African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

Of Time, Language and Worldview

© Audrey Brown Ph.D. Excerpted from: Brown 1999

Time is a category of thought that is an organizing principle, ordering human life in all societies. Through conceptualization of Time ideas about the universe and man’s place in it become comprehensible (Adjaye, 1994:1). Adjaye’s comments on Time among the Akan (Twi-Fante) groups of Ghana as represented in their traditional culture suggest similarities with Zion ideas of time expressed as a continuing present.

Akan is an ethnographic and linguistic term used to refer to a cluster of culturally homogenous groups living in central and southern Ghana and parts of the adjoining eastern Cote d’Ivoire. They constitute two subcategories: the inland Asante, Bono, Akyem, Akwapem, and Kwawu, who speak Twi, and the coastal Fante who speak a dialect of Twi. The Akan dialects are, for the most part mutually intelligible. Akan are distinguished from other Ghanian ethnic groups by a matrilineal descent system (Adjaye, 1994:57).

The past and present merge into an enormous present among the Akan. Akan leaders sometimes speak of the past in the universal present, making accomplishments of past heroes their own (Adjaye, 1994:72). The Akan perception of the present subsumes the future. In Twi/Fante language two future tenses are recognized: First future, which marks action in the time to come and, the second future, future proximate, which marks action in the next future. The first future is expressed in Twi daakye or da bi (some day). Daa, that literally means every day, also means forever. To speak of the future in Twi, speakers use preverbal marking and specify the context of actual time of the expected future, i.e., next week, month, year (Adjaye, 1994:72).

The Akan also express Time ecologically, that is in terms of natural cyclical events, like seasons, and episodically in relation to some memorable human event, like the death of a great king or Ghanaian independence. Reference to the key stages of life also mark off time. Each stage serves as a time referent (Adjaye, 1994:59). In Zion texts, ethnographic interviews collected in Zion, Florida circa 1983 elderly people exhibited a similar use of time as a referent in language. Cousin Jessie, for example, tries to tell the interviewer how old she was when her mother died:

“How old was me? … I don know … I was growed … Sista … now lemme see … Suga had two children when she died. Was tryin to study the years they was born … One of em … now, lemme see, Duke, Duke was round 11 years old sumpin like that … when my (Brown 1995)?”

Fu-Kiau (1994) explains indigenous time concepts of the Kongo of West Central Africa as including cosmic, vital, natural and social time (1994:17). Kongo refers to a cultural, linguistic, and historical group of people that is descended from a larger body of Bantu-speaking communities who migrated from the Benue-Cross river region of present-day Nigeria into the equatorial forest of West Central Africa and beyond around the second millennium B.C. … This shared past of common origins and history and millennia of interrelationship gave rise to the affinity in cultural traditions, belief systems, and time concepts among the Kongo and other Bantu groups (Fu-Kiau, 1994:17)."

Cosmic time in the Kongo worldview represents the actual, on-going, active time line of spiritual (Kalunga), energy omnipresent throughout the universe, the agent of change and creation. All other time reflects the concept of cosmic time as endless, yclical, and transformative. The circular Kongo cosmogram, is divided on the horizontal west-east axis into the physical world and the spiritual world, co-existing and interactive in the present. The cardinal points of Cosmic Time are replicated in Vital Time, the human life cycle time by Conception and creation of Ma (matter) in the spiritual world, Birth, Maturity and power, both in the physical world, Death and transformation in the spiritual world. The Cosmogram conceptualizes Life as a mountain surrounded by water. One passes through water entering and leaving the physical world. Natural Time and Social Time correspond with the other times. Natural time replicates the cosmic cycle so that cataclysmic forces that brought forth the planets recur. Through volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods the world is continually born again. Social time replicates the life cycle in smaller units of time so that people can also be born again (Fu-Kiau, 1994:17).

Living in time, among Bantu people is being able to deal at once with the known and unknown moving through time. One must comprehend the interrelation between past, present, and future. Time is like a scroll (luzingu). By rolling (zinga) and unrolling (zingumuna) it, zinga the past goes and returns to us in the present time, by zingumuna we discover the future the past of tomorrow, the future comes to us. Zinga ye zingumuna are daily processes in life that man may in the present bring to himself the best and worst past (Fu-Kiau, 1994). So too, Brown found, that people in Zion conceptualize Being as always now and as a journey of change and power as described thusly in one of their favorite church songs:

“I’m climbin’ up the rough side of the mountain,”
“I’m holdin’ to his powerful hand,
I’m climbin’ up the rough side of the mountain
I’m doin my best to make it in… (Brown, c1986).

Or again, Being for people of Zion is a life long process of “tryin tah grow in grace.” They sing of continual renewal, maturation then transformation in still another favored song:

Please be patient with me, God is not through with me yet
Please be patient with me, God is not through with me yet
When he gets through with me, When he gets through with me
I shall come forth, I shall come forth… (Brown, c1986).

But perhaps most revealing of Zion peoples world view is their grounding of texts in social reality, in present time. Barely a Sunday went by in the 1980s when Brown recorded these ethnographic texts, that people in Zion didn’t sing “One Day at a Time.” Furthermore, this refrain continues twenty years later to be a ubiquitous gospel song heard on the radio every Sunday mornings in Washington, DC.

“I’m only human, I’m only a man … Lord help me each day … to do … what I have to do … the best that I can…
One day at a time sweet Jesus…
That’s all I’m askin’ of you…
Oh yesterdays gone Sweet Jesus and tomorrow may never be mine…
Lord I pray … please help me to take … one day at a time
(Brown, c1986).


