Towards a semantic investigation of cattle appearance in Hamar

Author: Sara Petrollino (Leiden University Centre for Linguistics)
Speaker: Sara Petrollino
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL AFALA 2021 General Session


The languages spoken by African pastoralists are known for having incredibly rich vocabularies and complex expressions to refer to the appearance of livestock coats. These visual systems are usually mentioned in the color naming debate as examples of lingua-cultures which challenge the universal saliency of chromatic qualities. Despite the rich anthropological and ethnographic literature on cattle “color” and “pattern” terms and their cultural and symbolic values, linguistic studies focusing on attentive semantic analysis of the categorization systems of bovine cultures are rare. This paper will report on a study carried out among the agro-pastoralist Hamar people in South West Ethiopia, and it will discuss some preliminary results obtained with the triangulation of traditional ethnographic methods and denotation-based methods. The rich vocabulary that Hamar speakers use to describe individual coat variations and phenotypes will be discussed, and the semantics of the attested categories will be explored. Non-chromatic visual qualities are less salient in the Hamar visual experience, and the results suggest that stand-out effects and visual contrasts are central to the meanings of at least some Hamar categories. The study provides interesting insights into the Hamar indigenous categorization system and how visual experience is communicated in terms of cattle appearance.

Keywords: visual semantics, cattle color terms, pastoralism, TEK, world views