Research Key

The Morph-Implications of English Loan-Words from Africa

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This research work examines how the English language adopted words of African origin into its vocabulary. It also investigates the morphological and semantic changes that these words go through in order to thrive successfully in the English lexicon. Most speakers of the English language are oblivious of the inherent changes that take place in the language. They are hardly able to identify the fact that the English language borrows extensively from other languages of the world, including the African languages. Many language users do not take cognizance of the adaptability of languages as one language borrows from another at a given period of time, due to a number of language contact phenomena or influence from the language of borrowing. It has been established in this work that English is traditionally quite disposed to accommodate foreign words, and as it has become an international language spoken by people of many cultures and a number of mother tongues, it has absorbed vocabulary from a large number of other sources so much so that it is often suggested that the lexicon of the English language is the largest in the world. This research work therefore, shows some of the English loanwords from different African languages, including Cameroonian languages. For instance, the word “oke” which means male, is an English loan-word from a language in South Africa which retains its original meaning in the English dictionary as “a boy or man, or simply, a male”.  This word is also used in Igbo language and the meaning is the same but I can’t really say how it came into the Igbo language because this investigation does not cover that area. Similarly, the words, “juju”, “zombie”, “okra” and “banana”, among others, are words borrowed from African languages. These have been exposed and examined in this research work. Using the descriptive research method, the work expatiates the morphological as well as semantic changes that come with the adoption of the foreign words.








Background to the Study

Languages of the world undergo changes, even though most speakers of the languages are usually oblivious of the inherent changes as they occur. In so far as a linguistic community makes contact with another for one reason or the other, there is the likelihood that people of such linguistic environment share or exchange certain aspects of their being like culture, tradition and language. Nnoje (2003:81) notes that “Language is a spontaneous social activity for expressing thoughts and ideas, emotions, moods, and humours”. Language is a medium by which thoughts are conveyed from person to person and from place to place. Hence, there is hardly a contact between one linguistic environment and another without the transference of some lexical items from one language community to another. However, some linguists noted that one of the most ambiguous terms in the field of morphology is the word, “word” itself. Plag (2003: 4-9) identifies five different ways of defining word. According to him, a word can be seen as a separate written entity (the orthographic); as a distinct sound structure (the phonological); as a meaningful unit (the semantic); as a unit within sentence structure (the syntactic); and as a unit with internal integrity (morphemic). Words tend to mobilize themselves so much so that they are easily moved from one environment to another. From all indications, English is traditionally quite well disposed to accommodate foreign words, and as it has become an international language spoken by people of many cultures and a number of mother tongues, it has absorbed vocabulary from a large number of other sources. English does not acquire words from the western languages alone but also incorporates a good number of words that are of African origin into its lexicon. It is often suggested that the lexicon of the English language is the largest in the world. However, it is practically impossible to either approve or disapprove this statement because we encounter so many obstacles when trying to count the total number of English words. It is hard to decide what counts as a word, as well as decide on what counts as an English word. Regardless of all these difficulties, it seems probable that English has more words than any other comparable world languages and the reason for this is historical.


Today, the English language has become one of the major world languages. This world-wide expansion of English means that it is now one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with over four hundred million native speakers, and with roughly the same number of those who speak it as a second language. Bowden (2005) notes that the main causes of that fact are the population expansion after the industrial revolution, the progressive penetration of English into the rest of the non-English speaking British Isles, and especially its wide diffusion outside the United Kingdom to all continents of the world by trade and colonization. Nevertheless, it is very hard to estimate, what is the exact proportion of English words loaned from each particular language, as well as the exact number of languages that have contributed to the lexicon of the English language. It is also part of the cultural history of the English speakers that they have always adopted loan-words from the languages of whatever cultures they have come in contact with. Language speakers come in contact with their neighbours as well as foreigners. As a result, they learn to adopt the speech habits of the people they come in contact with. These speech communities may borrow names of natural and manufactured objects, technical procedures and fashions or spread in the form known as cultural diffusion. In Igbo language for instance, such cultural diffusion is evident in the agricultural sector. Farmers borrow advanced methods of agriculture from the developed countries. Ikara (1987: 122) notes that they equally borrow names of items used in farming like fertilizer (English)-fatalaiza (Igbo), tractor (English)-trakto (Igbo), etc. The English language, Yule (1999) asserts, has adopted a vast number of loan-words from other languages. There is direct borrowing like kindergarten from German, croissant from French, or indirect borrowing like ‘fire-water’ and iron-horse’ which are literary translation of the American words which mean ‘alcohol’ and ‘railroad train’ (1996:45). The list is not exhaustive. As the study progresses, we shall see detailed account of English loanwords from Africa and their borrowing languages


