Academic journal article Ethnology

Culture, Practice, and the Semantics of Xhosa Beer-Drinking

Academic journal article Ethnology

Culture, Practice, and the Semantics of Xhosa Beer-Drinking

Article excerpt

Rural Xhosa beer-drinking is associated with a specialized lexicon related to producing, distributing, and ritually consuming maize beer in communal settings. Understanding this provides important insights into the status of beer as an indigenous commodity and the link between its consumption and sociopolitical and economic relations. It is in relation to the formal cultural framework of which the beer-drinking register is part that individual agency is exercised and a reflexive engagement with social practice occurs, and through which the meaning of specific ritual events is negotiated. (Xhosa, ritual lexicon, beer-drinking register, indigenous commodities)


The social nature of consuming alcoholic beverages has received considerable attention from anthropologists, many of whom have noted the importance of the conversation that accompanies drinking and which provides vital clues to its significance (Frake 1972). However, the language associated with the process of producing, distributing, and consuming the beverage itself is a neglected topic, as is evident, for example, from Douglas's (1987) collection of essays on drinking behavior and Heath's (1987a and 1987b) extensive reviews of work on the social use of alcohol. Much of the ethnography of drinking, concerned as it is with social messages or the relationship between drinking and other social phenomena, has ignored the indigenous terminology associated with the beverage consumed, failing to document it or explicitly recognize its role in the construction of the analysis. (1)

A variety of Xhosa beer-drinking terms are discussed in this article with a view to demonstrating how they contribute to an understanding of public beer-drinking events (hereafter referred to as beer-drinks). It becomes clear from a study of this kind that beer is not a homogeneous thing, but a social commodity that gives symbolic substance to a variety of ideas about moral and social relationships. Beer's status as a social commodity, based on its exchangeability, emerges in the nomenclature given to it and in the meaning and value attached to it in particular contexts. Expressed slightly differently, beer's social potential is fulfilled through the various naming and associated distribution (exchange) strategies applied to it. Through differentiating beer in a variety of ways and by linking it to other forms of symbolization based on the spatial and temporal features of beer-drinking encounters, the exchange and consumption of this alcoholic beverage are used by people to imaginatively construct their world. In this sense Xhosa beer-drinking is generally similar to the ritualized consumption of food in many parts of the world. As with feasting or other forms of ceremonial drinking such as kava in the Pacific, it facilitates the construction of identity and the negotiation of sociopolitical relationships (LeCount 2001; Turner 1992; Brison 2001).

The fieldwork for this study was conducted among conservative Xhosa-speakers in Shixini ward or administrative area of the Willowvale district of South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, in what was formerly the Transkei. Like other rural Xhosa-speakers, people in Shixini spend a great deal time attending a wide variety of events associated with drinking home-brewed maize beer (utywala or umqombothi). It is no surprise, therefore, that beer-drinking is associated with a specialized lexicon, a set of words and terms that constitute a beer-drinking register. Many of these are found only in association with beer, but others are everyday words used creatively to produce specific contextual meanings at beer-drinks. This lexicon is divided below into semantic groups according to different phases of beer-drinking. In the process it becomes evident that the words themselves are part of an elaborate etiquette that is used to impart cultural significance to drinking and the relationships involved in it. (2)

The formalization of a beer-drinking lexicon as an aspect of rural Xhosa culture imposes certain constraints on the range of meanings that may be associated with beer and restricts the uses to which it may be put. …

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