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(P42) Hunter-gatherers in sub-Saharan Africa: a (socio-)linguistic perspective (CLOSED)

Convenors: Karsten Legère, Göteborgs Universitet, Austria; Ilaria Micheli, University of Trieste 

Abstract: The session deals with hunter-gatherer problems from a (socio-) linguistic perspective. Its focus is on ethnic and linguistic identity, language maintenance, erosion and shift. The suggested place profile is mainly East Africa, but the situation in Equatorial and Southern Africa should also be addressed. 

Keywords: languages and communities, East, Central and Southern Africa, endangered languages, identity, marginalisation 

Format: standard panel, short talks 

Precirculated materials: DoBeS archive, Akie entry 


The session focuses primarily on the role of language as an important marker of ethnic identity, self-identification and the shifting process. This generally accepted principle is particularly relevant for the HG communities and languages where speaker numbers are small and further declining. Given the dynamics of eroding linguistic competence and language maintenance among hunter-gatherers, an interdisciplinary approach for addressing the state-of-the-art, as well as the perspective of on-going processes, is a session priority. Special attention will be paid to the East African situation and to invited panelists who are familiar with this region. The session is, however, also open to contributions which deal with HG communities in Equatorial and Southern Africa. Hence, cross-fertilisation in capturing similarities as well as regional features of language shift is expected to attract specialists who i.a. study the Baka in Cameroon or Bushman languages in the South. Topics to be addressed by panelists at the session include: 

external and internal factors for HG’s language shifts such as 

o prestigious vs. non-prestigious languages,

o the HG marginalisation process and its effect on highly endangered languages,

o the vulnerability of HG languages as the result of socio-economic changes,

o bi- and multilingualism as a linguistic survival strategy

o inter-generational transfer of languages, and

o official and grassroots position towards HG languages

the (socio-) linguistic contribution to record as many facets as possible of the rich cultural heritage and traditional knowledge

the importance of archival collections (DoBeS Nijmegen, ELAR London) for making HG language documentation results available

This session is a follow-up to the CHAGS 11 session “Oral Tradition, Sociolinguistics, Language Contact in HG societies,” where discussion of some topics envisaged here was initiated.




Not the “right” hunters and gatherers (or: why some East African groups are different)

Mauro Tosco, University of Turin, Italy. mauro.tosco[a]

Short abstract: In East Africa, many hunting-gathering and occupational outcast groups show a long history of language and/or cultural shift. Language data must be handled with great care while looking  for the “origins” of these groups.

Long abstract: The languages of hunting and gathering peoples generally display many and very divergent lexical layers, pointing to a long history of language contact, often with different language families. 

At the same time, language shift is common, cyclic and attested also in historical times. Cultural and economic assimilation to a neighboring (generally pastoral) group is equally frequent. A group can shift its language without losing its distinctiveness, or retain its language while accepting a new identity.
All over East Africa and the Horn, we also find occupational outcast groups. While hunters and gatherers tend to represent separate entities, often geographically and even more culturally distinct from the neighboring groups, the occupational outcasts live by and large within a broader community, with which they share most cultural features.
In this paper I will argue that certain outcast groups (who often retain a peculiar “inner language” or a jargon) may simply be the ending point of a long history of cultural and linguistic assimilation and integration of former hunters and gatherers.
At the same time, it will be stressed how all these facts make the use of linguistic data in any quest for the “origins” of such groups very complex, maybe downright impossible.

Hunter-gatherer knowledge in Ongota (four speakers, Ethiopia)

Graziano Savà, Department of Asian, African and Mediterrannean Studies, University of Naples "L'Orientale", Naples, Italy., Italy. grsava[a]

Short abstract: The paper presents the hunter-gatherer cultural knowledge of the Ongota, an unclassififed dying language of Ethiopia, from speech samples collected in the context of an ELDP-founded documentation project.

Long abstract: Ongota (also Birale) is spoken by four elders in a village found along the west bank of the Weyt’o river in southwest Ethiopia. These elderly speakers in everyday life speak Ts’amakko (East Cushitic), that is the language the whole Ongota community, numbering about one hundred, switched to. 

