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Ethnicity

Tribe and People
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Question:
I want to thank you on your research piece on Ethnic Groups.  I have two quick questions.
1. Could it be possible that two people of equally distinct cultural traits interact for a lengthy period of time and eventually assimilate each others language; and that both languages are the same but with slightly different intonations?
2. I noticed that the word "Peoples" is used in place of "Tribe."  I have had arguments concerning calling some people tribes. Could you comment on that?

Answer:
You have noted correctly that the term "peoples" is generally used in the same way as "tribe" in certain circles.  The various terms used to refer to an ethnolinguistic or socioethnic group vary from place to place and time to time as well as discipline to discipline.  Terms are general working terms that are used very loosely in informal contexts, but defined internally for each discipline or research context.  I deal with definitions in my various writings.

The Terms
The English term "tribe" is a generally positive term, but carries some connotations for some people that are narrow or even negative.  But in many areas of the world the term is widely used both formally and informally with a very positive connotation.  You will also find the term used in various academic disciplines.  The term "tribe" is used more technically in some disciplines to indicate a specific social lineage group with a self-identified society.  But otherwise the term is generally equivalent to the more neutral term "ethnic group," "people" or "people group."

The term "tribe" was commonly used in East Africa.  The equivalent Swahili (Arabic) term "kabila" was used in local languages in the same way.  We would use that term in Swahili for American or the various European "tribes" of people.  It often depends on how local your focus is.  In local and regional contexts, the English word may be used like the equivalent terms in local languages.

Related Cultures
Now as to the similarity and language or traits shared by a people with another.  Yes, it is definitely the case worldwide that peoples of different backgrounds come together and gradually merge.  Ethnic groups now very similar in culture and language may consider themselves as separate ethnic groups.

Their awareness of their individual origins may lead that group to focus on that origin as their primary identifying factor.  This may be reinforced by lineage names or personal given name patterns.  Similarly, unique social customs or practices may be retained from their old cultural identity, which further distinguishes them from their neighbours who now speak the same language.

The original separate groups may be totally unrelated groups who found themselves living close together and gradually one adopted the language of the other, or perhaps both original groups adopted a third language used by a more dominant group or a common trading language used in their area.

Usually each tribe or people will recall their separate origins in their own oral traditions.  This is the case with the majority of the American people.  Most families know where their ancestors originally came from at least vaguely, but they know they are mixed with various peoples from different origins and consider their family lineage or broader "racial" group as a separate people from any of the original cultures their ancestors came from.

Divergence
On the other hand you may also find two groups descended from the same older "parent" group who have grown in number and developed differences in their practices or preferences in various cultural characteristics.  They may still speak forms of the same language but otherwise think of themselves as separate peoples.  Usually a people will know where they came from and know they are kin to certain other peoples.

But they may know likewise that it is so distant in history and each group has grown so large that they no longer think of themselves as directly kin.  In such cases, we might use the term "cousin peoples."  The more different their speech is, the more likely they will consider themselves to be a distinct ethnic group.  For example, the various "Germanic" peoples of Europe.  Some of these, such as the Franks (French) do not even speak a Germanic language now.

Look at my analysis on the concepts of Assimilation and Coalescence, explaining ways in which peoples merge into one new people or one people changes into two or more.

Case in Point
In my case, I find mixed ancestry in my mother's and father's family from these countries or peoples:  Welsh, Dutch, Irish, Cherokee Indian, Breton (French Celtic), Norman, perhaps Saxon.  For my children, my wife's family lines add French, Scottish, German, Norwegian and some uncertain other sources.  We are none of the old peoples fully, yet we are positively affirming of those heritages in our lineage.

But we speak American English as a native language.  Our family culture includes customs and foods from various sources, since America is a mix of many things from around the world.  My sons were born and grew up in Kenya, so they don't feel very American, though they went to University and married in the US and now live there.

Detribalized
For instance I grew up in Texas, and Texas food ("Mexican food") is one of our family's favorites.  And we lived in Kenya for 25 years, where Indian Food was popular with everyone (including Kenyans).  We love "sukuma wiki" (collards) fixed the Kikuyu way, and often served with "ugali" (boiled corn meal paste).  My wife is an excellent cook of both Indian and Mexican cuisines.  And she prepares the collard and other dishes in Kenyan way.

In situations like this, the term "tribe" is not usually used.  Societies like Europe and America, and urban African settings, the term "detribalized" is sometimes used to indicate this move from a family-lineage type of society into a broader dispersed society, which usually becomes more focused on the individual.

Urban Africa
In Nairobi and other African capitals, you see two patterns.  First, the tribal communities, where people of the same language or lineage tend to live together, in one section of the city, help each other get jobs, etc. Second, the more detribalized, individualized families of people who have been born and grown up in the mixed urban society.

The latter also often cannot speak the language of their grandparents, and often marry individuals from other original language or ethnic groups.  This sometimes produces a further detribalized segment of urban society.  Sometimes it can also create new ethnic groups.

Also related
Assimilation and Coalescence:  How Ethnicities Develop and Change
Ethnicity, Language and Population
Peoples and Languages

OBJ

Written in answer to an email query 21 October 2009
Finalized and posted on OJTR 22 October 2009
Last edited 28 August 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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