History and the Testimony of Language

History and the Testimony of Language

by Christopher Ehret

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This book is about history and the practical power of language to reveal historical change. Christopher Ehret offers a methodological guide to applying language evidence in historical studies. He demonstrates how these methods allow us not only to recover the histories of time periods and places poorly served by written documentation, but also to enrich our understanding of well-documented regions and eras. A leading historian as well as historical linguist of Africa, Ehret provides in-depth examples from the language phyla of Africa, arguing that his comprehensive treatment can be applied by linguistically trained historians and historical linguists working with any language and in any area of the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520262041
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/17/2010
Series: California World History Library , #16
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Christopher Ehret is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of many books, including Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (UC Press), An African Classical Age, and, most recently, The Civilizations of Africa.

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History and the Testimony of Language

By Christopher Ehret


Copyright © 2011 Christopher Ehret
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94759-7


Methods and Myths


This book is about history and the practical power of language to reveal history. Though it speaks to the disciplines of anthropology and historical linguistics, which pioneered many of the approaches depicted here, it is a book above all for readers and students of history.

It aims to demystify the application of language evidence to history. It is not a treatise on theory, and debating issues of theory is not its brief. Theory receives due attention when it explains or validates method, but method and technique hold the foreground. And it is not a historical linguistics manual. It is a practical book on writing human history from the documentation of language.

The writing of history from language evidence begins with a fact, simple in statement but complex in its implications: every language is an archive. Its documents are the thousands of words that make up its lexicon. Each development of a new word, each shift in meaning or change in usage of an existing word, takes place for a human historical reason. Sometimes the reason may have been an ephemeral factor of taste or fashion no longer recoverable. But more often that not, word histories have practical and discernable causes. New words come into use, and old words change meaning or add new meanings, because change takes place in the particular elements of human knowledge, belief, custom, or livelihood to which they refer.

Word histories directly register the cultural events of human history. From each word's history we can infer different individual elements of the human history that lies behind the changes the word has undergone. From the histories of many words together we can build up a complex understanding of the history of the society as a whole. And from applying this kind of research to regional collections of societies and their languages, we can construct intricate regional histories of the longue durée.

Recovering history from the evidence of language is no new enterprise. Scholars of indo-European studies have drawn on this kind of evidence from the beginnings of their field two centuries ago, and students of American Indian cultural history have pursued studies of this type over an almost equally long span. Edward Sapir's Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, the classic presentation of the methods of historical inference from ethnographic as well as linguistic evidence, was published over nine decades ago, in 1916. For most parts of the world, culture historians, ethnologists, and linguists have long produced works applying linguistic evidence in one fashion or another to the uncovering of new knowledge about past human lives and cultures. Historians have not been entirely oblivious to these instruments, but they have wielded them rarely and have tended to put them to only limited use.

From the late 1960s onward, a small group of historians of Africa have taken the lead as practitioners and innovators in the application of linguistic methods and documentation. For this reason, in the chapters that follow, African history provides the primary models for undertaking this kind of work. The scholars who carried the work forward for Africa have repeatedly broken new ground methodologically while deepening and broadening our understanding of early history and bringing to light complex and nuanced regional stories of the longue durée in Africa.

Their techniques and methods have global utility. Oceania, interior Asia, southern and southeastern Asia, and pre-Columbian America are prime regions for the application of these approaches in the coming decades, as world history studies expand their reach. For any period or region of history where the written documentation is scanty or simply highly uneven in its coverage, these approaches can fill out the overall historical picture and, often, allow us to finally make sense of ambiguous written testimonies. Medieval European as well as Classical Mediterranean history—and not just premodern non-Western history—would be well served by such endeavors. Even when the written documentation seems extensive, language evidence can open windows into otherwise obscure or inaccessible aspects of the histories of those written about.

The most important feature of the pioneering African studies is that they present history as historians write it. They differ fundamentally from most previous works by anthropologists and ethnographers and by Indo-Europeanists, who have used linguistic evidence and comparative ethnography principally to trace population movements or to reconstruct the origins, development, and spread of particular ideas, rituals, institutions, customs, or elements of material culture. The new African histories have sought, in contrast, to build integrated regional stories of the past. The issues they raise and the questions they seek to answer speak to historians' concerns and historians' sensibilities.