The Ongota people have an hunter-gatherer past in which they have been living in isolation for a long period of time, building up occasional social relations with various ethnic groups in the area.
Nowadays the Ongota language is used as a sort of secret code among the tiny group of speakers and is basically not passed to children. Only adults understand some Ongota but cannot and do not use it. 
The Ongota language is not only extremely endangered, but it is also historically very interesting. So far, it defies classification and it could well be an isolate.
Due to its importance and endangerment, Ongota has been object of a documentation project financed by the ELDP. The present paper illustrates the Ongota corpus of oral texts and its value for the study of Ongota language and culture, in particular the Ongota hunter-gatherer knowledge, that is so weakly preserved.

Akie - a critically endangered, well documented hunter/gatherer language of Central Tanzania

Karsten Legère, University of Gothenburg and Vienna, Austria. karsten.legere[a]

Short abstract: Actual research results and material which deal with the critically endangered Akie language spoken by approx. 250 people are presented and discussed.

Long abstract: Since 2009 the presenter’s focus has been on the Southern Nilotic Akie language. This language is still spoken by approx. 250 speakers who belong to a Central Tanzanian hunter/gatherer community. Together with other communities in Tanzania and Kenya the Akie have been known as [N]Dorobo which goes back to the derogatory Masai xenonym Il-Tórobo meaning i.a. poor person without cattle.

Akie is in the process of being given up. Ethnic self-identification is also shifting away from Akie to Masai, although the latter are reluctant to accept people known for non-Masai origin. In the area, Kisangara (an Akie dialect influenced by neighbouring Bantu languages) and Kinyalang’at (basically Maa) are also spoken. 
In view of the linguistic situation, Akie documentation of multi-facetted speech events (audio/video recordings) is an absolute priority. The transcribed, edited and analysed Akie material (part of UNESCO's “Memory of the World”) can be consulted in the MPI Archive’s UNESCO and DoBeS collection (Link: 
The bi- and multilingual background of most Akie speakers results often in code-switching Akie-Maa or Akie-neighbouring Bantu languages/Swahili. Depending on the addressee’s language competence even experienced Akie speakers use languages other than Akie in formal domains outside the Akie neighbourhood.

The Effects of the Cultural and Environmental Change on the Endangered Okiek Language

Jane Oduor, University of Nairobi, Kenya. oduorjane[a]
Karsten Legere, Institut für Afrikawissenschaften, Universität Wien, Austria. karsten.legere[a]

Short abstract: This paper focuses on the Okiek of Kenya, showing the areas of their language and culture that are getting lost. It recommends ways of preserving and sustaining them. The data collection was supported by ELDP.

Long abstract: The Okiek of Kenya live in the Mau Forest Complex and Mount Elgon region. This paper focuses on those who live in the former region. The Okiek for a long time lived in harmony with nature as hunter-gatherers. However, when other communities infiltrated the forest and carried out activities that were detrimental to the environment, all the forest inhabitants were moved away. This not only interfered with the Okiek culture but also language. In an attempt to survive, as the paper shows, the Okiek started shifting to other cultural practices that were originally not part of their culture. Some of the changes were necessitated by the new environment they found themselves in while others were related to urbanization. This paper shows the affected areas of the Okiek culture and language terminology that is slowly getting lost. The paper therefore goes ahead to show and recommend ways of preserving and sustaining the aspects of Okiek language and culture that are of value not only to the Okiek community but also to humanity. The data for this paper was collected through personal interactions, observations and interviews with the Okiek in a language documentation project sponsored by Edangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP). 


Andy Chebanne, University of Botswana, Botswana. chebanne[a]
Budzani Gabanamotse-Mogara, University of Botswana, Botswana. gabanab[a]


Long abstract: Botswana has the greatest number of Khoisan linguistic and ethnic diversity, belonging to at least two languages families. Socio-historically these communities are hunter-gatherers, albeit the new government policy of relocating them to settlements with modern amenities has greatly rendered them sedentary. The sedentary life-style has endangered their culture. It has also brought them into close contact with non-Khoisan population, who historically, and currently in settlements have exploit them and assimilated them to their language and culture. Consequently they are in the process of losing their languages. Khoisan communities of Botswana are therefore highly endangered linguistically, and marginalized socially and culturally. The presentation will deal with contact situations problems of sociolinguistic nature and the linguistic consequences. The focus area is Botswana's eastern Kalahari Khoe area of central


The Ogieg of Mariashoni. How intercultural cooperation can influence language vitality and speakers' attitudes.

