The circular semantic network in Ngbandi disease nosology by Gilles Bibbeau (notice bibliographique)

Gilles Bibbeau : Laval University, Quebec, Canada

In Soc. Sci. Med. Vol. 15B. pp. 295 to 307, 1981


This paper which relies very much on linguistics, proposes a circular semantic network as an original framework for organizing nosological terms used by the Angbandi of Zaire. Such a framework is presented as an alternative to ethnosemantist and structuralist classifications. Building on this new interprelation of Angbandi nosology, the paper presents in the last section the notions of iconicity and circularity as key fratures of Angbandi medical science.


1. Ngbandi is a tonal language built on three basic and three composed tones, a complex vocalic and consonantic system ; to transcribe the language, I use the following diacritic signs : low tone ‘, middle tone ‘, high tone high low tone low high tone -, low high low tone These tones are put on vowels. Vowel nasalization is transcribed in the following way : à. è, ÎÏ, à and ù. Ngbandi distinguish between closed e (el and opened e (g), closeä o (o) and opened o (Q). The consonantic systent bas been transcribed following usual notation : b (bw), g (gb, gw). k (kpw. kpm, kw), tri (mb). n (nd. ng. ngb. ngbw, ngw, nv, nw, ny, riz).

2. Greenberg J. H. The Languages of Africa. Mouton Press, The Hague, 1963. Contains the classification of Ngbandi within the African languages.

3. Lévi-Strauss C. L’analyse structurale en linguistique et en anthropologie. Word 1, 1, 1945. He bas very clearly presented these various levels in ibis programmatic theoretical paper. He writes : « First. phonology moves front the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to that of unconscious infrastructure ; it uses. as an analytical base. the relations existing between terms ; finally. phonology aims ai discovering general laws by induction or logical deduction ».

4. Lévi-Strauss C. Tofemism. p. 26. Merlin Press, London. 1962. He has brought precisions to ibis seminal approach in his study of toternism : « In ibis study, as in others. the method 1 iniend to follow consists of : 1. defining the phenomenon under study as a relation between two or many real or virtual terms ; 2. building a table of possible permutations between these terms and 3. using this table as a general object for an analysis which. ai this only level. can reach some necessary connexions. an empirical phenomenon foreseen ai the origin as only one combination among others.

5. Tyler S. A. Cognitive Anthropology. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1969. This theoretical movement which is variously known as ethnolinguistics, ethnoscience and ethnosemanties is associated with the naines of Lounsbury, Conklin. Frake and others.

6. Frake C. 0. The diagnosis of disease among the Subanun of Mindanao. Am. Anthrop. 63, 113, 1961. This article is also dedicated to the examination of skin diseases.

7. Greenberg J. H. Linguistics and ethnology. In Lapiguaqe in Culture and Society (Edited by Hymes D.). p. 27. Harper & Row. New York. 1964.

8. Field M. Searchfor Securit ‘ v. Faber. London. 1960. The stress put by Mike D. Warren on scientific dimension within Bono medical system can easily bc explained by his reaction to the overstress put by other researchers. like Field, on the non-emperical dimension within Bono medicine.

9. Ullmann. S. Descriptive semantics and linguistic typo- logy. Word 9, 225. 1953.

Warren M. D. Illness, medicine and religion among the Techiman-Bono of Ghana, p. 302. Unpublished Ph.D, Thesis. Indiana Univ., 1974.

Il. Zempléni A. L’interprétation et la thérapie du désordre mental chez les Wolof et les Lebou (Sénégal). Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. Paris. Univ.. 1969.

12. Corin E. and Bibeau G. Psychiatric perspectives in Africa. Part il : traditional viewpoint. Transcult. Ps-vchiai. Res. Reu. 17. 209. 1980. In a recent overview on psychiatric rescarches in Africa. Corin and Bibeau have commenied Zempléni’s work in the following %%ay : -By establishing that these people perceive mental illness in terms of these four etiological categories. Zempieni bas brought something new to ethno-psychiatric sernantics. However, il is questionable whether he %crified the absence of any other classificatory systerri in sections of these societies other than the diviners among whont he did his rescarch, since he refèrs ai another point to five ‘etiological signs’ deriving from the symptomatology which the local healers (as distinct froin diviners) employ in order to complete their diagnosis.

