In recent years, in the region where I work — the Peruvian Amazon — numerous indigenous groups have adopted new ‘official’ ethnonyms, which are frequently autonyms which were previously not widely recognized or used as ethnonyms by others. For example, the group formerly referred to as Chayahuita has recently adopted the autonym Shawi as their official ethnonym. In some cases, the new ethnonyms are basically orthographic reworkings of previous names, as in the case of the new ethnonym Kandozi, corresponding to the former Candoshi. Much of this onomastic reformation has been carried out through indigenous federations or through institutions like FORMABIAP. The driving motive behind this movement appears to be to wrest the choice of this very prominent marker of identity from the hands of mestizos and other outsiders, and return it to the hand of the groups in question (here is a clear articulation of this point in the case of Asháninka). A collateral effect of this movement has been an effort on the part of many anthropologists to use, and if necessary, uncover, the ‘authentic’ ethnonym for the groups with which they work, with the guiding assumption that the authentic ethnonym is the autonym.

In the parts of Amazonia I am familiar with, however, we run into a basic difficulty with the process of uncovering ‘authentic ethnonyms’, namely, many indigenous groups historically lacked an autonym. By this, I mean that these groups did not employ a name that distinguished their group from others. This does not mean that the groups in question lacked descriptors for distinguishing themselves from other groups, merely that the did not employ a name as such to do so. (Of course, the issue of what counts as a ‘group’ is by no means straightforward — but that is an issue for a future post.) However, there appears to be a strong assumption among many outsiders involved with Amazonian indigenous groups that all of these groups have autonyms as such, with the consequence that outsiders sometimes ‘discover’ supposed autonyms that are not actually autonyms at all, but rather descriptors. Let me illustrate this point with the case of an indigenous group I am familiar with, the people commonly known as Iquitos.

In 1989, Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, a veteran Amazonian anthropologist who has carried out significant research with the Yaguas, visited the Iquito community of San Antonio de Pintuyacu, and in 1992, published an article on Iquito history. Given the brevity of his visit, his recounting of Iquito oral history is impressive — in fact, although I have carried out 13 months of fieldwork in the community as part of the Iquito Language Documentation Project, which has compiled a large number of historical texts and recording, I would only make minor emendations to his historical account.

Chaumeil does, however, run into some linguistic difficulties — which is hardly surprising, given the paucity of Iquito documentation at that time — but for the most part these problems do not substantively affect his major historical and ethnographic points. One point at which his shaky linguistic foundations do cause problem for him, however, is in his mistaken discovery of the autonym used by the Iquitos: paratacay’ (a claim repeated, for example, here).

The term in question is more accurately rendered párata cáaya, and it means ‘person like us (inclusive)’. We can break this down as follows: The word cáaya simply means ‘person’, and it expresses no age, gender, or ethnic distinctions. The form parata consists of the first person plural inclusive non-focus pronoun p+ (/+/ = the central high unrounded vowel) and the morpheme arata, which has a similative function. The latter may take either a pronominal or referential NP complement, as in múusi arata ‘like a frog’. Vowel hiatus resolution results in the form parata ‘like us (incl.)’. The semantics of párata cáaya is thus entirely compositional, and is clearly a descriptor, and not a name. Although it is true that Iquitos use the expression párata cáaya when talking about fellow Iquitos, it is in no way an ethnonym. It simply refers to individuals that are, in some contextually relevant way, ‘like us’. I could, for example, use the term to refer to people at the University of Texas, linguists, or appreciators of IPA, providing I am talking to a member of one of those groups, and that aspect of our shared identity is sufficiently salient in the interaction. In short, párata cáaya is a descriptor, and not a name.

