Of tobacco seers: The etymology of seripigari, part II

January 10, 2008

In my previous post on the etymology of the Matsigenka word seripigari ‘shaman’, I argued that a number of proposed etymologies for this word were flawed in crucial ways. In this post I propose an alternative analysis that I believe better fits the linguist facts.

I believe the key insight we need to improve our etymology of seripigari is that the -ri nominalization involved in the derivation of seripigari derives an agentive nominal. This means that were seripigari derived from the transitive verb pig ‘intoxicate’, the resulting nominalized form would denote some sort of ‘intoxicator’, i.e. someone or thing that intoxicates others. However, this is problematic for two reasons. First, this does not make much sense in terms of the meaning of the form seripigari, since the shaman generally does not, in general, intoxicate others with, say, tobacco, but rather intoxicates himself. Second, and more problematic from a morphological standpoint, transitive nominalized forms generally exhibit a morpheme corresponding to the object person marker in the verb form. An example of this phenomenon is given by the deverbal noun shintarorira ‘parent of a female child’, derived from the transitive verb shinto ‘have a female child’, where the morpheme -ro corresponds to the object of the verb.

These facts strongly suggest that the verb root visible in seripigari is not a transitive root, but rather, an intransitive one. If we then look at the set of phonologically plausible instransitive candidates, one leaps out as being especially compatible with the role of a shaman, piga ‘hallucinate, have visions’. The corresponding -ri-nominalized form would be pigari ‘hallucinator, seer of visions’ — I’ll use gloss the shorthand gloss ‘seer’.

If this reasoning is correct, the seri ‘tabacco’ of seripigari did not originate as a verbal argument of a verb that subsequently underwent nominalization, but is instead the non-head element in a NN compound, where pigari ‘seer’ is the head. One of the very nice consequences of this analysis is that it resolves the absence of a person marker corresponding to the referential NP seri that we would expect to see if seri originated as a verbal argument. If this analysis is correct, the original meaning of seripigari was ‘tobacco seer’, by which we would understand, presumably ‘one who sees visions by means of tobacco’. Note, incidentally, that once we analyze seripigari as a compound, which we are forced to if we stipulate that the verb root in question is the intransitive piga, then we are freed from many of the difficulties posed by semantic role restrictions forced upon us by assuming that seri originates as a verbal argument. (Note that seripigari is not a synthetic compound (e.g. ‘truck driver’ or ‘window washer’), and indeed, I am not aware of any synthetic compounds in Matsigenka.)

In my next and final post on the etymology of seripigari I will discuss an additional complication I have not yet discussed, but at this point I want to reflect on whether the etymology I have proposed gives us any greater insight into the cultural significance of Matsigenka shamans. Certainly the new etymology suggests that tobacco played a major role in shamanic visions at the time that the compound was formed, a hypothesis that fits with certain ethnohistorical facts. Shepard and Yu, for example, report that ayahuasca, a hallucinogen used in many parts of the Amazon basin as a component of shamanic practice, was introduced in at least certain Matsigenka areas as late as the 1950s. Although ethnographers have tended to project ayahuasca use by Matsigenka shamans back into the distant past, the fact that Matsigenka shamans are refered to as ‘tobacco seers’ (seripigari) rather than ‘ayahuasca seers’ (kamarampipigari — NB: this is my own nonce coinage) supports the idea that ayahuasca use by Matsigenka shamans may be a relatively recent innovation, going back, perhaps, little more than a century. Some ethnobotanists that I have talked with have suggested that the ‘traditional’ medicinal practices documented among Amazonian peoples may in fact have been significantly shaped by the effects of the Rubber Boom, and that widespread use of ayahuasca in Amazonia may in part reflect a sharing of shamanic practices among Amazonian peoples in response to the ravages of that era. If this hypothesis is correct, the term seripigari is an indication of the previously more prominent role of tobacco, rather than ayahuasca, in inducing visions in Matsigenka shamanic practice.

One Response to “Of tobacco seers: The etymology of seripigari, part II”


  1. […] 10, 2008 In previous posts (here and here) I have worried the Matsigenka word seripigari ’shaman’ in an effort to arrive at a […]


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