Cattle-talk: the language of colour among East African pastoralists
What categories exist in the languages of pastoralists? Do these semantic concepts reflect universal or languagespecific tendencies? What (environment? culture?) governs the similarities (or the differences) attested crosslinguistically in cattle colour systems?
Livestock is a central cultural theme in the pastoral societies of Africa. The languages of pastoralists have incredibly complex expressions to refer to the colours and patterns of the animal coats. These expressions are important for cultural and ritual purposes, but they also reflect the indigenous knowledge of animal categorization and breeding. Loss of biodiversity however is endangering the traditional knowledge linked to livestock. Animal biology studies have demonstrated how cultural preferences and indigenous knowledge have shaped breed selection and preserved cattle biodiversity in African countries.
In spite of the rich ethnographic and zoological literature on cattle colour, no empirical studies have been conducted to investigate how this subsistence economy (pastoralism) influences the language and its categorization systems. Fundamentally, the question of how cattle colours are categorized and expressed in languages is yet to be answered.
- What categories exist in the languages of pastoralists?
- Do these semantic concepts reflect universal or languagespecific tendencies?
- What (environment? culture?) governs the similarities (or the differences) attested crosslinguistically in cattle colour systems?
The project will document the ethno-taxonomies of three languages of East Africa: Hamar, Oromo and Maasai. A cattle-talk corpus will be compiled, which will include natural linguistic and social interactions, and cattlerelated genres. An ethnographic approach will be combined with methods of anthropological and cognitive linguistics to better understand colour and pattern categorization.
This investigation is relevant to all kind of cattle research. Beyond colour science, the study will bring important insights into the linguistic history of East African pastoralists: cattle representation is prominent in the rock art of the region and coat-colour polymorphism (and cattle appearance) is taken as diagnostic for determining cattle domestication and the spread of pastoralism in Africa. Understanding cattle colour expressions can moreover clarify the relation between pastoral indigenous knowledge and the genetics of cattle colour.