In the name of the father-in-law

Pastoralism, patriarchy and the sociolinguistic prehistory of eastern and southern Africa


  • Luke Fleming Université de Montréal Author
  • Alice Mitchell University of Cologne Author
  • Isabelle Ribot Author





In a range of eastern and southern African language communities, stretching from Ethiopia to the Cape, married women are enjoined to avoid the names of members of their husband's family as well as (near-)homophones of those names, and to replace tabooed vocabulary with substitute words. Although in-law name avoidance is a global phenomenon, the daughter-in-law speech registers thus constituted are unusual in their linguistic elaboration: they involve avoidance not only of names and true homophones of names but also an array of words whose only relation to tabooed names is phonological similarity. We provide an overview of the distribution and convergent social and linguistic characteristics of these registers and then examine one register more closely, namely, that of Datooga of Tanzania. To tease apart the layers of causality that converge upon this particular sociolinguistic pattern, we consider archaeological, ethnological, sociolinguistic and genetic lines of evidence. We propose that any partial diffusion of in-law avoidance practices has been complemented by a complex of sociocultural factors motivating the emergence of this pattern at different times and places across the African continent. These factors include pastoralism, patrilineal descent ideologies and norms of patrilocal postmarital residence paired with cattle-based bridewealth exchange.

Author Biographies

  • Luke Fleming, Université de Montréal

    Luke Fleming is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at theUniversité de Montréal, Québec, Canada.

  • Isabelle Ribot

    Isabelle Ribot is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Université de Montréal, Québec, Canada.


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How to Cite

Fleming, L., Mitchell, A., & Ribot, I. (2020). In the name of the father-in-law: Pastoralism, patriarchy and the sociolinguistic prehistory of eastern and southern Africa. Sociolinguistic Studies, 13(2-4), 171–192.