Analysis of African-American language in use, as it is spoken in Zion, Florida supports the people’s oral traditions that they are descendants of slaves and ex-slaves from the Sea Island area of South Carolina. Genealogical study of the 1870 United States Census for their precinct, showed that their foreparents were from South Carolina.

The analysis of Zion people’s text-making revealed that their use of syntax and meaning for words was similar to syntax and word meaning in Gullah. The Zion texts exhibit intentionality, it is not an accident that people construct them as they do and the way they construct them makes sense in their existential reality. These outcomes together with triangulation of Zion texts and other texts they construct in religious contexts shed light on Zion peoples’ cultural world view.

Anthropological linguistic analysis offers a vehicle for understanding people’s cultural history and world view but few researchers apply it to understanding African-American culture. Early language studies of African-American speech examined its relationship to earlier speech patterns of slaves and their descendants in the Western diaspora. Nineteenth century study of African-American speech framed it in the linguistic deviant model grounded in frican genetic inferiority theories. In the early 20th century this view prevailed. Most early researchers attributed the origin of Black English (BE) to baby talk between slave and master, Anglo-Irish influence, pig latin or phenotypic characteristics, i.e. thick lips of African-Americans. Lorenzo Turner’s analysis of the lexicon and syntax of Gullah identifying African substrate language influences was the exception. English origin theory of African-American speech, Turner not withstanding, was not seriously challenged in mainstream linguistics until the 1960s (Smitherman, 1988:150–152).

Although Robbins Burling revisited the issue of African language influence on African-American speech, studies of BE in the early 1970s reflected the “culture of poverty school” and notions of African-Americans who spoke “non-standard English” as socially disadvantaged (1970:90). Research focused on educational and subsequent social barriers BE presented to its speakers (Labov, 1972; Dillard, 1980). Historical linguistics mostly studied African-American languages in the circum-Caribbean region or considered the issue of relationships of black and white speech (DeCamp, 1971; Wolfram, 1974). Some sociolinguists studied expressive African-American culture (Abrahams (1972). In the 1980s, Patricia Jones Jackson reversed marginalization of African-American language studies in anthropology (1983, 1987). Her studies of Sea island Gullah are important because they report on more contemporary Gullah language, culture and folklore, in contradistinction to Turner’s data collected in the 1930s ([1948] 1969). Still the preponderance of African-American language research continues to focus on black-white differences in speech, educational and social consequences of speaking BE, more recently referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or EBonics, and sociolinguistics (Smitherman, 1988; Edwards, 1992; Morgan, 1994; Rickford 1999,2004; Rickford and Rickford 2000).

Anthropology linguistic and cultural anthropology studies of African-American culture had a parallel trajectory. The research in both areas reflects the dominant social science paradigm regarding African-American culture. The argument is that acculturation pressures during slavery left African-Americans without any significant African-derived culture (Mintz and Price [1976] 1992). In this model, variation in African-American cultural patterns derives from imitation of, or maladaption to European culture, post-enslavement innovation or resistance, and serves to reduce stress from structural inequities in American society. A similar model is offered for variations in African-American language patterns. Linguists use the maladaptation argument when they link educational failure with speaking AAVE. Sociolinguists explain the persistence of AAVE across class lines in terms of the socio-political impact of racism. Morgan, using a resistance model, argues AAVE is a counterlanguage, developed in slavery, then and now using ambiguity, irony and satire to express African-American resistance to dominant racist and class ideology in our society (Morgan, 1994:128–131). Although these arguments have merit, the implicit cultural meaning in African-American language patterns expresses a particular world view that most anthropological research has yet to explore.

Social scientists who attribute an accomodationist, adaptationist, stress-reductive explanation to a song like One Day At A Time have not reached the wrong conclusion. On one level Zion peoples have just such intentionality and the song has social relevance to their lives. However, analysis of other Zion voices and meaning in text making, meaning of tropes and of syntax uncovers more cultural knowledge of Zion peoples world view, illuminating One Day At A Time as an expression of a fundamental metaphysical premise at the nexus of Zion culture in particular, and, I argue, in African-American culture in general. Namely that, Being is always now and Life is a journey of change and power.

Before this type of knowledge can be uncovered there has to be the presumption that something is there to be revealed. Anthropology too often trivializes cultural constructs of “native” peoples and questions their validity based on European values and social forms and in so doing, some argues, becomes part of the dynamic in the reproduction of racism. Some sociolinguists characterize AAVE in ways that Morgan suggests “reinscribe the dominant society’s interpretation of African-American English as a sign of poverty and oppression and attach little cultural significance to it (1994:135).”

A different perspective is offered by some anthropologists, many African-Americans, to analysis and interpretation of African-American language and culture (Holloway and Vass 1993; Bond and Gilliam 1994; Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Rickford 1999; Brown 1999; Rickford and Rickford 2000; Smithernian 2000; Morgan 2002). They add an alternative voice in the debate on African-American culture, seek to reveal and refute racist assumptions underlying theory; deconstruct spurious cultural history, and reconstruct a more authentic alternative description of culture past and present. This perspective advanced here attempts to correct misinterpretation, explain contemporary sociocultural phenomena, and redress issues of ethnographic representation and authority. The language analysis applied to the Zion texts included discourse, trope and syntactic analysis to African-American texts (Brown 1995, 1999). The methods used counter challenges to ethnographic authority and resolve issues of representation and authority in text-making and interpretation. The analysis opened a window on the ethnohistory and world view of a group of contemporary African Americans. This type of investigation is a step toward a science of anthropology more inclusive of African-American cultural study.