Introducing the Methods to Historians

The rise, long overdue, of African history to academic standing in the 1960s brought new attention to linguistic, and secondarily to ethnographic, resources for reconstructing the past. This new interest took hold even as the traditional disciplinary homes of this kind of study—in north America, departments of anthropology, and in Europe, departments of ethnology—had begun to lose interest in them. In 1964 and 1968 Jan vansina introduced historians of Africa to historical inference from comparative ethnography in two articles, "The Uses of Process Models in African History" and "The Uses of Ethnographic data as sources for History." in these articles he recapitulated in compact and accessible fashion the principles and procedures of this kind of study. In 1968 I performed a parallel service for linguistic method in history with an article entitled "Linguistics as a Tool for Historians," following this up with a second article in the 1970s, "Linguistic Evidence and Its Correlation with Archaeology." The latter article once again presented the methods of historical inference from language evidence, but it did so in the context of showing how these findings might be linked to the findings of archaeology.

My work in the 1960s and 1970s contributed a new feature as well to the existing methodologies: I began to build interpretive models and analytical procedures for better integrating the evidence of borrowed words into writing history from language evidence. These investigations revealed that the accumulation of word borrowings from one language into another over sustained periods of time tends to fall into definable patterns. These patterns differ with respect to the quantity and rapidity of borrowing and in the semantic distributions of the words borrowed. Each pattern reflects a different historical pattern of contact among the speakers of the borrowing and donor languages of the loans. (See especially chapter 4 for the categories of borrowing and the human histories associated with each.)

Writing History from Language Evidence

Two books and a dissertation in the 1970s put these new directions in African history on a solid footing. The earliest of these, my book Southern Nilotic History: Linguistic Approaches to the Study of the Past, from 1971, is an exercise in writing the history of a major region of East Africa and of all the variety of peoples who had lived in that region over a 2,000-plus-year period. It relies on historical linguistic reconstruction, informed by the comparative ethnographic record, to lay out the patterns of cultural and economic change in those societies over time. It draws on a complex array of word-borrowing histories to reveal the multiple histories of cross-cultural encounter that shaped and drove those changes in different periods and places. I consciously structured the book as a model for historians seeking to write a regional longue durée history from nonwritten documentation.

At the time scholars were only beginning to clarify the wider patterns of East African archaeology, so Southern Nilotic History did not incorporate the archaeological evidence. But by the end of the 1970s, Stanley Ambrose was able to show that the societies and cultural and economic developments unveiled in Southern Nilotic History—and in a second, shorter book of mine, Ethiopians and East Africans—correlated in detailed ways with the archaeological record.

The second pioneering volume of the 1970s was Jan Vansina's The Children of Woot The geographical focus of the book, which appeared in 1978, is the areas around the confluence of the Kasai and Sankuru rivers, where the Kuba kingdom was founded shortly after 1600. Vansina combines histories of cultural lexicons with comparative ethnographic argumentation to reveal the long-term cultural and political developments of these areas from the early and middle first millennium CE (Ad) on through the sixteenth century. Is approach allows Vansina to give an encompassing context to, as well as to revise and expand on, his own earlier history of the Kuba kingdom, which had been based primarily on Kuba oral tradition. Teasing out the historical implications of the lexical testimony, he adds new depth and enriching detail to the long-term history of whole region. The Kuba state emerges as a new foundation, yet integrally rooted in its institutions and ideas to developments under way for the previous 1,000 years across those areas.

The third groundbreaking work, also appearing in 1978, was the undeservedly still-unpublished doctoral dissertation of J. Jeffrey Hoover, "The seduction of Ruwej." in this complex work Hoover displays the power of linguistic analysis to tease out historical memory embedded in myth and oral tradition and to trace back, through lexical histories, the particular historical sources and the evolution of the complex web of political, social, and ritual ideas and institutions of the Lunda (Rund) Empire of the seventeenth century. To an extent not realized before, Hoover reveals the Lunda state as a confluence point of major currents of political change, already in motion more widely across the southern savanna belt of Africa for several centuries before 1600.

