How to Distil Words and Obtain Culture History*

By Vansina, Jan | History In Africa, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

How to Distil Words and Obtain Culture History*


Vansina, Jan, History In Africa


I

Nearly every historian of early African history has recently encountered studies that use the history of words as a source for history more generally defined, an approach also known as words-and-things. Indeed, by now a more or less elaborate use of words-and-things has become fashionable, especially in the Anglophone literature. A number of short presentations of the overall principles underlying this approach have been published, but they all lack an extended discussion of the methodological issues involved.1 Perhaps this is the main reason why words-and- things analyses are almost never subjected to critical scrutiny, while the conclusions of studies based on them, however weak or strong they might be, tend to be accepted as gospel-a most unsatisfactory situation. Hence a book-length study of the methodology involved in the application of words-and-things should be very welcome.

As Klein-Arendt's book is devoted exclusively to this subject, it should fill the gap. Yet it will disorient most readers of this journal because K-A is not concerned with the solution of smaller- or large-scale problems of history as understood by such readers, but focuses on the epistemology of the central European school known as Kulturgeschichte (more or less "Culture History"), to which he subscribes and which is likely to be largely unknown to most readers.2 Yet when the expression "words-and-things" was first coined in 1909. it was intended to be a tool to elucidate Kulturgeschichte. Indeed, the journal from which the label sterns was called Wörter und Sachen. Kulturhistorische Zeitschrift für Sprach-und Sachforschung (Words and Things, a journal of Culture History for Research in Languages and Things) and on its very first page Rudolf Meringer stated that "[l]inguistics is only a portion of the science of culture ... We hold that the future of Kulturgeschichte resides in the union of the science of language with the science of things" in which "things" stood for what came to be better known as "culture traits."3

Nevertheless, K-A's book remains the only work devoted to a full discussion of the methodology for words-and-things and, as such, is worthy of attention. Not only does K-A address these issues theoretically, but he both illustrates and substantiates his arguments by providing a fully developed case study intended to provide the proof of the theoretical pudding. Before we turn to a discussion of his methodological considerations, it may be helpful to dwell a bit on his choice of case-study because that is also a handy introduction into the epistemology of culture historians.

II

This case-study focuses on the history of ironworking among the Bantuspeaking savanna dwellers of east-central, eastern, and southern Africa. K-A's reasons for choosing this case seem to be the following. Along with many other linguists, he holds (14) that the Bantu languages of these regions form one of the major genetic subdivisions of Bantu. Furthermore, along with his doctoral adviser W.J. Möhlig, but against the views of most linguists, he argues (18-21, 71-73) that these languages are the result of a series of overlapping linguistic "waves" or diffusions, each of which was accompanied by its own package of culture traits, and he seems to hold further that most of these diffusions resulted from separate migrations. In his vision, all the modern Bantu languages are the product of a series of such waves and their cultures the sum of the deposits of successive layers or strata of cultural elements. He plans to use the words-andthings approach in order to disentangle the various strata and thus to recover the history of "the" Savanna Bantu Iron Age culture. His case study about ironworking is only a first step towards that goal, for K-A wants further lexical studies of related domains, beginning with those that are closest to ironworking, namely (260), "iron products, house construction, agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, war, medicine, the naming of groups, and other crafts such as woodworking, plaiting and ceramics" Doing this will lead to an all-encompassing account of the historical processes that created a reified entity known as "the" Savanna Bantu Iron culture.

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