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Ready For A Linguistic Controversy? Say 'Mmhmm'

Aug 22, 2018

Pop quiz: What's a word you use a hundred times a day — that doesn't show up in the dictionary?

Give up? Mmhmm.

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

Once upon a time, English speakers didn't say "mmhmm." 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 said 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 "mmhmm"?

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

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

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

And there's a reason for that: Tracing the linguistic path of mmhmm, and many other words commonly used today, from West Africa to the U.S. South is difficult, is riddled with controversy — and experts say it has lingering effects on how the speech of African-Americans is perceived.

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