Who Are/Were the Hottentots?
Bill Long 1/21/07
A Mirror into Ourselves
While researching synonyms for stuttering, I came across this quotation from leading 19th century anthropologist Edward Tylor (1871): "The term Hottentotism has been thence adopted as a medical description of one of the varieties of stammering." I had known the two other "obscure" synonymns for stuttering or stammering--psellism and balbutience, but I had never heard Hottentotism used for this purpose. This and the next essay tell you what Europeans knew or thought they knew about this unique African tribal group from SW Africa, beginning in the 17th century. I will even get into a topic which makes a normal person blanch, and that is the explanation of the term "Hottentot apron" (i.e. the unusual labia minora of Hottentot women).
Beginning with the Cowardly Lion
The first time I heard the word Hottentot was when I was a boy. My favorite movie was "The Wizard of Oz," and my favorite character in that movie was, I am almost reluctant to admit, the cowardly lion. Played by Bert Lahr, the lion was an outsized sissy who finally realized through a bit of psychobabble from the "uncovered" Wizard himself that he had the bravery to assume his role as king of the forest within him all the time. I memorized his Air on Courage when the foursome had made it to the Emerald City and were awaiting an audience with the Wizard. His song mentions the Hottentots (as you may recall, the lion sang these words with dramatic paw gestures and a defiant and brave intonation). Sing along if you dare:
"Courage. What makes a King out of a slave? Courage.
What makes the slave on the mast to wave? Courage.
What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.
What makes the Sphinx the 7th Wonder?
What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER? Courage.
What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the "ape" in ape-ricot?
Whadda they got that I ain't got? ALL: COURAGE.
Doesn't that just bring back all kinds of memories?
Meeting the "Hottentots"
If we understand that the Dutch first encountered a people later known as the Hottentots when they stopped off at the Cape of Good Hope on the way to the East Indies in 1649, we have the most important fact to understand our story. The Dutch called them the "hot-en-tot," which represented a kind of imitative description of stammering in reference to the "clicks" of the African speakers who came out to meet them ("en" is Dutch for "and"). The first English-language treatise to use the word was the 1671 edition of Thomas Herbert's A Relation of Some years Travaile..into Afrique and the Greater Asia: "While these Hatten-totes were in our company.." By the end of the 17th century, the English were aware that "Hottentot" was not the name of the group but was simply the imitative sound of their speech. From 1697: "The word Hottantot..is the Name by which they call to one another..as if every one of them had this for his Name." It wasn't until the end of the 18th century, however, that the proper name of the group of these SW Africans was settled on by Europeans. From 1801, "[The name] by which the whole nation was distinguished, and which at this moment they bear among themselves in every part of the country, is Quaiquae." By the late 19th Century the encyclopedia of British pride, Britannica (12th ed.) could say: "The common denomination adopted by themselves was the Khoi-Khoin (men of men). From then on the Hottentot name for themselves was understood to be Khoikhoi. Currently the term to describe these SW Africans is Khoisan: "The term [sc. Khoisan] is compounded of the names Khoi-Khoin, by which the Hottentots call themselves, and San, applied by the Hottentots to the Bushmen.
What Europeans Really Thought about the Hottentots
It didn't take long after discovery of the Hottentots for the Europeans to conclude that they represented among the most degraded people on the face of the globe. From 1718 we have: "the Spiritual is reduc'd to a Hottentot Way of Government." Or, from later that century: "It is a lost labor to civilize him, for sooner or later he will hottentot again." So, what do you do? Of course, you send missionaries in to call them back from their heathenish ways. If one could redeem a Hottentot, maybe the Kingdom of God would not be long delayed. Samuel Taylor Coleridge could say in 1817: "Some Hottentots were converted from Hottentotism through the pious labors of the Missionary Society." If that isn't the most Euro-or Anglo-centric way of characterizing a people! As if they had their own system of beliefs known as "Hottentotism." Such characterizations certainly encouraged compassionate study of their culture, don't you think? In the mid-19th century the same prejudice abounded, where one author could lament: "In what Hottentot ignorance these poor creatures are at present reared..." One other comment from this web site on the Hottentots is appropriate:
"Their native barbarism and idle desert life, together with a wretched ignorance of all virtues, imposes upon their minds every form of vicious pleasure. In faithlessness, inconstancy, lying, cheating, treachery and infamous concern with every kind of lust they exercise their villainy."
Thus, Hottentot became synonymous with someone ignorant, backward or pagan. To add insult to injury, by about 1715 a smallpox epidemic caused by the incursion of colonists into SW Africa had substantially wiped out the "Hottentot" population.
The "Click" Language
The things that struck the Europeans when encountering the "Hottentot" were their physical features and their spoken language. They were similar to the Bushmen and Bantus in that they had long heads, tight bushy hair, prominent buttocks (the technical term is "steatopygian") and only moderately negroid features. It wasn't until the 19th century that Europeans tried seriously to come to grips with their language. What is a "click"? The OED defines it as "a class of articulations occurring in certain languages of S. Africa, consisting of sharp non-vocal sounds formed by suction, with the sudden withdrawal of the tongue fromt he part of the mouth with which it is in contact." At first the British thought that the language was meaningless gibberish, but when they encountered other "click" language groups, they decided that there was a significance in the speech after all. From 1884: "The Bushmen languages can show eight clicks, the Hottentots four, and the Zulu-Kaffir three." It wasn't until the 1920s, however, that Prof. C.M. Doke of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa published the first English-Zulu dictionary, where he had to establish a phonetic value for the various "click" sounds. I don't think that the world is studying Doke's book. It currently ranks 2,151,360 in popularity on the Amazon website... But, as good fortune would have it, by the time we get to our day (or, at least, the 1970s), the evaluation of the click languages by Europeans has changed. No longer are they seen as primitive efforts at communication. "The beauty of the Zulu language is the alliteration provided by the click sound."
With this emphasis on the Hottentot speaking the "click" language, one can understand how Hottentotism became associated with stammering in English usage at the end of the 19th century. But there was one discovery about the Hottentot so strange and so repulsive that it was confined to Latin-language books and publications for more than a century. This relates to the "Hottentot apron," a deformity of the women's labia minora. Let's not turn to that subject in the next essay, even if I spare you some pictures.