1.2       Purpose of the Study

Considering the position of Roger (1994:149), it is believed that a host of words from variant African languages consciously or unconsciously, made their way into the English language vocabulary. The study is therefore, set to investigate words of African origin, which contributed to the bulk of what we know today as the English language vocabulary.

It is a well known fact that linguists are always interested in the morphological arrangement of words and borrowed words are likely to change their shape in their new environment and as well be productive or unproductive, depending on their form and shape. It is on this note that the study also examines the morphological factors that come into play in the process of a word being borrowed from one language community into another. Besides, semantic import of words is considered very much important in linguistic analysis and it is on this note that the study takes into consideration, the semantic changes that come into play when lexical items are transferred from one linguistic environment to another.


1.3      Statement of the Problem

When words are borrowed from one language to another, it is probable that the words retain their original form, shape and meaning, or they are reshaped, modified or remodeled to suit their host linguistic environment. However, certain loan-words become very productive in their new environment so much so that they are open to derivational affixes and other word formation processes which give rise to addition of words in the recipient language. Unfortunately, certain loan-words are morphologically unproductive in their new environment, either as a result of their shape or form that they are not open to derivational affixes or other word formation processes. It is either they only accept inflectional affixes to perform grammatical functions or they receive none at all, thereby, bringing a barrier to word formation in the host language. Also, the words may be given other meanings to serve the purpose for which they were borrowed. These changes that occur with transference of linguistic items sometimes pose problems to learners of English as a second language. This kind of transfer or borrowing is common among languages but this study is specially chosen to study the morphological and semantic implications of the transfers and borrowings. Earlier studies such as “Language Contact: a Linguistic Phenomenon” by Anders et al among others had stopped at examining the languages in contact situations and the mutual borrowings they enjoy but this study goes further to examine the morphological and semantic implications of the borrowings from African Languages.


1.4       Relevance of the Study

A good number of language learners and language users are still ignorant of the fact that borrowing is a phenomenon that can occur with any language and that Africans are not the only ones who incorporate English words into their lexicon. A number of language users are oblivious of the fact that the English language, borrowed and still borrows from the African languages which are considered by most people as inferior to foreign languages which are often described as prestigious languages. Hence, the study is significant in that, it explores English loan-words of African origin which will no doubt, open the eyes of language users and perhaps learners, sharpen their knowledge and bring them to know the sources of some of the expressions they use in the English language vocabulary which they equally perceive to be originally of English origin.

The exploration of morphological as well as semantic implications of the loan-words will equally help language learners and users understand the forms in which the loanwords appeared in their original environment as well as their new shape in their new environment. It will equally inform them of most of the words’ meanings which they had in their native languages against their meanings in their environment of adoption. More so, the study will be of invaluable assistance to researchers who would be embarking on  a study of this nature , and students who would be writing assignments and term papers on this or related topics. That notwithstanding, the study will provoke the attention of students of morphology, a field of study which has received less attention from students who consider it dry and uninteresting.


1.5       Scope of the Study

The study covers English loan-words of African origin, though recourse is made to other borrowings as the need arises. The study also explores a substantial amount of the loan-words, their shape and meanings in their languages of origin and their sources. Attention is also given to the morphological and semantic implications of the loan-words. The study covers words of African origin which were borrowed into the English language vocabulary. Languages which feature in this study as borrowing languages include Afrikaans, Wolof, Bantu, Efik/Ibibio, Swahili, Kimbundu, Yoruba, Arabic, Temne/Mandingo, Kikongo, Zulu, Tshiluba, Ga, Fulani, Sotho, Twi, Mvuba, Igbo,  and Ewe. A table containing all the African languages and areas where they are spoken is provided in chapter two for easy identification of the places of the language

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International: $20
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