Two books in the 1980s further expanded the applications of linguistic methods in African history. The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History which I edited together with the archaeologist Merrick Posnansky and which was published in 1982, sought to match, by pairing articles on parallel topics by archaeologists and linguist-historians, archaeological findings with language-based history in four different major regions of Africa. In bringing together knowledge in the two fields as it stood at the beginning of the 1980s, this book offered the first pan-African perspective on the correlation between the two kinds of evidence. A second notable book of the 1980s, although very different in being regionally focused, was Derek Nurse's and Thomas Spear's The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800–1500. In its interlinking of language evidence with oral tradition, written records, and archaeology, it contributes to both knowledge and method. Five doctoral dissertations of the early and mid-1980s at the University of California at Los Angeles, none of them yet revised into a book, also broke new ground in applying linguistic evidence to reconstructing the long-term early social and economic histories of such disparate regions of Africa as Somalia, Kwazulu-natal, the northeastern Congo basin, and Chad.

New Themes in Writing History from Language Evidence: 1990–2010

The 1990s ushered in a new generation in the writing of African history from language evidence. Two kinds of advances characterize this period: the application of linguistic approaches to the writing of integrative macro-regional histories, and the expanding of the topical reach of this kind of work. Five books define this new "generation" of studies.

Two works by Jan Vansina provide complementary longue durée political histories of western Central Africa. The first of these, in 1990, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa, deals with the vast equatorial rainforest zone. Vansina's second volume in this genre, How Societies Are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600, published in 2004, expands his perspectives to the regions immediately south of the equatorial rainforests—in particular, to the western parts of the southern savanna belt of Africa. He begins his story in each book with the early consolidation of farming societies across the regions concerned. He then moves on to the long-term histories of how the peoples of these different regions, in time, created a great variety of political institutions with a quite diverse array of political ideologies and widely differing ways of expressing and gaining access to authority and power.

Two other books, both published in 1998, offer historical perspectives on regional and macro-regional history that engage a wider and more inclusive range of historical themes than Vansina's. David Schoenbrun's A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century, draws on linguistic and other nonwritten types of evidence to integrate technology, agricultural change, and the history of beliefs and ideas into his recounting of 2,000 years of both social and political change among the peoples of the African Great Lakes. My book of the same year, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 BC to AD 400, presents a macro-regional history of the transformation of economy, society, culture, beliefs, and technology all across the eastern side of Africa in the last millennium BCE and the early first millennium CE. It identifies external factors influencing change as well as internally generated developments in life and livelihood, and it situates this "Classical Age" of eastern Africa within the wider context of world history. Both Schoenbrun and I seek out and apply relevant evidence from different scholarly disciplines, drawing on ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology. Schoenbrun, in addition, makes highly effective use of palynology and oral tradition.

Kairn Klieman, in "The Pygmies Were Our Compass": Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 C.E., published in 2003, takes these approaches a step further. Her history of the western equatorial rainforest regions from 3000 BCE to the nineteenth century adds considerable detail to our understanding of the first 3,000 years of Bantu settlement in these regions, a topic more sketchily considered in Vansina's Paths in the Rainforests, while painting a different picture of the social history of those regions over the last 2,000 years. She constructs her social history by interweaving the testimonies of linguistic reconstruction, comparative ethnography, archaeology, myth, ritual content and performance, oral tradition, and, for the more recent centuries, written documentation. Klieman's work is especially important for revealing the Batwa, the so-called Pygmies, to have been long-term, crucial participants in the history of these regions and to have played a variety of differing roles in different times and places. The Batwa, as she shows, have not been timeless relics of early humankind, as modern-day scholarly writings sometimes seem to imply, but agents of historical change in their own right.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Methods and Myths
2. Writing History from Linguistic Evidence
3. Historical Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Inference from Transformations in the Vocabularies of Culture
4. Historical Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Inference from Word Borrowing
5. Linguistic Dating


6. History in the Sahara: Society and Economy in the Early Holocene
7. Social Transformation in the Horn of Africa, 500 BCE to 500 CE
8. Recovering the History of Extinct Societies: A Case Study from East Africa
9. Cultural Diffusion in the Atlantic Age: American Crops in East Africa

Appendix 1. Outline Classification of Afrasian (Afroasiatic): Diagnostic Branch Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Innovations
Appendix 2. Proto-Afrasian and Proto-Erythraic Subsistence
Appendix 3. Development of Nilo-Saharan Lexicons of Herding and Cultivation
Appendix 4. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Interpreting the Ethiosemitic Cognation Matrix
Appendix 5. Cushitic Loanwords in Ethiosemitic Core Vocabulary


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"[A] valuable book which deserves to assume its rightful position as required reading for students and scholars of American history."—Journal of African History

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