13 Mallart Guimera L. Witchcraft illness in the Evuzok nosological system. Cult. Med. Psychiat. 2, 374, 1978.

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17. Gelfand M. Medicine and Custom in Africa, p. 27. Livingstone. Edinburgh, 1964.

18. In their evaluation of Prince’s work on Yoruba psychiatric nosology, Corin and Bibeau write : « Prince reports on 17 terms used by the Yoruba to name mental disorders and shows how some of these terms seem more precise than others, but the whole series relates to only one dimension, thai of symptomatology, and the reader is left in the dark as to whether these people employed any terms for mental disorders which did not belong to that classificatory dimension. We agree strongly with Prince’s emphasis on the scientific principies which can bc detecied as underlying his list, principles which distinguish between the various types of clinical signs and organize them into distinct nosological entities.

19. Lévi-Strauss C. The Sarage Mind. Univ. of Chicago, Chicago, 1962.

20. Leach E. Claude Lévi-Strauss. Fontana, London, 1970.

21. Bibeau G. Essai de pathologie Ngbandi. Bulletin de Medecine Traditionnelle au Zaire et en Afrique. Institut de Recherche Scientifique, Kinshasa, 6, 1978. This prescrits a discussion of 134 disease categories. I think it necessary to give readers some information on the 23 skin diseases to which 1 refer in this paper : le (48) ; mhao (54) for a special type of sore ; ndiba (66) for leprosy ; ndim-Ô (67) for yaws ; ngbongo (79) ; ngb àngQ (80) for urticaria ; ngére (81) ; ngonz-à (85) ; ngà ngu (86) ; ngà ngu t li (87) ; nzibo (99) for a special dermatosis ; p6poro (100) for last stage of syphilis ; sà (103) for dermatosis caused by dirtiness ; sure (105) for itch y dermatosis singa (108) for itch on the legs. ngà so (109) for dermatosis caused by sweat ; su (111) ; tanga igrè (112) for depigmentation ; ibro ngbà (122) ; yangba (125) for smallpox ; yangba ti legô (126) ; z zombo (132), and the general category nga pêrp.

22. Bibeau G. L’organisation Ngbandi des noms de maladies. Anthrop. Soc. 2, 83, 1978. These saine 23 disease names arc closely examined in this recent paper.

23. Foucault M. The Birth of the Clinic : An Archeologi, of Medical Perception. Tavistock, London. 1973.

24. Good B. The heart of what*s the matter. The semantics of iliness in Iran. Cult. Med. Psychiat. 1, 25, 1977.

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26. Good B. and DelVecchio Good M. J. The meaning of symptoms : a cultural hermeneutic model for clinical practice. In The Relevance of Social Sciences for Medicine (Edited by Eiseiberg L. and Kleinman A.). Reidel. Boston, 1980. Here the authors have more recently elaborated their hermeneutic approach to the disease as idiom within a model they call -meaning-centered framework*’.

27. Kleinman A. Medicine’s symbolic reality : on a central problem in the philosophy of medicine. Inquiry 16, 209, 1973.

28. Fabrega H. The scope of ethnomedical science. Cult. Med. Ps vchiat. 1, 210, 1977.

29. Foucault M. The Order of Things : An Archeology of the Human Sciences, p. 41. Tavistock, London, 1970.

30. Price-Williams D. R. Abstract and concrete modes of classification in a primitive society. Br. J. educ. Ps3_ chol. 32, 50. 1962.

31. Fernandez J. W. The mission of metaphor in expressive culture. Curr. Anthrop. 15, 119, 1974.

32. Horton R. African traditional thought and Western science. Africa 37, 61, 1967.

33. Gluckman Max. The logic of African scirnce and witcheraft. Hum. Prob. Br. Cent. Afr. 1, 71, 1944.

34. Turner V. W. Symbois in African ritual. Science 179, 1101, 1973.

35. Bastide R. Le principe d’individuation. In La Notion de Personne en Afrique Noire. Colloques Internationaux du C.N.R.S. Editions di. C.N.R.S., Paris, 1973.

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