Do you speak Swahili or Bantu? Most of us would say "No," but we have probably all used words from some of the thousands of African languages without realizing it. These languages have contributed, and continue to contribute, to our own Canadian vocabulary and to enrich the English language wherever it is spoken, though it isn't always possible to identify the specific African language source.
Many terms associated with music and dance were adopted or derived from African words, such as: mamba (Zulu and Swahili), marimba (Bantu), merengue (possibly Ferani), samba, boogie, jazz and jive (Wolof, a Niger-Congo language), fandango (possibly Kikongo), banjo (Bantu), bongo (W. African), juke (Bambara), chachacha (possibly Kimbundu), jamboree(Swahili) to name a few. The same is true for familiar animal names like chimpanzee (Bantu), gnu (Hottentot), impala (Zulu), tsetse-fly (Tswana), zebra (likely from a Congolese language), aardvark (Afrikaans) and some food, such as yams and okra (Igbo), banana(Wolof), cola (Temme, a Niger-Congo language) coffee(perhaps from Kaffa, Ethiopia, where coffee originated), goober (American synonym for peanut, of Bantu origin).
We are probably not surprised that zombie has a Bantu origin or that voodoo is from the Gbe language cluster of West Africa, or that apartheid is Afrikaans, and Kwanzaa is from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruits". It makes sense that safari means "travel" in Swahili. However, we would expect that colloquial words like okay, dig (as in "get it"), bozo, funky, bogus, mojo and jumbo would be of Anglo-Saxon origin. Not so. Bogus comes from the Hausa word, "boko-boko", meaning fraudulent. Boogie means "dance" in Senegal's Wolof language and bozo is the same insult in Wolof as in English. Mojo, meaning magic charm or spell in English is also used as a complimentary characteristic for almost anything. Mojo is a Fula word for "medicine man". Our word, "funky" comes from a Kikongo word meaning bad body odour. Jumbo derives from a Swahili word for elephant. If we "dig" (dega ) something in much of West Africa where Wolof is spoken, we understand it, and everything should be okay (waw-kay).
Jacqueline Warlow, a retired educator, lives in Dartmouth. Mother of three and grandmother of six, she is a freelance writer and a "People With Tales" storyteller.