Ethnic Jewels

An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment

'Is it OK if I use the word 'tribal'?' she said

Problems, problems yet again when using the word 'tribal' to describe tribal and ethnic jewellery.

I pull a dictionary down from the shelf... the Oxford English Dictionary 1976 (sixth edition) ... and search for the word. Here it is.

'Tribe - group of (primitive) clans under recognised chief and usually claiming common ancestor.'

Yes ... well... it shows the attitudes of the times. I remember that when we lived in southern Africa a long time ago, we avoided using the word 'tribe' because of the offence it could cause.

(Think) 'Surely it is seen differently now.'

Upstairs, I find a heavy copy of the New Oxford English Dictionary, 1998, and search for 'tribe'. Here it is.

'Tribe - a social division of traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognised leader....

I know that a lot of sociological research lies behind this definition. But a well researched definition doesn't necessarily immediately reflect changing attitudes and sensitivities, hence the question 'Is it OK to use the word 'tribal'?' I think the use of the word is still problematic.

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Comment by Joost Daalder on February 13, 2016 at 13:49

I see your point, Thelma: there is indeed a degree of historical "baggage" attached to the words "tribe" and "tribal". I think that is perhaps still true, but I also believe that much of the baggage is already gone, and what remains will probably disappear pretty soon. There is now so much abhorrence of e.g. racism that the "ugly" connotations that these words carried and possibly at times still carry are becoming increasingly rare.

Comment by Thelma on February 13, 2016 at 13:43

Joost, I very much enjoyed the expert discussion of the two definitions and the application to Australia. I had been wondering about the situation in other parts of the world so this was very welcome.

 I think one of the concerns is that while the second definition I gave is objective and based on research, it doesn't always match up with subjective understandings of the word, based not on research but on exposure to historical events. Hence the possibility for misunderstanding. Hence the hesitation in using the word. It was interesting that the original question that started this discussion 'Is it OK to if I use the word 'tribal'?' was uttered by someone I didn't know, who was a stranger to ethnic jewellery and the terms we use. I was interested to observe the awareness of the way it might cause offence.

Comment by Joost Daalder on February 13, 2016 at 12:08

There is a very good journal, called "Tribal Art", which has been published for more than twenty years. I do not believe that its title has actually ever given offence to anyone. In this respect, Thelma, I think that the difference between the two definitions that you quoted is quite crucial. The first definition was framed at a time when the word *could* still carry a pejorative connotation (as the - significantly parenthetical - inclusion of "primitive" suggests). The later definition strikes me as correct for the way the word is now, and has for quite some time been, normally used, i.e. without any hint of condescension etc. So, to be frank, I see no difficulty in using "tribe" and "tribal" today. And I don't feel we need to see them as in any way especially "scientific" terms as distinct from a normal part of the English language as it is used today.

Comment by Thelma on February 13, 2016 at 11:52

Thanks so much, Jose, for setting the use of the word in the context of our group of enthusiasts. Your description of our characteristics made me smile. I think you are right that within the group the word isn't used in a pejorative sense but in a 'scientific' way to describe a particular feature or the origin of a particular piece etc. It is part of the specialist vocabulary we use and we have a common understanding of its definition.

Comment by Thelma on February 13, 2016 at 11:27

Bravo, Chantal. It is good to have a different point of view. You are right about the word being used for centuries. At one time it must have been the most common form of living together. There was, for instance, a huge number of Celtic tribes in Britain when the Romans arrived (and the jewellery they left behind is much admired and copied). We have no problem in using the word tribe in relation to them.

Comment by Joost Daalder on February 12, 2016 at 4:44

The difference between the two definitions that Thelma quotes is quite striking. I wish to state at once that terms like "ethnic" or "nation" refer to something different from "tribal" or "tribe": they cannot be used as accurate substitutes. The definition of "tribe" from 1976 is for one thing too brief, and even though "primitive" is put in brackets, it smacks of superior/arrogant/colonial use. The second definition is "Tribe - a social division of traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognised leader....". I live in a country (Australia) where the issues are regarded as quite vital. After a very shameful past on the part of the people who conquered Australia post Captain Cook, those in power (still predominantly white) are doing an awful lot  to make amends. However, what matters most, of course, is what - in Australia - the leaders of various Australian Aboriginal groups would think of the latest definition. (Any tribal group in Australia has more than one leader - there are "elders" who are the effective leaders of tribes or similar communities; and, as well, there are various leaders who represent Aborigines in various ways at a national level.) The definition is "Tribe - a social division of traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognised leader...." While in Australia "leader" (singular) would not do (one would need "leaders" or "elders"),  I am very confident that the definition is otherwise both accurate and quite acceptable to Australian Aborigines as well as the nation at large. After all, if THIS definition is not OK, what else is one to think of? I am confident that in general this definition would also be found acceptable in Papua New Guinea. It is exact, comprehensive,  and in no way condescending. Indeed, it is useful from a variety of viewpoints: not least because many Aborigines view their own traditional, tribal way of life with great pride and would like to continue it. If there is no word or definition to assist clarification of what a traditional tribal way of life actually is, that would be far worse than having this particular definition, which to my mind is likely to be as good as any that could be constructed. As Jose rightly says, "the words 'tribal' or 'tribe' convey no pejorative connotations per se" (I would even add that for many "tribal" people today the opposite is the case). And I like and support his addition: "I believe that quite often we are victims of an excessive supposedly correctness and a tendency to see more than there is to things".

Comment by Chantal on February 11, 2016 at 20:55

Thanks Jose,  a bit of reason does no one any harm...

Comment by Jose M. Pery on February 11, 2016 at 19:43

The use of the words "tribal" or "tribe" for me in our context seems to be perfectly right and conveys no pejorative connotations per se. I believe that quite often we are victims of an excessive supposedly correctness and a tendency to see more than there is to things. The use of those words, or many other for what it matters, may be incorrect or offensive but for the actual intention of the speaker or the particular circumstances he uses it. For example, has anyone thought badly about the twelve tribes of Israel or of a group of professionals, being referred to as a "selected" tribe?. We ourselves in this blog may well be referred as a lunatic, enviable, weird, useless, interesting (you name it!) "tribe" of people crazy about jewelry and I would not be offended by that save if I knew there is ill will in the speaker's mind or intention. If at certain point in time those words had for some people a pejorative meaning I think that has not "contaminated" those words as such.  

When I use the words "tribe" or "tribal" I do not certainly think of a primitive or basic group of individuals in desperate want of being educated or lectured upon by anyone but of an usually small-sized group of people that has develop or share characteristics which makes it stand from other groups. Nothing more nothing less.         
Comment by Chantal on February 11, 2016 at 17:23

Tribes are groups of people (sedentary or nomad)and the word has been used and known for centuries..It is fairly clear (to a point of course).I cant see the problem at all (or the allegebly  pejorative element in it.)  ..I think that its fine for people who dont like it to use something else and for the others to keep using it...Surely no-one here would think of imposing their thinking/vocabulary on someone else? Arent we maybe drowning in an excess of political correctness here ..? Just a thought!

Comment by Thelma on February 5, 2016 at 12:55

If you are interested, you can read more about the word 'tribe' on Wikipaedia  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribe

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