Tutnese: The lost language of the enslaved- Elise Daniells

Published March 5, 2021
Updated Oct. 18, 2021

Welcome to the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) Initiative blog! We continue this semester’s CDA blog with a submission from Elise Daniells, one of our amazing student archivists on the CDA team who is a graduate student studying to get her masters in Opera Performance. Elise’s post is a wonderful insight into a "lost" language and how she came to understand that a "game" she was taught as a child turned out to be so much more. Please enjoy Elise’s post below.


"Tuthushe lulanunguguaguge ofuf tututut isus easusyug tuto lulearugnun!"

After a few minutes of deciphering, you may be able to understand the sentence above*…

It has been translated to the language of Tut, a game I was taught as a young child. Growing up, my mother and I used Tut to speak privately or just for fun around the house. She told me that Tut was a language that her own mom invented with her sister and passed it down to her children. For years, I thought of it as a family tradition. However, in my second year of undergrad, one of my music history professors suggested I investigate this “game” further. My mom’s family is quite large and located all across the country, so the intention was to find out if any of my relatives have posted additional information about its origins. I was shocked by what I found.

Tut or Tutnese, as it turns out, is a real language and not just a made-up children’s game. It was a language developed around 250 years ago by enslaved people to communicate secretively with one another. Since enslaved literacy was prohibited, it was also used as a clever tool to learn how to spell. Although classified as a “dead language”, many African-American families have been keeping the tradition alive. 

In Tut, every vowel is said as it is named, and every consonant has its own word. Different regions of the United States have unique ways of pronouncing each consonant. For example, for some families, W is pronounced ‘wax’ and for others, it’s pronounced ‘wug’. The same can be said for H, where in certain places it’s pronounced ‘hug’ and, in others it’s pronounced ‘hush’. This pronunciation shift is theorized to be caused by the oral nature of the Tutnese language, as it was instructed by ear for around 200 years, and dialect differences. 

During the era of enslavement, the Tut language was quite obviously kept clandestine, but even up until the 1970s, many African-American families were encouraged to keep the language a secret, since it would be perceived as “uppityness” or “speaking in disguise” to white passersby. There was power in our privacy and could be perceived as a threat to the white All-American English-speaking public of the time. 

There was so much history in the language of Tut that my mother and I were unaware of. It’s so strange to think of how the diaspora of enslaved people in the American South lead to such a grave loss of knowledge about our own history on the plantations. Not only were we kidnapped from our native country, but also post-emancipation, we lost so much of our culture that we developed to survive. I’m thankful that the Tut-speaking community is connecting and spreading the beautiful heritage of this oral tradition. 

*The language of Tut is easy to learn!

If you would like to learn more about Tutnese please check out these links for further research:





Thank you, Elise, as always, we appreciate you and your contributions to the CDA blog. Contact me, Jessica Salow, with feedback at Jessica.Salow@asu.edu, as I would love to hear from you your thoughts regarding the work, we here at ASU are doing in community archiving around Arizona. We also want your feedback on what you would like to see from us in future blog posts. And if you would like regular updates from the CDA team please follow our CDA Facebook page or the CDA Instagram page to keep abreast of the virtual events we do monthly. We have some amazing events coming up in February 2021 so please check out our social media pages for more information. And please visit our website and our connect page for more information regarding the work we are doing around community-driven archives at ASU Library and with our community partners in Arizona.