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The Straight Dope

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

-- F. Pierson, via the Internet

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, et cetera; a creole is a pidgin that has become a culture's primary language.) Sure enough, when we look into the matter, we discover Cecil's 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' "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 kumbaya. 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 folk singing revival of the '50s and '60s. People might have thought the Gullahs talked funny, but I say we owe them a vote of thanks. Can you imagine sitting around the campfire singing, "Oh Lord, come by here?"

Why do they play bagpipes at police funerals?
-- NEByrum, via AOL

Because a lot of cops are Irish. I know, you probably think bagpipes are Scottish instruments. But in fact both the Irish and Scottish branches of the Celtic tribes played them, and some argue about who invented them. A dying art a century ago, bagpipe-playing was revived in large part by Irish immigrants to the New World who wanted to preserve their culture. Many of these guys were cops. For instance Francis O'Neill, Chicago police chief from 1901 to 1905, organized an "Irish music club" that sparked renewed interest in bagpipes. When cops wanted to salute their fallen brethren, they thought quite naturally of the pipes, which had been played at funerals for hundreds of years. A big promoter of this practice over the past half century has been the Emerald Society, an Irish fraternal organization found at many police departments. Many chapters sponsor pipe-and-drum bands. Being practical folk, cops use the Scottish version of bagpipes, which is louder and better suited to outdoor use than the Irish counterpart. In recent years the instrument has gotten a boost from the movie Braveheart, in which it accompanies a wonderfully spooky funeral scene. If you've seen the film, you'll agree that being sent on your way with bagpipes is the only way to go.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at [email protected]; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

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Cecil Adams

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