‘People’ is the Plural of ‘Stupid’

December 4, 2007

I was recently using the facilities in Epoch when I spied the following graffito: “‘people’ is the plural of ‘stupid'”. There are many things to admire about this pithy cynicism, but there is a specifically linguistic angle from which it can be appreciated, which jogged my memory about an erroneous etymology I recently saw for a Matsigenka word.

Despite the adage that to explain a joke is to ruin it, clarity on this point is essential for what follows: ‘stupid’ is an adjective, and in English, at least, adjectives do not have a plural form. Furthermore, ‘people’ is a noun, whereas ‘stupid’ is an adjective — and the plural form of an adjective (if one exists in a given language) is not, generally speaking, a noun. In other words, there is no way that ‘people’ could be the plural of ‘stupid’. In a way, then, the graffito lamenting the stupidity of the masses is itself stupid (even if it is deliberate), which I find quite charming, as if the cynic is winking at his or her own complicity in the situation being lamented.

The connection with Matsigenka etymology comes in the form a footnote to a paper (PDF) on Matsigenka religion by Dan Rosengren, in which he remarks, regarding a class of spiritual beings:

Saangaríte, which is a plural form of saankari, is usually translated as “the pure ones” which as a rule is conceived of in a moral sense as synonymous with “the good ones.” … Since saankari also is used to describe clean water it is here suggested that it is the visual rather than the moral quality that is referred to. Clean water cannot be seen and neither can the saangaríte.

To be clear about what Rosengren is saying, he identifies saankari as an adjective (“used to describe clear water”) and then claims that saangaríte is the “plural form” of this word. (I have my doubts, btw, about the long vowel in saankari; I suspect it’s just stress. It’s not important, really, but I spell it with a short /a/. Also, the surface g in saangarite is due to allophonic post-nasal voicing, and I replace this with the underlying /k/.)

What I found humorous about Rosengren’s etymological proposal is that it unintentionally repeats the error that gives the above-discussed graffito its linguistic edge. That is, while sankari is an adjective (according to Rosengren), sankarite is a noun, with the consequence that whatever the relationship between sankari and sankarite may be, the latter is certainly not the plural of the former, contrary to Rosengren’s claim. In fact, sankarite is not plural at all, but rather, is unspecified for number, as are all Matsigenka nouns which are not overtly plural marked (with the plural suffix -egi, or the collective plural -page).

But Rosengren certainly is correct in noting a connection between the two forms — let’s see if by applying a little knowledge of Matsigenka grammar and comparative Arawak linguistics we can figure out what it is.

Let’s start from the beginning. In Matsigenka, and most of the related Kampan languages, adjectives ending with the syllable ri are generally derived from verbs. In this case, the verb root in question is sank ‘be invisible, be transparent, not be visible’. An example of the use of this verb is given in (1).

(1) Komaginaro isankanaka.
‘The Woolly Monkey disappeared from sight.’ (e.g. by brachiating away into the foliage).

I’ve also heard a causativized form of the verb used to mean ‘erase’ (i.e. make invisible), as in (2).

(2) Posankanakero kaseta.
‘Please erase the audio cassette.’

In any event, one can derive from the intransitive verb root sank the adjective sankari ‘invisible, transparent’ which can be applied to clear water and glass, as well as to non-visible entities. This, it would seem at first glance, is the origin of the sankari.

But things aren’t quite that straightforward. The single biggest puzzle is that sankarite is a noun, whereas the element sankari that Rosengren identified, is an adjective. Moreover, Matsigenka does not exhibit a deadjectivizal nominalizer.

I think the best clue regarding the correct etymology of sankarite involves the final syllable of the word te. As it turns out, cognates of the morpheme -te surface in other languages of the Arawak family as an animate noun class marker. In other words, this morpheme indicates that the noun to which it is affixed is, in general, a living thing. A particularly clear example is the morpheme -ite, found in Tariana (Aikhenvald, 2003, p.93-4).

If this is correct, then, the animate noun class marker -te would have to be suffixed to a noun, meaning that sankari must be a noun, not an adjective, as Rosengren suggests. Fortunately, as it turns out, we can reconstruct a deverbal nominalizer -ri for Proto-Kampan (the language from which Matsigenka descended). This nominalizer can still be seen in certain forms in Matsigenka, such as matsikanari ‘dark shaman’ (cf. matsik ‘bewitch’) or shigatsiri ‘satellite’, from shig ‘run’. (It is a curious fact that the deverbal nominalizer and the deverbal adjectivizer have the same form, but the generalization is quite clear.) If this is correct, then the sankari in sankarite is not an adjective meaning ‘clear, invisible’, but rather a derived noun meaning ‘clear, invisible thing’.

If we now consider the full form sankarite, we conclude that the name of this class of spirit beings stems from a form meaning, roughly, ‘invisible living things’, or perhaps more evocatively ‘invisible beings’. Which is, as it turns out, a pretty good description of sankarite!

Works Cited

Aikhenvald, Alexandra. 2003. A grammar of Tariana. Cambridge University Press.

2 Responses to “‘People’ is the Plural of ‘Stupid’”

  1. Anthony Webster Says:


    This is a really nice blog. I just found it today. Interesting reading. Stunned to find out that you did not come up with Greater Amazonia! Best, t

  2. […] (See for example, my discussion of proposed etymologies for matsikanari ‘dark shaman’, here, and sankarite ‘invisible being’, […]

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