Expanding the Atlantic Toolkit: An Exploration of Historical Linguistics for Atlantic History

AHA Session 37
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia
Chelsea Berry, Georgetown University
Marcos Leitão de Almeida, Northwestern University
Kathryn de Luna, Georgetown University
Christina Mobley, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

While the importance of Africa and Africans to the creation and development of the Atlantic World has received increasing, and long-overdue, attention in the past twenty-five years, the methods employed to build their histories have largely relied upon sources written by Europeans. The pre-colonial African societies that participated in the Atlantic World were largely—with some exceptions—orally based and the conditions of slavery in the Atlantic limited the possibilities for many to leave behind the kinds of written records most historians have been trained to work with. While much nuanced and admirable work has been done in reading European-created sources “against the grain,” the uneven comparability of sources continues to pose a challenge to crafting histories of ideas held by Africans in the Atlantic. We propose the adoption of historical linguistics into Atlanticists’ methodological toolkit to help overcome this challenge. Historical linguistics is a way of drawing historical evidence from an archive of words, with forms and meanings of word roots reconstructed from both ‘genetic’ relationships between existing languages and changes in vocabulary that indicate word borrowing or expansions of meaning from existing roots. Historians of pre-colonial Africa have used this method for decades to create webs of word histories around concepts ranging from subsistence to motherhood to leadership, with analytical possibilities for both material and abstract domains of thought. Developed to construct longue durée histories in Africa, historical linguistics has exciting potential for changing how we write histories of cultural changes and continuities regarding Africa and Africans in the Atlantic. Understanding the deeper history of, for example, conceptions of public healing or slavery in West Central Africa, places Atlantic cultural adaptations and transformations in context and offers crucial insights into how these changes took place. The proposed roundtable will explore the possibilities of historical linguistics as part of our expanding toolkit for understanding the ideas, strategies, and aspirations of Africans and their descendants through their circulation—involuntary and voluntary—in the Atlantic. It will bring together two pre-colonial Africanists, both deeply grounded in linguistic training and fieldwork, and two Atlanticists, pioneers in attempting to bring historical linguistics into the study of the Atlantic World. With a diversity of experience and positions in our relative careers, we each bring a unique perspective to the potential of this kind of research, as well as its challenges and limitations. Together, we will discuss our work using this method to weave histories of the intellectual worlds, ideas, and conceptual metaphors developed by Africans in Africa and the diaspora. What could the adoption of this method bring to the study of the Atlantic World, a dense web navigated by so many whose inner lives are missed by available documents? And how would the field begin to train scholars to be capable of using such a method?
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