For many of us who grew up reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou for our 9th grade English class, we remember Angelou trying to learn Tut, a complicated language used by enslaved Africans, with her friend Louise while the other kids were learning Pig Latin.
However, Tut has been the latest to enter the why-didn’t-we-learn-about-this-in-history-class forum as Black Americans have been rediscovering the lost dialect used amongst our enslaved ancestors.
According to NBC News, Tut was used in the 18th century to communicate covertly in front of slave masters. The words sound distinctively English, but require each letter of the English alphabet to have its own unique sound. For example, according to author Gloria McIlwain in the American Speech Journal, the letter i becomes “ay” and the letter h becomes “hash.” She says it’s how enslaved people in the South taught one another to read and write during a time when literacy was illegal.
African Americans are learning Tut and sharing videos, guides, and notes for speaking the language across different platforms, but some want to keep the language under wraps. Social media pages dedicated to teaching Tutnese have surfaced asking for the learning space to be exclusive to descendants of slavery, and the fear that Black people will have another cultural or social identifier coopted is a justified fear.
Tut isn’t the only language that Black Americans in the U.S. speak. Creole, in Louisiana, and Gullah, in South Carolina, are languages that have been culturally preserved amongst descendants of enslaved Africans and are still spoken today.
It is unsurprising that Tut or Tutnese was lost over the centuries; it’s unfortunately the fate that many contact languages meet over time. In a story for BBC, Nala H. Lee, a linguist at the National University of Singapore, says that when people judge contact languages, “People think of them as being less good or not real languages.” But in the last few months, Black Americans are ready to reclaim the voices of their ancestors one syllable at a time.