Writing Africa’s history before the 10th century almost always means relying on sources other than written documents, which increase in number especially from the 16th century onward. Archaeology (including the study of art objects), the comparative study of historically related languages, paleo-environmental studies, and oral traditions provide the bulk of information. Writing Africa’s early history ideally involves collaboration among experts in using each kind of source, an increasingly common practice. Despite the challenges of analysis and interpretation posed by this base of sources, early African history has a depth and breadth akin to the histories made from the written sources in archives. Even so, whereas written documents provide details about individuals and precise dates, the sources for writing early African histories more often provide detail about conceptualization, for example, of time, hospitality, and individualism and about larger, environmental contexts shaping those concepts and shaped by the actions of the people who held them. Translating such concepts and scales of action into accounts accessible to those—including many historians—not steeped in the methodological conventions underlying the analysis of each source is a major challenge facing historians of Africa’s earlier past.
Many societies in pre-1800 Africa depended on orality both for communication and for record keeping. Historians of Africa, among other ways of dealing with this issue, treat languages as archives and apply what is sometimes called the “words and things” approach. Every language is an archive, in the sense that its words and their meanings have histories. The presence and use of particular words in the vocabulary of the language can often be traced back many centuries into the past. They are, in other words, historical artifacts. Their presence in the language in the past and their meanings in those earlier times tell us about the things that people knew, made use of, and talked about in past ages. They provide us complex insights into the world in which people of past societies lived and operated.
But in order to reconstruct word histories, historians first need to determine the relationships and evolution of the languages that possessed those words. The techniques of comparative historical linguistics and language classification allow one to establish a linguistic stratigraphy: to show how the periods can be established in which meaning changes in existing words or changes in the words used for particular meanings took place, to assess what these word histories reveal about changes in a society and its culture, and to identify whether internal innovation or encounters with other societies mediated such changes.
The comparative method on its own cannot establish absolute dates of language divergence. The method does allow scholars, however, to reconstruct the lexicons of material culture used at each earlier period in the language family tree. These data identify the particular cultural features to look for in the archaeology of people who spoke languages of the family in earlier times, and that evidence in turn enables scholars to propose datable archaeological correlations for the nodes of the family tree. A second approach to dating a language family tree has been a lexicostatistical technique, often called glottochronology, which seeks to estimate how long ago sister languages began to diverge out of their common ancestor language by using calculations based on the proportion of words in the most basic parts of the vocabulary that the languages still retain in common. Recent work in computational linguistic phylogenetics makes use of elements of lexicostatistics, and there have been efforts to automate the comparative method as well.
In order to compare languages historically, two important issues first have to be confronted, namely data acquisition and data analysis. Linguistic field collection of vocabularies from native speakers and linguistic archive work, especially with dictionaries, are principal means of data acquisition. The comparative historical linguistic approach and methods provide the tools for analyzing these linguistic data, both diachronically and synchronically.
Nearly all African languages have been classified into four language families, namely: Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Afroasiatic, and Khoisan. The Malagasy language of Madagascar is an exception, in that it was brought west across the Indian Ocean to that island from the East Indies early in the first millennium
The study of loanwords, and of language contact more generally, is a useful tool in tracing encounters and exchanges between different communities in the past. Loanwords often come in sets related to specific semantic fields, illustrating the nature of exchanged goods and ideas, as well as the nature of contacts between those communities, for instance, economic exchanges or political dominance. Examples include the adoption of new crops and subsistence techniques, in both ancient and recent periods, and the strong Arabic influence in multiple domains on the Swahili language. Loanwords are but one outcome of language contact. More intense contacts can lead to structural borrowing; to convergence between nonaffiliated languages, resulting in linguistic areas; and to language shift. The languages of so-called pygmy hunter-gatherers are a notorious example of people abandoning their own language in favor of a new one.
To identify loanwords and to distinguish them from inherited vocabulary, it is necessary to apply the comparative linguistic method. Irregular sound correspondences and morphological traits, and a continuous distribution across linguistic boundaries are indicative of borrowing. The possibility of semantic analysis and the presence of cognates in related languages may confirm the identity of the donor language. The identification of loanwords suffers from a few drawbacks, however. Some sounds have not changed for centuries or even millennia, preventing the distinction between loans and inherited words. Or loanwords may have become integrated in the phoneme inventory of the recipient language, giving the impression of regular sound correspondences. But even if loans can be recognized as such, the donor language cannot always be traced. Finally, it must be said that the study of loanwords attains the best results when it is based on well-annotated data, with detailed semantic description and a list of regular sound correspondences and adequate classification at hand.
Rhonda M. Gonzales
Comparative historical linguistics is an approach comprising a set of methods that historians who have training in linguistics employ to reconstruct histories for periods of history for which written documentation is absent or scant. It is suggested that the use of comparative historical linguistics helped to push against the notion that people living in oral societies had to be deemed prehistorical, a category popularized in the 19th century, because it is premised that the rich history of the words comprising their languages hold troves of knowledge that historians can access and use to write narratives. Core steps of comparative historical linguistics are explained so that readers understand how researchers use modern-day spoken languages to work backward in time to reconstruct the histories of words that comprise the material items, ideas, and concepts that mattered to speakers of languages prior to the 21st century. The methods’ benefits are discussed, and their limitations highlighted.
Joseph C. Miller
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a prominent producer of doctorates in African history since 1963. As of 2017 the institution had granted more than 110 degrees. Philip D. Curtin and Jan Vansina, both pioneers in launching the field, led the program until 1975 and were joined in 1969 by Steven Feierman. Together, they supervised an initial cohort of graduates, several of whom became leaders of the then still-formative field, particularly in its methodological infrastructure, as well as in economic and demographic history, slavery in Africa and the Atlantic slave trade, and medical history. The distinguishing features qualifying a diverse array of individual intellectual trajectories as a coherent “school” include a focus on epistemologically historical approaches anchored in the intellectual perspectives of Africans as historical actors and often also as they engaged broader commercial Atlantic and Indian Ocean and world contexts; smaller numbers of more recent doctorates had subsequently sustained these orientations.
Former graduates of the program, William W. Brown, David Henige, and Thomas T. Spear, returned after 1975 to update this framework by bringing social theory and cultural history to bear on the African historical actors at the program’s core. Since 2005, a third generation of faculty members, Neil Kodesh, James Sweet, and Emily Colacci (all students of Wisconsin PhDs teaching at other institutions), have added contemporary approaches to the Wisconsin school’s continuing commitment to Africans’ distinctive epistemologies as they engaged the flows of modern global history. Professionally, Madison graduates have, accordingly, led the ongoing effort to bring Africa in from its initial marginality—as the continent seen as uniquely without a history—into the historical discipline’s core. An aphoristic summary of the Wisconsin legacy might be “Africans’ worlds and Africans in the world.”