Tobacco, intoxication, and many happy returns: The etymology of seripigari, Part I

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.)

It turns out upon closer inspection, however, that seripigari is full of etymological traps for the unwary, and even poses some interesting challenges for the etymologically savvy. Since the etymological speculation surrounding this word shows how subtle etymological work can be, and how tricky it is to use it as a tool for cultural analysis, I want to examine in some detail one particular etymological discussion of seripegari, in a paper by Dan Rosengren (download the PDF here). In my next post, I will propose an alternative analysis.

Rosengren opens his etymological discussion of seripigari thus:

The Matsigenka shaman is known as seripigari, a word that is constructed from seri meaning ‘tobacco,’ piga, which is a concept with a complex meaning dimension, and the suffix -ri, being the third person male pronominal object, that is, ‘him.’ One common mode of translating pigagantsi (i.e., the infinitive of piga) is “to intoxicate” which would render seripigari “he who is intoxicated by tobacco” (cf. Baer 1992).

Rosengren, like his predecessors, correctly identifies the roots (well, mostly, the verbal root he refers to is actually pig, not piga), but then runs aground on the suffix -ri, which is almost certainly not the 3rd person masculine object marker, but is instead the homophonous deverbal nominalizer -ri. There are a number of reasons for reaching this conclusion. First, seripigari is a noun, whereas pig is a verb, so we need some kind of deverbal nominalization to derive a noun. Second, were -ri a person marker, then that would mean that seripigari is a verb. In that case, because of the way the verb class of pig `intoxicate’ and the way Matsigenka mood inflection works, the suffix following the root would have to be -i (realis mood, i-class suffix), instead of the -a (realis mood, a-class suffix) we seem to see, were we to consider seripigari a verb. (If anyone is really interested I can go into detail about Matsigenka verb classes.) However, if seripigari is a derived noun, we would expect an epenthetic a in that position, as we indeed find, because of a lexical phonological process that ‘repairs’ instances of phonotactically illicit syllable structure. And third, if seripigari were a verb, we would also expect to find a subject person marker corresponding to the referential NP seri, resulting in something like seriopigari, which we do not find. The evidence is pretty strong then, that -ri is a deverbal nominalizer, and not a person marker.

But what was Rosengren getting at by referring to pig as a “concept with a complex meaning dimension”? This becomes clear in the following passage:

Another possible meaning dimension is suggested by Shepard (1998: 331) who notes that pigagantsi also can be translated as “to return” which would render seripigari “the one who returns tobacco.” Shepard sees this return as a reference to the regurgitation of tobacco that the shaman has swallowed and then passes on to his apprentices who in this process acquire the same magical powers as their teacher.

The “complex meaning dimension” in question is simply a case of homophony involving the intransitive verb pig ‘return’ and the transitive verb pig ‘intoxicate’. To be clear, there is nothing profound or interestingly “conceptual” about this case of homophony, just as there is nothing profound in the homophony of the English words mine (possessive demonstrative) and mine (hole in the ground for extracting minerals). Nor is there anything really “complex” about the meaning of the words involved; neither are particular problems posed by their homophony — due to their different valencies, there is generally little difficulty in determining which of the two homophonous verbs one is facing in discourse.

As for Shepard’s highly creative etymology: it is, despite its cleverness, very unlikely to be correct. The basic difficulty with the “one who returns tobacco” etymology is that the verb ‘return’ would have to be used transitively for it to be correct. In English, of course, ‘return’ exists as both a intransitive verb and a transitive one: one can either say “MacArthur returned.” (intransitive) or “MacArthur returned his defective pipe.” (transitive). But the Matsigenka verb pig does not have both intransitive an transitive forms: it is resolutely intransitive. In order to use the verb transitively, one has to use the causative prefix ogi-, thereby deriving the verb stem ogipig, as in:

Nogipigakero pihachane.
`I returned your axe.’

Clearly, seripigari does not involve this derived stem. Moreover, since seri ‘tobacco’ is the thing being returned, we would expect it to be in object position, following the verb, rather than in subject position, preceding the verb. (This simplifies a complicated issue — we would also expect an object person marker.) So, Shepard’s etymological hypothesis is unlikely to be correct, but the stem ogipig makes a reappearance in this discussion, below.