Crucially, an Iquito speaker would not use this term with a non-Iquito interlocutor to refer to the Iquitos as a group. The Iquito speaker would instead say cuárata cáaya ‘people like me’, and even then, this expression would still be a description, and not a name. I have discussed the issue of autonyms with a number of thoughtful elder Iquitos, and they affirmed that they knew of no other name for their ethnolinguistic grouping than ‘Iquito’, or /iquíitu/, as the name has been borrowed into Iquito. I have mentioned to them that the final /o/ of ‘Iquito’ makes it seem unlikely that it is a word of Iquito origin and after thinking about it, they have concurred. (Further evidence that the direction of the loan was Spanish-to-Iquito and not the reverse is the prosodics of the word: the penultimate long vowel with falling pitch is characteristic of loanwords from Spanish.) Two of the Iquito elders most interested in historical issues, Jaime Pacaya Inuma and Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa, remarked at separate points that when it came to names, Iquitos were historically much more concerned with the names of Iquito sub-groups than with entire indigenous groups. And indeed, there are traditional names for six major heriditary Iquito sub-groups: Ámuuhuaaja, Cajiyuúri, Incahu+’+raana, Majanacáani, Masicuúri, Namutújuri (variant: Amutújuri) .

Chaumeil correctly identifies four of these subgroup names, and includes one name not found in this list: tipakëjor’, or more accurately tipaacájuri or /tipaakáhuri/, from tipáaca ‘clay’ (I employ italics for the official Iquito orthography and slashes for a more IPA-based orthography). The name is used to refer to people living on soils with a high clay content, as opposed to sandy soils. The nature of soils on which people live is important because it significantly affects what crops one can grow, as well as the abundance of different kinds of animals, thereby significantly affecting the lifestyle of the people living on those soils. (The line dividing sandy and clay soils in this region of the Amazon basin passes roughly through the middle of traditional Iquito territory.) However the name tipaacájuri actually crosscuts the Iquito subgroup names, and can refer to any Iquito living in a clay soil area, regardless of subgroup membership. And moreover people can become tipaacájuri by moving into the clay soil area, or cease being tipaacájuri by moving out of it. In short, although it identifies a subgroup of Iquito, it does not identify hereditary groups like the other names mentioned above.

In summary, then, the Iquito case shows how the question of authentic ethnonyms is a potentially subtle one from a linguistic and ethnographic standpoint, and specifically, that it is dangerous to assume that all indigenous groups historically possessed an autonym per se, and that it is simply the task of the researcher to uncover it.

It is hardly news by this point to most students of language that statements about language can serve as support for, or more subtly still, proxies for, racist evaluations of a people or sub-group. I recently came across an stunning example of this while browsing though The Jungle is a Woman, a sensationalist travelogue written by Jane Dolinger, published in 1955. The book focuses on Dolinger’s experiences while travelling through parts of the Peruvian montaña (hence my interest), or as the cover of the book has it: “The adventures of an American girl in the Green Hell of the Amazon”. The book is replete with mid-century tropes about the neo-tropics: piranhas, disease, and of course, “primitives”, which is where language comes into the story.

At one point, while staying in an Asháninka community, Dolinger runs into another indigenous group, which she characterizes as “Pre-Stone Age primitives”. However, its pretty clear from the photos included in the book that they are simply another Kampan group, probably a sub-group of Asháninkas that avoided interaction with mestizo society. Waxing ecstatic about these “primitives”, and in the course of suggesting connections with Neanderthals and Pithecanthropus, Dolinger writes:

Their language consisted of monosyllabic words to which they added unintelligible grunts.

The tremendously strange thing about Dolinger’s claim here is that Asháninka words (and those the Kampan languages more generally) are about as far as one can get from monosyllabic. In the first place, the Kampan languages all have a disyllabic minimum word requirement (unlike, say, um … English!), which means that there are *no* monosyllabic words in these languages. In the second place, these languages are headmarking and highly polysynthetic, which means that words in these languages can get to be *huge* (According to Payne (1981), words of up to 25 syllables are possible in Ashéninka).

Whatever Dolinger was hearing, then, we can be sure it wasn’t monosyllabic words. How then did Dolinger arrive at the description of this langauge as one composed of monosyllabic grunts? Was this just some post-hoc embroidering to make the “primitives” look, well, “primitive”? Or did the fact that she had already categorized them as “primitives” actually influence the way she heard the language? We’ll probably never know. But the connection in Dolinger’s prose between primitive language and cultural primitiveness, in the spirit of 19th century cultural evolutionary thought, is clear. Either way, it is worth noting that English much more closely approximates a language of monosyllabic grunts than Asháninka does (check out all the monosyllabic words in this post!).

