African Slave influence in American English

Belle Montgomery

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Oct 25, 2017
Location
44022
Ready For A Linguistic Controversy? Say 'Mhmm'
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Engraving shows the arrival of a Dutch slave ship with a group of African slaves for sale, Jamestown, Virginia, 1619. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kumari Devarajan | NPR | August 17, 2018
Pop quiz: What's a word you use a hundred times a day — that doesn't show up in the dictionary?

Give up? Mhmm.

You got it! Mhmm is a small word that's often used unconsciously. But it can actually tell us a lot about language, bias and the transatlantic slave trade.

Once upon a time, English speakers didn't say "mhmm." But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa's influence on the Americas.

In a 2008 documentary, Thompson claimed the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say "yay" and "yes."

As for "mhmm"?

"That," he says, "is African."

(By the way, no one really seems to know how to spell "mhmm" — we're guessing here, too.)

But it's tough to verify whether Thompson is right.

And there's a reason for that:
THE REST OF THE ARTICLE FOUND HERE:
https://www.scpr.org/news/2018/08/17/85503/ready-for-a-linguistic-controversy-say-mhmm/
 

Carronade

Captain
Joined
Aug 4, 2011
Location
Pennsylvania
I wonder why the author is so interested in "mhmm"? It's not really a word, as noted it's not in the dictionary, where other examples like "banjo" or "okra" have become accepted English. Essentially she's saying that we used clear, grammatical English words like "yes" until African influence corrupted it into a mere grunt.

I'm not a linguist, but I would guess "mhmm" and the like have been around for a long time :wink:
 

USS ALASKA

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 16, 2016
We Colonial Philistines that speak a corrupted version of the Queen's English have always quickly taken to other words from different languages. I forget who said it but once heard that "...while the French vigorously protect their native tongue, Americans will chase other languages down an alley, beat 'em up, and go through their pockets looking for words to use..." or something to that effect. Any words we need, or just think are cool, seem to quickly gain acceptance - in correct usage or otherwise.

I wonder if that is because we came from so many different places that no reverence is given to any one in particular.
50

Cheers,
USS ALASKA
 

Burning Billy

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 6, 2016
We Colonial Philistines that speak a corrupted version of the Queen's English have always quickly taken to other words from different languages. I forget who said it but once heard that "...while the French vigorously protect their native tongue, Americans will chase other languages down an alley, beat 'em up, and go through their pockets looking for words to use..." or something to that effect. Any words we need, or just think are cool, seem to quickly gain acceptance - in correct usage or otherwise.

I wonder if that is because we came from so many different places that no reverence is given to any one in particular.
50

Cheers,
USS ALASKA

The quote you're referring to addressed the English language in general rather than the usage of it by Americans.

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

It originated with a Usenet post in the 1990s.

link
 

MattL

Guest
Joined
Aug 20, 2015
Location
SF Bay Area
We Colonial Philistines that speak a corrupted version of the Queen's English have always quickly taken to other words from different languages. I forget who said it but once heard that "...while the French vigorously protect their native tongue, Americans will chase other languages down an alley, beat 'em up, and go through their pockets looking for words to use..." or something to that effect. Any words we need, or just think are cool, seem to quickly gain acceptance - in correct usage or otherwise.

I wonder if that is because we came from so many different places that no reverence is given to any one in particular.
50

Cheers,
USS ALASKA

That's a good point. Also of note is how the Queen's English itself is a merging of many languages. Words with roots from German, French, and Brittonic.

In a way we just continued the long English tradition.

 

TnFed

First Sergeant
Joined
Jun 18, 2018
I wonder why the author is so interested in "mhmm"? It's not really a word, as noted it's not in the dictionary, where other examples like "banjo" or "okra" have become accepted English. Essentially she's saying that we used clear, grammatical English words like "yes" until African influence corrupted it into a mere grunt.

I'm not a linguist, but I would guess "mhmm" and the like have been around for a long time :wink:
 

Mrs. V

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
May 5, 2017
I can see how we might have glommed onto this “word” and how it could be African in origin. Many of their native languages and dialects have interesting glottle sounds as well as clicks, that you do not see among English speakers.

Interesting to think about anyway!
 
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