History and the Testimony of Language

History and the Testimony of Language

History and the Testimony of Language

History and the Testimony of Language

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

GLOBAL HISTORY AND LANGUAGE EVIDENCE

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 practical book on writing human history from the documentation of language.

The writing of history from language evidence begins with a fact, simple in statement but complex in its implications: every language is an archive. Its documents are the thousands of words that make up its lexicon. Each development of a new word, each shift in meaning or change in usage of an existing word, takes place for a human historical reason. Sometimes the reason may have been an ephemeral factor of taste or fashion no longer recoverable. But more often that not, word histories have practical and discernable causes. New words come into use, and old words change meaning or add new meanings, because change takes place in the particular elements of human knowledge, belief, custom, or livelihood to which they refer.

Word histories directly register the cultural events of human history. From each word’s history we can infer different individual elements of the human history that lies behind the changes the word has undergone. From the histories of many words together we can build up a complex understanding of the history of the society as . . .

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