Close but no guan: adventures in Matsigenka etymology

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.

5 thoughts on “Close but no guan: adventures in Matsigenka etymology

  1. […] January 2, 2008 Little did I realize when I first started writing about Matsigenka etymology that there is quite a little etymological cottage industry among cultural anthropologists who study Matsigenka society — especially those focusing on matters related to Matsigenka spirituality/religion. Personally, I suspect that this etymological tradition all began with seripigari ’shaman’. That is, the word seripigari — the shamans themselves are, of course, blameless. The word seripigari exhibits a degree of semantic compositionality that I think appeals to many scholars’ imaginations. One can immediately spot two roots in the word — seri ‘tobacco’ and pig ‘intoxicate, poison’ (or so it seems) — and as it so happens, tobacco intoxication plays a major part in Matsigenka shamanism. How cool is that? The word therefore appears to have a simple etymology, and I have a hunch that this etymological coup has made Matsigenka specialists optimistic about etymology as tool for understanding Matsigenka spiritual and religious beliefs. (See for example, my discussion of proposed etymologies for matsikanari ‘dark shaman’, here, and sankarite ‘invisible being’, here.) […]

  2. I had no idea such a blog existed. But here’s my two cents worth. I have actually heard Matsigenka speakers generate their own folk etymology for “matsikanari” (witch). The term matsi is used as a rhetorical negative, much like “a caso” in Spanish; the closest English equivalent would be, “I mean, it’s not like…” So matsikanari would, according to this truly ethno-folk etymology, “It’s not like it’s a guan!” (in Spanish, “a caso es pava”?). This would be the law-abiding Matsigenka citizen’s reproach to the sorcerer: “It’s not like your sorcery victim is a guan, something that you can eat. You can’t eat people, they’re not good to eat.” The implication being that if the sorcerer’s victim were indeed a source of food, then this kind of predation might be forgiven. But because the sorcerer’s violence has no practical value (you can’t eat people, after all…) then it is gratuitous and hence morally unacceptable. Now I’m not saying I believe this is a legitimate etymology for the term. But coming from the mouths of the Matsigenka themselves, it is much more illuminating about Matsigenka cosmology (if not so about linguistics) than other more dubious folk etymology. On the subject of seripigari, I think there is not much room to argue against that etymology. Everything we know about Matsigenka shamanism and mythology suggests a stronger relationship between tobacco, intoxication and shamanism. Sometimes a cigar (or wad of intoxicating tobacco paste) is just a cigar.

  3. P.S. on the subject of folk etymologies, a German-Peruvian linguist friend, Heinrich Helberg, once observed that (mostly Catholic) Spanish speakers recently arrived in Germany often interpret the ubiquitous German street name “Wilhemstrasse” as “Virgen-strasse”!!! (“Virgen” being of course the Virgin Mary).

    Once again, what a cool blog. I stumbled onto it completely by accident.

  4. Hey Glenn,

    Thanks for your great comments. I really like the folk etymology for ‘matsikanari’. Its true that folk etymologies are frequently inaccurate, but sometimes folk etymologies can actually drive changes in the form of a word. That’s actually what I suggest in my third post as a possible explanation for the ‘seripegari’ variant one finds in certain parts of the Matsigenka world, despite the fact that the Proto-Kampa form appears to be ‘seripigari’. I’m curious what you think of that.

    Incidentally, the use of ‘matsi’ in Nanti seems very similar to what you have described for Matsigenka. Syntactically, it’s a form of ‘external negation’ contrasting with ‘tera’ and ‘hara’, which are both forms of ‘internal negation’. Correspondingly, I gloss it as ‘It is not the case that’, which is basically how one does external negation in English. And similarly to the Matsigenka case, Nanti speakers employ ‘matsi’ to express an rhetorical position opposed to the one that they are advancing.

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