Blessing ceremony at the Kings' Cemetery in
Mbanza Kongo (December 2011)
Language map showing Kikongo (dark yellow)
and Kituba (light yellow) astride the two Congos
Bantu languages zones : Kikongo is in the H group
Saint Anthony (Toni Malau),
18th century, Northwestern Angola;
Ivory, height = 11 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art
KONGOKING : Linguistics
Language as a source for history
The use of language data as evidence for the reconstruction of history may seem odd to historians and archaeologists working in regions with long literate traditions, but scholars of early African history are more familiar with the application of linguistics as a historical method.
Language classification, for instance, has been heavily relied on to interpret the wider historical significance of certain archaeological finds. This has been especially so with respect to the rapid dispersal of Bantu speech communities over most of central, eastern and southern Africa, a major puzzle in African history, also known as the ‘Bantu Expansion’.
Moreover, several historians have embraced the comparative study of cultural vocabulary as a core method for reconstructing African history. The pioneers and best-known proponents of the words-and- things method in African historical studies are no doubt the historians Jan Vansina and Christopher Ehret.
Reconstructing history more generally from the history of words is particularly advantageous if one works on Bantu languages. Even if these constitute Africa’s largest language group by far, in terms of number of speakers (± 250 million) and languages (± 500) as well as in terms of geographical spread (± 9.000.000 km2 or 24 countries), they are of relatively recent origin (± 5000 years) and therefore still closely related. This facilitates lexical reconstruction and the identification of loanwords from non-Bantu languages.
Although most historical linguists agree that a reconstructed proto-language can only approximate what may have been the putative ancestor of a given language family, the possibility of reconstructing an inherited vocabulary to Proto-Bantu, for instance, gives us at least an idea of how the culture of early Bantu-speaking societies looked like. Similarly, loanwords are indicative of what Bantu-speakers acquired through contact with their neighbours speaking unrelated languages.
Combining language data with ethnographic and oral tradition, Jan Vansina did pioneering work on the evolution of political systems in Equatorial and West-Central Africa. However, due to the scope of his endeavour, many language-based hypotheses need further testing by both linguists and archaeologists.
A careful study of vocabulary related to politics, religion, social organization, trade and crafts such as metallurgy and pottery in Kikongo and surrounding languages, in conjunction with new archaeological research, may therefore throw a new light on the origins and rise of the Kongo kingdom.
In view of the rich historical tradition of the Kongo kingdom, such a comparative study will also be an ideal test case for the words-and-things method. We will test to what extent lexically-based assumptions match what has been drawn from the historical records. Just like archaeology, historical linguistic research will also further contribute to the reconstruction of Kongo’s past after 1500 by completing or questioning the existing historiography. It is known, for example, that certain loanwords of Kikongo origin, referring to commodities such as pottery or foreign plants such as maize, spread deep into the interior by way of long-distance trade from the Atlantic coast. Kikongo also operated as a channel of diffusion of European trade-related loanwords among languages of the hinterland. However, it has never been studied in any detail which and how many loanwords are involved and how far this kind of Kikongo influence reached.
The ‘social ecology’ of language change in the Kongo area
The existence of old documents on the Kongo language allows the comparison of diachronic stages of one and the same language. This has never been systematically done and will be innovative in the field of Bantu historical linguistics. More pioneering linguistic research is possible within the field of ‘historical sociolinguistics’. Thanks to the rich historical documentation, it is well-known how the Kongo and related kingdoms reached their apogee and subsequently fell, where their capitals were situated, which were the big market places in the wider area, how the coast was connected with the inland through caravan trade routes and how these evolved through time.
Consequently, we have a fairly good idea of what Salikoko Mufwene calls the ‘social ecology’ of language change in this region, namely the impact of social factors in particular, and extra-linguistic factors more generally, on language evolution.
The label ‘Kongo’ is today a generic term that stands for the cultural unity of diverse ethnic groups. This cultural identity manifests itself in religion, art, oral traditions or material culture, but is primarily linguistically founded. All these groups speak one or the other form of Kikongo. What is commonly called Kikongo is actually a large dialect continuum. It has been claimed that Kikongo was the foundation of cultural unity throughout the Kongo kingdom. It remains to be seen, however, whether this linguistic unity was the trigger or rather the outcome of political centralization.
The present-day linguistic landscape in the Kongo area suggests that both political centralization and economic integration had a considerable impact on language evolution in the region. It is not unlikely that political centralization fostered the spread of Kikongo to the detriment of other languages resulting in more linguistic uniformity. Long-distance trade not only involved the transportation of merchandise, but also the mobility of people. Slaves were drained to the Atlantic coast, while large caravans involving Kongo people travelled to and from inland trade posts and markets. In this way, Kikongo influenced surrounding languages and vice versa.
While archaeology will examine whether political centralization and regional trade went hand in hand with material cultural unification, historical linguistics will deal with the immaterial side of this problem, i.e. linguistic homogenization. A better insight into the language history of the Kongo area is also of utmost importance for advancing our understanding of the Bantu language dispersal in general.
The Lower Congo region occupies a pivotal position in the wider history of the Bantu languages, since it lies at the junction of two major Bantu subgroups, i.e. North-West Bantu and West-Bantu, not only geographically, but also linguistically. Several studies have located a secondary nucleus of early Bantu expansion in this zone. It is not clear, however, to what extent linguistic homogenization through political centralization and economic integration, accounts for the nuclear position of the wider Kongo area in terms of internal Bantu classification. Only if we understand these relatively recent convergence phenomena better, we can factor them out in order to come to a better- founded insight in early Bantu dispersals in this region and the Bantu expansion more generally.