Saturday, September 21, 2019

Our Colonial Heritage

In our childhood—perhaps to this day—children playing too loudly or wildly were routinely called “Hottentots” and reminded to Stop it! Stop it! It occurred to me that there might really have been Hottentots once; and in Europe Africans might have been viewed at a great distance as generally wild…

Turns out it is true. The word comes from the Dutch settlers of the southern tip of Africa, the Cape Colony. The word was initially a way of imitating the speech patterns of the Khoikhoi peoples native there. The Khoikhoi used many click consonants in their speech (clip-clop being an example in English). That wildness is associated with them is obviously due to Europe’s distance from Africa and ordinary Europeans’ general ignorance.

As the enclosed illustration shows, they were pastoralists with orderly habits, shown here preparing for one of their recurring moves (source)

Those who’ve followed my source-link above will have noted that the article referenced is titled “Hottentot (racial term)”. When I began this post, I did not know that it was. Then I recalled Prime Minister Trudeau’s problem, reported yesterday, that he had worn “blackface” in the 1990s. Was “blackface” also a “racial term”? Evidently not. Wikipedia’s article on that subject is not so designated. Racialism, of course, is a problem. But its practice and use in language is recent. Now it happens that Hottentot is based on the Boer’s difficulty in understanding the language they heard—not on the skin-color of the speakers. So the Boers used a repetitious but meaningless sound to describe the people they’d encountered.

My next topic should now be “barbarians,” but time’s run out. That word comes from the Greek and was descriptive of people who seemed to repeat themselves—bar, bar, bar. Humanity’s earliest racialism appears to have been directed at those who couldn’t speak their language.

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