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.
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.
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.
Paul Lane and Anna Shoemaker
Agricultural practices on the African continent are exceptionally diverse and have deep histories spanning at least eight millennia. Over time, farmers and herders have independently domesticated different food crops and a more limited range of animals, and have effectively modified numerous ecological niches to better suit their needs. They have also adopted “exotic” species from other parts of the globe, nurturing these to produce new cross-breeds and varieties better adapted to African conditions. Evidence for the origins of these different approaches to food production and their subsequent entanglement is attested by diverse sources. These include archaeological remains, bio- and geo-archaeological signatures, genetic data, historical linguistics, and processes of landscape domestication.
The Bantu Expansion stands for the concurrent dispersal of Bantu languages and Bantu-speaking people from an ancestral homeland situated in the Grassfields region in the borderland between current-day Nigeria and Cameroon. During their initial migration across most of Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa, which took place between approximately 5,000 and 1,500 years ago, Bantu speech communities not only introduced new languages in the areas where they immigrated but also new lifestyles, in which initially technological innovations such as pottery making and the use of large stone tools played an important role as did subsequently also farming and metallurgy. Wherever early Bantu speakers started to develop a sedentary way of life, they left an archaeologically visible culture. Once settled, Bantu-speaking newcomers strongly interacted with autochthonous hunter-gatherers, as is still visible in the gene pool and/or the languages of certain present-day Bantu speech communities. The driving forces behind what is the principal linguistic, cultural, and demographic process in Late Holocene Africa are still a matter of debate, but it is increasingly accepted that the climate-induced destruction of the rainforest in West Central Africa around 2,500 years ago gave a boost to the Bantu Expansion.