Ilaria Micheli, University of Trieste, Italy. imicheli[a]

Short abstract: The paper will deal with the role of intercultural cooperation in the preservation of endangered languages and traditional activities and as a stimulus for the rise of a good sense of identity.

Long abstract: The Ogieg of Mariashoni are a group of semi-nomadic, encapsulated HGs living in the Mau Forest in Kenya.

Due to climate change and deforestation, the ancestral territories of the Ogieg have been reduced of more than a half during the last decades of the XX century.
As a consequence, many Ogieg, especially those living in the Narok area, close to the more prestigious Maasai, or those living close to the Kipsigis or the Gykuyu communities of Molo, are shifting to pastoralism or to sedentary farming, thus abandoning their traditional activities and, in some cases, their language.
This paper will show how good and culturally conscious cooperation projects, promoted by the Kenyan NGO NECOFA and the Italian SLOW FOOD movement, MANITESE and Ethnorêma, in which the author was recently involved, have actually been useful and stimulating for the rise of a sense of identity and community which is having important echoes in the speakers’ attitudes towards their language and in the will to find new ways to preserve both the Ogieg ancestral territories and their material and immaterial culture - specifically their language, with, for example, the production of a grammatical sketch and a cultural vocabulary of the Ogieg of Mariashoni.

A rose by any other name would not do: the struggle for change of an ethnonym by the Waata of Kenya

Kenneth Ngure, Kenyatta University, Kenya. kennethngure[a]

Short abstract: The Waata community is one of the smallest marginalised groups of Kenya.Their traditional means of subsistence is hunting and gathering, a strategy that is abhorred by neighbouring pastoralist communities. The Waata are in the process of changing their ethnonym but the move is experiencing resistance from their neighbours.

Long abstract: That the Waata community is perceived as occupying a subordinate rung in the hierarchy of subsistence strategies is obvious to the neighbouring pastoralist communities and to the Waata themselves. The community has traditionally subsisted on hunting and gathering and endured condescending treatment from their neighbouring Oromo pastoralists in northern Kenya for ages. Lately, however, the community has embarked on a move aimed at asserting themselves as equals, not lesser beings, relative to their neighbours. Consequently, a collective resolution to drop their Waata ethnonym and replace it with Waayu has been adopted. The new name is associated with a venerated ancestor of the community and deemed to be devoid of the stigma associated with the hunting and gathering lifestyle. This trajectory keen on reshaping the identity of the Waata/Waayu has triggered mixed reactions from neighbouring communities ranging from indifference to open disgust and outright discrediting of the Waata cause. Using data collected through interviews, focussed group discussion and archival records, I will demonstrate why change of ethnonym is a highly emotive business to the community concerned and others in the periphery.

Hadza Identity

James Woodburn, London School of Economics (until I retired), United Kingdom. james[a]

Short abstract: Hadza evaluations of their own social and cultural identity in present-day Tanzania contrasted with the evaluations made by other closely-associated Tanzanians. Continuities and changes in these views over the past sixty years.

Long abstract: In my paper I will examine a range of ways in which the Hadza of Northern Tanzania assert their social and cultural identity in and through their distinctive language and their other social and cultural practices.Most Hadza today are bilingual and speak both their own distinctive language and KiSwahili confidently and openly. A growing percentage are being educated and a handful have entered local universities.I started my Hadza fieldwork in 1957 and have made repeated, often prolonged, visits since then, conversing with them in their own language and in KiSwahili. A constant concern which comes up repeatedly in Hadza conversation is the way in which their neighbours and other Tanzanians in contact with them tend to regard their click language and their way of life as objectionable and as unacceptable in present-day Tanzania. I shall examine the implications of such stigmatisation for the Hadza and for other sub-Saharan African hunter-gatherers.Over the past sixty years I have witnessed profound political, cultural, social and ecological changes both in Hadza country and in Tanzania more generally. I shall review ways in which the Hadza sense of their identity has been affected by these changes.

