1.  Introduction: The Maa Language
vs. Maasai Ethnicity

   In many cases, a language is a badge of identify for a specific ethnicity.  Ethnic groups that are genetically related in the biological sense often speak language varieties that are "genetically related" in a linguistic sense.  Nevertheless, we must scientifically distinguish ethnic group from language group or LANGUAGE FAMILY.  To illustrate the difference, consider that there are ethnically-distinct Italians, Jews, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, South Africans, Hausas, and so on, who all claim the English language as their first and primary language.  English belongs to the GERMANIC LANGUAGE FAMILY.  Close "language relatives" of English include German, Dutch, Norwegian, Frisian and Afrikaans -- but not Hebrew or Hausa. Italian is a very distant language-relative to English, belonging to the ROMANCE LANGUAGE FAMILY.  Germanic and Romance both belong to the INDO-EUROPEAN FAMILY. But Hebrew and Hausa ultimately belong to the Afro-Asiatic family, which has no established connection whatsoever to Indo-European.

    The languge of the MAASAI, SAMBURU, and CAMUS  peoples is often referred to as Maa. Together, these three political-tribal groups may be referred to as the Maa people, because for the most part they are ethnically related in the biological genetic sense.  However,  scholars working from oral histories and language data have argued that modern Maa is spoken as the first language not only by ethnic Maa peoples, but also by members of distinct ethnic groups (principally, some hunter-gatherer or dorobo, groups), which, over time, have assimilated to the Maa culture and language.

   How would this situation come about?  To understand this, click on the thumbnail map and observe the colors which represent various indigenous languages spoken in Kenya.  Those in various shades of green belong to the AFRO-ASIATIC FAMILY.  Those in shades of blue are from the NIGER-CONGO (and Bantu) family.  Those in shades of pink and red belong to the NILO-SAHARAN LANGUAGE FAMILY.  As can be seen, the different major families run right into each other, and overlap with each other.  Thus, individuals are accustomed to having to speak with people from different first languages -- and eventually may completely switch languages for one reason or another.

    For one example, during the 1800s the Aasx were a CUSHITIC-speaking hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania.  Cushitic languages belong to the larger Afro-Asiatic language family.  J.C. Winter (1979) has traced the role of widespread Aasx-Maa bilingualism, epidemic diseases, German colonial policies, and inter-ethnic economic and power relations which, by the early 1900s, precipitated the Aasx people's complete shift to using the Maa language.  The Aasx language completely disappeared by 1976 when its last remaining speaker died.  But this process of language shift does not necessarily mean that people of Aasx ethnic identity have ceased to exist.

   For another example,  there are several different hunter-gathering groups in the Samburu region of Kenya.  These groups may well be biologically-genetically distinct from most Nilotic people (Bernd Heine (1981; also Heine and Brenzinger 1988).   Formerly, they werealso first-language speakers of distinct Cushitic and Southern Nilotic languages.  However, Samburu Maa has now become their primary language.

    Conversely, there are ethnic Maa people who have either been forced out, or emigrated culturally or geographically, from ancestral Maa life.  As a result, the first language of the modern generation is no longer Maa.  In particular, linguists Rainer Vossen (1988), Bernd Heine and Gerrit Dimmendaal (1992) have studied the oral history and language of the Kore people located on the Kenyan coast and Lamu island. The Kore are ancestrally a Maa group, perhaps connected to the L-Aikipiak Maasai northwest of Mount KenyaThe Kore/Il-Aikipiak were apparently defeated by the Purko Maasai around the 1870s.  They were subsequently taken prisoner by Somali people to work as slaves or clients, and later freed by British colonial forces.  They then migrated to Lamu to develop a livelihood from farming and fishing, as they had lost all their cattle (which they may have regained earlier through raiding).  As a result of all of this, Somali (from the Afro-Asiatic family) is now their first language, but they also use Swahili (from the NIGER-CONGO FAMILY)as a lingua franca.  However, the Kore largely maintain their distinct ethnic identity, separate from the Somalis.

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This page written by Doris L. Payne.
Last updated August 2008.