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History and the Testimony of Language

History and the Testimony of Language

Christopher Ehret
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    History and the Testimony of Language
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94759-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)

    • 1 Methods and Myths
      (pp. 3-21)

      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...

    • 2 Writing History from Linguistic Evidence
      (pp. 22-50)

      Every language contains a wealth of historical documentation on the people who have spoken it in the past. What do we mean by this claim? Just what are the data that a language provides for the writing of human history?

      Every language is an archive of many thousands of individual artifacts of the past. These artifacts are the words of the language. Each language contains the full range of vocabulary necessary to express the whole gamut of knowledge, experience, and cultural practice pursued by the various members of the society that speaks the language. As ideas, behaviors, and practices changed...

    • 3 Historical Inference from Transformations in the Vocabularies of Culture
      (pp. 51-81)

      Building historical chronologies from language evidence and periodizing the lexical documents of cultural practice and knowledge were the brief of chapter 2. By setting this linguistic historical framework in place, the historian opens up a wide variety of further pathways toward inferring history from language. This chapter explores in particular what the study of semantic transformation in cultural lexicons can reveal about the history of the ideas and the organization of knowledge and activities of life in earlier times and places.

      The vocabulary of any language contains words to express the whole range of culture and information entertained by the...

    • 4 Historical Inference from Word Borrowing
      (pp. 82-104)

      A second essential angle of approach to deriving history from lexical evidence is through inference from the histories of word borrowing. Word borrowing is perhaps the single most important category of lexical evidence because from it we uncover the histories of societies in the time spans that lie between the nodal periods of the linguistic chronology. Such evidence not only tracks the spread of ideas and things across the historical landscape, but, more important, enables us to identify the particular kinds of extended historical encounter that took place between societies, and to infer the demography and the demographic outcomes of...

    • 5 Linguistic dating
      (pp. 105-132)

      To establish the linguistic stratigraphy of a language family or branch of a family, as we saw in chapter 2, is to establish the relative chronology of the history of the language group and the peoples who have spoken those languages. How does one assign absolute dates to the relative timescale? Linguistic inquiry, unlike archaeology, does not directly generate independently datable artifacts; hence the importance of the indirect approaches of correlating language testimony with archaeology and other dated forms of historical documentation. Might there nevertheless be ways to build an absolute dating scale more directly from language evidence?

      Scholars have...


    • 6 History in the Sahara: Society and Economy in the Early Holocene
      (pp. 135-169)

      This chapter presents the first of four studies exemplifying in different ways the application of linguistic testimony to writing history as historians write it—to the overall courses of social, cultural, economic, demographic, and other developments among the peoples of particular regions and ages of history. These studies proceed chronologically, with this chapter tackling the transformative changes of the early Holocene transition from gathering and hunting to herding and farming in the saharan belt of Africa. Several elements of the wider history of the Holocene Sahara, relating to the roles of Nilo-Saharan peoples in these developments, served previously as illustrations...

    • 7 Social Transformation in the Horn of Africa, 500 BCE to 500 CE
      (pp. 170-184)

      The establishment of semitic languages in the Horn of Africa during the last millennium BCE accompanied a major set of social historical transformations. Languages new to an area do not displace other languages from use for trivial reasons of taste or fashion, but normally because the social formations associated with the new languages are spreading at the expense of previous social formations. The patterns of relationship among the Ethiosemitic languages show that two focal points of spread of the new tongues soon arose, the one much neglected by historians being in probably the upper Awash river watershed. The patterns of...

    • 8 Recovering the History of Extinct Societies: A Case Study from East Africa
      (pp. 185-220)

      One of the more fascinating capacities of linguistic methodology is its ability to allow historians to identify extinct societies and even to reconstruct many elements of the histories of those extinct communities. The lexical documents supporting this kind of historical reconstruction are loanwords from the extinct languages, preserved in the lexicons of the later languages of a region. The particular kinds of loanwords preserved in this fashion, of course, reveal the kinds of cultural influences the extinct society had on its successors. At the same time, those same loanwords—because they relate to the knowledge, beliefs, cultural practices, and material...

    • 9 Cultural Diffusion in the Atlantic Age: American Crops in Eastern Africa
      (pp. 221-248)

      A closing theme of importance for the use of language evidence in history revolves around what the diffusion of individual words for new items of culture can reveal about the diffusion of things and ideas. A historical context highly illustrative of the revelatory powers of this documentation is the Atlantic Age. Unprecedented changes pervaded the world over the course of that age, from the middle fifteenth century into the twentieth century. New items of material culture, new crops, and new ideas passed back and forth across and around the world, following the expanding new networks of exchange and movement of...

  7. APPENDIX ONE Outline Classification of Afrasian (Afroasiatic): Diagnostic Branch Innovations
    (pp. 249-250)
  8. APPENDIX TWO Proto-Afrasian and Proto-Erythraic Subsistence
    (pp. 251-252)
  9. APPENDIX THREE Development of Nilo-Saharan Lexicons of Herding and Cultivation
    (pp. 253-255)
  10. APPENDIX FOUR Interpreting the Ethiosemitic Cognation Matrix
    (pp. 256-260)
  11. APPENDIX FIVE Cushitic Loanwords in Ethiosemitic Core Vocabulary
    (pp. 261-264)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 265-274)