I think this example does a great job in showing how students of language have a tremendous advantage when responding to racist discourse like that of Dolinger’s when compared to scholars in other disciplines: racist claims based on language are frequently incrediby easy to empirically debunk. And now that talk about language is becoming one of the last respectable redoubts of racism in the US, the role of linguists and linguistic anthropologists in countering nonsense of this sort is increasingly important.

References Cited

Payne, David. 1981. The phonology and morphology of Axininca Campa. Summer Institute of Linguistics

My conversations with cultural anthropologists working in the Amazon Basin suggest that many of them view word etymologies as a way to get at deep or hidden cultural meanings associated with the referents of those words. There is something to this idea, but between the etymological fallacy and false etymologies, one can very quickly skate out out onto thin ice in using etymologies in this way.

I recently came across a mention of the Matsigenka word matsikanari, roughly ‘witch’ or ‘dark shaman’, in Allen Johnson’s Matsigenka ethnography (free expanded internet version here) that illustrates some of the difficulties that enthusiastic amateurs face when they attempt to draw on linguistics in ethnographic description and argumentation. Johnson analyses the word by segmenting it as follows: matsi + kanari, and provides the etymology ‘Man-Guan?’.

“Huh?” you may say. First some background: kanari is the Matsigenka name for the Blue-throated Piping-guan (Aburria cumanensis) a prized game bird among Matsigenkas. You can probably guess how Johnson arrived at the guess that matsi stood, in some way, for ‘man’ (‘human’ ?). The resulting image of the man-guan dark shaman is brilliant in its hallucinatory weirdness, but the etymology leading to it is, alas, false. Too be fair, Johnson’s question mark suggests some alarm bells must have gone off for him too.

There are two big clues that something is amiss with the given etymology. First, there exists a verb root, matsik `bewitch, hex’, which plays havoc with the proposed segmentation (matsik vs. matsi + kanari). Second, Matsigenka has very few noun-noun compounds, and those that do exist have a possessor-possessum structure (e.g. atava + panko ‘chicken’ + ‘house’ = ‘chicken coop’), where the head of the compound is the possessum. The fact that matsikanari does does not have this structure makes Johnson’s compound analysis unlikely. (Matsigenka does have numerous noun-classifier forms, which you can call compounds if you feel like it, but they are not noun-noun compounds.) Another big problem for the compound analysis is that matsi does not mean ‘man’, although matsigenka does mean ‘person’. Matsi is a word in Matsigenka, but it is a clausal negator (note the connection to the Proto-Arawak negator *ma).

The key to the correct etymology of matsikanari lies in recognizing the verb root matsik `bewitch, hex’, and in recognizing that the final syllable is the nominalizer -ri, making the matsikanari some kind of `bewitcher’ or `hexer’. The correct segmentation is probably: matsik (a) -na -ri, where -na is a morpheme that indicates malefactive repetition of the action indicated by the verb stem, and (a) is an epenthetic segment. We thus get `one who repeatedly and detrimentally bewitches’. Not as coolly otherwordly as a ‘Man-Guan’, but very informative as to the nature of matsikanari.

Yes — etymology fans might say — but what is the origin of matsik, and what can *that* tell us about Matsigenka concepts of witchcraft and the like? Fortunately for us, the etymon in question is included in David Payne’s (1991, p.394) paper on Arawak historical linguistics. What we learn there is that the Matsigenka verb matsik comes from Proto-Arawak mahtSi BAD. So, I suppose we can conclude that there was at some point in Arawak cultural history a connection between the notions ‘witchcraft’ and ‘bad’. Not too surprising, but certainly the historical facts make sense.

The moral here is that etymology is hard to do without detailed knowledge of the language and language family in question, and that relying on superficial similarities between words can quickly lead to false etymologies.

References Cited

Payne, David. 1991. A classification of Maipuran (Arawakan) languages based on shared lexical retentions. In D. Derbyshire and Desmond and G. Pullum (Eds.), Handbook of Amazonian Languages, Vol. 3. Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 355-500.