsharp.” [iii]
I do not know if Colonial Americans used nicknames on a regular basis or if they adopted the practice after the acculturation of the Africans. Regardless, the practice of using nicknames among Africans must have, at the very least, strengthened the practice amongst white Americans.
Understanding the linguistic patterns of the African slaves that arrived to the East Coast of America helps us gain a clearer insight into the patterns of speech in both Ebonics and American English. This begins with an understanding of African naming practices, africanisms found in Standard English today, and the practice of using nicknames amongst African Americans. Clearly, American English as we know it today would not be the same had it not been for the influence of the Africans arriving to America.