Kumbaya: An Origin Story

Kumbaya, as a phrase, just popped up in a short story I was reading. Coincidentally, I was planning on explaining the history of the phrase ever since I wrote a post about the Gullah origins to the non-standard pronunciation of ask as aks. [That post is here.]

Many people likely know that Kumbaya refers to the 1920s song of the same name. However, its common social use now is to indicate a coming together of people as if to sing hopeful songs, such as “Kumbaya.” This is what is meant when one says, They tried to make it a Kumbaya moment. So, “Kumbaya” as group bonding potentially with a nuance of naivete. Indeed, the Urban Dictionary defines it as “blandly pious and naively optimistic.” Fair enough.

But what does the song mean? Notice that I keep calling it a phrase rather than a word. “Kumbaya,” the song title, is a variation on the Gullah phrase, Kum ba ya. Glad I could clear that up. Gullah diverged from English centuries ago by way of Africa and Jamaica, so the pronunciations have strayed a bit. Also, the language does not have a written component, so natural drift happens. Still, 2 of the words are quite recognizable:

Kum = Come
Ba = By

The third word has diverged from its origins significantly. Firstly, Gullah tends not to pronounce the letter “r,” much like the way people in Boston say cah for “car.” Secondly, the English “h”-sound has drifted over to a “y”-sound. This is not so very different from Donald Trump exclaiming that something is going to be “Yooj” rather than huge. Put both of these together and suddenly it’s not so weird to see that

Ya = Here

So, kum ba ya = come by here. And the opening lines of the song make sense:

Kumbaya, my Lord. Kumbaya . . .
Come by here, my Lord. Come by here . . .

As a wise cartoon once said, Knowing is half the battle.

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