Comparative Bantu Pottery Vocabulary

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The Comparative Bantu Pottery Vocabulary Database has been mainly composed during the PhD-research which Koen Bostoen carried out at the Service of Linguistics of the Royal Museum for Central Africa between 2000 and 2004. The research was made possible thanks to a grant of the Fonds d'Encouragement à la Recherche de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles.

The Comparative Bantu Pottery Vocabulary Database offers a comprehensive collection of pottery related vocabulary in the Bantu languages.

Bantu-speaking communities live in Africa south of a line from Nigeria across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya, to southern Somalia in the east. Most language communities between that line and the Cape are Bantu. We find communities speaking Bantu languages indigenous to twenty-seven African countries: Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mayotte, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Bantu family is recognized as forming part of the Niger-Congo phylum. Non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages are spoken north and mainly west of Bantu. Of some 750 million Africans, around 400 million people speak Niger-Congo languages, of whom some 240 million are Bantu-speakers, roughly one African in three (Nurse & Philippson 2003:1).

The invention of pottery is a highly significant cultural phenomenon in human history. Although the role of early ceramics in different areas of the world is still a matter of debate, the emergence of pottery in a culture has often been linked with important changes in lifestyle, such as sedentary living and the emergence of food production. Although pottery may have had different functions in different communities, and at distinct times in the same communities, it obviously had, and still has, a major impact on people’s lives. Ceramics have not only assumed a utilitarian role, for instance in the preparation and storage of food and beverages, but clay pots and figurines have also served ritual and medical purposes (Barnett & Hoopes 1995). In sub-Saharan Africa pottery is invested with great symbolic importance. The craft is surrounded with rituals and prohibitions and several steps in the production sequence serve as a metaphor for interpreting and acting upon certain facets of human experience. People make metaphoric use of pottery vocabulary to refer to transformations from wet to dry, soft to hard, raw to cooked, natural to cultural, impure to pure through the operation of heat, to mark isolation and destruction, to designate bodily cavities, or to discuss concepts like spirit, conception, and essence (Barley 1994; Gosselain 1999; Jacobson-Widding 1992). Moreover, ‘potting traditions are “sociotechnical aggregates”, an intricate mix of inventions, borrowed elements, and manipulations that display an amazing propensity to redefinition by individuals and local groups’ (Gosselain 2000). A potter’s technical behaviour leaves thus room for choices both along functional and social or symbolic lines, creating multifaceted associations between technological styles and social identity.

Because pottery making continues to be practiced throughout Africa, its manufacturing process, well described in ethnographic literature, also has become a key topic in ethno-archaeology. In addition, ceramics are archaeologists’ principal data source in Africa, at least for Ceramic Later Stone Age and Iron Age assemblages, because of their survival in poor conservation contexts. As part of their analysis, archaeologists classify pottery into related traditions ‘to situate cultures in time and in space, and to reconstruct not only exchange networks of goods and peoples, production and consumption patterns, sociopolitical structures, and more recently, thought systems’ (Gosselain 2002). This high archaeological visibility and ethnographic prominence, combined with a high linguistic prominence, makes pottery a particularly attractive subject of interdisciplinary research. Particular ceramic traditions and Bantu language subgroups have often been associated with each other (Huffman & Herbert 1994-95). However, a systematic comparative study of Bantu pottery vocabulary had never been carried out (Bostoen 2007).

The Comparative Bantu Pottery Vocabulary Database laid the foundations for such a systematic comparative study (Bostoen 2004a, 2004b, 2005, 2006, 2007). Its online publication makes it possible to check all lexical evidence on which the above publications relied for the reconstruction of the early history of pottery in Bantu-speaking Africa. Moreover, its data can be used for future comparative research, since they have not been fully exploited yet.

The Comparative Bantu Pottery Vocabulary Database's 5829 records originate from about 400 different (Narrow) Bantu languages and some few non-Bantu languages. They have been collected from diverse sources. The most important source is without doubt Lolemi, the Bantu language library of the RMCA. However, not only data from language studies but also from ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological studies available at the libraries of Prehistory & Archaeology, Ethnography and Ethnosociology & Ethnohistory of the RMCA have been integrated. Besides data from the scientific literature, the database contains data generously granted by colleagues through personal communication. In this respect thanks go to François Belliard, Robert Botne, Maud Devos, Conny Kutsch Lojenga, André Mangulu Motingea and Mark van de Velde. Reinhard Klein-Arendt (University of Köln) deserves special mention. He granted all the unpublished data he collected during the linguistic fieldwork he carried out in the Lake Corridor region (Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania) in 1995 and 1996. Fieldwork was also done by the composer of the database himself. In 1999, several potters were interviewed in Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. Data were gathered in following languages: Ndamba, Lozi, Lambya, Leya, Tonga, Tumbuka, and Chewa. In 2000, research was done in a Twa community in Burundi, i.e. the village of Kibumbu (province of Mwaro) (Bostoen & Harushimana 2003). In 2001, Ganda and Nyoro potters were interviewed in Uganda. Finally, the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique of Bukavu (DRC) collected pottery vocabulary in several languages of the Kivu region: Nande, Shi, Bembe, Fuliru and Vira. (J42). In the database, these data are labeled "ISP Bukavu 2002 (by order of Koen Bostoen)".


  • Barnett W. K. & Hoopes J. W. (eds.). 1995. The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Series in Archaeological Inquiry.
  • Barley N. 1994. Smashing Pots. Feats of Clay from Africa. London: The British Museum Press.
  • Bostoen K. 2004a. Etude comparative et historique du vocabulaire relatif à la poterie en bantou. Thèse. Bruxelles: Université libre de Bruxelles.
  • Bostoen K. 2004b. The vocabulary of pottery fashioning techniques in Great Lakes Bantu: A comparative onomasiological study. In Akinlabi Akinbiyi & Adesola Oluseye (eds), Proceedings of the 4th World Congress of African Linguistics , New Brunswick 2003, 391-408. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Bostoen K. 2005. Des mots et des pots en bantou. Une approche linguistique de l’histoire de la céramique en Afrique .Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, Research in African Studies Band 9.
  • Bostoen K. 2006. What comparative Bantu pottery vocabulary may tell us about early human settlement in the Inner Congo Basin. Afrique & Histoire 5: 221-263.
  • Bostoen K. 2007 (forthcoming). Pots, words and the Bantu problem: On lexical reconstruction and early African history. Journal of African History 48 (2)
  • Bostoen K. & Harushimana G. 2003. Parole et savoir-faire populaires: Conversations à propos de la poterie des Twa au Burundi, LPCA Text Archives 4: texte rundi transcrit, traduit, annoté, commenté et illustré de photos . Amsterdam: UA. Online publication:
  • Gosselain O.P. 1999. In pots we trust. The processing of clay and symbols in Sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Material Culture 4: 205-30.
  • Gosselain O.P. 2000. Materializing identities: an African perspective. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 187-217.
  • Gosselain O.P. 2002. Poteries du Cameroun méridional. Styles techniques et rapports à l'identité. Paris: CNRS Editions, Monographies du CRA 26.
  • Huffman T.N. & Herbert R.K. 1994-95. New perspectives on Eastern Bantu. Azania 29-30: 27-36.
  • Jacobson-Widding A. 1992. Pits, pots and snakes. An anthropological approach to ancient African symbols.Nordic Journal of African Studies 1: 5-27.
  • Nurse D. & Philippson G. (eds). 2003. The Bantu Languages. London-New York: Routledge.