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October 2021

Int J Rehabil Res. 1998 Mar; 21(1): 51-62.

Physical 'disability' in Bantu languages: understanding the relativity of classification and meaning.

Devlieger PJ.

Institute on Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA.

The terminology related to 'physical disability' in proto-Bantu and in contemporary Bantu languages of Zone L are examined for a better understanding of African classification and meaning. The methods used in the examination include 'words and things' and ethnographic fieldwork. In proto-Bantu, nominal classes are used to categorize disability as both human and non-human. Based on the distribution of terminology, a support for differing regional and historical meaning is developed. The most ancient meaning links physical disability to 'becoming heavy' out of which variants developed. In contemporary Bantu languages in Zone L, the widespread use of the term -lema reemphasizes categorization in both human and non-human, and the use of meaning found in proto-Bantu is evident. However, ethnographic work in the same language area indicates that other terms are important to an understanding of classification and meaning related to physical disability in Zone L. These terms relate to sorcery or reincarnation as meanings attached to disability.


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