Classification of Pygmy languages

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Distribution of Pygmies according to Cavalli-Sforza. Many of the southern Twa are missing.

The Pygmies of Equatorial Africa are those "forest people" who have, or recently had, a deep-forest hunter-gather economy and a simple, non-hierarchical societal structure based on bands, are genetically of short stature,[1] have a deep cultural and religious affinity with the Congo forest,[2] and live in a generally subservient relationship with agricultural "patrons".

However, these peoples are not related to each other as Pygmies, either ethnically or linguistically. Genetically, different Pygmy peoples have distinct mechanisms for their short stature, demonstrating diverse origins. No Pygmy people is known to have ever been self-sufficient in isolation in the forest without an agricultural patron to supply some of their needs; all Pygmy peoples are "symbiotic" in this sense.[3]

Original Pygmy language(s)[edit]

An original Pygmy language has been postulated for at least some Pygmy groups. Merritt Ruhlen writes that "African Pygmies speak languages belonging to either to the Nilo-Saharan or Niger–Kordofanian families. It is assumed that Pygmies once spoke their own language(s), but that, through living in symbiosis with other Africans, in prehistorical times, they adopted languages belonging to these two families."[4] However, the only evidence that such languages existed is Mbenga forest vocabulary shared by the neighboring Ubangian-speaking Baka and Bantu-speaking Aka (there is no such common Mbuti vocabulary); if this does represent a common ancestral language rather than borrowing, the speakers may well not have been specifically Pygmies, but instead another of the several potential language isolates of (former) hunter-gatherer populations that ring the rainforest.[5]

A commonly held belief is that African Pygmies are the direct descendants of the Late Stone Age hunter-gatherer peoples of the central African rainforest, who were partially absorbed or displaced by later immigration of agricultural peoples, and adopted their Central Sudanic, Ubangian, and Bantu languages. This view has no archaeological support, and ambiguous support from genetics and linguistics.[6][7][8]

Some 30% of the Aka language is not Bantu, and a similar percentage of the Baka language is not Ubangian. Much of this vocabulary is botanical, deals with honey collecting, or is otherwise specialized for the forest and is shared between the two western Pygmy groups. It has been proposed that this is the remnant of an independent western Pygmy (Mbenga or "Baaka") language. However, this type of vocabulary is subject to widespread borrowing among the Pygmies and neighboring peoples, and the "Baaka" language is only reconstructed to the 15th century, long after the arrival of Bantu and Ubangian peoples to the region.[9]

Peoples and languages[edit]

Distribution of Pygmy languages according to Bahuchet. Green are Bantu, red are Central Sudanic, and purple are Ubangian. Southern Twa is not shown.
Modification by Hewlett and Fancher. Bofi is added in the west, and Nsua in the east.

There are over a dozen attested Pygmy peoples[10] numbering at least 350,000 in the Congo Basin. The best known are the Mbenga (Aka and Baka) of the western Congo basin, who speak Bantu and Ubangian languages; the Mbuti (Efe et al.) of the Ituri Rainforest, who speak Bantu and Central Sudanic languages, and the Twa of the Great Lakes, who speak Bantu Rwanda-Rundi. All attested Pygmy peoples speak languages from these three language families, and only three peoples, the Aka, Baka, and Asua, have their own language.

Medzan (Bedzan) live in Cameroon not far from the Nigerian border. They speak a dialect of Tikar, a Bantoid language.

Population: 400
Mbenga
Population: 30–50,000
Miyaka (N Gabon, Bantu), Luma (N Gabon, Bantu) appear to be Aka (Benzele) groups.[citation needed]
Population: 30–40,000
  • In the Central African Republic north of the Aka are a group who speak the language of their neighbors, Bofi, a language of the Gbaya branch.
Population: 3,000
  • They Gyele AKA Kola or Koya are the westernmost Pygmies, living in southern Cameroon near the coast, and in Equatorial Guinea on the coast. They speak two dialects of the Bantu Mvumbo language.
Population: 4,000
  • The Kola AKA Koya of Congo and northwestern Gabon speak a Bantu language, Ngom.
Population: 2,600
Population: 3,000
Mbuti
  • The Efé speak the Central Sudanic language Lese.
Population: 10,000?
  • The Asoa speak their own Central Sudanic language (Asoa),related to Mangbetu, the language of one of their patrons.
Population: 10,000?
  • The Kango AKA Sua speak the Bantu language Bila.
Population: 26,000?
Twa

The various Twa populations all speak Bantu languages.

Population: 1,000
Population: 10,000
Population: 14,000

Physically, these southern Twa do not differ from their Bantu neighbors, but have a similar subservient position to their agricultural neighbors as the forest Pygmies. They may be remnant Khoisan populations; the Ila, Tonga, and Lenje of Zambia, and the Chewa of Malawi, for example, believe them to be aboriginal peoples, and trace sacred places to them, but Blench suggests that they may have instead migrated from the forest with the Bantu, and were later conflated with aboriginal populations in legend.[13]

Bibliography[edit]

The most complete account of Pygmy languages is found in Serge Bahuchet (1993) Histoire d'une civilisation forestière, volume 2.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Generally speaking; those who are not particularly short, such as the Babongo and Bedzan, are sometimes distinguished as "pygmoid".
  2. ^ Apart from those who live in the savannah or mixed terrain, such as the Bofi and Bedzan.
  3. ^ Blench, Roger. 1999. "Are the African Pygmies an Ethnographic Fiction?". Pp 41–60 in Biesbrouck, Elders, & Rossel (eds.) Challenging Elusiveness: Central African Hunter-Gatherers in a Multidisciplinary Perspective. Leiden.[1]
  4. ^ Ruhlen, Merritt. The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New York, 1994. p. 154
  5. ^ Blench, Roger. 1997. "The languages of Africa". In Blench & Spriggs (eds.), Archaeology and language IV
  6. ^ R. Blench and M. Dendo. Genetics and linguistics in sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge-Bergen, June 24, 2004.
  7. ^ Klieman, Kairn A. The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and BaTwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900, Heinemann, 2003.
  8. ^ Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, ed. African Pygmies. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1986.
  9. ^ Serge Bahuchet, 1993, History of the inhabitants of the central African rain forest: perspectives from comparative linguistics. In C.M. Hladik, ed., Tropical forests, people, and food: Biocultural interactions and applications to development. Paris: Unesco/Parthenon.
  10. ^ There are other, undocumented hunter-gatherer forest peoples such as the Mbati and Bolimba of the Central African Republic, and there are thought to be more in the two Congos and in Angola.
  11. ^ Holoholo is in approximately the right location
  12. ^ Kazadi 1981:838 reports the Cwa were living with the Luba when they moved south and contacted the Hemba. (Méprisés et admirés: l'ambivalence des relations entre le Bacwa (Pygmées) et les Bahemba (Bantu). Africa 51-4.)
  13. ^ [2]
  • Serge Bahuchet, 2006. "Languages of the African Rainforest « Pygmy » Hunter-Gatherers: Language Shifts without Cultural Admixture."[3] In Historical linguistics and hunter-gatherers populations in global perspective. Leipzig.
  • Hewlett & Fancher, 2011. "Central African Hunter-Gatherer Research Traditions". In Cummings, Jordan, & Zvelebil, eds, Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers. Oxford University Press