A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What does "kumbaya" mean?

September 11, 1998

Dear Cecil:

This has probably been answered somewhere before, but I was getting my teeth drilled that day. Just what does kumbaya mean?

Cecil replies:

Oh Lord, kumbaya. Also spelled kum ba yah, cumbayah, kumbayah, and probably a few other ways. If you look in a good songbook you'll find the word helpfully translated as "come by here," with the note that the song is "from Angola, Africa." The "come by here" part I'll buy. But Angola? Someone's doubtin', Lord, for the obvious reason that kumbaya is way too close to English to have a strictly African origin. More likely, I told my assistant Jane, it comes from some African-English pidgin or creole — that is, a combination of languages. (A pidgin is a linguistic makeshift that enables two cultures to communicate for purposes of trade, etc.; a creole is a pidgin that has become a culture's primary language.) Sure enough, when we look into the matter, we find this conjecture is on the money. Someone's grinnin', Lord, kumbaya.

Kumbaya apparently originated with the Gullah, an African-American people living on the Sea Islands and adjacent coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. (The best known Sea Island is Hilton Head, the resort area.) Having lived in isolation for hundreds of years, the Gullah speak a dialect that most native speakers of English find unintelligible on first hearing but that turns out to be heavily accented English with other stuff mixed in. The dialect appears in Joel Chandler Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories, to give you an idea what it sounds like. In the 1940s the pioneering linguist Lorenzo Turner showed that the Gullah language was actually a creole consisting of English plus a lot of words and constructions from the languages of west Africa, the Gullahs' homeland. Although long scorned as an ignorant caricature of English, Gullah is actually a language of considerable charm, with expressions like (forgive my poor attempt at expressing these phonetically) deh clin, dawn (literally "day clean"); troot mout, truthful person ("truth mouth"), and tebble tappuh, preacher ("table tapper").

And of course there's kumbayah. According to ethnomusicologist Thomas Miller, the song we know began as a Gullah spiritual. Some recordings of it were made in the 1920s, but no doubt it goes back earlier. Published versions began appearing in the 1930s. It's believed an American missionary couple taught the song to the locals in Angola, where its origins were forgotten. The song was then rediscovered in Angola and brought back here in time for the folksinging revival of the 50s and 60s. People might have thought the Gullahs talked funny, but we owe them a vote of thanks. Can you imagine sitting around the campfire singing, "Oh, Lord, come by here"?

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