But returning to his idea of ‘complex meaning dimension’, Rosengren continues:

I assume, though, that the receivers of the tobacco also could be the saangarite spirits who in mythical time gave the Matsigenka the tobacco and whom shamans now daily feed with tobacco smoke and syrup. Of the various possible translations of the word seripigari I do not believe that one necessarily is more correct than any other; the different translations rather reflect different aspects of the complex whole.

I can appreciate Rosengren’s generous pluralism, but I feel it is misplaced here. First, Rosengren refers to the different etymologies as different “translations”, which suggests to me that he conflates the common idea that multiple translations may be possible for a given word, with the fact that one may propose various etymologies for a word. This suggests that Rosengren has fallen prey to the Etymological Fallacy, the idea that the ‘true meaning’ of a word is uncovered by an analysis of its historical orgins (i.e. etymology). There is really only one “translation” for seripigari, ‘shaman’, despite the fact that there are multiple proposed etymologies (I’m glossing over some subtleties here, but what I’m saying is true enough for the purposes at hand). Second, if we are indeed talking about the etymology of seripigari, the noun was either derived from a given verb or it was not. At whatever historical point that derivation occurred, the individuals who derived and employed the word were thinking about either ‘intoxication’ or ‘returning’ (or what have you), and derived the word accordingly. Since the two concepts do not form any meaningful “complex whole”, the derivation would have been synchronically unambiguous, as difficult as it may prove for us to figure it out from our present vantage point.

Moreover, it is clear that Rosengren considers the “complex whole” in question to to be quite philosophically profound, and here we clearly pass from etymology to cultural analysis, by way of the Etymological Fallacy. Consider the following passage:

Associated with the word pigagantsi [a nominalization of the verb pig – LM] is gipigagantsi which, according to Snell (1998: 92) means among other things 1) to make one return to the place of origin, and to send back (to return). The shaman is, accordingly, also he who returns to the primordial conditions that initially was shared by all Matsigenka, i.e., humans and saangarite alike.

The form gipigagantsi is a nominalization of the verb stem ogipig ‘make return, return (transitive)’, the causativized form of the verb pig ‘return (intransitive)’, as evident in the definitions provided. In a leap that I have to admire for its sheer intellectual daring, Rosengren then concludes that because gipigagantsi `make return (nom)’ is “associated” with pigagantsi ‘return (nom)’ and because he associates the latter (mistakenly, see above), via his “complex whole” theory, with seripigari, that Matsigenka shamans return to mystical “primordial conditions”.

There are two obvious difficulties with this theory, however. First, as discussed above, there is no good reason to believe that seripigari is derived from pig ‘return’. This means that gipigagantsi is not “associated” with the form of pigagantsi to which seripigari is historically related, removing the entire basis for Rosengren’s mystical conclusion.

Second, and yet more problematic from the standpoint of linguistic analysis: even were gipigagantsi ‘make return’ and seripigari related to each other by virtue of being derived from the same verb (which they are not), this relationship would not justify the analysis of the meaning of one derived form on the basis of the meaning of the other derived form. One cannot ignore the fact that derivations in question alter the meanings of resulting forms.

To see this, consider the intransitive English verb ‘run’. From this we can derive an agentive nominal ‘runner’. We can also find a transitive version of the verb ‘run’, as in ‘run cattle’, that is historically related the intransitive verb. If we were to follow Rosengren’s method, we would then look at the meaning of transitive ‘run’ to give us insight into ‘runner’. For example, I might conclude that running athletes are associated with cattle farming. Or whatever.

Having argued against some of the proposed etymologies of seripigari, what can I propose in their place? As it turns out, seripigari presents some interesting challenges from a analytic standpoint, but this post is already long enough; stay tuned for my next post.

