There is much that linguistics can learn from history. There is also much that historians can learn from linguists. There is even an area of linguistics which attempts to bring together history and linguistics. Such an area is known as historical linguistics. Much of historical linguistics attempts to account for linguistic change. For languages with a writing system this may include studies of changes in the spelling system of the language over time. For instance, in Setswana though the language has a short written history it has already gone through some changes orthographically. One reading the earlier writings of the Batswana finds the name of the Setswana language spelt as Secoana, Sechwana, Secuana, or Sichuana. The 1908 Setswana Bible spell ja “eat” as ya. Even as recent as some 20 years ago, setshaba was spelt as sechaba. Other historical linguistics studies attempt to describe and account for sound changes of certain words in the language – that is, how certain words have changed pronunciation over the years. From the description of sound change, linguists then develop theories of how and why such changes have occurred. Historical linguistics also deals with the classification of languages – seeing how they are related. For instance, the study of clusters of Bantu languages and conditions which have engendered splits of language communities. Historical linguistics like the general discipline of history attempts to account for the history of certain speech communities. Of general interest to me is the area of the study of the history of words known as etymology. Etymology is a broad area. It has had a great impact in the documentation and representation of meaning in dictionaries. The case in point is the development of the Oxford English Dictionary written on historical principles. Such a dictionary has an ambitious aim of recording each English word from its birth to its death, carefully documenting the development of its shades of meaning over time. Richard Chenevix Trench therefore considered a dictionary as “an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view; and the wrong ways into which a language has wandered or been disposed to wander, may be nearly as instructive as the right ones in which it has traveled: as much as may be learned, or nearly as much from its failures as from its success, from its follies as from its wisdom”.
An interesting paper on Setswana lexicon was recently published by Morton and Hitchcock (2013). It is published by the South African Historical Journal. It is entitled Tswana Hunting: Continuities and Changes in the Transvaal and Kalahari after 1600. It is about hunting in the Kalahari and Transvaal area as practised by the Tswana. The authors cleverly study the vocabulary from the 1600 which reveal the way of life from the period. They also look at what the different animals were used for as well as the weapons that were used during the hunts. Some of the vocabulary that they list include: bogale blade of a spear, knife (also ‘anger, sharpness’) bora bow, bora le motswi bow and arrow, digopo hunting blinds, pits, kobe spear with barbed blade, kobi whip snare, lemena game pit (with spikes), lerumo spear, letsomo/letsholo hunting party, lore spear shaft, handle, losane broad-bladed spear, makgolela bow string, mokgotla a trap (falling log), mogotshe bow string, molamu knobkerrie, mosokela-tsebeng bow string, motlhala spoor, motswi arrow/fishing spear/point, mutlwana(e) snare, segae/segai spear, assegai, segole whip snare, selekela game pit, selekelo/telekelo place to which animals chased, sekotlopo quiver for arrows, selatedi pit for trapping ostriches and small game, senya notch in an arrow, setai/serai snare, trap, pit, theko spear handle, shaft, knobkerrie, thipa knife, tlhabadilebanye bowstring, tlhagare small iron arrow tip, tlhobolo quiver for arrows (archaic; adopted for firearm, gun, rifle), tshane broad-bladed spear; sharpened stick used by herdboys, tshosa long spear with large blade.
One impressing thing to note concerning this data is that it demonstrates meaning change. For instance, the word tlhobolo before the advent of firearms used to mean a quiver for arrows and with the advent of guns there was a semantic shift and it was exclusively used to refer to a gun or rifle. Many think that the term mosokela-tsebeng which is now used to mean a telephone (especially a fixed line) is a recent invention. However, mosokela-tsebeng has also undergone semantic shift since it originates from a bow string which used to be pulled to the ear when someone was shooting an arrow. This action is similar to the one where someone pulls a receiver to the ear to listen and speak. Additionally the representation of lemena as game pit (with spikes) brings clarity to the Setswana idiom: go epela motho lemena (literally to dig a game pit for someone). It demonstrates the degree of harm & the murderous action of such an action. Certain words are now archaic such as tshane and tshosa (this word is not to be confused with the verb meaning to frighten but it must be pronounced as the name of the kgotla both in Serowe & Molepolole kwa gooTshosa). Another word which is used differently these days is the word sekotlopo. This word is used when someone swallows a number of objects quickly without chewing them first, we say o di metsa sekotlopo, i.e. he swallows them as a quiver for arrows swallows the arrows. Strangely the meaning of a quiver for arrows is completely lost especially since hunting has diminished.
It is important that linguists consider the work of historians and learn a thing or two. It will certainly enrich their view of language and therefore gain a better understanding of their discipline, linguistics.