A !Xun-substrate in Ts’ixa? Tracing historical language contact in northeastern Botswana

Anne-Maria Fehn, Max Planck Institute for Human History, Jena, Germany. a.fehn[a]

Short abstract: The Khoe-Kwadi language Ts’ixa displays syntactical features matching the typological profile of a Kx’a-language, suggesting substrate interference from !Xun through interaction with L2 speakers of Ts’ixa and social incorporation into the speech community.

Long abstract: Ts’ixa is a Khoe-Kwadi language spoken by less than 300 foragers residing in a single village at the eastern fringe of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. This paper explores linguistic data from Ts’ixa in the light of oral histories and ethnographic observations from the beginning of the 20th century suggesting an impact of hunter-gatherers speaking !Xun (Kx’a) on the language and speech community. I show that Ts’ixa clearly displays linguistic features matching the typological profile of !Xun which are most prominent in the syntactical domain, including clausal word order and constituent order in the noun phrase. While languages of the Khoe-Kwadi family are commonly characterized by SOV word order, Ts’ixa shows a tendency for unmarked SVO, matching the default word order of the Non-Khoe families Kx’a and Tuu. Like them, Ts’ixa also allows for head-initial noun phrases and displays a clear preference for verbal modifiers - including numerals and even demonstratives - to be encoded in a relative clause. The data at hand therefore supports a scenario in which typological features of !Xun were introduced into a Khoe-Kwadi language, possibly through social incorporation of L2 speakers of Ts’ixa and subsequent transfer of substrate features into the target language.

The Gyele language in relation to its neighbors (Cameroon)

Daniel Duke, Leiden University and SIL Cameroon, United States. daniel_duke[a]

Short abstract: Gyele (also called Bakola) is a language spoken by forest foragers of Cameroon.  The language shows intensive borrowing from several neighboring languages.  This paper looks at effects of this language contact in the areas of lexicon, phonology, and morphosyntax.  The sociolinguistic situation which lead to these language contact effects will also be discussed.

Long abstract: Gyele (also known as Bakola) is a Bantu language spoken by forest foragers in the coastal area of Cameroon. The language community (Bagyele and Bakola) has been involved since 2009 in language documentation with the DoBeS Bakola project.This paper presents an overview how Gyele relates with and is historically related to the neighboring languages. These other languages are all spoken by either fishing or farming communities in the area. Some of the neighboring languages, such as Kwasio, have a long history of close contact with Gyele. Other languages have come into contact only recently. Lexicon, phonology, noun phrase constructions and verb phrase constructions all point to both historical and more recent connections. The neighboring languages are all Bantu A, but but are still quite diverse: Kwasio (A80), Basaa (A40), and Fang (A70) are the most important influencers on Gyele. Other languages such as Duala (A20) and Batanga (30) have interesting phonological and historical connection.The linguistic data correlate with other information from historical texts, as well as recordings made during the language documentation process, including: oral histories, life stories, folktales, and general discussions about interactions with neighboring groups.

Central African rainforest hunter-gatherers on the long term: what do we learn from ethnolinguistics and ethnography ?

Serge Bahuchet, MNHN, France. bahuchet[a]

Short abstract: ethnolinguistics; interethnic relations; history; "pygmies"; hunter-gatherers-farmers exchanges; changes; language shift

Long abstract: African rainforest hunter-gatherers known under the covering name « Pygmies » are presently some 20 dispersed groups in the Equatorial region. They all differ in their languages, social organization, habitat, and way of life, as well as in their relationship with their neighbors. They should consequently be considered as different cultural entities. The paradox is that all of their languages present connection with languages spoken by non pygmy populations, whatever the kind of socioeconomical relations between them.

The question of the origin of and the historic relations between these groups is still debated, however recent results from linguistic and genetic studies indicate possible regroupings, from which possible historical scenarios can be drawn.
In this paper I will analyze the cultural diversity of rainforest hunter-gatherers and replace its emergence in a spatial and temporal frame, taking into account the environmental and climatic parameters. Some results are already acquired, while many gaps remain that I will underline, necessitating more research. 




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