I want to close by remarking on the fact that the difficulties we see in Rosengren’s and Shepard’s analyses are evidence for the argument that Linguistics and Anthropology, as disciplines, suffer from their institutional estrangement. A modest understanding of historical linguistics and descriptive morphosyntax would have been sufficient to steer the two authors away from some highly inventive, but ultimately fanciful, etymologies. Unfortunately, most anthropologists, as far as I can tell, receive little training in linguistic anthropology, let alone linguistics, and thus remain unfamiliar with bodies of scholarship which could be very helpful to them. The intellectual marginalization of linguistics within linguistic anthropology, and the institutional marginalization of the latter sub-discipline within anthropology departments only exacerbates the problem, as these forms of marginalization mean that anthropologists must go far out of their way to learn about areas of linguistics which would enrich their work. It seems to me that the recent boom in documentary and descriptive linguistics is leading some linguists to a renewed interest in and openness towards Anthropology, but Anthropology’s disciplinary momentum seems to be carrying it further away from Linguistics. This strikes me as an unfortunate situation, but it is not clear to me what can be done about it.


Shepard Jr., Glenn (1998) “Psychoactive Plants and Ethnopsychiatric Medicines of the Matsigenka,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol.30(4): 321-332.

Snell, Betty (1998) Pequeño Diccionario Machiguenga – Castellano. Documento de Trabajo no. 32. Peru: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

8 thoughts on “Tobacco, intoxication, and many happy returns: The etymology of seripigari, Part I

  1. A nice piece of debunking, which indeed leaves us wanting to hear more about what you think is the most likely etymology!

    It seems to me that the recent boom in documentary and descriptive linguistics is leading some linguists to a renewed interest in and openness towards Anthropology

    This is true; in linguistic BA and MA programs (esp. those focusing on non-SAE languages) it is quite common to get courses on anthropological linguistics, ethnography of communication, and of course field work. At least in Europe it is.

  2. I notice at one point in your post (¶2) that you spell the word in question `seripEgari’. I hope that in your next post you will mention, if not discuss at length, this alternate form — for at least the following two reasons:

    1. Seripegari is actually the term I have *heard* used more often by Matsigenkas in the lower Urubamba river valley.

    2. This seems to be the form of the term encountered by P. Aza back in his day, as you can see from this snip I copied from google.scholar:
    Vocabulario español-machiguenga. JP Aza. 1923.
    Seripegari: (tomador de tabaco) v. brujo.

  3. Mark,

    I’m glad to see you second my sense of the growing interest in anthropology among documentary and descriptive linguists. Actually, since you mention Europe, I wanted to remark that the trend we have both noticed seems stronger in Europe than in the US. I get the sense that Linguistics is a little more insular in the US academic tradition than in the European one. Of course, this may just be a case of the grass being greener on the other side :).

  4. Chris,

    Ah yes, my use of ‘seripEgari’ in that passage was a slip. You are absolutely right that this is an alternate form, but I was trying to stick to the published discussions on ‘seripIgari’ in my first post. I was planning to spring ‘seripEgari’ on my unsuspecting readers in my upcoming post — which I promise to do. Thanks, btw, for the Aza reference, as it shows that the ‘seripEgari’ variant is hardly a recent innovation.

  5. Sobre el análisis de la etimología de muchos de los términos de la lengua machiguenga – restringiendo el universo a una totalidad de sustantivos, sujetos y obejtos- he de tener en cuenta la ubicación geográfica de las poblaciones machiguenga en la actualidad, esto es párcticamente el alto y bajo Urubamba además de sus afluentes de izquierda y derecha. En la etnografía publicada sobre los grupos asháninkas, yaneshas, y nahuas de la selva central puede advertirse el rastro cultural de un reciente movimiento masivo de estos grupo, el que yo ubico anterior al siglo XV. Los grupos machiguenga se encuentran en contacto constante con asháninkas, nahuas, shipibos, y quechuas. La etimología de sus sustantivos podría tener bastante relación con todas estas lenguas. Sobre “seripigari” conozco la versión Gerhard Baer en el libro Cosmología y Chamanismo de los Matsiguenga: seripi´gari :: “el emborrachado por el tabaco, shamán.”
    Conozco un seripigari, los invito a visitar el Bajo Urubamba. Tengo amigos en Timpía, Sabeti,Nuevo Mundo; tengo un familiar lodge en Quillabamba desde donde podemos entrar al Alto Urubamba, mi mail es Visitar esta página

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