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Lecture | This Time for Africa! series

Ethnonyms as windows into the past: untangling past and present contacts in Ngamiland, Botswana

Friday 31 May 2024
This Time for Africa! series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


The Ngamiland region of northwestern Botswana is an area of high ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity, resulting from different layers of migration, intensive contacts across social divides, and the creation of new lifeways and identities. In order to better understand the cultural and linguistic landscape of Ngamiland, I provide a linguistic analysis of ethnonyms, the names that modern-day speech communities in and around Ngamiland use for themselves and their neighbours. The same ethnolinguistic group is often known by different names among neighbouring groups, which again are often not synonymous with the name by which they refer to themselves. At the same time, historically related roots do not always refer to the same ethnolinguistic group. A detailed study of the phonological and semantic adaptations of ethnonyms makes it possible to trace their origin, the changes in meaning that they have undergone and the past and present social dynamics that underly these linguistic changes. As such ethnonyms can provide important insights into language and population history, especially with regard to contact.

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