Mailbag: Latin words into Bantu

2 minute read

Re: “The genetic complexity of recent migration into southern Africa”

Hi John I'm a Comm Theory guy with an interest in linguistics. So I pick up snatches about linguistics from all sorts of odd sources, including fiction. Your last post reminded me of a series of fascinating novels I read several years ago about Southern Africa by Laurens van der Post (this one is A Story Like the Wind). These books include a great deal of detail about the lives of Khoisan and Bantu people a hundred years ago. I can't vouch for van der Post's understanding here, but it is an interesting discussion of Latin loan words found in Bantu languages due to Bantu migration from the far North. Fun to think there might be such words in these languages due to long-ago migrations, though it seems unlikely. If such loan words were in Bantu languages, they could also have come through other means. Still, here is the fascinating passage. A father speaking to the son, Francois. After Francois' ill father says "Langa, valela" to the dying sun (a Sindabele phrase for Goodbye, sun), the father explains: "'What better way of saying farewell to the day? These moments are moments of long and ancient standing in nature and need ancient words to acknowledge them. What could be more ancient than the valela of the Matabele? For have you considered with the knowledge of Latin which I have tried too hard to instill in your teeming brain, that valela could well have come from the ancient Romans themselves, since it is just an orchestration of the Latin farewell, the vale of Rome?'" "From there he went on at great length, hiding himself and his feelings in the smokescreen of discourse, to enlarge on one of the most beloved of his many theories which argued that since Bantu man had slowly come over the millenniums out of the far and mysterious north of Africa, he may at some Mediterranean moment of his history have had contact with the earliest Romans and acquired some of their vocabulary. Vale indeed was not the only evidence for such a theory. There were other words, like the ene, bene, the one two, which began the Bantu system of counting. Even more imposing, there were great sonorous words like innundatat, the Zulu indication of a flood, to suggest a suspicion of influence from the Latin." He argued all this eloquently and long, with many examples from 'Xhosa, Zulu and Sindabele . . ." Chapter Four, "Foot of the Day," in Laurens van der Post's A Story Like the Wind. San Diego: A Harvest Book [Harcourt Brace & Co] 1972. In any case, I enjoy your blog! Warm Regards

Indeed, yes I think this is plausible. That is one reason why I am cautious about reconstructions of languages beyond a certain point; enough long-distance movement was happening to muck with our assumptions about language homologies.